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Stealing Third: Bud Lilly's true story of war, baseball, and coming home to Montana

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By Hunter Rothwell

During the post-World War II era, fly fishermen from all over the world came to Yellowstone and the West because of a popular trout shop and the writings of that shop’s owner. In 1952, a young man from Manhattan, Montana opened what would become a landmark – Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop, still at the corner of Madison and Canyon Streets in West Yellowstone.

Bud Lilly is a legend in the fly fishing community. For 30 years he outfitted and guided anglers. No other individual did more to promote fly fishing and fisheries conservation in Yellowstone and North America. A founding member of the Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited in 1962, Bud and this organization fought hard against many dam proposals that threatened the Yellowstone River. Today, the Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the contiguous U.S. (it is 692 miles long), has excellent trout habitat and a reputation as one of the world’s great trout streams.

Walen Francis Lilly II was born in 1925 in Manhattan, Montana. Bud, Sr., his father and namesake, was the barber in town and was an avid baseball fan. Although Bud, Sr. was a passionate outdoorsman and taught young Buddy the art of fly fishing, Bud, Sr. was determined his son would be a major league baseball player. Buddy [who was sometimes called “Red” because of his orange hair], received his first bat and glove at age five. His early baseball career was primarily sandlot games, but it was apparent that he had a special talent for the game. At 12, he began playing organized baseball.

By the early age of 14, Buddy was playing on the Gallatin Valley Men’s Team, an independent team that was basically supported by Bud, Sr. The anchor of the team was former pro pitcher, Bob Hendrix. Although Hendrix had a drinking problem and demanded a $25 fee after every Sunday game (collected by passing a hat), he was still good for 16-18 strikeouts per game. Buddy played second base and was by far the youngest player on a team that ranged from 14-50 years old. They had great success and gained a reputation as one of the best in the state.

The Gallatin Valley Men’s Team, with young Buddy at second base, played against several types of teams. Many teams were from the “Miner’s League” out of Butte, and most white ball players were primarily miners. Black teams were typically men who worked as baggage handlers, porters and other railroad workers on the Union Pacific. Players brought their families and made an event out of Sunday games. Most of the men that played with and against Buddy had children his age.
Some of the strongest competition came from teams formerly part of the Negro National League [NNL]. The Kansas City Monarchs, for example, spent several years as an independent team, mostly barnstorming through the Midwest, West, and Western Canada. On one Sunday afternoon in 1940, the Kansas City Monarchs came to Montana to play against Buddy’s team. In the tough economic times of pre-WWII America, black players traveled and played for and against local teams for little money. Because black players had no access to the white dominated major leagues of that era, some of the best ball players were not in the majors.

On that day in 1940, Buddy went up to bat against, arguably, one of the best pitchers to ever play the game on any level. Satchel Paige had been pitching professionally since 1926 and had just joined the Monarchs that season. By 1941, this legendary team [which included Hall of Famers Hilton Smith and Willard Brown] had won three NNL Championships in a row. Satchel and his teammates thought it a great hoot that this team of Montana farmers had a little kid, barely five feet tall, playing second base. The next youngest player was in his early 20s.

When Buddy took his turn at the plate, staring at Satchel Paige, he smacked a ground ball single and ended up on first base. He advanced to second after a follow up single. Feeling confident, he made his mind up to steal third base. The third baseman was comfortably waiting with the ball, and as Bud recalls, “he just sort of scooped me up when I slid in.”

Satchel Paige went on to become the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball history when he signed with the Cleveland Indians [during the playoffs] at age 42. In 1971, he became the first player from the Negro leagues inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. With the integration of Major League Baseball, Paige finally got his chance in the majors.
Buddy’s opportunity came a bit earlier in life. He’d gained a reputation as a talented ball player, particularly for his age. Two men from the Cincinnati Reds were at one Sunday afternoon game, scouting the team. Bud, Sr. introduced his son to the scouts after the game and asked Buddy to take them fly fishing. Both men were experienced fly fisherman, and the boy impressed them with his advanced skills—he caught a lot of fish.

Two years later, when Buddy was 17, the two men came back to see him play again. They offered him a contract to play for the Cincinnati Reds farm team, the Salt Lake City Bee’s, after he graduated from Manhattan High School. However, World War II was on and another institution came calling and that took precedent over his baseball career. Buddy was headed to Butte, Montana and the Navy Officer’s Training Program.

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Buddy spent two years in Butte training in the V-12 program (the same program taught at Annapolis). He received his commission and reported to St. John’s Cathedral in New York City. He and 30,000 other officers around the country completed the program (the program started with 60,000). Then it was off to Bainbridge, MD for Navy boot camp.

Bud now jokes, “I had to go to that camp for a month to find out what boots did.”

He spent May – July of 1945 in Miami, where he was trained on destroyers, sub-chasers, and PT boats. Bud remembers when he was in Miami, the Russians were there as well, training: “One of the Russians ran a training ship into the middle of Biscane Blvd. That’s not something you see everyday.” He eventually shipped out for Italy, on his way to the Pacific to invade Japan.

Buddy returned to Montana after the war and enrolled at Montana State College in Bozeman. He played baseball one last time during summer of 1947, with the Knights of Columbus. However, he’d been married in March and dreams of professional baseball were well in his past. Bud, Sr. passed away in 1949 and from that time on “Buddy” was known as “Bud”.

Bud Lilly received his Masters in Education from the University of Montana at Missoula in 1951. For 25 years, he taught high school math and science, first in Deerlodge and then in Bozeman. He also guided and ran the fly shop in West Yellowstone during his summer break. In 1970, Bud retired from teaching, and in 1982 he sold Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop (although the name did not change).

Bud is a living legend. He lives in Three Forks, is an avid fly fisherman and is still very much involved in supporting fly fishing causes. And as his father foresaw, Bud was destined to be a standout in whatever he put his mind and effort toward.

Life has a strange way of unfolding. The world’s conflicts of the 1940s sent Bud and countless others in an unintended direction. Brave young men like Bud did not think twice when they left home to serve their country and defend our freedoms. But who knows? Had he made it to the Cincinnati Reds, Bud Lilly could have been known as the greatest baseball player to ever come out of Montana.


Now well into his 80s, Bud Lilly’s current project is developing a new park where disabled vets, their families and other handicapped fly fishers can enjoy an enhanced fishing environment. A few years ago, Bud was scouting a new fishing access for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks when he realized there was no access for the disabled or disabled vets. With the help of local American Legion posts in Bozeman, Belgrade, Manhattan and Three Forks, the “Veteran’s Fishing Park” is becoming a reality. Tim Crawford, a landowner along the Gallatin River donated about a 1/2 mile of river frontage for a fishing park, which will offer ADA compliant access ramps for disabled anglers. The state will also install a new boat access in the same vicinity.

“The veteran’s park is not just a tribute to these special men and women.” Lilly says. “It’s a legacy for fly-fishing and everything that goes with it – the quality of the water speaks to the quality of life. We need to preserve Montana’s waterways by honoring them just like we honor our vets. It can’t be any other way.”

If you would like to offer your support in time or in a monetary donation to the Veteran’s Fishing, please contact:
Gary White, American Legion Dept. of Montana
P.O. Box 6075
Helena, MT 59604
(406) 324-3989

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