SABR

Bob Quinn and the Farm System

This article was written by Craig Lammers.

The Quinn family has been a part of baseball for more than a century. The first member of the family to achieve baseball prominence was Bob Quinn. Perhaps he is best remembered today for his work with the St. Louis Browns, the Boston Red Sox, and the Baseball Hall of Fame. His most important work was as the business manager of the American Association’s Columbus Senators. 

Quinn built the first championship team to win three consecutive seasons (1905-07) in the American Association. His player development ideas were decades ahead of their time and were a significant influence on a fellow Ohioan, the man credited with initiating the development of the farm system, Branch Rickey.

James Aloysius Robert Quinn was born on February 14, 1870, in Columbus, Ohio. Like Rickey, Quinn commenced his baseball career as a catcher, beginning in the 1880s. He played primarily for minor-league and independent teams in Ohio. He was a good defensive catcher though a rather ordinary hitter. His first real association with baseball in Ohio’s capital was as as a backup player with Columbus’s team in the 1895 Interstate league. Both the team and league failed at midseason.

Quinn in 1899 was appointed manager of the Columbus club for 1900. He inherited a weak team and finished in sixth place. He also saw action in 33 games as the backup catcher and utilityman. After the season he relinquished his duties as field manager to concentrate on his duties as business manager. This position was similar to the general manager’s role of today. It was in the area of finding and developing talent that Quinn’s genius would be realized. 

From the beginning Quinn was impressed with players who knew the game and had the ability to help develop young talent. Five members of his 1901-02 Columbus teams – Jack McAllister, Angus Grant, Bade Myers, George Fox, and Hub Knoll – later became successful minor-league managers.

Finding those players was Quinn’s job and he was good at it.  He acquired many from the central and southern parts of the state.

In the summer of 1902 Rickey was a member of a team that Quinn undoubtedly saw a lot of, the Portsmouth Navies. Portsmouth had one of the most talented independent clubs in Ohio that season. Six members of the team would have major-league service time.

Perhaps more interesting is the thought of Ohio’s three most innovative baseball men spending an afternoon at Portsmouth’s Millbrook Park talking baseball. Quinn and Rickey were there, as was outfielder Billy Doyle, soon to be one of baseball’s greatest scouts. All three were to work for the St. Louis Browns. Baseball history might be much different if all three had been associated with the Browns at the same time.

The situations of Al Bridwell and pitcher Harry Hardy demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of Quinn’s early system. Bridwell proved not yet ready for the American Association. Quinn was able to place him with Atlanta of the Southern Association.

Quinn was tipped to Hardy, a southpaw pitcher who spent most of 1903 with the Sidney, Ohio, independent team. When Quinn arrived to scout the pitcher, the Sidney manager deliberately held Hardy out of the game. Quinn signed Hardy anyway but did not have a place for him on the 1904 team and thus optioned him to Decatur of the Three I League.  

Billy Purtell was one of the many players Columbus signed from the local semipro ranks. Initially the team placed him with the nearby Newark, Ohio, team. An arrangement like that was the beginning of what would become a farm system.

Independent baseball in Ohio had yet to develop into the Class C and D leagues that Quinn would use so effectively.  In the middle of 1905, a confederation of industrial and independent teams known as the Protective Association entered organized baseball as the Class C level Ohio-Pennsylvania League.

There was some hostility to the O-P League. Some teams resented the loss of players to the former outlaw league clubs. Quinn, however, saw a mutually beneficial arrangement between his team and the new league.

After winning the 1905 pennant, the Senators played a series of exhibition games against the former independent teams. This arrangement wasn’t entirely new but was more extensive than previous seasons. Quinn turned down what would have been a lucrative game against the St. Louis Cardinals to play at Lancaster. Columbus lost to Lancaster but had an opportunity to scout its players. Two years later, Quinn acquired Lancaster pitcher Rube Geyer. Geyer had three successful seasons for Columbus before he was sold to the Cardinals.

The same week Columbus played at Zanesville and ended up drafting catcher Bert Blue, who became an important part of two pennant winners.

Quinn’s method of sending players to different minor-league clubs in the area was an improvement over previous methods but was not without its faults. There were hard feelings in Lancaster during the 1907 season after an optioned player was called up by the Senators and then sent to Youngstown, a rival of the Lancaster club.

Lancaster, Mansfield, Marion, and Newark were voted out of the Ohio-Pennsylvania League, replaced by Lima and Springfield (soon to be replaced by Portsmouth) in forming the Ohio State League. The organizational meeting was held in Columbus and Quinn was named the president of the new league. This job required new responsibilities for Quinn but also created new opportunities for the scouting and placement of players. 

Lima first had a professional club in 1888, when it was reportedly a Chicago farm club. The franchise was awarded to former major leaguer and American Association player Bill Clarke. Clarke had no experience as an owner. Just weeks before the season began, Clarke had to leave Lima due to a family illness. Just days later he announced his intention to sell the team. League president Quinn acted, quickly persuading Senators owner Thomas Bryce to purchase the team as a farm club.

Quinn then sent infielder Nick Kahl to serve as manager, and assigned a number of players not deemed ready for the American Association. Among them was outfielder Alex “Duke” Reilly, a semi-regular for the pennant-winning Columbus club in 1907. Quinn also sent several young pitchers signed out of the Columbus city league.

City league managers were just the beginning of what would become a network of Quinn scouts. He also found an important assistant among the fourth estate. The Ohio State Journal, of Columbus, was one of the most influential area newspapers of the early 20th century. Sports editor Robert Read was one of the first Columbus writers accorded a byline. He was also one of Quinn’s most trusted confidants. Read played a significant role in Quinn’s acquisition of pitcher Wilbur Cooper.

Cooper began the 1911 season with Mansfield of the Class C Ohio-Penn League but was released early in the season. He reportedly hopped a freight train to nearby Marion to join the team there. Both Read and the Lima team were impressed with Cooper’s efforts. Quinn then purchased the future major-league star from Marion with the idea of farming him out for a season or two. Instead Cooper was pressed into service late in 1911 after pitcher Thomas Lessard died unexpectedly. Cooper showed enough in that stint to begin the 1912 season with Columbus. He won 16 games before Quinn sold his contract to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Quinn also used at least one umpire in his scouting network. William “Two Bits” Bierhalter was at least partially responsible for the entry of Hank Gowdy and Wally Gerber into professional baseball. Even when umpiring in other areas, Bierhalter kept in touch with Quinn.

Quinn’s Columbus responsibilities limited the amount of time he could spend in Ohio State League ballparks. Lima managers Nick Kahl and later Jim Jackson were able to recommend players from the league. Columbus also purchased pitcher Elmer Brown from Marion. Brown never did much for Columbus but helped out Senators farm clubs before being sold to the St. Louis Browns.

An even bigger loss to baseball in Columbus came with the death of Senators owner Thomas Bryce on July 12, 1908. His death at the young age of 45 could have spelled the end of Quinn’s farm system. Quinn returned as league president in 1909, having to deal with financial crises in Lancaster and Newark. Newark eventually had to fold with the players being sold to other clubs.

A professional football scandal indirectly led to Quinn’s second farm team. In 1906 Akron manager Walter East while playing for the Massillon Tigers was implicated in the offseason in a scheme to throw a game against the Canton Bulldogs. Also implicated was John Windsor, co-owner of the Akron baseball team. The following summer an Akron owners’ meeting erupted in violence when owners Windsor and Ben Campbell engaged in a fistfight over whether to retain East as manager. A Lancaster reporter humorously wrote, “It was the first time two men got into a fight over another man.” This made the Akron ownership situation shaky and put the future of baseball in Akron in doubt.

Quinn may have saved baseball in Akron by purchasing a majority interest in the club. Akron had won consecutive pennants in 1909 and 1910. Quinn promised a winning team for 1911. He hired his most trusted baseball man, Lee Fohl, as manager. Fohl had been drafted by Quinn from Youngstown after the 1906 season, serving as a backup catcher for two seasons. In 1909 he spent most of the season managing Quinn’s Lima farm team, winning a pennant and helping develop pitcher George Kahler into a key member of the 1910 Columbus Senators.

More than anyone other than Quinn himself, Fohl was responsible for the success of the Columbus farm system. He had the abilities needed by Quinn, including the ability to develop both young pitchers and position players. He also had an eye for talent on other clubs, players who could be traded for or purchased. Quinn’s faith in Fohl was so great that he later hired him to manage the major-league St. Louis Browns.

Infielder Wally Gerber was recommended to Quinn by Bierhalter after his release by Marion in the spring of 1910. Quinn saw potential in the teenager. After a couple of years under Fohl’s direction, Gerber stepped in as the Senators’ shortstop at the age of 20.

At the same time as he was developing Gerber, Fohl spotted and signed a high-school pitcher for the 1911 season. For a time it appeared that the pitcher, George Sisler, would report to spring training in Akron. A former Portsmouth catcher had another idea how to utilize Sisler’s talents.

After being declared ineligible for further college competition for playing with the 1902 Portsmouth team, Branch Rickey became the coach of Ohio Wesleyan University. He sent several players into professional baseball; Cleon Webb and Fred Potts reached the major leagues. Rickey was learning Quinn’s methods and used them with two college stars, left-handed pitcher Sisler (Michigan) and Ernie Koob (Western Michigan). As Columbus’s business manager, Quinn lost out on the money he would have made from selling Sisler to the Pirates. Later, however, he was able to build the St. Louis Browns club around Sisler’s talents.

Quinn’s farm system took the needs of the farm clubs into consideration. Players were sent to lower clubs even when there was not a great need for them in order to strengthen the club. When Quinn did need the services of an Akron or Lima player, he generally provided a competent replacement so as to not weaken the lower-level club.

Quinn’s farm system did have some negative impacts, helping lead to the demise of the Ohio-Pennsylvania League. Akron won the pennant in 1910 and 1911. Some of the other cities were also becoming de-facto farm teams, leading to a league of “haves and have-nots.” This led to reduced attendance and caused criticism in cities like Canton that operated as independents. The league’s Steubenville franchise was purchased in 1911 by Monte Cross as a Phillies farm team. The operation was a complete disaster. Debts went unpaid and Steubenville was not able to field a team the following season. Ultimately Akron, Canton, Youngstown, and Erie joined new leagues when the Ohio-Pennsylvania league folded. 

The 1912 season marked the beginning of a decline in Quinn’s farm system. Local ownership was found for the Lima club; though Quinn still sent players there, it was on a smaller scale. It was also becoming clear that the Akron operation was losing money. A lack of fan support and the unwieldy size of the Central League convinced Quinn an alternative was needed.

The day after the 1912 season ended, Quinn announced his intention to leave Akron and field a farm team in Columbus. Local buyers were found for the Akron franchise. As part of the agreement, Akron was able to retain some of the players, most notably pitcher Bill Doak. Quinn was the owner of the new Inter-State League Columbus team, nicknamed the Cubs.

This new farm team might have been successful but heavy rains in the spring caused severe flooding throughout the region. Minor-league cities in the area were devastated by the deluge. Loss of life was heavy in Dayton and Columbus. The situation in Zanesville led to the club’s being nicknamed the Flood Sufferers. Only Erie remained free of the floods. On top of the floods, Inter-State League teams were losing players to the new Federal League. The Steubenville club was still responsible for the debts incurred by the 1911 club.

Quinn’s Columbus teams lost relatively few players to the Federal League and the flooding there was mainly confined to a small area. The Cubs might have survived but the league was forced to disband in midseason. Quinn then sent Fohl and several players to Huntington of the Ohio State League. The end of the Columbus club basically marked the end of Quinn’s farm system.

Because of the Interstate League’s demise, Quinn lost one of his most promising players as pitcher Sam Jones was released by Zanesville in June. Quinn and Fohl saw promise in Jones and signed him for the Cubs, where he appeared in just five games before the league folded. Huntington did not need another pitcher so Quinn tried to send Jones to Chillicothe.  Jones refused to report and was not reserved by Quinn for 1914. During that offseason Billy Doyle signed Jones for Cleveland’s Portsmouth farm club. 

Ultimately short-lived, Quinn’s Columbus farm system was decades ahead of its time. Such ideas as ownership of farm teams, hiring a group of scouts and managers, and having multiple players under option to different teams in the same league were later used by Branch Rickey and other major-league executives to develop their farm systems. Bob Quinn was truly one of baseball’s greatest innovators.

Quinn died on March 12, 1954, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was buried near Columbus. Bob’s baseball legacy included son John, grandsons Bob and Jack, and great-grandson Bob, who all worked in baseball, creating a four-generation professional baseball family. Bob was also survived by his son, the Rev. Robert Quinn, and two daughters, Mary and Margaret.

 

Sources:

Ohio State Journal, Columbus 1904-1913

Newark Advocate 1904-1909

Lancaster Gazette 1905-1910

Zanesville Signal 1905-1910, 1912-13

Akron Beacon Journal 1905-1913

Portsmouth Times 1902-03

Lima Daily News 1908-1912

Canton Repository 1910, 1912-13

Youngstown Vindicator 1907, 1912-1913

Joe Santry. Grazing through Columbus Baseball. Unpublished manuscript, courtesy of author.

Marc Okkonen’s Minor League Roster Database 1900-1910

Professional Football Researchers Association website—Blondy Wallace and the Scandal of 1906

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