This article was written by Stew Thornley
Like Nicollet Park, Lexington Park was well removed from the city center, which had its advantages and disadvantages. Its distance from downtown, more than two miles, was a disadvantage, and in the early 1900s Lennon moved the Saints to a more centrally located ballpark, a tiny place known as “The Pillbox.” However, Sunday games normally were not permitted at the Pillbox, nor had they been at the ballpark that the team had abandoned near Dale Street and University Avenue. The advantage of Lexington Park was that it was in a neighborhood in which most residents were indifferent to the issue of Sunday baseball, and it was for that reason that the structure was built.
(Comiskey moved the St. Paul team of the Western League to Chicago after the 1899 season. The Western League transformed itself into the American League and took on major-league status at the turn of the 20th century, and the team continues today as the Chicago White Sox. Some speculation in St. Paul exists that it was onerous blue laws, restricting Sunday baseball and causing inconvenience to the team, that drove Comiskey out of St. Paul and cost Minnesota a major-league team around the turn of the century. While such legends make for good conversation, it’s clear that Ban Johnson, who founded the Western League with the goal of turning it into a major league, never had any intention of keeping a team in such a distant outpost as St. Paul, nor in most of the other small Midwestern cities that made up the original Western League, in his drive to produce a major league.)
On the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and University Avenue, approximately one mile west of the park the Saints had been using off Dale Street, Lexington Park occupied a lot 600 feet square, large enough to provide for generous field dimensions.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press was effusive in describing the new grounds in a story the day Lexington Park opened, on Friday, April 30, 1897: “St. Paul fans will see a ball ground that is not excelled in the West, and those who are familiar with the National league parks say that few, if any, of them surpass the St. Paul park. Some of them have stands that will seat more people, but so far as the field itself concerned and the general accommodation of the public, there is probably nowhere in the country a superior.”
The newspaper’s praise continued in the next day’s edition with a description of the first game, a 10-3 Saints win over Connie Mack’s Milwaukee team: “Those of the fans who had not paid an anticipatory visit to the park fairly gasped with amazement and delight as they entered, and when they got fairly located in bleachers or stand and gazed out over the wide open plain of rich green and brown earth, as smooth as a billard [sic] table, their admiration knew no bounds. The more the arrangements and conveniences of Lexington Park are studied the stronger becomes the impression that it is not excelled anywhere in the United States.”
The only complaint offered was that the extra street cars dropped passengers at the corner of University and Lexington. While this would seem to be the right spot for people going to the game, this was the spot of dead center field since home plate, when the park opened, was in the southwest corner, and the Pioneer Press said that this “left the crowd a very long block to walk to the entrance of the grounds.”
Not covered by the Pioneer Press was news of tension between Comiskey and labor organizations in St. Paul. According to labor historian David Riehle, local unions lodged a variety of grievances involving Lexington Park, including issues with the park’s construction, an advertising sign within the ball park for a theater that was being boycotted by organized labor, and the employment of non-union musicians for Opening Day ceremonies. The controversy resulted in a boycott on Lexington Park by the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly in May that ended when the advertisement for the theater was removed.
After Comiskey moved the St. Paul team to Chicago following the 1899 season, the city went a year without professional baseball and then joined a new Western League in 1901. Another league was formed the following year, and the Saints became charter members of the American Association, along with several other teams from the 19th-century Western League.
The Saints, managed by Mike Kelley, had some strong teams in their early years, winning the American Association pennant in 1903 and 1904. During this period, St. Paul played most of its games in a downtown ballpark called “The Pillbox.” By 1910, the Saints were back at Lexington Park although the power in the league had shifted across the river as the Minneapolis Millers began a run of three straight league championships.
The Millers and Saints had a great rivalry. Through 59 seasons in the American Association, the Millers had the best overall winning percentage in the league, and the Saints the second-best. When the two clubs finally hung up their spikes and shin guards for the last time (after the 1960 season, when the arrival of the major-league Minnesota Twins brought the end of minor-league baseball in the Twin Cities), the teams shared the American Association record with nine pennants each.
Interest peaked each season with the holiday doubleheaders at Lexington Park in St. Paul and Nicollet Park in Minneapolis; a morning game at one park followed by a trolley-car ride across the river for the afternoon game in the other was the Twin Cities’ primary entertainment on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), the Fourth of July, and Labor Day.
Most of the battles between the teams were confined to the field, but sometimes they spilled over into the stands and included fans. At Lexington Park on May 31, 1911, Minneapolis manager Joe Cantillon went into the stands with a bat to take part in a fight between his catcher, Hub Dawson, and a black fan, William Crawdad. The accounts in the local newspapers the next day gave an indication of the heated feelings during games between the Millers and Saints as well as race relations and reporting of the time.
“Dawson had leaped into the box, enraged by the negro’s chaff, and had been giving and receiving hefty pummels for two minutes when Cantillon made two passes with his bat, the second one ending the battle,” reported the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “The trouble started in the second inning after Crawdad, who is a regular attendant at the game and a rooter, is said by Dawson to have addressed obnoxious remarks to him.”
Of Crawdad, the Minneapolis Tribune wrote, “He is a faithful fan, and the story is that several St. Paul men purchase a box seat for him at each game between St. Paul and Minneapolis, knowing that his presence and his remarks in a high tenor voice are disagreeable to the southerners on the Minneapolis team. [Dawson was from Kentucky.] During the second inning of yesterday’s game Dawson became involved in some sort of argument with the negro who was occupying a box seat near the St. Paul bench, and suddenly planted a right and left swing on the colored man, then climbed into the box after him and was giving the negro a beating when [Minneapolis pitcher] Rube Waddell and several police officers interfered. Waddell tried to get a hand in the mixup but the policemen wouldn’t let him and they had succeeded in prying Dawson off the negro when a new figure appeared on the scene. This was no less a personage than Joe Cantillon. From his position on the Minneapolis bench he had seen the trouble. Running across the field he seized a bat from the row in front of the St. Paul bench and waded in. His first swat was not effective but then Joe, unchecked by police officers, climbed into the grandstand and as the negro was backing away from Dawson brought the bat down upon his head.” The St. Paul police took Cantillon and Dawson away, allowing the latter time to change into his street clothes. “The negro left the grandstand, bandaged his head, and came back again amid the cheers of the St. Paul rooters. However, he, too, was taken off the field.”
J. H. Ritchie of the Minneapolis Journal placed some of the blame on the fans of St. Paul: “In that city visiting players, especially Minneapolis players, are subjected to taunts of every description. Foul epithets are applied to them whenever one of them approaches the grandstand or the bleachers. . . . No one knows exactly what started yesterday’s rumpus at Lexington. One sporting writer in St. Paul explains the presence of the negro in a front box to the perverted sense of humor of a coterie of St. Paul adherents who have a rendezvous at Carling’s restaurant. This coterie, according to this report, thinks it great sport to purchase the negro a ticket in the front box and have him turn loose his flow of wit and humor at the expense of visiting ball players in St. Paul.”
Lexington Park, like many ballparks in the early 20th century, was a wooden structure, making it vulnerable to fire. One had damaged the park in October of 1908, and an even greater fire occurred following the 1915 season. The fire, which destroyed the grandstand, was discovered at 11 p.m. on Saturday night, November 14 by night watchman Emil Bossard. When the park was rebuilt, Bossard served as its groundskeeper for nearly 20 years before taking a similar job with the Cleveland Indians and becoming the patriarch of a groundskeeping family, causing the name Bossard to be synonymous with well-groomed fields in baseball. (Bossard had a later experience with fire, one more harrowing. On December 20, 1970, a fire at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson, Arizona, killed 29 people. Bossard, however, survived, by climbing out the window of his room on the 11th floor and clutching the window sill until he was rescued.)
The rebuilding of Lexington Park following the 1915 fire included a reconfiguration of the playing field. The diamond was turned 90 degrees, moving home plate from the southwest toward the northwest corner of the lot. “The principle reason for the radical change in the arrangement is that it will prove a great convenience for the fans,” explained the St. Paul Pioneer Press on November 28, 1915. “The new plan would bring the fans into the grand stand almost as soon as they went through the gates, and the bleacherites would have less than half a block to walk. Under the present arrangement grand stand patrons have to walk the distance of two long blocks before they reach their seats in the grand stand, and the bleacherites have about the same distance to cover, and sometimes when rain has interrupted the game the fans have had a long run before they could reach the streetcars.”
With the rebuilding, Lexington Park was set back 100 feet from University Avenue, which was on the north side of the ball park, and 100 feet back from Lexington Avenue to the east. The main entrance to the grounds was behind home plate, at the corner of University Avenue and Dunlap Street.
Kristin M. Anderson and Christopher W. Kimball, in an article for Minnesota History magazine, wrote that the new Lexington Park emphasized function, unlike a recent remodeling of Nicollet Park in Minneapolis. “The park was often described as a baseball ‘plant.’ The deliberate and repeated use of this industrial term reminded people that the ballpark was a business enterprise that sold a product. This terminology reflected the ballpark’s utilitarian aesthetic, one that was reinforced with the addition of unadorned light towers and the later remodeling of the ticket office. More than Nicollet Park, Lexington Park’s character and identity were derived from the functional elements of the facility’s interior spaces. The task was to speed fans–and more of them–to their seats. Baseball in St. Paul was amusement for the masses, without the elite imagery sought by more established clubs, including the Millers and many major league teams.”
With the new configuration, Lexington Park had familiar landmarks outside the stadium. The most prominent was the Coliseum Pavilion beyond the left-field fence, its roof being the landing site for many home runs. To the south, behind right field, was Keys Well Drilling, which erected a sign bearing the company that that, although outside the ballpark, was clearly visible to those inside.
This sign wasn’t hit by home runs with the frequency of the Coliseum roof (if a ball ever hit it). In fact, for most of the life of the rebuilt Lexington Park, few balls cleared the right-field fence. The distance down the foul line in right field was 365 feet. A 12-foot-high wooden fence sat atop an embankment that led up to the fence.
Home runs to right field at Lexington Park were so rare as to be memorable. When the New York Yankees came to St. Paul for an exhibition game in June of 1926, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that only nine home runs had been hit over the right-field fence since the park had been rebuilt before the 1916 season. To that point, Bruno Haas was the only player to have twice homered over the fence.
Just as Lexington Park could be a nightmare for a left-handed hitter, Nicollet Park in Minneapolis produced the opposite effect. In 1933, Joe Hauser of the Minneapolis Millers set a professional record with 69 home runs. Hauser was clearly helped by the friendly dimensions of Nicollet Park in Minneapolis, where he hit 50 of his home runs that season. However, it was at Lexington Park, on Labor Day that Hauser equaled and surpassed his own mark, hitting his 63rd and 64th home runs of the season and becoming the first player to hit two home runs to right field in the same game since the park had been rebuilt.
In 1950 Lou Limmer of the Saints, a left-handed hitter, led the American Association in home runs, even though he hit only one at home. Limmer’s only season with the Saints was 1950. By the following year, he was with the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League. Thus he missed out on the shortening of the distance to right field, which took place during the 1951 season.
Disaster struck the Twin Cities on Friday, July 20, 1951 as high winds and floods caused millions of dollars in damage. One of the casualties of the gale was the right-field fence at Lexington Park, torn apart by winds reported to have reached 100 miles per hour. The Saints were in Kansas City at the time, giving management a chance to rebuild the barrier before the team returned.
By August, when the Saints were back from their road trip, Lexington Park had a new right-field fence, and this one was much closer to home plate. The distance down the line had been shortened to 330 feet. To make it a bit more challenging, a double-decked fence was erected that was 25 feet high, although the embankment that the previous fence had rested atop was gone.
In the 1940s the Saints became a farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the ensuing years, a number of future stars for the Dodgers played in St. Paul. The 1947-48 Saints teams included three future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. One was manager Walter Alston. The players were outfielder Duke Snider, who hit 12 home runs in 66 games for St. Paul in 1947, and catcher Roy Campanella, who became the first black in the American Association when he played for the Saints in 1948.
Campanella had a triple and home run in his first game at Lexington Park on May 31. The Saints then went on the road for a week. When they got home, Campanella was on fire. Against the Louisville Colonels on June 8, he had a three-run homer and a bases-loaded triple for a total of six runs batted in. In the next game, against Columbus, Campanella hit a pair of home runs to left field. He had five runs batted in in the game, giving him 11 in two games. On June 10, he hit another home run against Columbus, and added another in the first game of a doubleheader against the Toledo Mud Hens on Friday, June 11.
Campanella did not play in the second game, but he continued his streak the next night with another home run against the Mud Hens. On Sunday, June 13, in the first game of a doubleheader against Indianapolis, he hit his 11th home run with the Saints, giving him at least one home run in six straight games. His streak was broken in the second game of the doubleheader as he did not start but entered as a pinch hitter in the seventh and final inning. (In the minor leagues at that time, one game of a doubleheader was usually scheduled for seven innings. It was usually the second game, but this could vary.) The Saints trailed Indianapolis, 7-0, when Campanella drew a walk to start the inning. St. Paul rallied, had four runs in and the bases loaded with two out when Campanella came up again. He hit a drive to right-center, long enough to be a game-winning grand slam in some ball parks, but in cavernous Lexington Park, Indianapolis center fielder Tom Saffell had room to catch it in front of the embankment to end the game.
Campanella had another chance later in the week. He missed a couple of games with bruised fingers but was back in the lineup in the first game of a doubleheader against Milwaukee on Saturday, June 19. This time, the first game was the one scheduled for seven innings, and the Saints trailed, 7-0, going into the last of the seventh. St. Paul rallied and got within a run with two out as Eric Tipton hit a three-run homer. Campanella was the next batter, and he homered to tie the game. St. Paul then won in the last of the eighth.
The next day, June 20, following a doubleheader against Kansas City, Campanella’s wife, Ruthe, gave birth to a son at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul (although, in his book, Campanella incorrectly notes the date of the birth as Sunday, June 27). The next day, the Saints left on a road trip; by the time they returned, Campanella was gone. He had clearly established that he was too good for the minors and was recalled by Brooklyn at the end of June.
Besides the stars who played for or against the Saints, some great players appeared at Lexington Park in exhibition games. Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees came to St. Paul on Wednesday, June 16, 1926. Fans got the chance to watch Ruth launch some long balls in batting practice, although the game was rained out. Earlier in the day, a huge crowd gathered outside the Pioneer Press and Dispatch building in downtown St. Paul as Ruth hurled autographed baseballs out a window of the building.
The following summer the entire Yankees team, known as Murderers’ Row, returned to St. Paul for an exhibition game. The Yankees beat the Saints, 9-8, on Wednesday, July 20, 1927. Although neither Ruth, who went on to set a new single-season record with 60 home runs that season, nor Lou Gehrig cleared the fence at Lexington Park, prior to the game the pair “spilled nearly a quart of ink autographing baseballs and score cards for small boys,” according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
On Friday, July 5, 1935 the St. Louis Cardinals played an exhibition game in St. Paul against the Saints. Dizzy Dean, who had won 30 games in leading the “Gashouse Gang” to the world championship the previous season, wasn’t available to pitch against the Saints, having just beaten the Cubs in Chicago the day before. However, St. Paul fans were angered when Dean and his brother, Paul (a former American Association hurler who had won 19 games for the Cardinals in 1934) would not even come out of the dugout when introduced. Dizzy Dean was unhappy about the team taking a detour for a game in St. Paul rather than going directly from Chicago to St. Louis, and he took in out on the fans. Blasted by the local press as well as by their manager, Frank Frisch, the Deans sent a letter of apology that appeared in the St. Paul Dispatch on July 22. Dizzy Dean said he hoped he would have a chance to pitch should the Cardinals play in St. Paul again. He got his chance on Friday, August 14, 1936 when the Cardinals returned to St. Paul and Dean started the game. Before he could take the mound, he had a turn at the plate as the Cardinals scored seven runs in the top of the first inning, Dean capping the rally with a home run to left. He then retired the Saints in order in the last of the first.
Although the Saints were the primary tenant of Lexington Park, the ballpark hosted other sports, such as football, as well as other levels of baseball, including high-school and amateur games. In 1924, Lexington Park had become the original site of the state amateur baseball tournament.
By the 1950s, however, the Saints were looking for a new place to play. As was the case with those Minneapolis, St. Paul interests hoped to build a new stadium that could serve its team as well as be the future home of a major-league team. Although the latter objective never was achieved, the Saints got a new ballpark, Midway Stadium, in 1957.
In 1956, the Saints wrapped up their 60-year history at Lexington Park. Walter O’Malley, president of the parent Brooklyn Dodgers, came to St. Paul in April of that year for the groundbreaking of the new stadium, off Snelling Avenue just south of the state fairground. Two months later, the entire team came to St. Paul for an exhibition game. On June 13, the Dodgers beat the Saints, 7-2. Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, and Gil Hodges homered for Brooklyn and Don Drysdale, pitching five innings in relief, was the winning pitcher.
On Wednesday night, September 5, 1956, before barely more than 2,000 fans, St. Paul wrapped up its home schedule as Stan Williams shut out the Minneapolis Millers. Roy Hartsfield capped the scoring with a home run in the last of the eighth as St. Paul won, 4-0. The Saints still had a shot at the playoffs as they went to Omaha to complete the regular season. They fell short, however, making the September 5 game the last ever played at Lexington Park.
Lexington Park was demolished and a Red Owl grocery store built on the site. In 1958 Red Owl imbedded a plague in the floor of the store to mark the site of home plate for Lexington Park (even though it was not the exact spot). Red Owl eventually moved out, but the property remained a supermarket. In the course of changing management, however, the home-plate plaque disappeared. In the summer of 1994, the Halsey Hall Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research began raising money from former Saints players and fans to erect another marker. In April of 1994 a new plaque was mounted on the outside of the structure. However, the building was abandoned and eventually torn down with the plaque going into storage.
New structures went up on the adjacent property, and in the summer of 2006, the plaque re-emerged, part of a baseball display outside a new TCF Bank that was built on Lexington Avenue, a reminder to the rich baseball heritage of the site.
“Designing the National Pastime” by Kristin M. Anderson and Christopher W. Kimball, Minnesota History, Fall 2003, pp. 338-351.
“Say It Ain’t So, Charlie! The 1897 Dispute between Charles Comiskey and the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly over the Opening of Lexington Park” by David Riehle, Ramsey County History, Summer 2004, pp. 14-18.
“Lexington Park Ready,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Friday, April 30, 1897, p. 6.
“Properly Opened: Lexington Park Is Christened by a Victory,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Saturday, May 1, 1897, p. 1.
“Lexington Park Is Sold for $75,000,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Saturday, September 3, 1910.
“Comiskey’s Old Park Burns: Fire Destroys the Lexington Avenue Stand at St. Paul,” Washington Post, Thursday, October 22, 1908, p. 8.
“Joe Cantillon Uses Bat on Negro Rooter’s Head,” Minneapolis Tribune, June 1, 1911, p. 2.
“Cantillon Fells Rooter with Bat,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Thursday, June 1, 1911, p. 1.
“Trouble at Lexington Park Due to Mucker Rooting,” Minneapolis Journal, Thursday, June 1, 1911, p. 16.
“Lexington Park Grandstand Burns; Loss $20,000: Flames Destroy All But the Bleachers at Local Ball Grounds,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sunday, November 14, 1915, p. 1.
“Consider Plan to Re-Arrange Baseball Park,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sunday, November 28, 1915, p. 1, Section 5.
“Diagram of New Lexington Park,” St. Paul Daily News, Sunday, February 20, 1916.
Details of Emil Bossard’s ordeal in a 1970 hotel fire in Arizona are from “Boy at Hotel Fire Held,” Tucson Citizen, Monday, December 21, 1970, p. 1, and “The Worst Day in Tucson’s History,” Tucson Citizen, Wednesday, December 20, 2000 (on the Tucson Citizen web page at http://www.tucsoncitizen.com/projects/pioneer/12_20_00main.html).
“Yank Pellet Pounders, with Ruth in Van, Descend on St. Paul Today,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Wednesday, June 16, 1926, p. 11 (contains list of players who hit home runs over the right-field fence at Lexington Park from 1916 to June of 1926).
“Ruth, Gehrig Find Pen Mightier than Bat to Thrill Boys Here,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Thursday, July 21, 1927, p. 1.
“15,000 See Yankees Defeat Saints in Exhibition Game, 9 to 8” by Dick Cullum, St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 21, 1927, p. 8.
“Deans, Boys from Bush, Sulk in Dugout, Too ‘Proud’ to Answer Calls of Fans” by Gordon Gilmore, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Saturday, July 6, 1935, p. 1.
“Deans Write Apology,” St. Paul Dispatch, Monday, July 22, 1935, p. 13.
“10,000 See Cardinals Beat Saints, 8 to 5” by Gordon Gilmore, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Saturday, August 15, 1936, p. 7
“Saints’ Limmer Leads in Homers While Hitting Only One at Home” by Dick Gordon, The Sporting News, August 16, 1950, p. 31.
“100 MPH Gale Rips Twin Cities: Four Killed, 50 Injured; Loss Put at Millions,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Saturday, July 21, 1951, p. 1.
“Short Right at Lexington?” by Joe Hennessy, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sunday, July 22, 1951, p. 3, Sports Section.
“‘Short’ Fence Unveiled Tonight” by Joe Hennessy, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Tuesday, August 7, 1951, p. 13.