This article was written by Stew Thornley
The Minneapolis Millers had a number of locales to hang their hats during their nearly 80 years of professional baseball, but the ballpark most closely associated with the team was the one described by former Minneapolis Tribune writer Dave Mona as “soggy, foul, rotten and thoroughly wonderful Nicollet Park.”
In 1896, Nicollet Park replaced a tiny ball park in downtown Minneapolis, Athletic Park. The change in venue was necessitated by the sale of the land on which Athletic Park stood, only one block from the main street of Minneapolis. The Millers were given 30 days to find a new home.
When the Millers left Athletic Park and embarked on their journey through the eastern cities, four sites were under consideration for their new park, with a location along Kenwood Boulevard, across Hennepin Avenue from Loring Park, being considered the favorite. The city council, however, refused to vacate certain streets in the Kenwood area, and in late May of 1896, after the streetcar company announced it could better service a park near Lake Street, the decision was made to locate the field at 31st Street and Nicollet Avenue. The ground was quickly graded, bleachers, grandstands, and fences hastily erected, and within three weeks the field was ready for baseball.
All that remained for the wooden structure was a name. Three Minneapolis newspapers invited readers to submit suggestions; from that list a panel of writers selected the name Wright Field, in honor of Harry Wright, one of baseball’s founding fathers. The name did not receive a warm reception from the Millers’ owners though, and for the next year the stadium was referred to merely as the “new ball park.” It wasn’t until 1897 that the name Nicollet Park was first used.
The new grounds opened June 19, 1896 as the Millers came from behind to defeat Milwaukee, 13-6. Varney Anderson held the Brewers to eight hits while the Millers’ Charlie Frank hit the game’s only home run, a two-run shot over the right-field fence in the sixth inning.
Although spacious compared to the band box that the Millers had left, Nicollet Park soon became known for its modest dimensions, particularly the short distance to the right-field fence, an easy target for strong left-handed hitters. Although slightly farther away from home plate, the left-field fence, separated from Lake Street by a row of buildings, was also reachable.
Home plate was in the southwest corner with a grandstand that extended down the down the third-base line along Blaisdell Avenue and down the first-base line, along West 31st Street, which separated the ball park from the streetcar barns and garages of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company.
According to figures cited in a 1951 article when Nicollet Park was sold, the ball park covered approximately four acres with 450-foot frontages on Nicollet and Blaisdell avenues and 379 feet of frontage on West 31st Street.
Nicollet Park had a pennant winner its initial season as the Minneapolis Millers finished first in the Western League, and it continued as the home of the Millers when the team became a charter member of the American Association in 1902. Over the next 10 years, the ball park got a new look.
The main grandstand was rebuilt prior to the 1909 season with a tier of box seats put in front of the regular seats, necessitating the moving of the players’ benches as well as the press box. “A private box has been built for the newspaper scribes and this season will prove a sad one for the nosey fan who has always insisted on hanging over the back of the press box to show the pencilpushers where they are wrong in their scoring,” wrote the Minneapolis Journal of April 20, 1909. In addition, repairs were made to the third-base bleachers, and the first-base bleachers were converted into a grandstand and covered. The main entrance was also changed to the 31st Street side of the ball park. “When the fans turn out Thursday afternoon to get the first glimpse of the 1909 Millers on the home grounds,” reported the Journal, “they will hardly recognize the place.”
An even greater facelift took place following the 1911 season, a $30,000 renovation that included a new grandstand and bleachers that had “a solid concrete base with iron columns supporting an ornamental red tile roof,” according to the November 25, 1911 Minneapolis Tribune. The main entry remained at the corner of 31st and Nicollet, in the right-field corner, with a walkway running underneath the grandstand to the seats on the third-base side and an inclined walk, replacing stairs, taking fans into the stands on the first-base side of the field.
The seating capacity of Nicollet Park swelled to approximately 10,000, two-and-a-half times what it could originally hold. The headline on the December 3, 1911 Minneapolis Journal proclaimed “Minneapolis Fans Will Not Recognize Their Old Ball Yard Next April,” the second time in fewer than three years that the newspaper made this claim.
The architect for the renovation was Harry Wild Jones, who had designed homes, churches, and commercial buildings in the city. The hiring of Jones “signaled the team’s strength as a business enterprise and demonstrated a kinship to the Minneapolis elite who built commercial monuments in the most popular styles of the day,” wrote Augsburg College professors Kristin M. Anderson and Christopher W. Kimball in an article for Minnesota History magazine.
Besides the new grandstand, the board fence surrounding the grounds was replaced by a 14-foot-high concrete wall topped with red tile, but the most prominent addition was a Tudor-style entry building at the on the corner of 31st Street and Nicollet Avenue, topped by a steeply pitched red-tile roof. In addition to the ticket windows and turnstiles at street level, the building had management offices, which previously had been housed in downtown Minneapolis, and locker rooms on the second floor.
To accommodate the new structure, the grandstand in the right-field corner was angled toward the field. The foul line intersected with the stands, 279 feet, 10 inches from home plate. The roof over the grandstand created an overhang in right field, which at times could affect play. One example occurred in 1953 in the afternoon game of the Independence Day doubleheader. Trailing the Saints, 9-8, the Millers had two out and nobody on in the ninth when Clint Hartung walked and Ray Katt lifted a soft fly toward right. It appeared Saints right fielder Walt Moryn right fielder would be able to catch the ball until, as described by Halsey Hall in the Minneapolis Tribune, “the breeze caught it and it came down, scraping the screen UNDER the jutting grandstand roof. But it had kissed that screen so gently and was a home run, Raymond completing that most joyous jaunt of all and being mobbed by fans and teammates.”
Nicollet Park held its first game under artificial lighting in 1937. By this time, the Millers and Saints had been the league’s only teams still playing exclusively day games at home. Finally, they decided to join the others and install lights at their ballparks.
As installation of the equipment began in May, both teams set their night debuts for games in which they would be playing each other on back-to-back evenings in mid-July. The Saints managed only five hits as Millers beat them in St. Paul the evening of Thursday, July 15 before more than 9,000 fans.
The crowd was smaller in Minneapolis the next night as a sudden drop in temperature combined with a drizzle that began around seven o’clock and continued until shortly before game time at 8:45. A big cheer greeted the lights, which were not turned on until just before game time because rain was considered to be hard on the bulbs. (One of the bulbs burst in the second inning, and Millers public relations man Fritz Hutchinson said, “There goes six bucks.”)
While the weather was different, one thing similar from the previous night was the lack of Saints hitting. This time they were shut down by the Millers’ Jim Henry, losing by a score of 4-1. Dusty Cooke of Minneapolis hit the only home run. His blast, according to the Pioneer Press, “penetrated the light ceiling and momentarily disappeared from view at the top of its arc before dropping over the right field fence.”
It’s ironic that Nicollet Park was the last ballpark in the American Association to host a game under the lights since, 19 years before, it had actually been the first ballpark in the league to hold a night game.
In 1918, however, baseball began feeling the effects of the United States involvement in the World War. In Minneapolis, the Millers’ Opening Day crowd was the smallest in their history as many potential fans were fighting in Europe or working long hours in war-related industries. Combined with the Millers losing some of their players to the service and with the general uncertainty over the future of the game during the war, owner Mike Cantillon decided he needed to do something drastic to pull in fans. What he did was initiate night baseball in the American Association. There was no artificial lighting, but with the new Daylight Saving Time law in effect, a game in a northern city started in the early evening could be completed under natural light.
The Millers played their first night game on Friday, May 24, against Toledo. The game started at 6:45 p.m. and, despite a long eighth inning in which Minneapolis scored seven runs on its way to an 11-3 win, the game was played in one hour, 21 minutes, meaning it was finished shortly after 8 p.m., more than a half-hour before sunset. A season-high crowd of more than 1,200 attended the game, making it successful enough for the team to decide to continue the policy with all weekday games. The starting times were moved back to 7:00 as the days got longer with the approach of the solstice. The later starting time was even responsible for a Millers win in June. Complaining of the lack of light, Columbus manager Joe Tinker pulled his team off the field prior to the start of a game on June 19, resulting in a 9-0 Millers forfeit victory.
Nicollet Park had its share of memorable events and moments, but none was stranger than the bizarre scene that occurred in 1932 when the Millers played in the Junior World Series for the first time. Their opponents were the Newark Bears, a powerful New York Yankees farm team that featured heavy-hitters Marv Owen, Red Rolfe, and Dixie Walker.
The teams split the first four games, and Game Five, at Nicollet Park, was tied 8-8 in the ninth inning. The Bears had runners at first and third with two out in the top of the ninth when Johnny Neun slashed a liner into left-center that center fielder Harry Rice seemingly captured with a diving stab before sliding on the ground for a considerable distance. Both the second- and third-base umpires signaled out, ending the inning and bringing a group of charging Bears, led by manager Al Mamaux, out of the Newark dugout. After listening to their arguments, the umpires huddled and reversed their decision, saying that Rice had dropped the ball, which allowed the go-ahead run to score. Out came Minneapolis skipper Donie Bush, demanding an explanation. Again, the arbiters called an impromptu conference, and, again, they came out with a different decision, ruling once again that Rice had caught the ball, resulting in an encore by Mamaux. The scene continued–the umpires listening to the remonstrations of the offended manager, huddling, and emerging from their meeting with a decision opposite of their previous call–until a total of six decisions had been made and the game had been delayed more than 40 minutes. Bush finally ended the rhubarb by lodging a formal protest of the game.
Unfortunately for Minneapolis, the committee that ruled on the protest was made up of an equal number of representatives of the American Association and International League. Thus the vote ended in a partisan deadlock; as a result, the Millers’ protest was disallowed, and the Bears 12-9 victory was allowed to stand. The next day a three-run, ninth-inning rally gave the game, 8-7, and the series, four games to two, to Newark.
Stories of Nicollet Park’s quirkiness abound, their veracity at times dubious. One of the stories connected with the lore of Nicollet Park is of a two-foot home run hit by Millers shortstop Andy Oyler. On a rainy day, so the story goes, Oyler hit a ball into the mud in front of home plate and circled the bases as the opposing team searched for the ball. According to John Oyler, Andy’s grandson, Andy told him of the short home run in the mid-1950s, when John was around 12 years old. Minneapolis sportswriter/announcer Halsey Hall later told this tale to Dave Mona of the Minneapolis Tribune but without any further details. Many years later, a book came out titled The Twenty-Four-Inch Home Run, a compilation of strange but supposedly true baseball tales with Oyler’s home run being the title story. The author, Michael G. Bryson, provided more details and great embellishment but did not give the date of the game.
The fact is that in the years that Andy Oyler played for the Millers, from 1903 to 1910, he hit only one home run. It came in an 8-6 loss at Milwaukee on August 2, 1904, and the newspapers made no mention of there being anything special about the home run, something that surely would have been noted had the ball traveled only two feet.
Some of the tales of Nicollet Park revolve around the characters who inhabited the ballpark. One was Bill Veeck, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers during World War II and became friends with Millers owner Mike Kelley. In his book, The Hustler’s Handbook, Veeck tells of some of the challenges of dealing with Kelley, including the problems that resulted from Kelley’s Dalmatian, who sat with his owner in the front row of the right-field seats during games. Veeck claims that his Brewers once lost a game when the Millers with two out in the last of the ninth on a base hit to right field, near where Kelley and the Dalmatian sat. As Milwaukee right fielder Hal Peck attempted to field the ball, the dog “came flying over the railing to bite Peck right in the leg.” The dog continued to threaten Peck as he attempted to pick up the ball. As a result, two runs scored on the play, winning the game for the Millers. However, in all the games that Milwaukee played at Nicollet Park during the time Veeck owned the Brewers, there was never a game that ended in such a fashion. Thus, this story enters the ranks of legendary, but mythical, tales told about Nicollet Park and by Bill Veeck.
Longtime fan Fred Souba says he remembers Kelley sitting in the front row beyond first base with his Dalmatian (sometimes more than one), but he does not recall any instances of the dogs affecting the game in any manner and certainly not by coming onto the field.
Longtime sports writer and announcer Halsey Hall remembers the right-field fence being made a little higher over the years and awnings going down in front of the plate-glass windows on Nicollet Avenue businesses as insurance rates on window breakage rose. There were also stories of long home runs to right setting off alarms of businesses across Nicollet Avenue from the ball park, and at least one of these is documented. On Saturday night, August 26, 1950, Johnny “Spider” Jorgensen won a game for the Millers with a two-run homer in the last of the ninth off St. Paul’s John Van Cuyk. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “The ball sailed across Nicollet Ave., crashed through the heavy plate glass door of an appliance shop [Johnston’s Appliance] and set off the burglar alarm.”
Sunday doubleheaders at Nicollet Park were often cut short by a law requiring games to be stopped promptly at 6:00 p.m. (The ordinance was repealed in 1941, but Mike Kelley continued to honor the policy.) In 1935 the Millers saw a 3-0 lead disappear as Toledo scored five runs in the top of the ninth. But the clock at Nicollet read 5:54 as the Millers came to bat. With shrewd stalling by Fabian Gaffke, Buzz Arlett, and Joe Hauser, the clock struck six o’clock before the final out was made; as a result, the score reverted back to the last full inning, wiping out the Mud Hen runs and giving the Millers a 3-0 win.
That same season Babe Ruth made a Nicollet Park appearance in a game between the Minneapolis and St. Paul police teams. Ruth played half a game with each team, and contributed a double in five trips to the plate. Pitching for the Minneapolis Police team, Pete Guzy, former East High and Minnesota Gopher pitching sensation and later the longtime football and baseball coach at Edison High, was able to count Babe as one of his 18 strikeout victims in the game. (Ruth had played once before in Minneapolis, along with Yankees teammate Bob Meusel, on October 14, 1924. The duo played on opposing teams–Ruth with the Odd Fellows, the Minneapolis amateur champions–at Nicollet Park. Ruth hit a pair of home runs, including one that cleared Nicollet Avenue, and drove in six runs in an 8-5 win for the Odd Fellows.)
While Ruth appeared in only exhibition games at Nicollet Park, a number of great players appeared in regular-season contests over the years for the Millers and their opponents. The list includes many Millers who were later elected to the Hall of Fame. One was Rube Waddell, the great southpaw who pitched for Minneapolis in the American Association in 1911 and 1912 and with the Minneapolis team (as well as one in Virginia, Minnesota) in the Northern League in 1913. Ted Williams made Minneapolis his final stop in the minors before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Boston Red Sox. In 1938 Williams became the first player in the American Association to win the Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Willie Mays also played for the Millers in 1951, although he was so good that he played only 35 games for Minneapolis before being called up by the New York Giants. Ray Dandridge, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Monte Irvin are other members of the Hall of Fame who played for the Millers at Nicollet Park in the 1950s.
Although players such as Waddell, Williams, Mays, Wilhelm, and Irvin are remembered mostly for their major-league careers and Dandridge for his career in the Negro National League and the Mexican League, the top player in the history of the Millers was slugger Joe Hauser. “Unser Choe” (a German expression for “Our Joe”) hit 202 home runs for Minneapolis from 1932 through 1935. His best season came in 1933 when he set a professional record (since broken) by hitting 69 home runs. The left-handed hitter took advantage of the short distance to right field at Nicollet Park, hitting 50 of those home runs at home.
Holiday doubleheaders were the highlights of every season for fans of the Minneapolis Millers and St. Paul Saints, who played at Lexington Park. On Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, fans were treated to a morning game in one of the ball parks, followed by a seven-mile streetcar ride across the river for the afternoon game in the other.
Ab Wright of the Millers saved his biggest 1940 fireworks for the morning game on Independence Day. En route to winning the American Association Triple Crown (the only player besides Ted Williams to do so) that season, Wright belted four home runs and a triple against the Saints for 19 total bases, a league record never equaled.
And the explosions heard on the Fourth of July in 1929 were from a Nicollet Park brawl between the rivals, described by one writer as “the most vicious affair ever witnessed at Nicollet” and one that “required fully a dozen policemen to quell the disturbance.” Millers reserve infielder Sammy Bohne came out of the coaching box to land some of the hardest punches, and the next day the headline over Halsey Hall’s story in the Minneapolis Journal read, “Sammy Bohne Doesn’t Play, But Gets More Hits Than Those Who Do.”
The Minneapolis Millers’ home opener at Nicollet Park in 1948 was one of the first events ever available to television viewers in Minnesota. KSTP had become the state’s first commercial television station, making its initial telecast of the banquet and floor show of television dealers at the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul the evening of Monday, April 26, 1948. The next afternoon KSTP showed the Millers’ 9-5 win over the Louisville Colonels at Nicollet Park. The game featured a 13-strikeout performance by Monte Kennedy of Minneapolis, an inside-the-park home by the Millers’ Andy Gilbert, and a pinch-hit grand-slam home run by Red Lavigne of Louisville.
Nicollet Park, as well as its St. Paul counterpart, Lexington Park, served the area well during the years it had minor-league baseball and through a period when streetcars were a dominant form of transportation in the Twin Cities. Both phenomena were coming to an end in the early 1950s, however. Streetcar tracks were being torn out by the middle of the decade, and automobiles took over as the number-one way to get around in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
With a desire for a new facility for the Millers combined with an unscratchable itch for major-league baseball that emerged in the 1950s, Nicollet Park’s years were numbered. The ballpark was by this time owned by Northwestern National Bank (later Norwest Bank and now Wells Fargo), which had purchased the property from the Carpenter family in November of 1951 for $145,000. The Millers still held a lease that ran through November of 1958, but the Nicollet Park didn’t last that long. In 1955 ground was broken for a new stadium in suburban Bloomington–one that were serve the Millers for five years and then the incoming Minnesota Twins of the American League–as the Millers were winding down one of their best seasons ever.
The Millers won the American Association pennant in 1955, then defeated Denver and Omaha in the league playoffs to advance to the Junior World Series for the first time since 1932. The Millers beat the Rochester Red Wings of the International League, four games to three, with the deciding game also marking the end for Nicollet Park. Soon after the ballpark was torn down, and the bank relocated its Lake Street branch onto the abandoned site, where it remains today.
In 1983 a historical marker was erected in front of the Norwest Bank on 31st and Nicollet, on the former site of Nicollet Park. The plaque was paid for in large part by donations from ex-players and fans. With their contributions came letters and notes to indicate that memories of Nicollet Park had not faded.
“Nicollet Park holds the best memories in baseball for me,” says Al Worthington, the man who delivered the final pitch at the ballpark, who recalled that he had great success at Nicollet Park (his three-year won-loss record at Nicollet was 24-5). Worthington also remembers the lack of heat in the clubhouse. “It was so cold in April that taking a shower was almost like being outside when the sub-zero wind blew.”
Hughie McMullen, who played in the late 1920s, remembers Nicollet Park even then as a very old, run down park. “The fences were held up only by the paint on them,” says McMullen.
Eddie Popowski managed the Millers in their final year at Met Stadium. But as an outfielder with Louisville in 1943, he played at Nicollet and recalls players having their gloves and shoes chewed up by rats when they left them overnight.
Nicollet Park was the site of other sports, including prize fights and football games. Two National Football League teams–the Minneapolis Marines and Minneapolis Red Jackets–played their home games at Nicollet Park in the 1920s and early 1930s. But baseball is the sport best remembered at Nicollet Park, and for 60 years this tiny structure on the corner of 31st and Nicollet was the main attraction for thousands of baseball fans.
Correspondence with Joe Hauser, 1983-85, as well as telephone interview with Hauser, December 6, 1984, and interview with Hauser, July 8, 1988.
Correspondence with Hugh McMullen, March 1984.
Correspondence with Al Worthington, March 1984.
Correspondence with Ted Williams, November 1987.
Telephone interview with Ab Wright, October 14, 1988.
Interview with Willie Mays, July 11, 2002.
Telephone interview with John Oyler, May 16, 2005.
Telephone interview with Monte Irvin, June 30, 2005.
The Twenty-Four-Inch Home Run by Michael G. Bryson, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1990, pp. 21-23.
The Hustler’s Handbook by Bill Veeck, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965, pp. 177-182.
“Designing the National Pastime” by Kristin M. Anderson and Christopher W. Kimball, Minnesota History, Fall 2003, pp. 338-351.
“A New Ball Park,” Minneapolis Tribune, Thursday, May 14, 1896, p. 7.
“Nicollet Park Stands Rebuilt,” Minneapolis Journal, Tuesday, April 20, 1909, p. 12.
“How the Nicollet Ball Park Will Appear When Finished,” Minneapolis Tribune, Saturday, November 25, 1911, p. 2.
“Minneapolis Fans Will Not Recognize Their Old Ball Yard Next April,” Minneapolis Journal, Sunday, December 3, 1911, p. 2.
“Baseball Company to Desert Offices in the Kasota Block,” Minneapolis Journal, Sunday, January 28, 1912, p. 1, Part 3.
“Twilight Games Plan Is Adopted by Club Owners,” Minneapolis Journal, Saturday, May 25, 1918, p. 5.
“Twilight Baseball Makes Big Hit Here’ All Games at Night” by Fred R. Coburn, Minneapolis Tribune, Saturday, May 25, 1918, p. 19.
“Two Home Runs, Pair of Singles Round Out Day’s Work for Ruth” by George A. Barton, Minneapolis Tribune, Wednesday, October 15, 1924, p. 20.
“Sammy Bohne Doesn’t Play But Gets More Hits Than Those Who Do,” “Blow by Blow Account of That Famous Third Inning,” and “Here’s How!” by Halsey Hall, Minneapolis Journal, Friday, July 5, 1929, p. 28.
“Saints Win Both Holiday Games from Millers, 8-7 and 6-5” by Dick Cullum, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Friday, July 5, 1929, p. 12.
“Millers Lose Two 11-Inning Struggles to Saints by Scores of 8-7, 6-5” by George A. Barton, Friday, July 5, 1929, p. 12.
“13,000 Fans Watch Ruth in Police Game at Nicollet” by Bob Beebe, Minneapolis Tribune, Monday, September 1, 1935.
“Kels Beat Saints, 4-1; Win 1937 Rivalry” by George A. Barton, Minneapolis Tribune, Saturday, July 17, 1937, p. 13.
“Television Signs for Ball Games,” Minneapolis Tribune, Friday, April 23, 1948, p. 1.
“Jorgensen’s Homer Beats Saints, 10-8” Joe Hennessy and “Jorgy’s Homer Real ‘Buster,’” St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sunday, August 27, 1950, p. 2 Sports.
“Northwestern Bank Buys Nicollet Baseball Park,” Minneapolis Star, Wednesday, June 27, 1951, p. 1.
“Millers Win First Game 10-4; Katt’s Homer Bags 2nd” by Halsey Hall, Minneapolis Tribune, Monday, July 5, 1953, p. 1S.
Telephone interview with Monte Irvin, June 30, 2005; Minneapolis Tribune: “Millers Win Junior World Series Title: 9,927 See Last Game at Nicollet Park” by Leonard Inskip, Minneapolis Tribune, Thursday, September 29, 1955, p. 1; “Miller Home Runs Produce 9-4 Win, First Junior Crown” by Tom Briere, Minneapolis Tribune, September 29, 1955, p. S1
“Nicollet Park: A Colorful Page in Baseball History–Hard-to-Believe Anecdotes Had Grain of Truth” by Dave Mona, Minneapolis Tribune, Sunday, November 6, 1966, pp. 1, 8.