Burleigh Grimes and the 1912 Eau Claire Commissioners

This article was written by Jason Christopherson

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 28, 2008)


Ask any resident of Eau Claire if any Hall of Fame baseball players got their start in their Western Wisconsin city, and you will likely hear a story about Henry Aaron and his storybook 1952 season. Or you can view the bronze statue featuring the likeness of the young slugger, wearing his not so famous number 6, standing as a reminder outside of Carson Park. Forty years before Henry Aaron began hammering out his legendary status, though, another future Hall of Famer began his career (with slightly less fanfare) with Eau Claire’s entry in the Minnesota-Wisconsin League (Class D).

In 1912, Burleigh Arland Grimes was still a long way from being “Ol’ Stubblebeard.” Grimes was an 18-year- old kid fresh off a farm near tiny Clear Lake, Wisconsin. Eau Claire is only about sixty miles away but, with a population exceeding 20,000, it may as well have been a different country for the young Grimes.

His love for baseball began at an early age. The key to his future diamond success he may have found during a fateful trip to St. Paul. The exact date is unknown, and even the exact year varies, depending on the source. In their book The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Rob Neyer and Bill James cite an article, by J. G. Taylor Spink, in Grimes’s file at the Hall of Fame:

Grimes: “Mike Kelly, then manager of the St. Paul Club of the American Association, was a friend of my father. In 1909, I visited St. Paul and Mike took me to see a game in which Hank Gehring, the old spit-baller, was pitching. I was so impressed with his delivery that when I returned home I immediately started practicing the spitball delivery.”

Grimes gave a slightly different but far more detailed version of the story to Herman Weiskopf, who penned an article titled “The Infamous Spitter” that appeared in Sports Illustrated (July 31, 1967):

[In 1906] my father and uncle were sending four carloads of cattle to St. Paul. When you sent a carload or more you were allowed to ride in the caboose, and that’s how I got to go along on the trip with my uncle. When he had taken care of his business in St. Paul he said, “How’d you like to go to a ball game?” and he takes me out to the ball park. I saw this guy—his name was Hank Gehring—using a spitball that day. When I got home, I cut some basswood—some people call it chokeberry—and put it in my mouth to make me salivate. As school kids we used to chew it all the time. Well, I got a catcher and I’d work out with him at noon at school and I’d practice throwing the spitter. From then on I was a spitball pitcher.

Whichever version, or combination of versions, is correct, the one constant is Hank Gehring. A St. Paul native, Gehring had flashes of brilliance in his minor-league career, highlighted by a 32–5 mark for the Western Association’s Wichita Jobbers in 1905. Gehring’s major-league career was brief—just 18 games for Washington in 1907 and 1908. He went 3–8 for the Senators with an ERA just under 4.00. Ironically, the inspiration for Grimes’s famous pitch died of uremic poisoning—kidney failure—just a month before Grimes made his professional debut. Gehring was only 31 years old.

While perfecting his new pitch, Grimes played town ball for Clear Lake. He was a good athlete and could play any position on the field. He also knew how to handle a bat—he was one of the best hitters on the team. The hitting prowess was lasting, as he compiled a major-league career batting average of .248, remarkable for a pitcher. Though Grimes was a talent, his Clear Lake coach would not bring him in to pitch in home games because he wasn’t good enough for that just yet. The coach, not one to be accused of nepotism, was his father, Nick.

From Clear Lake to Eau Claire

Grimes went to Eau Claire in early May 1912 with $15 (from his father) in his pocket. The Commissioners, Eau Claire’s entry in the Minnesota-Wisconsin (“Minny”) League, held open tryouts beginning May 8, and the hard-working Grimes was ready for the challenge. The tryouts were held at the massive complex known as the Driving Park on Eau Claire’s south side. Built a decade earlier, the Driving Park was also host to horse racing, track events, polo games, and football matches. Grimes showed athleticism well beyond his years, and he was signed to a contract for $80 a month—more than double the $36 he was earning every month while putting in 16-hour days in a lumber camp during the winter. Grimes auditioned so well, in fact, that he was exempted from having to play the only exhibition game the Commissioners had scheduled. The May 12 tilt against Eau Claire’s powerhouse semipro team, “Big Jo’s,” saw four other hurlers shut down the opponents on six hits in a 19–3 rout.

The Commissioners’ lineup included a 20-year-old shortstop from Milwaukee named “Falsh,” according to the Eau Claire newspaper account. Though he got at least one hit, this young hopeful would never play for Eau Claire again, as Grimes had apparently sewn up one of the few remaining open spots on the roster. Given that his name would become forever linked with those of his fellow Black Sox, perhaps Oscar “Happy” Felsch would one day come to the point that he would have actually preferred the incorrect moniker.

Grimes quickly became a favorite of Russ Bailey, an Eau Claire baseball fixture in the early years of the twentieth century. Bailey, formerly a corporal in the Spanish–American War, first appeared professionally as an outfielder with the 1906 Eau Claire–Chippewa Falls Orphans—Eau Claire’s first professional team since 1887. In 1909, the first season of the Minny League, Bailey’s .308 batting average was good enough to lead it. Bailey had played for Eau Claire continuously since 1906, except for 1908, when the Northern League left Eau Claire out in the cold without a franchise, and then for a period in 1910, when Milwaukee’s Class A team promoted him. There he played the outfield and batted .185 in 31 games for the Brewers before hurting his ankle and returning to Eau Claire. Tommy Schoonhoven, Bailey’s Eau Claire manager since his successful 1909 season, stepped down after a lackluster fourth-place finish in 1911. The popular Bailey was an easy choice to replace him.

If there was going to be a 1912 season, that is. The Minnesota-Wisconsin League was in turmoil—from its inception, it sometimes seemed—but never before like this. La Crosse businessman John Elliott, the league president until 1910, was coaxed back into office to replace Winona’s Lee H. Bierce, who hadn’t held the position long enough to receive the league records from his predecessor before resigning. Frank E. Force, the St. Paul newspaper magnate, had been the league president in 1911 but resigned after one tumultuous season at the helm. Force did everything he could to keep the league afloat in 1911 after Red Wing declared it could no longer pay the bills and had to withdraw from the league in June.

Wausau graciously volunteered to leave so as to balance out the schedule with six teams, assuming that they would be allowed to maintain the franchise and reenter the league when it could accommodate them. The league finished the season, but its financial troubles were widespread. Duluth was hit hard and could not even afford to pay their scorekeeper; he never turned in Duluth’s official scorebooks to the league office, and so no statistics were ever released. Duluth and Superior, the two largest cities in the league, withdrew from the Minny after the season because they were tired of “carrying the weak sisters” to the south. This left but four teams in the league: La Crosse, Winona, Rochester, and Eau Claire. Despite all this, Elliott and the league directors were optimistic. They voted to play out the 1912 season. Without the larger cities to the north, though, the league was essentially doomed. Bailey was given the unenviable task of keeping the Eau Claire team afloat financially after club president Henry Davis unexpectedly resigned on April 26 to take care of his business interests.

Burleigh Grimes’s professional career didn’t actually begin on the mound. He did not play in the rainshortened opener, a 5–1 win on May 14 at Winona. On May 16, the second game of the season, fiery Eau Claire veteran Danny Kick became a little too upset with umpire Marsh’s decisions and was ejected in the fifth inning. Bailey needed a shortstop (where was “Falsh” when he needed him?), and he pointed a finger at his young recruit. Grimes didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t disappoint. Although he went hitless in two at-bats, he handled his only two defensive chances cleanly. Ray Lampman, the pride of tiny Eleva, Wisconsin, pitched a fine game for the Commissioners, and Eau Claire improved to 2–0 with a 6–5 win again at Winona.

And on the mound for the Eau Claire Commissioners . . .

Russ Bailey did something on May 21 that Nick Grimes refused to do—namely, start Grimes on the mound in a home game. And he did it at the first opportunity—the home opener at the Driving Park. The Commissioners had just lost their first game of the season on May 18 in Rochester and came home to the faithful with a 3–1 record, still good enough for first place in the league. The Eau Claire “lid lifter” pitted Grimes against Rochester’s Armontrout, who was making his season debut on the mound as well. The cold and rainy weather that had plagued the season continued, as strong winds sent shivers through fans and players alike. Drizzle began in the sixth inning, after Grimes had been replaced on the mound. He had started strong, but the Lunatics (yes, Lunatics— Medics was also a popular newspaper name for the team hailing from the town made famous by the brothers Mayo) finally got to the youngster in the fifth inning, smacking two singles and three doubles with two out.

Bailey replaced Grimes with Tower, who pitched well in the rain. Grimes, who had struck out two batters, was understandably nervous and no doubt affected by the elements, just as everyone else was. He hit a batter and gave up a walk along with 7 hits in 42⁄3 innings. The exact story of the game has been lost to history, but it appears that Grimes gave up 6 runs, 4 earned, and was the pitcher of record in the 7–6 loss. In his only plate appearance, he sacrificed. The loss dropped the Commissioners to 3–2 and a half-game back of Rochester. That .600 winning percentage would be the low point of the season.

Grimes’s next appearance for Bailey came on May 27, when Eau Claire hosted the La Crosse Outcasts. In the five days since his debut, the team had gone 4–1 to take the lead in the Minny League. Lampman pitched brilliantly, shutting out Rochester on May 22 (the only shutout of the year for Eau Claire’s pitchers) and giving up only one run to Winona on May 26 to improve his record to 3–0. Grimes came out firing in his second start, scattering 5 hits and a walk around his 8 strikeouts. He gave up 2 runs (one earned), and the Commissioners took advantage of 8 Outcast errors to give Grimes his first professional win, 6–2.

He was nearly as impressive in his next start, on June 2, on the road at Rochester. Going the distance for the second straight game, he allowed 6 hits and 3 earned runs in Eau Claire’s 9–3 triumph. His bat contributed three singles as well, and he was suddenly hitting .400. “He appears to have plenty of stuff on the ball,” the Eau Claire Leader reported the next day, “and has lots of nerve. The latter factor in a pitcher’s success was well demonstrated by Grimes, when he stood in front of a line drive and threw the man out at first.” This was the second game of a five-game Eau Claire winning streak (which included yet another dominating performance from Lampman) that pushed the Commissioners to a record of 15–4. Eau Claire was already threatening to run away with the Minny League pennant.

The streak ended on June 6 with Grimes on the hill for the first time in Winona. He pitched one of his worst games of the year, but the offense also let him down or at least failed to penetrate a solid Pirates defense. Winona pounded Grimes for 5 runs on 12 hits in 7 innings en route to the 5–1 win. Winona took the next game, this time in Eau Claire, by the same score. Grimes got the start in right field because the regular right fielder, Harry Bemis, shifted over to left to allow left fielder Herman Vigerust to fill in behind the plate for the injured veteran Helmer Benrud. Grimes went 2 for 4 and was thrown out trying to stretch his first double into his first triple. Suddenly, Winona was only three games back of Eau Claire for first place. So much for running away with the pennant.

Benrud still wasn’t available for the next game, on June 8, and so Grimes once again manned right field. Tower, Eau Claire’s starting pitcher, fell apart in the fifth. He gave up 4 runs, and, after walking Winona player-manager Fred Curtis, took himself off the mound and walked out to an undoubtedly surprised Grimes in right. Grimes, making his only relief appearance of the year, walked the first batter he faced. He then fired two wild pitches to allow two runs to score before settling down and striking out the last two batters of the inning. The Commissioners rallied, but they lost 8–7. The league lead went back up to three games the next day in the series finale, a 6–2 win. Grimes, again in right field, went hitless in three at bats.

Disquieting rumors about the Minnesota-Wisconsin League

Newspapers around this time began reporting that the league was still in good shape. All the clubs were working within salary limitations, a problem that had damaged the league’s credibility in the past. President Elliott did acknowledge, however, that none of the four clubs was breaking even at this point, citing weather as the main cause. Still, all the clubs were somehow meeting expenses, and there had been no “disquieting rumors” as in recent seasons. Later, Grimes said he was never paid for his time in Eau Claire, contradicting the official reports as reported in the newspapers at the time.

Grimes had a couple of days off as Benrud returned to the lineup, allowing Vigerust, Bailey, and Bemis to resume their usual positions in the outfield, left to right. Then on June 12, for the third time in five starts, Grimes faced off against Rochester, a struggling team with an 8–15 record. Grimes didn’t have his best stuff, but it was good enough for a 6–4 complete-game victory. He walked 4, a lot for him, and gave up 6 hits. At the plate he collected his second three-hit game. Russ Bailey injured himself and played through it to the end of the game, but it left a vacancy in center that the versatile Grimes filled for the next three games. His line in the box scores for them were nearly identical—in each game, 1 single in 4 at-bats. On June 16, he stole a base for the first time as the Commissioners beat La Crosse 3–1, giving Lampman his fifth (and final) win of the season. Despite a team batting average of just .236, Eau Claire, at 20–9, still managed to hold on to first place.

Eau Claire took two of three games in La Crosse and then hosted the Outcasts for their own three-game set, in what is now known as a “home and home” series. As in his second start of the year, also at home against La Crosse, Grimes was masterful. He gave up 2 runs, 1 earned, on just 4 hits and a walk while going the distance in the 9–2 win. But he failed to ride the momentum into his next start, on the road at Rochester on June 21, when he hit 2 batters, walked another, and gave up 11 hits in a sloppy 8–6 loss.

That same day, the Leader ran conflicting stories that, when taken together, appeared ominous for fans of the Commissioners and the Minny League itself. “Minny Will Finish Season” was a headline that was undoubtedly meant to imply “full” season. The story, published approximately two weeks after the “good shape” stories, indicates that, even though the finances of the league were depleted, the directors voted to play out the schedule: “Mr. Elliott reported that the Eau Claire club had been in a tottering condition but Manager Bailey has taken the situation in charge and will be able to work it out without difficulty.” And that was the positive story! Another piece, headlined “No Games Played in Minny League,” served as a reminder to the paying customers that this was a scheduled offday. But the next few lines are where things get scary:

Danny Kick led the lads to Rochester in the afternoon where beginning today they play a series of three games. Russ Bailey will join the team at Winona, he laying over to boom the finances of the club Rumor has gained widespread circulation around the place the last few days to the effect that the team would not go on the road but disband. The club officials are at a loss to know who gave rise to this rumor, and wish to make it known that it is wholly unfounded. No doubt it started from some malcontent who fails to appreciate the town’s leading enterprise. It is true that the attendance at games thus far has not been any too good, but Eau Claire is not entertaining the idea of withdrawing from the Minny.

About what, if not who, “gave rise to this rumor,” the alert reader was liable to make reasonable inferences from the other article that ran in the same issue. The players had to know things were bad just by looking at the stands and seeing the dwindling groups that could scarcely be called a “crowd.” Bailey probably kept them in the know, as he was essentially one of the boys, and what Bailey didn’t tell them they could read for themselves in the paper. Whether they knew they were in the final days of the season, though, is still a mystery.

Rumors are realized

The off-the-field news for Eau Claire was bad enough. The surging Winona Pirates were bad news of a more immediate kind. The Kick-led Commissioners, with Grimes filling in again for Bailey in center, managed to win the last two games with the Medics. This kept Eau Claire a scant 11⁄2 games ahead of Winona with a big six-game home-and-home series with the Pirates next on the schedule. Winona took the opener at home to pull within half a game. The next day, Eau Claire broke a tie in the top of the seventh to take a 4–2 lead. Winona answered with three in the bottom of the eighth, but the Commissioners pushed across three runs of their own in the ninth to go back on top, 7–5. Dramatically, Winona scored three times off of Eau Claire’s clearly tiring starter, Bersing, to win 8–7 and retake first place. In hindsight, Kick’s managing ability and the health of Grimes’s arm were questionable. He had played center field in place of the still-missing Bailey since his last mound start four days earlier, but surprisingly he did not get the call to pick up Bersing, as he had done for Tower.

Eau Claire went on to lose the third game, and the sweep was complete. Grimes played his fifth straight game in the outfield and even played a few innings in left—his fifth different position. He had one hit in each game and had hit safely in ten of his last eleven games. Now trailing the Pirates by a game and a half in the standings, the Commissioners headed for the Driving Park for three more chances, beginning June 28, to scuttle Winona’s mighty Pirate ship.

Russ Bailey’s return to the lineup would have probably meant a start on the mound for Grimes had it not been Brody’s turn in the rotation. Brody, a 6-game winner, pitched well in scorching heat, but again Eau Claire’s bats were silent. Winona had taken their fourth straight game from Eau Claire, this time by the score of 3–2. In the second game of the series, Herman Vigerust filled in for a banged-up Helmer Benrud behind the plate. As the team had done earlier in the season when Benrud was hurt, Harry Bemis was shifted from right field to left while Grimes was inserted in to right field. He made the most of it, going 3 for 4—again, all singles—and chipping in with two stolen bases, which ran his total on the season to five. Eau Claire played inspired ball and won for the first time in nearly a week. Stakes for the series finale on June 30 were high. Bailey tabbed the young Grimes to take the ball.

Grimes pitched well enough to win. He shut down the Pirates on four hits through the first five innings, and Eau Claire led 2–0. But Winona scratched out single runs in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, and the Commissioners dropped the key contest, 3–2, as the Eau Claire bats went to sleep again—perhaps because the spacious Driving Park was so quiet. On that glorious Sunday afternoon, only 177 fans ventured to the park to watch the top two teams in the league battle it out.

Bailey had seen enough. Citing low attendance, the local baseball legend made the painful decision to withdraw from the Minnesota-Wisconsin League. The Leader on July 2 carried no account of the final game but chastised the citizens of Eau Claire. They also reported that there was no money to pay the players. With only three other teams and no community that could field a team on short notice to replace Eau Claire, the Minny League had no choice but to fold. Eau Claire, who had already lost franchises after the 1887 and 1907 seasons at least in part due to poor fan support, would not see professional baseball again for 21 years.

Relocating to Austin, Minnesota

Bailey felt sorry for the young spitballer, Burleigh Grimes. He gave him $5 and a lead to a possible position with an amateur team in Austin, Minnesota. Grimes went, won the job, and made the most of his new surroundings. He immediately became a fan favorite by dominating the Albert Lea squad in his debut on July 4, giving up 6 hits and striking out 9 in Austin’s 5–2 win. And he had a good day at the plate, hitting a double and a triple. In the second game of the double-header, he played center field, where he made a sensational running catch, and he contributed a double to Austin’s 13–1 romp.

Grimes excelled in nearly every game he played for Austin. He single-handedly beat the team from Owatonna, Minnesota, ten days after his debut, holding them to just one hit but collecting a couple of doubles himself in the course of scoring twice, and driving in four runs. (The umpire was none other than Frank Force, who only the season before had been serving as head of the now recently disbanded Minnesota-Wisconsin League.) Led by their new young star, Austin breezed through its schedule and declared itself the amateur champions of Minnesota after Grimes beat the North Side (Minneapolis) Athletics 11–7 on September 8. All told, the available records indicate Grimes went 8–0 for Austin. In the games where a box score is available, he gave up 3.53 runs per nine innings (it is impossible to determine which were earned) and had an impressive WHIP of 0.98.

The reputation Grimes would later develop for being intimidating, even mean, may not have yet begun to develop in his rookie season. The Eau Claire newspaper indicated no unusual behavior. Of his four hit batsmen on the season, one came in his first game and two more in a game marred by rain. The first glimpse we get of Grimes’s demeanor comes from the Austin Daily Herald, which, reporting on his debut game with the local team, offered that “he is young, good natured, and has a smile that at once won the hearts of the fans”—no hint there of the Ol’ Stubblebeard he was to become. He adjusted well to his “demotion” to Austin, but any reputation he may have acquired for being “good natured” was short-lived. Charles F. Faber and Richard B. Faber in the book Spitballers note that “during his four years in the Southern Association (1913–1916), Grimes became known as a kid who would fight at the drop of a hat.”

Grimes was back in the professional ranks the following season, 1913, going 6–2 for Ottumwa, Iowa, in the Central Association before Detroit bought his contract for $400 and sent him to Chattanooga. He remained in the minors until August 1916, when Pittsburgh bought his contract from Birmingham and elevated him to the big-league team. At the time of his call-up, Grimes had compiled a minor-league won-lost record of 76–52.

As for Burleigh Grimes’s first true professional season, he ended up 4–4 for Eau Claire and with an estimated ERA of 3.50. (In the SABR Minor League Database, his ERA is given as 3.52, based on 69 innings, but I believe 691⁄3 to be the more accurate figure.)

 

Burleigh Grimes—Eau Claire Commissioners 1912 Pitching Record

Date

Opponent

Game

Start

IP*

R*

ER*

H*

BB

K

WP

HB

Decision

ERA*

May 21

Rochester

1

Y

42⁄3

6

4

7

1

2

0

1

L

7.71

May 27

La Crosse

1

Y

9

2

1

5

1

8

0

0

W

1.00

June 2

@ Rochester

1

Y

9

3

3

6

1

7

0

0

W

3.00

June 6

@ Winona

1

Y

7

5

5

12

2

3

0

0

L

6.43

June 8

Winona

1

N

42⁄3

2

1

0

2

4

2

0

ND

1.93

June 12

Rochester

1

Y

9

4

4

6

4

5

0

0

W

4.00

June 17

La Crosse

1

Y

9

2

1

4

1

6

0

0

W

1.00

June 21

@ Rochester

1

Y

8

8

5

11

1

6

0

2

L

5.63

June 30

Winona

1

Y

9

3

3

6

2

6

0

1

L

3.00

TOTALS

 

9

8

6913

35

27

57

15

47

2

4

4–4

3.50

* All stats with an asterisk are estimated totals.

 

After an exhaustive attempt, I have concluded that several statistics are impossible to tally perfectly. The numbers presented in the accompanying table for innings pitched, runs, earned runs, and hits are all based on best estimates from game stories and box scores.

He walked only 15 and struck out 47 in 691⁄3 innings. For the 18-year-old from Clear Lake, Wisconsin, the pitcher working on his spitball, it was an impressive line and a precursor to a Hall of Fame career.

Postscript

Precious little has been published about Burleigh Grimes’s first professional season. Because the Minny League folded so suddenly, no statistics were published in the guides. As a result of the research I did for this article, many of the statistics provided here now can be found in the SABR Minor League Database. The compilation for strikeouts, wild pitches, and hit batters are believed to be original. Please note that the won–lost record of Eau Claire has been previously reported as 25–17. This appears to be in error.

I had a long conversation with Charles Clark, Grimes’s friend of many years and an interesting man in his own right. Clark told me that the best biography of Grimes that he had ever read appears in Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One, by Charles and Richard Faber. It is a great piece of work, and I encourage you to take a look at it. I end this article with that in mind—from here, you can pick up the rest of Grimes’s story in the pages of that book.

JASON CHRISTOPHERSON, author of “Baseball in Eau Claire” (Arcadia, 2003), is working on a comprehensive history of Eau Claire baseball. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and two children.

 

Sources

Austin Daily Herald.

Burleigh Grimes baseball cards. Authorized by Burleigh Grimes and Tom Daniels. N.p., 1977.

Eau Claire Leader.

Bohn, Terry. “Doctors, Buttermakers, Outcasts, and Lunatics: A History of the Minnesota-Wisconsin League.” Minneapolis Review of Baseball 9, no. 2 (1990): 36–46.

Faber, Charles F., and Richard B. Faber. Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006.

Hamman, Rex, ed. The All-Time Rosters of the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, 1902–1952. Cleveland: SABR, 2006.

Interview with Charles Clark, October 2006.

Interview (via e-mail) with SABR member Frank Hamilton, August 2006.

Interview (via e-mail) with Stew Thornley, April 2008. Lee, Bill. The Baseball Necrology: The Post-Baseball Lives and Deaths of Over 7,600 Major League Players and Others. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003.

Neyer, Rob, and Bill James. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Poling, Jerry. A Summer Up North: Henry Aaron and the Legend of Eau Claire Baseball. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Russell C. Bailey Family, http://rootie.geeknet.com/russbailey.html.

SABR Minor League Database.

Winona Republican Herald.

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