Denver and Pueblo: Tales from the Wild, Wild Western League

This article was written by R. J. Lesch

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “Above the Fruited Plain,” the 2003 SABR convention journal.

 

In the so-called deadball era, the Western League supplied fans with some exciting pennant races. In 1902, Denver finished one and a half games behind pennant-winner Kansas City—but found themselves in fourth place in a six-team league! Both Colorado teams figured in the 1904 Western League race, with Denver half a game behind second-place finisher Colorado Springs and two games behind Omaha.1

THE “ANGEL” OF THE LEAGUE

Pueblo, Colorado had two entries in the Western League during the deadball era. The Colorado Springs franchise relocated to Pueblo in 1905 and played there for five years, with indifferent success on the field, before moving along. In 1911, however, Pueblo had a second chance.

In 1911, the Western League adopted a 168-game schedule. Playing ball from April 21st through October 8th, the league generally enjoyed pleasant weather and good attendance. The trouble with fitting a 168-game season into a 171-day time span, however, is that it is impossible to play such a schedule profitably without scheduling Sunday games.

That was a problem in Wichita, Kansas, which forbade Sunday ball. The club owner and manager was Frank Isbell, the former Chicago White Sox first baseman and one of the 1906 “Hitless Wonders.” Isbell had spent too much money and effort fighting the anti-Sunday-ball forces in Wichita, and he was tired and broke. Boosters of Pueblo, Colorado, eager to get back into the league, approached Isbell with a juicy offer. On May 22, 1911, the Wichita ball club moved to Pueblo, Colorado.

When they moved, the team’s record was 15-9 and they were on top of the league. They played well in Pueblo, and the town was, at first, feverish over its new team, even on the Sabbath. The young Red Faber was on the mound for 29 of Pueblo’s games, posting a 12-8 record. Pitcher W.E. Ellis went 22-11 (with four agonizing ties) and earned a look from the White Sox, who took him in the September draft that year. Pueblo had little pitching depth beyond this, however, and relied on their powerful hitting attack. They could not maintain their early pace, and finished the 1911 season in third place.

Still, even facing the loss of Ellis and shortstop Joe Berger in the draft, Pueblo fans could dream of a pennant in 1912. Those dreams ended when Isbell sold his franchise to a stock company of 300 businessmen in Wichita for $25,000.2 Isbell and Sioux City business manager Tom Fairweather then purchased the Des Moines club from Isbell’s old boss, Charles Comiskey, who had bought the failing club to keep it alive near the end of the 1911 season.3

Pueblo boosters threatened an injunction to prevent the move to Wichita. Isbell, it was claimed, had signed an agreement to keep the club in Pueblo for five years; for this he had been paid a $5,000 bonus. The Pueblo fans and press barbecued Isbell, and even the national press took notice.

“[Pueblo] has been the ‘angel’ of the league,” wrote The Sporting News correspondent “Mile High” in the January 25, 1912 issue. “Twice it has stepped to the front and taken over a club which was not securing support elsewhere. It has loyally patron- ized base ball, whether its team be in first place or last, and a ‘turn down’ now would be poor return for such loyalty.”4

Isbell produced the documents he had signed, however, which showed that he had not signed a five-year deal, and in fact he had reserved the right to remove the franchise after the 1911 season. The $5,000 bonus was for the first year in Pueblo only; the agree- ment included bonuses for each successive year, which Isbell agreed to forfeit if he moved the team. Isbell claimed that he had been open to offers from Pueblo interests for the Western League franchise, but received none that were on par with the Wichita offer. The Sporting News wrote, on February 1st, that “[Isbell’s] books show that even with the sale of two players to the Chicago White Sox his stay at Pueblo would have netted a financial loss had it not been for the $5,000 bonus.” League President Norris “Tip” O’Neill agreed, and the league approved the transfer of the franchise to Wichita.5

Isbell took Red Faber with him to Des Moines, and made plans with Fairweather to open the season. The Jobbers returned to Wichita to find that town suddenly willing to let them play a schedule full of Sunday home games.6 Perhaps to the glee of the citizens of Pueblo, the Jobbers finished the 1912 season in seventh place.

Pueblo fans tried to work up enthusiasm for their entry in the new Rocky Mountain League. The league, alas, did not live to complete the season. Isbell had to stay out of Colorado during the summer of 1912 to avoid service of papers in a lawsuit for $20,000, but that threat subsided.

When the Western League approached Pueblo later in the year to take on the ailing Topeka franchise, the league received a sound rebuff. The “angel” of the Western League did not return to the fold until 1930.

“IT’S ANYBODY’S FLAG”

Few people expected the 1912 Western League pennant race to be close when the season began. By July, though, all eyes were on the Class A league and the fierce contest raging across the Great Plains. The previous year, under fiery manager Jack Hendricks, Denver had romped to the Western League pennant with a record of 111-54, an astonishing eighteen games over the St. Joseph (Missouri) Drummers. The 1911 Grizzlies featured outfielder Harry Cassidy, who batted .333, and pitcher Buck O’Brien, the league’s best pitcher with a 26-7 record and 261 strikeouts. Most observers felt Denver would hoist the 1912 flag as well, assuming Denver remained in the league. During the winter league meetings, rumors flew that Denver might find its franchise moved to another city.

The Western League, under President Norris L. O’Neill, was a progressive league in many respects. The eight-team circuit played a 168-game schedule and used two umpires for games. In 1912, they considered the startling idea of putting numbers on players’ uniforms.7 Perhaps most surprising, O’Neill proposed a revenue-sharing system. In this system, the league would have pooled a percentage of gate receipts to assist struggling teams. The Lincoln, Des Moines, Wichita, and Topeka clubs had each suffered financial difficulties in recent seasons. O’Neill wanted to make sure clubs in financial straits could at least complete their league schedule.

Denver owner James McGill opposed the scheme, because he felt Denver was already bearing too much of the league’s financial burden. Denver was the most isolated city in the league. It was so far away from the other seven cities that under league rules Denver had to pay visiting teams 15 cents per paid admission, two and a half cents more than the other seven teams paid their visitors, to cover the added travel expense for those teams.8 McGill pointed out that Denver was the most populous city in the league (225,000), and generally had the best attendance, so the visitors’ share would have been substantial even at the league standard.

O’Neill, from the league office in Chicago, dropped hints. “It is an actual fact,” said McGill, “that we could make more money by putting in a club on the river, at say Burlington, Iowa, than we can under the present conditions by coming to Denver.”9 Other writers reported that the league would drop Denver in favor of a Chicago franchise that would play at Comiskey Park while the White Sox were on the road. Nothing came of these rumors, but McGill and other Western League owners became more wary of Chicago baseball interests.

Manager Hendricks, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with his pitchers and catchers in late March, was more concerned about the team he could put on the field. He had lost two of his best pitchers, O’Brien and Casey Hagerman, to the Boston Red Sox. Hendricks asked Red Sox manager Jake Stahl, who was also in Hot Springs, to farm some of his prospects to Denver during the season. (St. Joseph and Des Moines both made similar arrangements with the Chicago White Sox.) Stahl loaned him Hubert “Dutch” Leonard, a promising pitcher who, Stahl felt, needed more seasoning.

Hendricks had other hopes for pitching. David “Barney” Schreiber, who had gotten into three games with the Cincinnati Reds in 1911, had not joined Denver until mid-season but posted a 15-7 record. Hendricks looked forward to a full season from Schreiber. Ed “Big Moose” Kinsella had shown potential. Denver fans hoped for a comeback from longtime Grizzly pitcher Henry Olmstead, who missed the bulk of 1911 due to his wife’s illness and death. Olmstead, with Cassidy, had been with the club since the beginning of the 1907 season, and was a fan favorite.

Denver started well, but St. Joseph kept pace. The Drummers, sometimes called the Hollanders after owner-manager Jack Holland, featured several future major leaguers, including outfielders Edward “Dutch” Zwilling and Ray “Rabbit” Powell and first baseman William “Babe” Borton. The St. Joseph players had the batting and base running skills to go with the nicknames. Fans and press alike were amused to note that ten of the seventeen St. Joseph players were married, which was apparently unusual for Class A ball.10

Denver’s pitching faltered early. Leonard was unhappy with Denver, and it showed in his work. Schreiber and Kinsella started slowly. Olmstead had control problems; in a May 14th game, he hit three Sioux City players in a row, all of whom scored.

The hitters picked up the slack for a while. During one seven- game stretch in Denver in May, 14 home runs were hit, 12 of them by Denver players. “As a tobacco company gives five pounds of smoking for every home run knocked on Western League parks,” noted The Sporting News, “this means that the tobacco company has been stuck for 70 pounds of tobacco in a week at Denver.”11 Hendricks knew he couldn’t count on that forever.

St. Joseph swept Denver in a series in late May, and took over first place. Then Omaha, Sioux City and Des Moines slipped past the Grizzlies. Hendricks, in fifth place on June 2nd, decided that he had seen enough. Hendricks sold or released six players, including Olmstead.12 He spent $750 to get catcher George Block from St. Paul, and another $300 to get a former Grizzly outfielder, Grover Gilmore, back from Buffalo.13 Charlie French arrived from Montreal and took over second base. Later in the month Hendricks suspended the “sulking” Leonard and purchased Casey Hagerman back from Boston.14 Even Harry Cassidy, who had not missed a game in five years, was rumored to be on his way out. The club got the message.

The rest of the league gave little ground. Wichita rode pitcher W.E. Ellis’s 13-game winning streak. Sioux City picked up outfielder Josh Clarke (the brother of Pittsburgh’s Fred) in mid-season, and watched him bat .323 the rest of the way. Omaha’s Marc Hall, building a 25-9 record, led the Rourkes’ pitching staff. St. Joseph’s Borton led the league in batting average, hitting .400 for a while and finishing at .364, while Zwilling provided power (including a three-homer game versus Sioux City on Sunday, June 30th). The front-page of the July 18th Sporting News carried the headline “IT’S ANYBODY’S FLAG” and proclaimed the Western League race “one of the best races in the country.”15 The top five teams, St. Joseph, Omaha, Sioux City, Denver, and Wichita, were separated by only five games.

Two weeks later, Ellis’s magic was gone and the rest of the Wichita club could not pick up the slack.16 Des Moines replaced Wichita in the cluster near the top, though, and it was still a five-team race as August began.

Western League officials were elated. At a meeting of minor-league presidents that summer, Norris O’Neill was the only one to report his league’s attendance was up.17 “A mixture of bad weather and politics served to cut down the attendance all over the country,” The Sporting News reported, “and the Western League has probably suffered less than any other from both causes.18 Of course, the close race kept the turnstiles spinning, too.

In late July and early August, Denver reeled off a 13-game win streak of its own. Kinsella and Schreiber pitched like machines. Leonard, over his sulk, struck out 17 batters in an August 5th two-hitter.19 Even Denver outfielder Lester Channell’s broken ankle didn’t slow them down. Grover Gilmore stepped in. The streak put Denver back in first.

Pundits gave Denver the edge down the stretch, noting that the balance of schedule had Denver playing mostly at home.20 They also took new notice of Jack Hendricks, after the manager’s mid-season shakeup began to pay off. “Toss him in any league, with any material,” wrote one correspondent, “and up he comes from the ruck in speedy time. They are ‘dippy’ about him in Denver and pay him a lot of money to sojourn—otherwise he might be winning battles in big league company.”21

Injuries hampered Des Moines, and Sioux City faded. Omaha moved into second place. St. Joseph lost Babe Borton and pitcher George “Chief” Johnson to the White Sox in September, but moved Zwilling to first base and kept close behind.

Denver clinched the pennant on Friday, September 27th, with two days left in the season, when St. Joseph defeated Omaha. The Drummers then swept Omaha in a doubleheader on the last day of the season to snatch second place from the Rourkes.

The league season was over, but Denver had one more challenge. The American Association champion Minneapolis Millers came to Denver for a best-of-seven series on October 5th. The Grizzlies surprised the heavily-favored Millers four games to one, largely behind the workhorse pitching of Barney Schreiber and Dutch Leonard. Minneapolis ballplayers had the financial edge, though. Denver hosted the whole series, and club management had struck a deal with the players to split the proceeds. They also split the expenses, and after the bills were paid Denver players found their share for the five-game series amounted to only $131.55 per player. The visiting Millers, who didn’t have to share expenses, took home about $300 apiece.22

Harry Cassidy, who scored the game-winning run in the final Millers game, suffered less than his teammates. When he completed his sixth straight season without missing a game, Denver fans took up a collection to give him an automobile.23

The close race gave other Western League teams hope for 1913. Denver lost four stars, including Leonard, to major league clubs, and observers thought a dark horse could win the race. It wasn’t close. Hendricks rebuilt the team and Denver won the 1913 flag by ten games over Des Moines.

After the 1913 season, James McGill purchased the Indianapolis American Association ball club, and then he moved Hendricks to Indianapolis to manage the Indians.24 Otto Floto, the Denver Post sports editor, bet American Association president George Tebeau that Hendricks would win a pennant within three years in that league. “I never saw a manager like this guy,” said Floto, “but he must get out of Denver. He has ruined the Western League.”25

Floto lost his bet, but only by one year; Indianapolis won the American Association pennant in 1917.26 The following season, Hendricks found himself in “big league company” at last, managing the St. Louis Cardinals.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thanks to Rex Hamann, Dan O’Brien, Marc Okkonen, and Dick Thompson for their assistance.

 

NOTES

  1. Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, , The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Baseball America, Inc. (Durham, North Carolina, 1993): 104,107.
  2. The Sporting News, January 18, 1912: 1.
  3. Christian, Ralph, “Never on Sunday: The Controversy over Sunday Baseball in Des Moines, Iowa, 1887-1912,” presentation at SABR 31, Milwaukee, July 12, 2001.
  4. The Sporting News, January 25, 1912: 4.
  5. The Sporting News, February 1, 1912: 3, 4.
  6. The Sporting News, February 22, 1912: 1.
  7. The Sporting News, February 1, 1912: 1.
  8. The Sporting News, February 29, 1912: 5.
  9. The Sporting Life, March 9, 1912: 13.
  10. The Sporting News, May 5, 1912.
  11. The Sporting News, May 30, 1912.
  12. Olmstead signed with the pennant-winning Oakland club of the Pacific Coast League, appearing in 10 games and winning two (Richter, Francis , ed. The Reach 1913 Base Ball Guide. A.J. Reach Company (Philadelphia, Penn., 1913): 263.) The year 1913 appears to have been his last season in professional baseball.
  13. The Sporting News, August 22, 1912.
  14. The Sporting News, June 27, 1912: 1.
  15. The Sporting News, July 18, 1912: 1.
  16. The Sporting News, August 1, 1912.
  17. The Sporting News, July 25, 1912.
  18. The Sporting News, October 3, 1912.
  19. The Sporting News, October 3, 1912.
  20. The Sporting News, August 8, 1912.
  21. The Sporting News, August 15, 1912.
  22. The Sporting News, October 24, 1912: 6.
  23. The Sporting News, September 26, 1912.
  24. David Reddick and Kim M. Rogers, The Magic of Indians’ Baseball: 1887-1997 (Indianapolis, Indiana: Indianapolis Indians Baseball Club, 1988): 23.
  25. The Sporting News, October 23, 1913: 4.
  26. <indyindians.com/archives/year_by_year.html>

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