This article was written by Joel Rippel
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the North Star State (Minnesota, 2012)
It took some time for professional baseball to take hold in Minneapolis. Ultimately, a feisty first baseman with the unintimidating nickname of “Peach Pie Perry” made a record-setting contribution to get professional baseball over the hump in Minneapolis.
Organized professional baseball first arrived in Minnesota in 1877 when Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Winona sported entries in the League Alliance. Minneapolis fielded an independent professional team in 1878, but the city’s next venture into professional baseball was not until 1884 with an entry in the Northwestern League. For the next 10 years, a baseball fan in Minneapolis needed patience. After just one season, there was no professional baseball in Minnesota in 1885. The Northwestern League returned to Minnesota in 1886 and 1887. In 1888, the Northwestern League was reorganized as the Western Association. The Minneapolis Millers didn’t finish the season, playing their last game on August 18. The franchise was sold and finished the season in Davenport, Iowa.
Minneapolis returned with an entry in the Western Association in 1889. After two uneventful seasons in 1889 and 1890, the Minneapolis team folded on August 20, 1891. In 1892, the league was renamed the Western League, but again the Millers failed to complete the season, disbanding on July 15. The Millers, however, at least outlasted the St. Paul entry, which moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana on May 25 before dissolving on July 7.
Neither Minneapolis nor St. Paul fielded a team in the Western League in 1893, which, reduced to only four teams, disbanded on June 30. Despite the worsening economic depression—caused by a financial crisis that began in February 1893—a new Western League and another team in Minneapolis was organized for 1894. For the first time since 1889, the league’s season was successfully completed without any franchise movement or interruption. Ban Johnson, a former Cincinnati sportswriter and the league’s new president, stabilized the league, while Perry Werden (known as “Peach Pie Perry” as a youth but also called “Moose”), would help solidify baseball in Minneapolis. Werden, who made his professional debut at the age of 22 in 1884 as a pitcher for St. Louis of the Union Association, had spent 1893 with St. Louis in the National League. Although he hit only .276 with one home run, Werden’s league-leading 29 triples indicated he could hit with power.
In Minneapolis Werden played his home games at compact Athletic Park, an enclosed sports ground on land just a block from where Target Field is now. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound, right-handed hitting Werden took advantage of his tiny ballpark, barely 250 feet down the lines, to hit .417 and slug a professional baseball record 43 home runs (37 at home) as the Millers finished the 1894 season fourth with a 63–62 record.1 The Sioux City Cornhuskers won the league title, and following the season, Charles Comiskey purchased the future Chicago White Sox franchise and relocated it to St. Paul.
On January 16, 1895, the Minneapolis Tribune reported that team management “claims to have signed Perry Werden, the great first baseman, who was the star favorite of the Minneapolis team last year.” But the newspaper cautioned that the league reportedly had adopted a salary cap, “prohibiting any club from paying any one man over $200 per month for his services,” and then noted, “if this is true it is hard to see how Werden could have been secured, as it was understood that the big man received more than that last year.”
Two months later, on March 16, the Minneapolis Tribune reported, “[team official] Jack Bennett, who attended the league meeting in Milwaukee told the Tribune, ‘Perry Werden will be with us this year and has probably been signed at about $175 per month. This is not a large salary and he is well worth it if he can control his temper and keep out of trouble.’”
The Sporting News, in its March 16 edition, raised the issue of doctored baseballs; At the board of director meetings in Milwaukee, the [Western League] directors also acted upon the charge of ‘ringing’ in softballs by the management of the Minneapolis club at Minneapolis last season. It was voted that every ball used by the Minneapolis club must bear the stamp of the president of the league otherwise the Minneapolis club would be liable to forfeiture of the game.
The Millers tuned up for the 1895 season with seven exhibition games. They opened with a 32–4 victory over the University of Minnesota before playing four games against the newly-formed Page Fence Giants. The Giants, a black professional team named for the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan, were led by player-manager Bud Fowler. Fowler, the earliest documented African American to play in Organized Baseball, had played for Stillwater (Minnesota) of the Northwestern League in 1884.
Led by Werden, the Millers swept the four games from the Giants, outscoring them, 77–15. Werden was 12-for-21 with three doubles and four home runs. In other relevant preseason action, the Millers and their cross-town rivals, the St. Paul Apostles, owned by Charles Comiskey, split two exhibition games before the eight-team league, which included Detroit, Grand Rapids (Michigan), Indianapolis, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Toledo) opened its season on May 1.
When the bell rang, the Millers and Werden came out swinging. The Millers opened their season in Milwaukee, winning 4–3 before 6,000 fans in Milwaukee’s new ballpark. The Millers went on to sweep the three-game series from the Brewers as Werden went 8-for-13, including his first home run of the season on May 3 in the series finale. The club moved on to Kansas City, where the first game of the series was rained out. The Millers won the next two games, 12–8 and 14–1, as Werden went 5-for-9 and hit a home run in each game.
The Millers returned to Minneapolis for their home opener on May 8. Werden hit another home run as the Millers outslugged Kansas City, 18–10, before a crowd of 4,000 on an unseasonably warm spring day that reached 85 degrees.
On May 9, the Millers suffered their first loss of the season, 11-5 to Milwaukee. After a rainout, the Millers scored seven runs in the ninth inning to rally for a 21–19 victory over Milwaukee. Werden led the attack by going 5-for-7 with two home runs. Werden went 3-for-4 with a home run the next day as the Millers defeated Kansas City, 10–5, at Minnehaha Driving Park, their “Sunday” home. Werden followed this up with a 3-for-3 day in a 13–12 loss to Milwaukee, just the Millers’ second loss in 10 games. After 10 games, Werden was hitting .553 (26-for-47).
Up next was the first meeting of the season between the Millers and Apostles. The Minneapolis Tribune wrote that the “fur would fly” between the two teams but the first two games of the series were rained out before the Millers won in Minneapolis, 8–5, on May 16. The Millers went on to take two of the next three from the Apostles.
But it would not last. On May 21, the first-place Millers (11–3) embarked on a road trip which would see them slump, losing eight of 11 games. As they fell down the standings, the team’s and their fans frustration with the league’s umpiring grew. On June 5, the Millers outslugged Toledo, 18–15, even though Werden was ejected early in the game, because, the Minneapolis Tribune reported, he “worked his mouth too hard for the umpire.” On June 16, the team announced that “ample police protection” would be provided to “ensure order at the game” because stones and verbal abuse heaped on the umpire “would no longer be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, Millers hitters continued to abuse opposing pitchers. Three days later, the Millers scored 11 runs in the third inning (to rally from a 9–2 deficit) but, despite two home runs and a 4-for-5 day from Werden, the squad couldn’t hold on in a 21–20 loss to Kansas City. The Minneapolis Tribune reported, “Umpire Sheridan gave Minneapolis just about the worst deal it has received on balls and strikes and on one hit by third which was foul by two feet.”
After an off day on June 20, the Millers opened a series in Milwaukee and resumed their feud with Sheridan. Milwaukee won the game, 8–6, but Werden again provided the fireworks. The Minneapolis Tribune said Sheridan warned Werden and the Millers before the game that he “wouldn’t tolerate their overbearing methods.” Werden ignored the warning and immediately voiced his displeasure. Sheridan fined him five dollars for his pre-game outburst, which only served to make Werden angrier. As the game progressed, Werden continued to voice his opinions with the umpire. In the fifth inning, Sheridan fined Werden $50 and ejected him, requiring two police officers to escort him off the field. In the game’s overall chaos, Sheridan had also fined two other Millers and one Milwaukee player.
The Brewers went on to win the next two days to sweep the three-game series and drop the slumping Millers into seventh place. Minneapolis, which had opened the season 8–1, was now only 21–23. Things didn’t improve in Kansas City where the Millers dropped two of three. As the season deteriorated, frustration with the league’s umpiring spilled beyond the players, and team secretary-president Tom Murphy was suspended indefinitely for throwing stones at an umpire.
On June 29 at Athletic Park, the Millers and Apostles opened a six-game series with one of the more memorable games of the season. Werden went 5-for-7 with three home runs, but the Apostles outlasted the Millers, 22–21. Werden homered twice during the Millers’ 11-run eighth inning. The next day, a crowd of 6,500 gathered at the Apostles’ “Sunday” ballpark in West St. Paul to see the Millers win 10–6, just their third victory in 11 games.
Werden finished 3-for-5 in each of the next two games but the Apostles won both, 9–5, and 14–11. The Millers won 22–12 on July 3 as Werden went 3-for-6, but the Apostles swept a holiday twinbill on July 4, winning 21–5 in the morning game at St. Paul’s Aurora Park (scoring 13 in the second inning) and 14–8 in the afternoon game in Minneapolis. Werden went hitless in the afternoon game—the last time for seven weeks that he would go without a hit.
Werden began his hitting streak on an 11-game road trip that saw the Millers slump continue. When they won 12–11 in Grand Rapids, the Minneapolis Tribune headline read, “Millers take one. They actually win a game of baseball.” The Millers lost four of their next five. A 15–2 loss in Detroit on July 11 prompted the Minneapolis Tribune to write, “Better come home. Millers have forgotten how to play baseball.” The front office remained in turmoil as well. When they returned to Minneapolis, the team was greeted by the news that the league had forced Murphy out as the team president.
On the field, the Millers were glad to be home. Werden went 3-for-5 with two home runs in a 20–5 victory over Detroit. The next day, he went 4-for-5 with a home run as the Millers outslugged Indianapolis, 16–12. On July 22, Werden continued his barrage, going 4-for-4 with two home runs in a 17–8 loss to Indianapolis. The next day, he slugged four home runs (with a single in a 5-for-5 performance) and drove in nine runs. On July 27, Werden hit a two-run home run in the Millers’ 19–7 victory over Grand Rapids—a victory that would start a nine-game winning streak. During the streak, the Millers scored 134 runs as Werden went 24-for-49.
Werden’s hitting streak finally came to an end after 40 games on August 20. Kansas City pitcher Charlie Hastings held Werden to 0-for-3 and limited the Millers to one hit (by Billy Hulen) in a 5–0 victory. During the streak, which started on July 6 and went unmentioned in newspaper reports, Werden batted .477 (94-for-197) with 18 home runs.
The Millers opened September with a 19–6 victory in Grand Rapids as Werden resumed his hot hitting, going 4-for-6 with two doubles and two home runs. On Saturday, September 14, the Millers and Apostles each played a game as part of a doubleheader at the State Fairgrounds in St. Paul. The Millers outslugged Terre Haute (where the Toledo club moved on June 30), 16–13, while the Apostles rallied from an 8–3 deficit for a 10–8 victory over Detroit. A crowd of at least 10,000 watched the two games played on a makeshift field the St. Paul Sunday Globe described as “a stretch of undulating prairie and precipitous bluff.” The newspaper added, “The outfielders played in a ravine, and no part of them below the neck was visible from the plate. The pitchers pitched up hill and the runners in making the circuit of bases ran down hill and then ran up again. The diamond was built on sand hills, and it was difficult to gauge a fly on account of the high wind, which blew a gale from the east.”
Unfortunately for the Twin Cities’ ball clubs, by this point the pennant race was effectively over. The St. Paul Sunday Globe noted on September 15 that, with one week remaining the season, Indianapolis had clinched the league title (Indianapolis was 77–40 while second-place St. Paul was 70–49). On a positive note, the paper added that the season had been a financial success with six of the eight teams in the black financially (only seventh-place Terre Haute and eighth-place Grand Rapids lost money).
The Millers and Werden continued to pound the ball as the season wound down. On September 17 Werden had one of the Millers’ five home runs in a 25–15 victory over Grand Rapids. The home run was his 44th of the season, breaking his record of 43 set the previous season. On September 19, Werden went 5-for-6 and hit his 45th home run of the season in a 20–10 victory over Grand Rapids. His 45 home runs would stand as the record in Organized Baseball until Babe Ruth hit 54 for the New York Yankees in 1920.
Werden, who hit safely in the Millers’ final 18 games of the season, also led the league in batting average at .428 and tied for the lead in hits with St. Paul’s Bill George at 241. Despite Werden’s heroics at the plate, the Millers finished in fourth place with a 64–59 record.
In 1896, the Millers and Werden were forced to find a new home. About a month into the season the Millers received notice that they were being evicted from Athletic Park, their home since 1889, because the landlord intended to redevelop the valuable downtown property. On Saturday, May 23, the Millers played their final game at Athletic Park, defeating Columbus (which had replaced Terre Haute), 15–7. The next day the Millers were rained out and then left on a road trip, not knowing where they would play when they returned to Minneapolis.
For their new home a site just south of downtown Minneapolis was chosen and a ballpark—eventually named Nicollet Park—was constructed in less than four weeks. On June 19, the Millers made their debut in their new home—a 13–6 victory over Milwaukee before 4,000 fans.
The Millers were a hit in their new ballpark. In August, the Millers won 30 of 31 games in one stretch, which included winning streaks of 11 and 19 games interrupted only by a loss to Kansas City. The hot Millers captured their first league title, finishing 89–47, nine games ahead of second-place Indianapolis.
Werden led the league in home runs for the third consecutive season, but his total of 18 (equaled by teammate William “Pop” Schriver) was a huge drop off from the previous season. In fact, Werden hit seven of his home runs in the 17 games at Athletic Park before the move.
In 1897 Werden was given another shot at the big leagues with Louisville in the National League. He turned in a pretty good year, hitting .301 with five home runs, but returned to Minneapolis for 1898. He missed the 1898 season because of a broken leg, but came back to bat .346 in 1899. Werden made his final professional appearance in 1908 with Indianapolis at the age of 43. In 24 seasons in professional baseball, he had 2,897 hits, 195 home runs and 500 recorded stolen bases (as then defined) (four times he stole more than 50). But the exclamation point on Perry Werden’s long and productive baseball career was his record-setting 1895 season in which he set a long-standing home run mark and hit in 40 consecutive games.
JOEL RIPPEL is the author of seven books on Minnesota sports history. Rippel, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and resides in Minneapolis.
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