The Missions: San Francisco’s Other Team

This article was written by Dick Beverage

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


This article was originally published in “Northern California Baseball History,” the 1998 SABR convention journal.

 

In recent years there has been a degree of uncertainty about the Bay Area’s ability to support two major league teams. That was not the case in 1925, when the question was: could the Bay Area support three teams? San Francisco and Oakland had franchises in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), that minor league of near major league quality, but that was not enough for the City. The politicos of the era needed and demanded continuous baseball, just like the great rival to the south, Los Angeles, had enjoyed since 1909. Southern California had two ball clubs in the Coast League, the Los Angeles Angels and the Vernon Tigers. The teams shared facilities, and one was always at home. But in November 1925 owner Eddie Maier of the Vernon club put his franchise up for sale.

The Salt Lake City team was moving to Los Angeles, and Maier did not have the resources to compete with two teams. In January 1926 he sold the Tigers to Stanley Dollar, a San Francisco shipping magnate who wanted to establish a second team in the City, and William McCarthy, the former president of the PCL who would be the president of the new club, for approximately $250,000. The new owners received approval from the league to move the franchise, which was given the formal-sounding name of The Mission Club of San Francisco.

Almost immediately, there were problems for the new organization. The Oakland club had demanded an indemnity of $140,000 to permit the Mission club to encroach upon its territory, an amount that Dollar and McCarthy considered outrageous. But finally, William Wrigley of Los Angeles and Bill Lane of the new Hollywood club agreed to pay half of the money with the rest of the PCL clubs sharing the balance. Shortly after that issue had been resolved, a controversy developed over the team’s nickname. McCarthy announced that the club would be called the Mission Bears and would wear blue and gold trimmed uniforms with a bear emblem on the front. Unfortunately, the University of California, across the bay in Berkeley, had long identified its athletic teams as the Golden Bears with identical colors, and it considered the logo as its property. The University announced plans to file a lawsuit to force the Mission club to abandon its use of the bear. The problem simmered all during that first season until McCarthy finally agreed to pay a small settlement and coin a new name for the club in 1927, the Mission Bells.

Although Vernon had finished in the cellar in 1925, the new team was much improved with the addition of several new players, and the Mission club finished in third place in 1926. The most important acquisitions were pitcher Bert Cole, a native of San Francisco, and outfielder Ike Boone. Cole came down from Detroit and posted a 29-12 mark, the best record ever by a Mission pitcher, while Boone became a fan favorite with his .380 average and 32 home runs. The club was strong up the middle with second baseman Mickey Finn, shortstop Gordon Slade, and center fielder Evar Swanson, all youngsters who would be with the club for the rest of the decade.

The Bears might have improved on that record were it not for managerial problems. Maier had selected Walter McCredie as his new manager for 1926, but that proved to be a bad decision. The Judge, who had a long history with the Portland club, was in declining health and was forced to give up the post by the middle of May. The decision was sudden, and while McCarthy decided who would replace him, coach Butch Schmidt ran the Bears. On August 13, Wild Bill Leard, a veteran Coast Leaguer who had been out of baseball for the previous two years, took over for the balance of the season. Although he had great difficulty in abiding by his own training rules and had little or no respect from his team, Leard was hired again for the 1927 season in what was one of McCarthy’s worst decisions.

The Mission Bells fell to seventh place in 1927, as the club once again had three managers. Leard was fired after the season was two weeks old; McCarthy let him go after he missed a game in Seattle and showed up so drunk the next day that his players locked him in the clubhouse. Catcher Roxy Walters served as temporary boss until the end of the month, when Harry Hooper was given a two-year contract as playing manager. The only member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to ever grace a Mission roster, Hooper was a local product, having attended St. Mary’s College before beginning his major league career with the Red Sox. He had been out of baseball for a year before assuming the Mission job, and it was hoped that his presence would help attendance. The club was in third place when Hooper took over, but it missed the big bat of Ike Boone, who had been drafted by the White Sox, and had no pitcher comparable to Cole, who was also in the major leagues.

At the end of the season McCarthy ousted Hooper even though his contract had another year to go. The new manager was Wade “Red” Killefer, who had already won PCL pennants at Los Angeles and Seattle, but had lost his job when the Seattle club changed ownership. It was under his leadership that the Missions enjoyed their greatest success. The 1928 team was improved to the point where it could challenge for the pennant. The PCL offered a split season that year, and the Bells finished in fourth place overall, winning more than half their games. They batted .301 as a team and featured an outfield with five men hitting over .340—Fuzzy Hufft, .379; Evar Swanson, .346; Ping Bodie, .352, were the regulars, and part-timer Wes Griffin hit .343. In July the Reds brought back Ike Boone in a trade with Portland, and he gave an inkling of what was ahead by hitting .407 in 72 Mission games.

The left-hand-hitting Hufft was acquired from Killefer’s old Seattle team in May. He was a natural for Recreation Park, where the Bells played. A western version of Philadelphia’s infamous Baker Bowl, Old Rec had a right field fence that was only 235 feet from home plate with a chicken wire screen some 50 feet high. In order to be successful there, a hitter had to have an uppercut swing to clear that short fence, and this Hufft had. He remained with the Bells until June 1931, hitting .367 during that span with 107 home runs, most of which were hit at home. But he was an atrocious outfielder with a weak throwing arm, and that deficiency kept him from advancing to the major leagues. At one point in 1929 the exasperated Killefer benched Hufft for several games after an especially costly error, even though he was hitting .365 at the time!

Mission pitching had improved with veteran Herm Pillette and Carl Holling pitching consistently well with ERAs below 3.00. The big name on this staff was Ernie Nevers, an All-American football player at Stanford who later played professional football with such skill that he is a member of that sport’s Hall of Fame. Nevers came down from the St. Louis Browns and posted a good record of 14-11, despite an ERA of 4.37. After falling to 7-8 in 1929, Nevers retired from baseball to devote his full effort to his football career. Late in the season the Bells picked up Clyde Nance, a young right-handed pitcher from Seattle who posted a brilliant 7-1 mark over the last five weeks of the season, including two shutouts and eight consecutive complete games. Only 22, Nance seemed destined for a great career, but his life ended abruptly on March 31, 1929, when he was killed in an automobile accident while returning to San Francisco from his home in Fowler, California.

At the end of the season, the Mission club was sold to a group of Los Angeles investors, who promptly fired McCarthy and appointed Killefer as the president of the club. This gave Red a great deal of latitude in acquiring players, and he was very active during the winter of 1928-29. He purchased third baseman Eddie Mulligan from Dallas, outfielder Pete Scott from Pittsburgh, and first baseman Jack Sheriock from Detroit, and sent incumbent first baseman Chili McDaniel to Seattle for the battery of Bert Cole and Fred Hofmann. Later he signed pitcher Dutch Ruether, who had been released by the Seals, and traded center fielder Evar Swanson to Cincinnati for Walter “Cuckoo” Christensen, another center fielder, who had a bit of a zany streak in him but was an extremely skilled outfielder. Among his many foibles was a tendency to turn cartwheels in the outfield after making a good catch. On one occasion with two runners on base in the ninth inning and the Missions ahead by a run with two out, a routine fly ball was hit in Christensen’s direction. The center fielder decided to celebrate the apparent victory with a cartwheel before he caught the ball. Unfortunately, the ball went over his head, the runners scored and the Missions lost, and Killefer had to be restrained from attacking Cuckoo.

The club had a new nickname for 1929—the Reds—after Killefer. Whatever name they were called, the Missions became strong favorites to win the pennant after these moves. After a slow start, they took over the lead on April 25 following a nine-game winning streak and were eight games ahead by Memorial Day. The club was batting .330 and had as awesome a group of hitters as the PCL had seen in years. Although there had been no plans for a split season in 1929, the club owners were fearful of a runaway that would kill attendance and agreed to end the first half on June 30, leaving the Reds as winners.

The second half saw the Hollywood Sheiks come to the fore, and it was a dogfight. The two teams battled to the very last day, and the Missions blew a chance to win the pennant outright by losing a doubleheader to the last-place Seattle Indians to finish one game behind the Sheiks. That meant the two teams would play a seven-game series to decide the PCL championship, and once again the Reds were strong favorites. But after winning the first two games, the Reds lost the next four, including three straight at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Neither Ike Boone nor Fuzzy Hufft hit a home run in this series, an important factor in the demise of the Reds. It was as close as the Mission club would ever come to a PCL pennant.

The Reds of 1929 were one of the great clubs in PCL history. They batted .319 and scored over six runs a game. Ike Boone had one of the most memorable seasons in minor-league history, hitting .407 with 55 home runs and 218 RBI. Needless to say, he led the league in all three categories. Hufft was almost as potent, hitting .379 and contributing 39 homers to go along with 187 RBI. Jack Sherlock was the third member of this team to surpass 150 RBI with 156. Only third baseman Eddie Mulligan among the regulars failed to hit .300. The defense was outstanding; shortstop Gordon Slade and catcher Fred Hofmann were considered the best in the league at their respective positions. That contributed greatly to the much improved pitching staff. Bert Cole and Herm Pillette led the way with records of 24-12 and 23-13, respectively In a season when the average number of runs scored per game was in excess of 4.50, these aces boasted marks of 3.45 and 3.59. Mert Nelson, a youngster, came of age with a 17-10 record, and Dutch Ruether contributed 14 wins. The loss of Clyde Nance undoubtedly cost this club the pennant.

Everything was downhill for the Reds after 1929. The season was no sooner over than the stock market crashed, portending the onset of the Great Depression that would haunt this club for the balance of its existence. While still a potent offensive force, the 1930 club was weakened after Finn and Slade were sold to Brooklyn as a package for $50,000, funds the Reds would badly need. The loss of these two, together with the decline of Bert Cole, weakened after a bout with pneumonia, brought the Reds down to second division level. They finished in sixth place during the first half of yet another split season and then slid all the way to the bottom of the league by September.

Ike Boone began the 1930 season determined to outdo his performance of 1929. By June 1 it appeared that he would succeed. He was hitting .467 at that point and dropped off only slightly from that mark during the next three weeks. But the Missions needed money; on July 1 Boone was sold to Brooklyn for $40,000. He was hitting .448 with 96 RBI along with 22 home runs. Had he stayed the entire year he might have broken several Coast League hitting records. The Reds were not the same after that, and attendance fell precipitously. They had drawn a very satisfactory 275,996 in 1929; 1930 crowds were half that number, and the Reds would never again draw over 200,000.

Having lost their star players, the Reds were about to lose their manager as well. At the winter meetings in December, 1930 Red Killefer took ill and was rushed to a hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan, his hometown, where he was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent treatment, improving to the point where he felt able to participate in spring training, but he suffered an early relapse and was forced to leave the team in the middle of March. This left a tremendous void in the management of the club, both on the field and off, with the impending economic crisis of the Depression just ahead. Joe Beanvald was elected president and first baseman George Burns, a veteran of 16 major league seasons, became the manager. He did a creditable job through the first half of yet another split season in the PCL, but when Bearwald hired Joe Devine as a coach and scout for the Reds, the situation became uncomfortable for Burns, who thought Devine was after his job. He asked for and received his release at the end of June, and the new manager was Devine, of all people. Devine did not distinguish himself at the helm, as the club began the second half in last place and stayed there.

In the past the Missions had boasted a slugging team that usually ranked at or near the top of the PCL in most offensive categories, but that situation changed abruptly in 1931, when the club moved to the new Seals Stadium. If Old Rec park resembled a closet, Seals Stadium was more like an airport. The distances were 365 feet down the left field line, 404 to dead center and 385 feet to right field with power alleys as deep as 424 in right-center field, and the fences were 20 feet high all around. The days of the Mission power hitters were no more. In 1930 the Reds hit 98 home runs in Old Rec; in 1931 they hit 11 while playing in Seals Stadium, and several of those were of the inside the park variety.

Although Mission attendance climbed to 162,914 in 1931, partly because of the novelty of the new park and night baseball, which was played in San Francisco for the first time that year, the increased revenue was offset by the much higher rent for Seals Stadium, and the Missions had to regroup. No longer would they be able to acquire veteran players who were relatively expensive. They would have to rely on inexperienced youngsters, mostly from the sandlots of the Bay Area, who were much cheaper. This wasn’t a totally negative development, for Devine was a good judge of talent, and during his time with the Reds he signed Dick Gyselman, Babe Dahlgren, Bud Hafey, Johnny Babich, Joe Coscarart and Bill Brenzel, all of whom were eventually sold to major league teams at considerable profit. That cash flow sustained the franchise during the severe economic conditions of the next three years when attendance fell drastically.

In one of Killefer’s last moves he purchased outfielder Oscar “Ox” Eckhardt from the Detroit organization, and he was the heart of the Mission offense during the next four years. Eckhardt was a minor league hitting star who never was able to make the grade in the major leagues, appearing in only 24 games with Brooklyn and Boston in the National League in a professional career of 12 years.

Eckhardt had been a football star at the University of Texas and had a powerful physique at 6’1” and 200 pounds, but he was not a power hitter, A left-handed hitter with a pronounced closed stance, Eckhardt rarely pulled the ball, slicing the ball to left field most of the time. Opponents generally shifted the outfielders in that direction, and it was not unusual for the right fielder to catch one of his fly balls in left center field. Eckhardt had great speed, frequently beating out ground balls to the infield for base hits, and he was always in double figures in triples. In 1931 Eckhardt hit .369, winning the first of three straight PCL batting championships, and led the Reds with 117 RBI. He repeated in 1932, hitting .371, and then had the best season of his career in 1933 when he hit .414 with 143 RBI. His hitting was about all that Mission fans had to cheer about in those years; the club finished last in 1932 and seventh in 1933.

Gabby Street, the former manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, took over the manager’s post in 1934, and the Missions had their best team since they moved to Seals Stadium. Unfortunately, that was the year that Los Angeles won 137 games to completely dominate the league, and the Missions were a distant second. This club was very entertaining with a fine defense and an outfield in Eckhardt, Bud Hafey and Lou Almada, each of whom hit better than .320. Babe Dahlgren was the best first baseman in the league, and Almada covered center field in spacious Seals Stadium like a blanket.

The pitching staff was led by Clarence Mitchell, a spitballer who won 19 games at the age of 43, Johnny Babich, Dutch Lieber, and Holhs Thurston. Babich was 10-3 when he was sold to Brooklyn in July, and Lieber had his best year since joining the club in 1930 with a 19-13 record. But the Depression was probably at its worst in San Francisco that year with a Teamsters strike virtually shutting down the City for two weeks in July, and only 90,719 fans showed up at Seals Stadium to watch the team. Street remained in charge in 1935, when the PCL elected to split its season once again.

The Missions were strapped for cash and listed only 14 players on its reserve list when spring training opened. Three-fourths of the opening infield were Bay Area products: first baseman Roy Mort, second baseman Al Wright, and third baseman Eddie Joost. They, along with shortstop Clyde Beck, had to play every day, for there was no money for replacements. Eckhardt, Almada, and Fred Berger, the younger brother of National League slugger Wally Berger, were also iron men in the outfield. Berger hit 23 home runs as a Mission after coming over from Seattle in April, the highest total ever posted after the Reds moved over from Recreation Park.

The club started poorly, suffering a 13-game losing streak in May, and finished last during the first half, but then made an abrupt change for the better for the second half and were legitimate pennant contenders. They reached first place on August 25 after splitting a doubleheader at Portland, but the pitching staff led by Walter “Boom-Boom” Beck and Wayne Osborne, was overworked and the club was unable to sustain the championship pace, finishing in second place, three games behind the Seals.

1935 was the year that Ox Eckhardt and Joe DiMaggio waged a terrific battle for the league batting championship, and fan attention was focused on that event almost as much as the pennant race. Eckhardt had a torrid first half and was hitting 422 on June 1, but DiMaggio soon caught him and the two were only points apart through most of August and September. On the final day DiMaggio hit a fly ball that Seattle center fielder Bill Lawrence should have caught, but it fell for a double while Lawrence was clowning around. DiMaggio immediately motioned to the official scorer that it should be an error; later he said that he didn’t want to win the title on a play like that. Eckhardt finished at .399, one point better than the soon-to-be Yankee Clipper.

Street had a contract to manage the Missions in 1936, but at the winter meetings he renounced it, threatening retirement unless he could get a job near his home in Missouri. The Reds had little choice at that point and released him; after a month went by they signed Willie Kamm for the next two seasons. This was a popular choice, for Kamm was a local product who had starred for the Seals before advancing to the Chicago White Sox in 1923. Kamm had more talent to work with—the Sacramento club was in extreme distress and was forced to sell off its players at bargain prices. The Reds added outfielders Max West, a fine young prospect, and Harry Rosenberg, another Bay Area product. Rosenberg hit .334 with 99 RBI to lead the Reds as they won half their games to finish in a fifth-place tie with Los Angeles. The club had no power, hitting just 24 home runs, only two of them at Seals Stadium.

The Hollywood club had moved to San Diego for the 1936 season, and late in the year the first rumors that the Missions might replace the Sheiks in Los Angeles began to appear. Although attendance in Seals Stadium improved to 113,394 in 1936, that was not enough to sustain a viable PCL franchise. In addition Herbert Fleishhacker, the principal owner of the Reds, had suffered greatly during the Depression, and was unable to provide any finances for the club.

Secret negotiations began in earnest at the winter meetings of 1936, and it soon became known that the Missions were for sale. The rumors had an impact on the playing field. The Reds played poorly from the beginning of 1937 and were in last place after the first week of the season. In spite of good offensive performances by Rosenberg, West and catcher Chick Outen, they were unable to mount any consistent winning pattern. From July to the rest of the season, the Reds were merely playing out the string. They finished the season buried in the cellar behind seventh-place Oakland. The Reds ended the season at home when Joe Bearwald announced that the club was moving to Los Angeles. It had been sold to a group of Los Angeles businessmen headed by George Young and Don Francisco and would play in Wrigley Field in 1938.

The Mission club was jinxed almost from the beginning, and in retrospect it was not a good business decision to move a third baseball team into the Bay Area. The onset of the Depression and the move to Seals Stadium doomed the franchise; perhaps it could have survived had it remained in Recreation Park. But that is speculative, to say the least. A number of great players wore the Mission uniform in the 12 years in San Francisco. This lineup might have won that elusive pennant which could have kept the club in the City.

Pos Player Season Stats    
1B George Burns 1930 .349 22 HR 131 RBI
2B Mickey Finn 1929 .347 5 HR 64 RBI
SS Gordon Slade 1929 .302 16 HR 115 RBI
3B Bucky Walters 1933 .376 16 HR 91 RBI
LF Ox Eckhardt 1933 .414 12 HR 143 RBI
CF Evar Swanson 1928 .346 4 HR 58 RBI
RF Ike Boone 1929 .407 55 HR 218 RBI
CF Chick Outen 1935 .367 7 HR 62 RBI
P Bert Cole 1926 29-12 2.63 ERA  
P Herm Pillette 1929 23-13 3.59 ERA  
P Dutch Lieber 1934 19-13 2.50 ERA  
P Johnny Babich 1933 20-15 3.62 ERA  

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