The Rise of Baseball in Minnesota

This article was written by Cecil O. Monroe

This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the North Star State (Minnesota, 2012)

Excerpts from Cecil O. Monroe’s “The Rise of Baseball,” detailing the events between 1857 through 1870 that shaped baseball in Minnesota.

The Halsey Hall Chapter of SABR welcomes the opportunity to honor the work of pre-SABR baseball history pioneer Cecil O. Monroe by including the following excerpt in our SABR 42 convention publication. Cecil O. Monroe was born in 1901 in South Dakota. According to his son, Donald Monroe, Cecil was a longtime devotee of baseball history as well as a fan, both of the local Aberdeen Pheasants and of the American Association Minneapolis Millers and St. Paul Saints, taking his family to their games during summers spent pursuing postgraduate education at the University of Minnesota. During one (or more) of those summers he used the extensive collection of  Minnesota historic newspapers at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul to research “The Rise of Baseball in Minnesota,” which the Society published in the “Minnesota History Quarterly” in June, 1938. Cecil O. Monroe died in Yankton, South Dakota, in 1965. This article has been excerpted by Bob Tholkes.

Following the demobilization of the armies in 1865, there came a rapid and widespread development of baseball clubs. Minnesota pioneers, however, were familiar with the game even before the war. In August 1857, for example, the citizens of Nininger decided to organize a baseball club. The editor of the Nininger newspaper hoped the venture would stimulate the young men of neighboring towns to organize clubs so that “matches and return matches” could be played for “assembled thousands.”[fn]Emigrant Aid Journal of Minnesota, August 1, 15, September 12, 1857.[/fn]

In St. Paul, a baseball organization claimed the attention of newspapers as early as the summer of 1859. The club showed a lack of vigor in 1860, and late in the summer William Wilson “requested all members” to hold an organization meeting. The result was the formation of the Olympic club, which took part in a baseball game on September 11, 1860. During the next few years, events of more significance absorbed the attention and energy of citizens.[fn]Pioneer and Democrat (St. Paul), July 30, 1859, August 11, September 11,1860; St. Paul Press, March 31, 1864.[/fn]

In 1865 intercity baseball competition began. In the issue of May 17 the Saint Paul Press announced that the North Star club of St. Paul was scheduled to play a game with the Excelsior club of Fort Snelling. The game was played before a large crowd and the North Star club won by the overwhelming score of 38 to 14.[fn]St. Paul Press, May 13, 14, 19, 1865.[/fn]

The North Star boys challenged the sportsmen of Hastings to “match play.” The first game was played at Hastings on July 1. The Vermillion club of Hastings had been organized the “day preceding the match” and its members “had never played together before.” The Vermillion club played the second and final game of the match at St. Paul in September, the North Stars winning by a score of 49 to 16.[fn]St. Paul Press, July 2, September 21, 1865.[/fn]

In 1865 the North Star club showed consistent activity. Although it was inactive the next year, baseball prospered in St. Paul. On April 14, 1866, “all interested in forming a Base Ball Club”[fn]St. Paul Press, April 14, 1866.[/fn] were called upon to meet at the grounds of the North Star. By July 27 two clubs had been organized, the Olympic and the Saxon. The first game between the rival clubs was won by the Olympic nine by a score of 20 to 18. The rivalry between the two teams was especially keen because the Saxon club represented Lower Town and Olympic, Upper Town. The second game, a smashing victory for the Olympics, was played late in August. This team also won the final game on October 29 and became the city champions.[fn]St. Paul Press, July 27, August 22–23, August 28-29, October 30, 1866.[/fn]

In the fall of 1866 the Champion club of Winona was organized, and a club was reported in Red Wing.  At the end of 1866 baseball had a firm hold in St. Paul, a good beginning in Hastings, and a start in both Winona and Red Wing. The stage was set for the banner year of 1867.[fn]St. Paul Press, October 13, November 5, 1866; Goodhue County Republican (Red Wing), April 12, 1867; Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times 14:262 (June 23, 1866).[/fn]

During the first week of April, 1867, “old members” and all others interested were requested to meet in Munger’s Hall in St. Paul to reorganize the North Star club.[fn]St. Paul Press, April 6, 1867.[/fn] The first match game of the season was played with the Minneapolis club on May 27, and thirty-five members of the North Star club went to the neighboring city for the occasion. The results were most gratifying for the visitors, who won the game by a score of 56 to 26.[fn]St. Paul Press, May 27, 1867.[/fn] A second game with the Minneapolis nine was played in St. Paul, and the North Star club was again victorious by a score of 47 to 29.[fn]St. Paul Press, June 15, 1867.[/fn]

In less than a week after the second triumph over the Minneapolis nine, the North Star club challenged the Crescent club of Red Wing. For six innings the game was evenly contested, but the St. Paul boys batted hard in the closing innings to win by a score of 52 to 34.[fn]St. Paul Press, June 16, 23, 1867; Goodhue County Republican, June 21,28, 1867.[/fn]

The North Star club continued to arouse interest in the great game of baseball by going to Mankato in July. Since the Frontier club had been organized only a short time, it was no match for a nine “so well disciplined as the North Star,” whose members were hailed as the “Champions of the State.”[fn]St. Paul Press, July 12, 1867.[/fn] It is clear that much of the credit for the popularity of baseball in Minnesota in 1867 should go to the North Star club. For an amateur organization it was excellently directed. It held meetings regularly each month during the season, and issued many special calls. The first nine was selected from the membership, which totaled fifty-seven names. Regular practice and social games between the first and second nines gave the members a chance to prove their skill.

Many other Minnesota towns had baseball clubs in 1867. The Lake City Union Base Ball Club was organized on July 10. The Gopher State club (Rochester) played at Owatonna on July 29 and 30. A team from St. Peter was beaten by the Frontier club of Mankato before five hundred spectators.[fn]Lake City Leader, July 13, August 16, 1867; Goodhue County Republican,July 26, August 2, 1867; St. Paul Press, August 1, 16, 1867.[/fn]

Many other clubs organized in 1867 apparently did not participate in intercity matches. The St. Croix club was formed at Stillwater sometime during July. According to the Goodhue County Republican a club was organized at Cannon Falls. The Minnehaha club of Northfield and a club at Faribault were in the field and helped to organize the Minnesota State Association of Base Ball Players, as did clubs from Dundas and St. Cloud.[fn]Goodhue County Republican, August 2, 1867; St. Paul Press June 20,July 13, 30, August 22, 1867.[/fn] The formation of this association was the outstanding feature of Minnesota baseball history in 1867. The St. Paul Press of August 20 printed a call for a “Base Ball Players’ Convention.” All newspapers in Minnesota were urged to reprint this notice, which was signed by the presidents of the baseball clubs at St. Paul, Owatonna, Hastings, Minneapolis, Red Wing, Northfield, Winona, Faribault, and Mankato. The North Star club of St. Paul was the leading spirit in the movement to create a state organization.

The convention was held as scheduled. The committee on credentials seated delegates from the Gopher club of Owatonna, the Crescent club of Red Wing, the Faribault club, the Minnehaha club of Northfield, the Adriatic club of Dundas, the North Star and Saxon clubs of St. Paul, the Arctic club of St. Cloud, the National club of Lake City, and the Minneapolis and High School clubs of Minneapolis. The convention ignored the delegates and active ballplayers in electing as president General Henry H. Sibley, who was famed not only as a soldier and statesman, but also as a sportsman. The convention undertook to select a location for the first state tournament, for which Minneapolis, Faribault, and St. Paul were bidding. A committee of five, with General Sibley as chairman, was appointed to conduct the tournament after St. Paul was chosen.[fn]St. Paul Press, September 5, 1867. The constitution and by-laws of the association were also published in this issue.[/fn]

Only five clubs entered the tournament—a cause for bitter disappointment. They were the Arctic club of St. Cloud, the Vermillion club of Hastings, the North Star and Saxon clubs of St. Paul, and the St. Croix club of Stillwater.[fn]St. Paul Press, September 24, 1867.[/fn] For the first-class championship, the North Stars played the Vermillions after the latter had disposed of St. Cloud by a score of 100 to 44. The final game attracted a large crowd, including so many boys that it seemed as if “all the schools in the city had made a special holiday.” The umpire was H. S. Seymour of the Niagara club of Buffalo, New York. The summary of the game in the St. Paul Press indicates an interesting contest.[fn]St. Paul Press, September 28, 1867.[/fn]

The championship prize, a silver ball, was, of course, presented to the captain of the North Star team, W. Wilson.

Regulations for future match play for the championship trophy, published in the St. Paul Press of October 8, 1867, defined the manner of challenging and of paying fees and expenses. To obtain the silver ball a team must win two out of three games, all players on the competing nines must have been members of the club in good standing for thirty days prior to the match, and the Base Ball Players’ Book of Reference published in 1867 by J. C. Haney and company was made the basis for settling disputes not covered by rules of the state association.  The mere creation of rules, however, did not smooth all the bumps in the path of championship play; in fact, they seemed to make new difficulties. Bickering, accusations of unfairness, and sometimes disputes so bitter as to interrupt a game, now arose.

Following victories over teams from Faribault, Hastings, and Hudson, Wisconsin, in the spring of 1868, the Minnehaha club of Northfield challenged the North Star club to defend its title. A controversy over the thirty-day eligibility clause threatened to wreck the match. When the teams arrived on the playing field on July 17, the North Star club was planning to use a certain William Miller of Stillwater as pitcher. The St. Paul boys admitted that Miller had pitched for the St. Croix team, but insisted that he “was now coming to St. Paul to live,” and therefore should be allowed to play. Another quarrel arose when the game was stopped by rain in the eighth inning, with the score 78 to 38 in favor of the Minnehaha nine. After considerable argument, the North Stars finally conceded the game to the Minnehaha nine, but pointed out the legality of the St. Paul claims by several references to Haney’s rules. On August 14 the Minnehaha team claimed the championship trophy by defeating the North Stars 40 to 38.[fn]Northfield Recorder, July 24, August 21, 1868; St. Paul Press, July 18, August 16, 1868; St. Paul Pioneer, July 18, 21, 1868.[/fn]

The Northfield team was given only a month in which to enjoy its victory over its St. Paul rivals before it was challenged by the St. Croix club of Stillwater. The first game was played on September 23 at Northfield. Possibly the absence of three regular players had something to do with the defeat of the Northfield team, for it won a second game at Stillwater by a score of 58 to 47. The decisive game of the series was played at Hastings, where Captain Olin of the North Stars and Hersey of the Lake City club were umpires. This game produced the best baseball played in Minnesota prior to 1869, with proof that pitching is essential to a successful team. If the score is acceptable evidence, both pitchers were good. Miller of the St. Croix did especially fine work, but the Minnehaha pitcher lost his effectiveness in the eighth inning. Up to that time each team had made only eight runs, but the St. Croix nine made seven runs in the eighth and two in the ninth innings, and the Minnehahas were able to score five times. In fact, all the playing was especially good for players of limited experience.[fn]Northfield Recorder, September 11, 1868; Northfield Enterprise, September 25, October 16, 30, 1868; St. Paul Press, September 23, 24,October 10, 1868; Stillwater Republican, October 27, 1868.[/fn]

The St. Croix club held the title and had possession of the silver ball until July 1869, when the Lake City Union nine captured the trophy. The final game of the match was played in St. Paul, where the Saxon club immediately challenged the victorious nine. The Saxons won the championship and were called upon to defend it by the Crescent club of Red Wing. For some unknown reason the Crescents failed to appear in St. Paul for the first game, and the Saxons won the second game by the close score of 25 to 21.[fn]St. Paul Pioneer, July 25, August 8, 1869; Lake City Leader, July 2, 23, August 6, 13, 1869; Saint Paul Dispatch, July 24, August 27, September 3, 6, 1869.[/fn]

Until the Gopher State club of Rochester met the Saxons, the championship play of 1869 had been peaceful. The champions and the Gopher State team agreed to play for the silver ball at the state fair in Rochester. At the end of the seventh inning, with the Rochester nine leading, the Saxons “placed a fielder behind their catcher.” An argument followed, but the Saxons refused to remove their “illegal” fielder. Immediately upon resumption of play a foul fly was caught by the second catcher, and the umpire declared the batter out. After the subsequent wrangle, the Saxons refused to continue the game, and the umpire was forced to declare a victory for the Gopher State team.  The next morning, when the teams met again, two referees were chosen to settle disputes which the umpire might not be able to adjust. With the score a tie, the Saxons announced they had to leave immediately for the depot, and no amount of argument could change their decision. As a result the umpire declared the Gopher State club the winner and the rightful owner of the silver ball. The Saxon club refused to surrender the trophy and it must have been sustained in that act by the state association, for in the following summer the Union nine of Minneapolis won the championship from the St. Paul team, and retained the title during the remainder of the year.[fn]Saint Paul Dispatch, October 2, 4, 1869; Rochester Post, October 2, 1869; Minneapolis Tribune, June 11, 12, 1870.[/fn]

There were signs that the quality of the game was improving in Minnesota. By 1869 margins between the scores of the winning and losing teams were becoming smaller—an indication that playing ability was more evenly distributed than in 1867. In the championship game of 1867, fourteen “passed balls” were charged against Greiner of the Vermillion club, who was considered the best catcher of the tournament. Each catcher had only one passed ball in the final game of the championship match of the following year. The reduction in scoring shows that pitching skill was improving. Probably the best of the early Minnesota games was that between the Union club of Chester and the Independent nine of Lake City in 1870. The score was tied at fourteen at the end of nine innings, and the Unions finally won in the twelfth with the score 17 to 15. The game was played in “one hour and fifty minutes.”[fn]Lake City Leader, July 1, 1870.[/fn]

As sporting events became more popular on holidays, especially on July 4, baseball became a feature attraction. The Owatonna and Rochester nines played on July 4, 1867. On July 4, 1868, two Minnesota teams played at Hudson, Wisconsin. Lake City promoted a baseball tournament on the same day, in which teams from Stillwater, Red Wing, and St. Paul participated with two nines from Lake City. In 1869 the Rochester team traveled to Winona on Independence Day. The Saxons of St. Paul played a championship game with the Union nine of Minneapolis on July 4, 1871.[fn]St. Paul Press, July 7, 1867; July 7, 1868; Goodhue County Republican, July 3, 1868; Northfield Recorder, July 10, 1868; Lake City Leader, July 14,1868; Rochester Post, July 10, 1869; Minneapolis Tribune, July 4, 1871.[/fn]

Eventually cash prizes were substituted for trophies. At Red Wing in October 1867, a “citizens’ purse” of twenty dollars was offered for “visiting clubs outside the county,” and on July 4, 1867, at Lake City the winning team received twenty-five dollars. In October 1868, Hudson, Wisconsin, invited the Saxons of St. Paul and the St. Croix club of Stillwater to compete for “a purse of fifty dollars.”[fn]Goodhue County Republican, October 11, 1867; St. Paul Press, October 16, 18, 1868; Leader, July 9, 1869.[/fn]

Although there was no professionalism in Minnesota baseball in the sixties, there were some signs pointing in that direction. The first was the effort of the North Star club to obtain the services of the pitcher of the St. Croix team. A Minneapolis paper of 1869 recommended procuring the services of an expert “and paying him wages…whether in instructing the club or in playing matches.”[fn]Minneapolis Tribune, April 9, 1869.[/fn]

Intercity contests, a state association, and the first state tournament with its championship play marked the beginning of a sport that has had remarkable growth in Minnesota. As early as 1867 a Minnesota editor remarked that “The game of Base Ball has become so much the style that nearly every village and hamlet has its club, and to be a member of the first nine is now looked upon as being nearly as honorable a position as a seat in the Legislature.”[fn]Lake City Leader, August 23, 1867.[/fn]

* * *

Concentrating on telling the story of the origin and spread of inter-club play in Minnesota, Monroe omits—or may have overlooked, since he lists an Olympic Club as founded in 1860—the group which may fairly be called the state’s Knickerbockers, the Olympic Club of St. Paul. Formed in December 1858 to organize the efforts of its members to engage in “manly exercise,” as a popular contemporary phrase put it, the club played several intrasquad matches in the summer of 1859, choosing sides for each date or playing married men vs. bachelors, a popular format in early baseball. One St. Paul newspaper, the Daily Minnesotian, the city’s Republican Party organ, covered the group’s activities, including box scores of the games. It may have helped that a co-founder and the club’s first captain, Samuel P. Jennison, was prominent in Republican circles.

BOB THOLKES, a charter member and sometime officer of the Halsey Hall Chapter, has written articles for SABR publications and for the journal “Base Ball”, edits “Originals”, the newsletter of SABR’s Origins of Baseball Committee, and operates a vintage base ball team, the Quickstep BBC, in the Twin Cities. He also belongs to the 19th Century Committee and the Biographical Research Committee.



The author benefited, as latter-day researchers into the formative years of Minnesota baseball continue to benefit, from the Minnesota Historical Society’s mission of collecting in-state newspapers, a mission included in its 1857 charter. For the 1860s, a period in which baseball activity was wholly among in-state clubs, these newspapers, in 2010 as in 1938, are the sole contemporaneous sources for the story of the game’s rise in Minnesota. One, the Winona Republican, is now available online.