The St. Paul-New York Underground Railroad

This article was written by Steve Steinberg

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

On January 1, 1925, local newspapers announced that the St. Paul Saints of the American Association had been sold to Bob Connery, longtime New York Yankees scout. This started a close relationship between the two teams which included a regular shuttle of players between the Saints and Yankees. What was not known at the time was that Yankees manager Miller Huggins was a part-owner of the Saints, as well. How much did the two teams benefit from this relationship?

On New Year’s Day, 1925, local newspapers announced that the St. Paul Saints of the American Association had been sold to Bob Connery, longtime New York Yankees scout. While Connery declared that he was severing all connections with the Yankees, the two teams were actually about to embark on a close relationship for the next few years.[fn]St. Paul Dispatch, January 1, 1925.[/fn] A regular shuttle of players between the Yankees and the Saints would become a cornerstone of the New York team’s player acquisition and development program. What was not announced on that New Year’s Day—and would not become public knowledge until late 1929—was that that Yankees manager Miller Huggins was a silent partner, a one-third owner, of the Saints. 

How much did the two teams and their owners (Connery and Huggins of St. Paul, and Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees) benefit from this relationship? To what extent did Jacob Ruppert and Yankees business manager Ed Barrow know of Huggins’s financial interest in the Saints on those occasions when the Yankees’ manager recommended the New Yorkers purchase players from St. Paul? There was no formal or ownership connection between the two teams—the Yankees, like many major league teams, had working relationships with minor league teams, but they would not embark on their own farm system until 1932. Yet as one newspaper noted in the summer of 1928, “Farm or no farm, the Saints have been delivering to the American League pace-setters.”[fn]Charleston Gazette, June 17, 1928.[/fn] 

When Connery bought the Saints, they had just come off a successful 1924 season, winning the American Association pennant and then surprising the powerful Baltimore Orioles, International League champions, in the Little World Series, five games to four. John W. Norton, who had acquired the Saints ten years earlier from George Lennon, figured this was a good time to sell the ballclub. Reports stated that the sale price was between $175,000 and $200,000, the largest sum ever paid for an American Association club.[fn]New York Evening Telegram, January 2, 1925, and St. Paul Press, January 1, 1925. There have been no accounts of the source of Connery’s financing, other than the money his partners invested.[/fn] Ironically, back in early 1915, some papers reported that Miller Huggins was a minority partner in the Norton ”syndicate” or was even trying to buy the Saints on his own.[fn]The Sporting News, January 7, 1915, and August 19, 1915.[/fn] Huggins was managing the St. Louis Cardinals at the time, and Organized Baseball was being hammered by competition from the Federal League, which was depressing the value of franchises.

Miller Huggins had a prior relationship with St. Paul from when he had played for the Saints in 1902 and 1903 under manager Mike Kelley.[fn]Huggins also played for St. Paul in 1901, when the team was in the Western League.[/fn] Huggins developed a close friendship with his manager, which they had maintained over the years. Kelley would win five American Association pennants for the Saints (1903–1904, 1919–1920, and 1922), before moving across the river and buying the Minneapolis Millers after the 1923 season. Kelley’s Saints rivaled the Baltimore Orioles as a minor league power, winning more than 100 games in three of his last four seasons.[fn]Kelley would not win a pennant at the helm of the Millers (1924–1931). He also was president of the club from 1932 to 1946, when the Millers won a number of pennants.[/fn] 

Huggins’s other close friend was Bob Connery. Connery was born in 1880 and excelled at sandlot ball in St. Louis around the turn of the century. In 1903, he began his professional career with Des Moines in the Western League.[fn]While many articles, including Connery’s obituary, list 1903 as his first year in pro ball, lists Connery with only two years of minor-league play: 1904 with Des Moines (where he hit .219) and 1906 with Springfield (where he hit .199).[/fn] His 1967 obituary mentions that his playing career was curtailed by a car accident, and Connery then moved into managing. He became the skipper of Hartford in the Connecticut State League during the 1908 season, and the following year the Senators won the league pennant. Connery would remain the Hartford manager through the 1912 season.

When St. Louis Cardinals owner Helene Britton fired manager Roger Bresnahan after the 1912 season, Cardinals scouts Dick Kinsella and Bill Armour quit in support of Bresnahan. Britton hired Miller Huggins, the team’s second baseman, as player-manager, and Bob Connery left Hartford to join the Cardinals as their scout.[fn]St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 17, 1913, and St. Louis Times, March 6, 1913. Researcher Jim Hinman wrote that Connery credited Mike Kelley with getting him the position with the Cardinals. Hinman also stated that when Kelley bought the Minneapolis club, Connery and Huggins were going to invest with him. But they held off and instead bought the St. Paul club a year later. E-mail from Jim Hinman to the author on March 4, 2003.[/fn] With St. Louis, Connery gained fame for discovering and signing future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, then a gangly youngster from Denison, Texas, for only $600 in 1915.[fn]That spring the Cardinals had split-squad exhibition games. Connery took the helm of the squad that travelled to Denison, where the young Hornsby caught his eye. “Uncovering Stars with Famed Scout Connery,” The Sporting News, November 26, 1947.[/fn] “Bob Connery, the present scout of the Yankees, deserves all the credit for discovering [Hornsby],” said Huggins several years later. “He saw him in action, watched him closely and kept following him until he had signed him for the St. Louis Cardinals.”[fn]San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 1924.[/fn] Among his other signings for St. Louis were pitchers Bill Doak and Lee Meadows.[fn]SABR Encyclopedia, Scouts Database.[/fn]

When Miller Huggins became the manager of the New York Yankees in October 1917, he insisted on bringing along Connery as the team’s scout. Yankees’ owner Jacob Ruppert probably needed little persuasion: In his three years as co-owner of the club (with Tillinghast Huston), virtually none of the minor league and Federal League players the Yankees bought (signed by scouts Joe Kelley and Duke Farrell) had panned out.[fn]he Sporting News, November 15, 1917. Ironically, when Huggins began his major league career with Cincinnati, Kelley was his manager and the Reds’ first baseman. There is no familial relationship between Mike and Joe Kelley. Joe Kelley stayed on as a Yankees’ scout—no longer as head scout—through the 1923 season. Washington Post, January 20, 1925.[/fn] 

Among the future Hall of Famers Connery had a hand in signing for the Yankees were Earle Combs, Lou Gehrig, and George Halas (the last in the football Hall). Other signings included future stars Bob Meusel and George Pipgras. One Connery recommendation the Yankees regrettably ignored was pitcher Babe Adams, then making a comeback in the minors in 1917 and 1918.[fn]he Sporting News, April 7, 1921. The Pirates released Adams during the 1916 season, after he developed a sore shoulder. He made a strong comeback, with a 20–13 record in St. Joseph and Hutchinson of the Western League in 1917 and a 14–3 mark with Kansas City of the American Association the following year. Adams offered an additional attraction to the major-league team that brought him back: He was exempt from the military draft because he was over the age of 35. Adams returned to the Pirates late in the 1918 season, where he would win another 81 games, including 48 between 1919 and 1921.[/fn] 

Connery operated behind the scenes and was rarely named in the press after he joined the Yankees. One of his rare mentions came in the spring of 1922. Carl Mays was “on the outs” with Yankees manager Miller Huggins and accused the skipper of being a mere “mouthpiece” for Connery, the team’s real manager.[fn]St. Louis Times, April 6, 1922.[/fn] 

Connery’s reputation for fair and honest dealings was well known. “Bob’s spoken word was every bit as good as his penmanship,” wrote The Sporting News, “and small deals and those of moment could be closed over the coffee cup.”[fn]“Baseball Alphabet No Puzzle to Connery,” The Sporting News, March 15, 1928.[/fn] Connery was also described as “one of the most shadowy and least known figures in baseball.”[fn]St. Paul Press, January 1, 1925.[/fn] A New York paper noted that Connery had been “a big man in the inner councils of the Yanks for several years.”[fn]New York Times, January 20, 1925.[/fn] By the end of 1924, besides the opportunity he saw in becoming the owner and president of a top-tier minor league team, Connery had tired of the peripatetic lifestyle of a scout and looked forward to settling down.

Showing his minority stake of 50 shares in St. Paul Saints.After he bought the Saints, Connery’s statements on his new club’s ownership and relationship with the Yankees were a maze of contradictions. He refused to name his partners; there were rumors he was one of three.[fn]St. Paul Dispatch, December 31, 1924.[/fn] Only one of the others was mentioned in the press: St. Louis banker Leo Daly. Connery declared, “We shall not consider ourselves feeders to the big leagues.”[fn]San Antonio Daily Light, January 1, 1925.[/fn] Shortly after buying the Saints, he was quoted in the St. Paul Dispatch: “If the Yankees, at any time, want to purchase a St. Paul player, they will have to give our club what we want, just the same as any other club.”[fn]St. Paul Dispatch, January 20, 1925.[/fn] 

Yet the very same day, the other St. Paul daily, the Press, reported that the Saints would make an “alliance” with the Yankees. It would make for an “unbeatable combination” because of the New York club’s available money to buy players and willingness to send good young players to St. Paul.[fn]St. Paul Press, January 20, 1925.[/fn] Later that month, the Washington Post wrote that the Yankees would probably ship extra players and prospects to the Saints, “marked deliver to St. Paul club, care R.J. Connery.” The article was entitled, “Yankees Plan to Use St. Paul as Pasture: Connery Offers to Use his Club to Develop Ivory for his Old Employer.”[fn]Washington Post, January 20, 1925.[/fn]

The Yankees had a working relationship with Atlanta of the Southern Association, reported the New York Times, but wanted to connect with “the faster American Association,” and “St. Paul may be that club.”[fn]New York Times, January 20, 1925.[/fn] Huggins and Connery actually had a St. Paul connection well before 1925. When they were with St. Louis, the Cardinals had options on players they had sent to the Saints.[fn]Stew Thornley, Baseball in Minnesota: The Definitive History. St. Paul:Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006, 55.[/fn] Furthermore, in their early years with the Yankees, Huggins and Connery were already working with St. Paul. After the 1918 season, the Yankees sent outfielder Elmer Miller down to St. Paul and brought him back during the 1921 season. When the Yankees released George Halas in the summer of 1919, they sent him to St. Paul.

The very first action Connery took as owner and president of the Saints was to re-sign manager Nick Allen. Connery and Allen had been friends for years, the St. Paul Press reported.[fn]St. Paul Press, January 1, 1925. It is not clear where and when their paths had crossed.[/fn] The colorful Allen, “Roarin’ Nick,” had seen limited major league action as a catcher in the teens. He joined the Saints in 1921 and became their regular catcher. Three years later, as his playing career was winding down, he took over as the Saints’ manager and led them to the 1924 American Association pennant. 

The best prospect Connery had on the Saints was shortstop Mark Koenig. A number of major league teams had expressed interest in him, including the Yankees. Connery initially decided to hold onto Koenig for the season: Expecting a big year from the youngster, Connery hoped to then sell him for at least $50,000.[fn]St. Paul Dispatch, January 16 and 28, 1925, and St. Paul Press, February 8, 1925. The Dispatch reported in late April that Connery had already turned down $50,000 for Koenig. Interestingly, Koenig’s 1924 numbers were not that strong: He played in only 68 games and hit .267, with a slugging percentage of .333. In 1925, he hit .308 with a slugging percentage of .474.[/fn]

But the Yankees were getting desperate.The weakness of their middle infield became increasingly glaring as the 1925 season got underway, and they sank into the second division. Their aging shortstop, Everett Scott, had slowed dramatically, and their second baseman, Aaron Ward, though only 28, was experiencing a downtrend as well. In mid-May, newspapers were reporting that Barrow and Huggins were in St. Paul to finalize a deal for Koenig.[fn]Bee (Danville, VA), May 14, 1925.[/fn] Koenig did indeed join the Yankees that season, though not until September. Although he would have modest success with the Yankees in his four-plus seasons with them, including a sizzling 1927 World Series, Koenig never lived up to the huge purchase price. 

As highlighted in table 1, the “underground railroad” between New York and St. Paul was very busy once Connery took over the Saints. “The Yankee reserve list is as crowded as a Lennox Avenue express in the rush hour,” reported one paper.[fn]Washington Post, January 20, 1925.[/fn] The Yankees had not embarked on building a farm system as the St. Louis Cardinals were doing, but they had “strings” on a number of players beyond their active roster. Curiously, virtually all the ballplayers sold by St. Paul to the Yankees experienced only modest success—at best—in the majors. The same was true of almost all of the players New York sent down to St. Paul for seasoning. 

Two things are striking about the steady stream of players between the two teams: The list is long, and it is devoid of stars. The Yankees spent well into six figures on St. Paul players—Dan Levitt writes that the amount was around $300,000—with very little return to show for this investment.[fn]Daniel R. Levitt, Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008, 277.[/fn] 

It is fascinating that reports would surface from time to time—after Connery had left the Yankees—that he still had the final say on key Yankees’ minor league acquisitions, and not only players they “farmed” out to St. Paul.[fn]Billings Gazette, September 3, 1927.[/fn] The most dramatic instance was the case of Tony Lazzeri. Before the Yankees finalized the deal to buy him, they used their influence with Connery to persuade him to travel to Salt Lake City and give his evaluation of the San Francisco prospect.[fn]Atlanta Constitution, July 30, 1927. In his Barrow biography, Dan Levitt says that Barrow practically ordered Connery to cross-check Lazzeri. New York sportswriter Dan Daniel wrote that Connery first turned the Yankees onto Lazzeri when he was still a Yankees scout. New York Evening Telegram, July 9, 1926. That would have been before Lazzeri’s breakout season of 1925. In 1924, he spent the first half of the season in Salt Lake City; manager Duffy Lewis sent Lazzeri down to Lincoln of the Western League. His combined numbers that year were still impressive: a .307 batting average with 44 home runs. Connery strongly reaffirmed the Yankees’ glowing reports on Lazzeri before they acquired him.[/fn] A year later, there were still reports that Connery had the final say on the Yankees’ big minor league deals.[fn]Billings Gazette, September 3, 1927.[/fn] And when Joe McCarthy was hired as the Yankees’ manager after the 1930 season, the press reported that he had already met with Bob Connery.[fn]Chicago Daily Tribune, October 14, 1930.[/fn]

Nick Allen’s last year as the Saints’ manager was 1928. In 1930, Connery hired his former Des Moines teammate from 25 years earlier, Lefty Leifield, as the Saints’ manager.[fn]In 1904, Leifield won 16 games for Des Moines, and the following season he led the Western League in wins with 26. (Solly Hofman and Hans Lobert were also members of the Des Moines Prohibitionists in 1904.) Leifield joined the Pittsburgh Pirates late in 1905 and became a regular in their rotation, where he won 103 games in the next six seasons. He coached for a number of major league teams in the 1920s, before embarking on a career as a minor league manager.[/fn] A year later, Connery had his first American Association pennant, with Leifield at the helm.[fn]The ’31 Saints lost the Little World Series to the International League champions, Billy Southworth’s Rochester Red Wings, five games to three.[/fn] The team then fell on hard times, both on the field and at the box office. Attendance in 1934 was only one-third what it had been in 1924, and it appeared that the team would move to Peoria.[fn]Jim Hinman email to the author, March 4, 2003.[/fn] After the 1934 season, Connery sold the Saints to a group of St. Paul investors, staying on as an advisor for the next two years.[fn]Chicago Daily Tribune, November 16, 1934, and The Sporting News, November 29, 1934. The latter article, “Fanning with Farrington,” mentions that Connery might return to the Yankees in some capacity.[/fn]

While there were indications from the start—soon confirmed by player transactions—that the Yankees were working closely with the Saints, there was virtually no mention that Miller Huggins owned a piece of the American Association franchise. He was a very silent partner, indeed, and remained so for the rest of his life. 

Bob Connery was Miller Huggins’s right-hand man for many years, though that hand “seldom appears on the surface.”[fn]St. Paul Press, January 1, 1925.[/fn]  Connery had such a low profile in New York that many New York City papers did not even mention his departure from the Yankees or his purchase of the Saints in early 1925. After he moved to St. Paul, Connery remained one of Huggins’s closest friends. He was in the hospital room of the Yankees’ skipper when he died on September 25, 1929, and accompanied the body on the train to Cincinnati.[fn]New York Times, September 24, 1929, and undated UPI report.[/fn] Before the Yankees settled on Huggins’s replacement, Connery was being “prominently mentioned” as his successor.[fn]Winnipeg Free Press, October 1, 1929.[/fn]

After Huggins’s death, his ownership stake in the Saints was mentioned casually and often, as if it had been public knowledge—which it had not been.[fn]Bozeman Bulger syndicated column, Minnesota Standard, September 29, 1929, and Bill Slocum, New York American, October 4, 1929.[/fn] Two documents have surfaced in recent years which confirm Huggins’s ownership stake in St. Paul. The first is a stock certificate signed on January 8, 1925, conveying fifty shares of stock (valued at $100 each, to be transferred on February 4, 1925) in the St. Paul Base Ball Club to Miller Huggins, signed by both Huggins and Bob Connery.[fn]The stock certificate appeared in auctions in recent years. It seems to contradict reports that Huggins’s spinster sister was the actual owner of the one-third share. Thanks to Christine Putnam for a copy of the certificate.[/fn] 

The second document is a letter from Huggins to Connery, dated January 10, 1925, in which he outlined his investment in the Saints. “I think it best that I only take 1?3. Agree with you that it best we both have 40%, but conditions are such just at present writing, in a finance way with me, that I would have to sacrifice something that I can’t afford to…I will send Norton a check for $12,500…Will send same to your office.”[fn]Ken Willey, Baseball’s Golden Half-Century 1910–1959. City of Industry, CA: Glenleaf Publishing, 2007.[/fn]

Bob Connery spotted and signed some terrific talent for both the Cardinals and the Yankees. But he was unable to continue the delivery of top minor league talent after taking over St. Paul. Financially, however, the St. Paul-New York connection was a lucrative association for him and his St. Paul partners. When the Yankees bought a Saints’ player recommended by Connery, Jacob Ruppert certainly knew that that Connery himself would benefit financially. Did Ruppert know that his manager, Miller Huggins, would also benefit financially? Shortly after Huggins’s death, St. Paul sportswriter Dick Meade wrote, “It is well, though not widely, known that Miller Huggins is the owner of 25 per cent [sic] of the stock of the Saints.”[fn]Dick Meade, “Huggins Fights with Courage,” September 25, 1929. Unsourced “Random Notes” column by Meade, Bill Loughman Collection of newspaper clippings. Whether Huggins at one time owned only 25% of the Saints cannot be known for certain, but a review of his estate disclosed that he had 33% at the time of his death.[/fn] 

New York American sportswriter Bill Slocum offered a revealing look at how Huggins dealt with “the two hats” he wore, one as the Yankees manager and one as a Saints owner. In early August 1928, when the Yankees’ big lead over the Philadelphia Athletics was slipping away, New York needed to shore up its pitching. Huggins liked St. Paul pitcher Fred Heimach, who had won 34 games for the Saints the past two seasons. A few other teams wanted Heimach too. Huggins “had to be loyal alike to his employer and his partner,” wrote Slocum. He refused to recommend the deal. Instead, he called Ruppert and Barrow and asked them to send all available Yankees scouts to St. Paul to evaluate Heimach. Their reports were positive, and New York bought Heimach, who won a couple of crucial games down the stretch. “Huggins’ high sense of propriety would not permit him to recommend a deal in which he might share financially, even with a pennant at stake,” wrote Slocum.[fn]Bill Slocum, “Miller Huggins, as I Knew Him,” New York American, October 4, 1929. When the Yankees acquired Heimach on August 6, 1928, their 131?2-game lead had shrunk to 31?2 games.[/fn] 

POSTSCRIPT: When the Yankees decided to build a farm system in 1932, business manager Ed Barrow recommended Bob Connery to head the operation. But owner Jacob Ruppert, dissatisfied with the Yankees’ St. Paul connection, turned instead to George Weiss, who had run the New Haven and Baltimore minor league teams.[fn]Daniel R. Levitt, Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008, 277.[/fn] 

STEVE STEINBERG is the co-author with Lyle Spatz of “1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York,” winner of the 2011 Seymour Medal. They are currently working on a book on Jacob Ruppert and Miller Huggins. Steve has also written “Baseball in St. Louis, 1900–1925” and many articles revolving around early 20th-century baseball, including a dozen for SABR publications.