History of Baseball in Columbus
Baseball first appeared in Columbus, and most of the country, during the Civil War. In the spring of 1866, baseball "clubs" were springing up all over the national landscape. Young men, many of whom had recently returned from the war, were anxious to play the game.
The first team organized club in central Ohio was the Buckeye Baseball Club of Columbus in March of 1866. The team's officers were James A. Williams as president and F. H. LeFavor as vice president. Williams had learned the game while serving as a clerk in the Union army at Louisville, Kentucky.
The Buckeyes played their first game on April 6, on a field at the edge of town, on the corner of Broad Street and Parsons Avenue on the grounds of the Franklin County Insane Asylum. The first team beat the second squad by the score of 95 to 44! The game, although not an artistic success, caught the imagination of others and soon six more clubs were formed. Joining the Buckeyes were the Capitals, the Athletics, the Olentangys, the Excelsiors, the Stars and the Lenapes of Delaware.
The first professional players to play for Columbus were first baseman Tom Blackburn of the Lebanon Lightfoots and third baseman Sam Dodds of Urbana in 1875. The following year Columbus decided to make the big leap into professional baseball.
At the same time William Hulbert was organizing the National League, Jimmy Williams was putting together Columbus' first professional team. The Buckeyes played their home games on a field located between the old Union Depot and High Street. The following season the Buckeyes joined the International Association.
Teams came and went in Columbus during the 1800's. In 1883-84 and again in 1889-91, the Columbus Buckeyes were in the major leagues. Columbus' first pennant winner was the 1892 Reds of the Western League. Columbus was in the Western League through most of the 1890's. After the 1899 season, the president of the Western League, Ban Johnson changed the league's name to the American League and declared themselves a major league. The 1899 Columbus Senators were transferred to Cleveland and are now the Indians.
After spending 1900 in the Interstate League and '01 in the Western Association. The Senators joined Minneapolis, St. Paul, Toledo, Louisville, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Kansas City to form the new American Association in 1902. Columbus was the smallest city in the league and was admitted on a trial basis. The Senators lead the Association in attendance for the first six seasons and the league would remain stable for the next half century.
A local boy, Bobby Quinn built the Senators into a powerful team. Columbus won three consecutive pennants in 1905-07 and remained a contender for a dozen years. In 1905, Columbus built Neil Park, the first concrete and steel stadium. In 1917, the Quinn contingent sold the club to Thomas Wilson of the Wilson Sporting Goods and Joe Tinker. The club stumbled through the 1920's, bottoming out with a 39-125 record in 1926. After that season, Wilson sold the team to Sidney Weils, owner of the Cincinnati Reds. The club slowly improved under manager Nemo Leibold, with a mix of Reds' farm hands and veteran ball players.
Weils lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. At the end of the 1930 season, Cincinnati asked Columbus president Joe Carr to sell the Senators. Carr sold an option to Larry McPhail, who turned around and sold the club to Branch Rickey and the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey changed Columbus' name to the Red Birds starting in 1931.
Leibold became a folk hero during the final bleak years of the Columbus Senators. When St. Louis bought the club after the 1930 season, Branch Rickey wanted to fire the scrappy little manager in favor of a "company man". Columbus roared its disapproval! In a rare move, Rickey backed down.
But Leibold favored playing aging veterans over the raw talent the Cardinals farm system was sending him. By mid-1932 Rickey had had enough. In a stroke of public relations genius, Rickey replaced the popular Leibold with native son Billy Southworth.
The Beginning of the Coop.
The St. Louis Cardinals saw a need for a new ballpark in Columbus. After the city fathers broke off negotiations for Sunshine Park as a site, the Cardinals purchased farmland on West Mound Street and Glenwood Avenue.
The Cardinal's GM Branch Rickey's problem did not end there. The Monday before construction was due to begin, Columbus City Council was petitioned to stop the construction of the new stadium. The neighborhood feared that the noise and lights of the park would wake the dead at surrounding Mt. Calgary and Greenlawn cemeteries!
Cardinal owner Sam Breadon took advantage of depression time prices to build what Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis called "the finest park in all of baseball". Bedecked with the finest brick and California redwood, the park's final price tag was $450,000.
Initially due to open for the 1932 season, construction delays pushed back the date. Work crews worked day and night to have the stadium ready for its' rescheduled debut on June 3rd. A crowd of 15,000 fans packed the park to watch Columbus defeat Louisville, 11-2 that Friday afternoon. Radio station WAIU, now WTVN, broadcasted the first game with The Ohio State Journal's sports writer Dick Jamison at the mike. The game was such a "can't miss" event in Columbus that two women gave birth at the stadium that afternoon.
In 1932, the visiting team shared the gate receipts. That summer, the Cardinal's GM Branch Rickey coveted St. Paul's shortstop Jimmy Reese. Rickey knew the novelty of the first night game at the new stadium would bring a big crowd. Rickey traded the right to play in the first night game to the Saints for Reese. The first game under the lights, in Columbus, had to wait for two weeks until St. Paul came to town.
Rickey was right about the big turnout. On June 17th, a record crowd of 21,000 fans stormed the gates. The Red Birds defeated the Saints 5-4 in 11 innings.
The Red Birds turned Columbus' baseball fortunes around becoming one of the most successful minor league franchises in history.
After World War ll, The Columbus Citizen's sports editor Lou Byrer began criticizing the St. Louis Cardinals for sending their best young talent to Rochester and ignoring Columbus. It wasn't true but Lou kept up his barrage. When the Red Birds won the Junior World Series in 1950, the Cardinal brass thought they finally had silenced Byrer. They hadn't. To teach the editor a lesson, they dispersed the champion Red Bird team around their farm system, sending many back to Double-A, Houston. They stocked Columbus with untried young talent to show Byrer just how bad a Triple-A club could be. It was the beginning of the end of the Columbus-Cardinal affiliation.
After the 1954 season, the Cardinals moved the Red Birds to Omaha. For the first time in the 20th century Columbus was without a baseball team. In January, 1955 Harold Cooper purchased the Ottawa club of the International League and moved them to Columbus.
Initially, Harold Cooper had a verbal commitment from the Yankees for the Jets to become New York's Triple-A franchise. But when the purchase of the stadium took longer than expected, the Yankees signed with Denver and Columbus had to settle with the lowly Kansas City A's. The financial deal for the stadium was worked out on the golf course between Budweiser tycoon Gussie Busch and Pittsburgh Pirates owner Dan Galbreath. The official bill of sale was the back of a receipt, which Galbreath had in his pocket. Both men's signatures and the sum of $450,000 appear on the receipt.
After the 1956 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. The Pirates had to find a new home for their Triple-A franchise, the Hollywood Stars. Pirates' owner John Galbreath signed a working agreement with his hometown, Columbus.
The young Pirate farm hands gave Columbus competitive teams throughout the '60's, winning pennants in 1961 and 1965. In 1970, Jets' President Fred Jones and M. E. Sensenbrenner worked out a deal. The city would purchase Jet Stadium and make needed repairs and Jones would build a swimming pool in the poor near east side. But young councilman M. D. Portman (a fellow Democrat) believed that a city of Columbus' size should stop making these backroom deals and threw a wrench in the works. Frustrated, Jones had to sell the team and it moved to Charleston. Columbus wouldn't have a baseball team for seven years.
It changed Columbus politics forever.