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History of Omaha Baseball

 


THE HISTORY OF PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL IN OMAHA 

 

This article was researched and written by former Omaha Royals Media Relations Director and broadcaster Kevin McNabb, who credits The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball and a Masters Thesis by John Harrison Free/and written in June 1964, as well as former Omaha World-Herald sportswriter Robert Williams and broadcast partner Mark Nasser for their input.

Even a casual baseball fan living in Omaha may be aware that Rosenblatt Stadium has been home to professional baseball since 1949. What many folks - even those who first turn to the baseball box scores each time they pick up a newspaper -may not realize is that professional baseball has existed in Omaha (off and on) since 1879. The timeline below attempts to give you the highlights and low points of that 124-year history:

            Much of the focus for the Omaha Royals this season, as it should be, will be on giving Rosenblatt Stadium a fond farewell. The historic ballpark opened in the fall of 1948 as Omaha Municipal Stadium. In the spring of 1949, it was the new home of the Omaha Cardinals, the St. Louis Cardinals' Class-A affiliate. A year later, the College World Series moved to Omaha. 

            What many baseball fans may not realize is that professional baseball existed in Omaha long before this venerable ballpark stood. In fact, the roots of pro ball in this community date back to the 19th century. 

            In 1879, professional baseball teams in Omaha, along with Davenport and Dubuque, Iowa and Rockford, Illinois, formed the Northwestern League. It marked the first minor league west of the Atlantic seaboard. However, it was an inauspicious debut for the sport in this city, as Omaha's club disbanded in July.

            Professional baseball returned to Omaha in 1885. The team, named the Omahogs, played its home games at Sherman Avenue Park. On June 6th, with a 4-22 record and mediocre fan support, the franchise moved to Keokuk, Iowa.

            The Omahogs were back in action by 1887 and in 1889 Omaha won its first pennant, finishing 83-38 in the Western Association. A 19-year old Omaha pitcher, Charles "Kid" Nichols, led the league with a whopping 39 wins and 368 strikeouts. The next season, he would begin a Hall of Fame Major League career with the Boston Beaneaters, going on to win 361 games in 15 big league campaigns.

            As the 20th century dawned, the American League was born in 1900. That same year, a new Western League welcomed Omaha as a new member, as the city did not field a professional team the previous season. William "Pa" Rourke, who had been a scout for the Chicago Cubs, became business manager as well as field manager of Omaha's new team and would put his imprint on the franchise through 1920. Vinton Street Park was the Omahogs' home.

            In the fall of 1901, an agreement was reached between the Major Leagues and a new minor league association called the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. It established minor league classifications, roster and salary limits, as well as a system for Major League clubs to draft players. 

            As a result of this new structure, there were 14 minor leagues in 1902, classified A (highest) through D. The newly named Omaha Indians went 84-56 in the Class-A Western League, but finished .003 percentage points behind the Kansas City Blue Stockings for the league title.

            In 1904 - Omaha's only season as the Rangers - "Pa" Rourke's club took the Western League pennant, rallying in September to win 15 consecutive games and finish 90-60. Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career in the Majors, led the loop with 27 wins. After that championship season, Omaha's team was named the Rourkes from 1905-20.

            In November 1908 - one year after winning another Western League pennant - Rourke rebuilt Vinton Street Park to the tune of $32,000 including a completely new grandstand seating 8,500 fans. 

            The Rourke era ended in 1921, when new owner Barney Burch held a public contest to rename the team. The moniker "Buffaloes" was chosen and would last through 1927. Four contest winners received season passes worth $42 for 82 games. People were hungry for entertainment following WWI and the Buffaloes drew 123,000 fans in their first season.

            Lights were installed at Vinton Street Park in 1930 and the first night game was played on May 29th pitting the newly-named Omaha Packers against the Denver Bears. Burch hoped night games would help boost attendance, which was starting to be affected by The Great Depression. Unfortunately, it did not help as much as he hoped.

            By 1935, the Packers were in such financial straits that the team packed its bags and played the last two months of the season as the Council Bluffs Rails at Broadway Park. The next year new owners, substantially underwritten by beer brewery Fontenelle Brewing Company, brought professional baseball back to Omaha. The Robin Hoods were Omaha's new entry in the Western League. 

            The Robin Hoods era was short-lived. Tragedy struck on August 14, 1936 as a three-alarm fire destroyed Vinton Street Park, as well as seven nearby homes. The team relocated to Rock Island, Illinois to finish the season. Omaha would not have a pro baseball team again until 1947. 

            In '47, Omaha rejoined the Western League as the Omaha Cardinals. The club was the Class-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. By that time, Class-A no longer meant the highest minor league classification, but one of the lowest, same as it is today. The Brooklyn Dodgers protested the Cardinals move, hinting they wanted to put a higher-class farm team in Omaha in the near future. 

            The battle was waged by city commissioners and went to a public vote in the Omaha World-Herald.  The Cardinals' plan won in a landslide. However, North Omaha residents successfully fought plans to convert Fontenelle Park into a baseball park. So, the Cardinals played "home" games in 1947 and 1948 at Legion Park in Council Bluffs while Omaha Municipal Stadium was being built. 

            On a chilly October Sunday in 1948, Omaha Municipal Stadium opened with a pair of exhibition games. One of the teams involved was a team of big league all-stars, including Tilden, Nebraska native and future Phillies Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn. When the stadium opened for its first regular season game on April 25, 1949 a throng of 9,416 fans were on hand to see the Cardinals face the Des Moines Bruins. They got their money's worth, as the Cards won 9-8 in 12 innings.

            Omaha's professional baseball team would remain in lowly Class-A until 1955, when Triple-A baseball came to town as St. Louis moved its American Association franchise from Columbus, Ohio. The team, still called the Omaha Cardinals, drew 316,012 fans - third-best in the entire minor leagues to Denver and Toronto. 

            However, by 1957 attendance at Cardinals' games had dropped off dramatically, as a 76-78 team drew only 177,000 fans. Those who attended games got their first glimpse of hard-throwing pitcher and Omaha native Bob Gibson. He would also pitch for Omaha the next two seasons before beginning a 17-year Hall of Fame career with St. Louis in 1959. 

            That 1959 season marked the final year for the Cardinals' top farm club in Omaha. Only 116,000 fans watched the Triple-A club that summer and on October 16th, St. Louis announced they were pulling out of Omaha. That left the city without a professional baseball team for the 1960 campaign.

            The Los Angeles Dodgers brought Triple-A baseball back to Omaha in 1961, as the Omaha Dodgers were the new residents of Omaha Municipal Stadium. In 1962, manager Danny Ozark turned around a last-place team from the previous year and took the Dodgers to the playoffs, where they lost to Denver 3-games-to-1. 

            That '62 season would be the second and final edition of the Omaha Dodgers. In 1963, the American Association merged most of its teams into the International League and Pacific Coast League, but Omaha was dropped. Fans in this city would not see another pro baseball team here until 1969. 

            In 1964, Omaha Municipal Stadium was renamed Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. It was in homage to the former city council member and mayor who led a group 20 years earlier that laid groundwork for construction of the stadium. Rosenblatt had also mounted a 1954 campaign for public support to bring Triple-A baseball to Omaha. 

            Finally, after six seasons with no professional baseball, Omaha got it back in 1969, when the American League expansion Kansas City Royals placed its Triple-A affiliate here as a member of the revived American Association. The Omaha Royals would be owned and operated by its parent club until 1985. 

In their inaugural '69 campaign, the Royals won the league title under manager Jack McKeon, going 85-55 (no playoffs are held). Omaha also led the six-team league in attendance, drawing over 177,000. "Trader Jack" guided the Royals to a second consecutive American Association crown in 1970. He was named the league's Manager of the Year following both seasons. 

McKeon would go on to manage in the Major Leagues for 15 years, starting with Kansas City from 1973-1975. He was named NL Manager of the Year in 1999 with the Cincinnati Reds and again in 2003, when his Florida Marlins were World Series champions.

While McKeon went to skipper Kansas City in 1973, a 20-year old third baseman by the name of George Brett began his third professional season at Triple-A Omaha. He played in 117 games, hitting .284 and was named to both the mid-season and postseason American Association All-Star teams. Brett also opened the 1974 season with the O-Royals, but in May of that year he went back up to the big leagues for good. Of course, he went on to a Hall of Fame career that spanned 21 seasons, all with Kansas City.

The Omaha Royals won their third American Association title in 1978 and it was an underdog story. Despite going 66-69, Omaha won the West Division, then shocked the Indianapolis Indians (78-57) in the Championship Series, taking it 4-1. Not a single Royals player made the league's All-Star team.

A Chicago businessman, Irving "Gus" Cherry, purchased Omaha's professional baseball club from the Kansas City Royals in 1986. He owned the club through the 1991 season. 

In 1988, Omaha first baseman Luis de los Santos was named MVP of the American Association. That season, the Royals drew over 300,000 fans to begin a streak of 22 consecutive years hitting that attendance benchmark that is still alive entering 2010. 

The Omaha Royals won their fourth (and last of this writing) league title in 1990. In fact, the team wore two crowns that year, defeating Nashville 3-2 for the American Association Championship Series and then routing Rochester 4-1 to win the "Triple-A Classic" series. 1990 marked the third and final season the American Association played an interlocking schedule with the International League known as the Triple-A Alliance.

On October 1, 1991, Union Pacific Railroad, along with minority owners Warren Buffett and Walter Scott, Jr., purchased the Royals from Gus Cherry. 

The 1994 season brought yours truly back to his hometown from Jacksonville, Florida, where I had spent the previous two seasons as the broadcaster for Seattle's Double-A affiliate. And I witnessed an extremely rare combination of feats on the field from above in Rosenblatt's old press box. 

On April 24, 1994, Dwayne Hosey hit for the cycle against Nashville. The next day, Joe Vitiello matched the feat, again hitting for the cycle facing the Sounds. Hosey would go on to win league MVP honors, while Vitiello won a batting title and was named the circuit's Rookie of the Year.

The American Association was disbanded in 1998 and Omaha joined the Pacific Coast League, which was enlarged to 16 teams. PCL pitchers were not happy to face Omaha's Chris Hatcher. He enjoyed a monstrous MVP season, setting single-season team records in home runs (46), RBI (106) and total bases (313) which still stand. The Royals' Jeremy Giambi won the PCL batting title by hitting a club-record .372 and was named the league's Rookie of the Year.

In an attempt to establish its own identity, Omaha dropped its parent club's name in 1999. Omaha's professional baseball club would be known as the Golden Spikes through the 2001 season. In '99 outfielder Mark Quinn duplicated Giambi's feat of a year earlier by winning the PCL batting crown (.360) and Rookie of the Year honors. 

The late Matt Minker, a general contractor who also owned Kansas City's high-A team in Wilmington, purchased the majority share of the Omaha Royals in 2001 from U.P.R.R. The team surveyed fans during 2001 and responded by reverting to the name "Royals" immediately after the season.

In 2003, the Omaha Royals 35th anniversary team was announced. Third baseman George Brett, second baseman Frank White, first baseman Mike Sweeney, starter David Cone, reliever Dan Quisenberry and manager Jack McKeon highlighted the team's members, selected by fans in online voting at www.oroyals.com

On March 8, 2006 it was announced that Minker sold his majority interest in the Royals to Bill Shea, with Warren Buffett and Walter Scott, Jr. retaining their minority shares. Shea was joined at the introductory news conference by new Royals President Alan Stein. That season, Royals manager Mike Jirschele was selected to manage the Pacific Coast League's All-Star team, joining Sal Rende (1991) as the only Omaha skippers to manage in the Triple-A All-Star Game.

In 2007, Werner Enterprises signed on to serve as the Royals presenting sponsor for the season, a partnership which continues to this day. On the field, Craig Brazell was promoted to Omaha from Double-A Wichita in May and bashed 13 home runs in 22 games that month. He would go on to lead the minors with 39 round-trippers. In September a new management team for the Royals was announced, headed by new General Manager Martie Cordaro and Director of Marketing Rob Crain. 

The Royals celebrated their 40th season in 2008, sprucing up their city-owned home by footing the bill for a bevy of improvements to the stadium's front plaza and elsewhere. The following year, when the Atlanta Braves top affiliate left Richmond, Virginia, the O-Royals' 41st season marked the longest affiliation between a Triple-A team and its parent club. Despite finishing 64-80, the Royals pitching staff fired a PCL-best 17 shutouts. It marked the second-most shutouts in team history, falling just two shy of the team record of 19 white-washings, set in 1972. 

Even bigger news was made off the field on August 12, 2009, when the Royals owners and staff were joined by Sarpy County officials - as well as Hall of Famers George Brett and Bob Gibson - for groundbreaking ceremonies at the site of the Royals new ballpark, which opens in 2011. Until then, enjoy one last great season at the 'Blatt!