Top 100 Teams
International Coast League (Triple-A)
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Much has been written about the fabulous 1937 Newark Bears - arguably one of the top minor league teams of all time. What is not as widely known is that, in many ways, their immediate successor in 1938 was a superior club. One of the stars of the latter champion was a well-traveled outfielder who put up astonishing power numbers in a short span of games.
Over its first 50 years in pro ball, the city of Newark, New Jersey, fielded only a handful of champion teams. Newark’s first flagwinner came in 1888 in the Central League, courtesy of a team named the Trunkmakers. Despite posting the best mark of any 19th century minor league club (83-23, .783), the team narrowly won the flag, finishing a bare half-game ahead of Jersey City (84-25, .771) which had to settle for being the best second place team of all time.
In 1896, a team called the Colts joined the Atlantic League and won the pennant in their first try. Again, this was a narrow victory as the team edged Hartford by a single game. In an unusual feature for a minor league, a team from the major league enclave of New York joined the group. When the Gothamites were expelled in July, a team from another major league city, Philadelphia, latched on.
A long seventeen years later, another Newark team finished in the catbird seat, this time in the top-tier Eastern League. In 1913, the Newark Indians won the pennant with a 95-57, .625 record. The club featured two Zimmermans - William and Ed. The two were unrelated as third baseman Ed hailed from New Jersey while outfielder William was one of the first pro players born in Germany.
Newark’s next pennant winner was a colossus that achieved a place on the Top 100 list. In 1932, shortly after being purchased by the Yankees, the renamed Bears won the pennant going away, finishing with a stellar 109-59, .649 record. Instrumental in the team’s success was a plethora of future Yankees - notably Jack Saltzgaver, Red Rolfe and John Murphy. The Bears followed with two more pennants in 1933 and 1934, giving the team 303 wins over the three-year period.
Three years later, the Bears demolished the International League with another 109-win champion, which finished near the top of the Top 100 list. This team had few weaknesses as it made a mockery of the pennant race which saw second place Montreal finish 25 games in arrears. Although 10 members of the squad graduated to the majors, the team’s starting outfield would remain mostly intact for one more memorable campaign.
Oscar Vitt, who led the 1937 Bears to victory, was hired by the Cleveland Indians, giving him his first chance to manage in the big leagues. This left a big void for New York Yankees owner Colonel Jake Ruppert and minor league impresario George Weiss to fill. In his book “Newark Bears,” Randolph Linthurst says, “Weiss realized that Vitt was worshipped by Newark fans and that after the 1937 successes of the Bears, the man tapped for the post would have to be popular and successful. The ownership decided on Johnny Neun and a wise selection it proved to be. First baseman on the 1932 and 1933 championship clubs, player-coach in 1934 and successful pilot at Akron and Norfolk in the Yankee chain, Neun was not a stranger to the fans and was suited for the task.”
Neun, a 37-year-old native of Baltimore, MD, made his pro debut in 1920 and after hitting .353-5-100 for St. Paul in 1924, was purchased by Detroit. He played for the Tigers for four years. 1927 was an eventful year for Neun. On May 31, against Cleveland, he became one of only two first basemen in major league history to execute an unassisted triple play. On July 9, against the Yankees, he stole five bases in one game and four days later, against Washington, he stole home twice in a double-header, once in each game. He was with Toledo and Baltimore in 1929, then was drafted by the Boston Braves for whom he played in 1930-31. His major league career average was .289 in 432 games, hitting only two home runs. Neun managed Newark through 1941 and the Bears were in the first division each year. His 1941 Bears were another Top 100 team. The Yankees switched him to Kansas City in 1942 and he managed the Blues again in 1943. From 1944-46 he was a coach for the Yankees and managed the team the last two weeks of the ’46 season after Bill Dickey was fired. He managed Cincinnati in 1947, finishing fifth, and in 1948 until August when he was replaced by Bucky Walters with the Reds in seventh place. Neun returned to the Yanks in 1948 and remained with the organization until 1969, working in scouting and player development. He then joined the Kansas City Royals as a scout and instructor and later was employed in the same capacity by the Angels and Brewers until his retirement in 1989.
The 1938 Bears picked up where the previous year’s great team left off. They won 22 and lost 4 in pre-season exhibition games, taking 21 of their last 22, including a 2-1 victory over the parent Yankees. When the regular season started it was more of the same. Newark won the April 22 opener at Ruppert Stadium, beating Buffalo 5-3 before a crowd of 15,298. The Bears won their first four games and by May 2 were 10-1 and had hit 20 home runs. Newark was never was out of first place. After six weeks, they had a 30-13 record and were first by seven games. In late May and early June the Bears had an 11-game winning streak, then won 14 in a row in the second half of the month. From May 28-June 23 Newark won 25 and lost 3. By July 1 they were 47-19 and possessed a 10-½ game lead. At the end of August their margin had increased to 14-½ games. Newark clinched the pennant on September 1, ten days before the close of the regular season. They finished with a 104-48, .684 record, 18 games ahead of second-place Syracuse. In the opening round of the Governors’ Cup Series, the Bears faced third-place Rochester. When they dropped three of the first four games, some writers opined that perhaps the Bears were not used to playing under pressure. However, they rallied and won the next three games, holding the Red Wings to one run in 27 innings. In the second round, Newark beat fourth-place Buffalo 4 games to 1 to advance to the Junior World Series. Their opponent was Kansas City, the other Yankee-owned Class AA club. The Blues had finished second in the American Association, six games behind St. Paul, then defeated Indianapolis, 4 games to 2, and St. Paul, 4 games to 3, to reach the Junior World Series. It was the first time two affiliates of the same major league club played each other in that series. The Blues featured several ex-Newark players. The Bears held a 3-2 series lead after five games, but then lost 4-2 and 8-4, giving Kansas City the title. Linthurst writes, “The Bears returned to Newark with $500 apiece, the loser’s share in the series. Thousands had turned out to welcome the triumphant 1937 Bears home from Columbus, but only six adults, four youngsters and the players’ wives were on hand when their train pulled into Newark this time.”
Newark led the International League in batting by a wide margin, .301 to Buffalo’s .284 and scored 1,004 runs, almost 200 more than the Bisons. The Bears also led in hits (1,574), total bases (2,402), doubles (287), RBI (934) and walks (748). They were second in home runs (147), two fewer than Buffalo.
The league’s batting champion was 24-year-old catcher Warren (Buddy) Rosar who hit .387-15-79 in 91 games. A native of Buffalo, NY, he was signed by the Yankees in 1934 and reached Newark in 1937. Rosar, who was plagued by injuries in his two years with the Bears, was out of action for two weeks early in the season and again in July after being hit on the head by a pitched ball. In addition to leading the league in batting, he also led the catchers in fielding (.993), making only three errors in 449 total chances. He moved up to the Yankees in 1939 and played in the American League for 13 years with New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston. He hit for the cycle for the Yankees against Cleveland, July 19, 1940. He appeared in three Major League All-Star Games, 1946-47-48. In 1946, with Philadelphia, Rosar set a major league record, since tied, by catching a full season, 117 games, 605 chances, without making an error. He also led American League catchers in fielding in 1944, 1947 and 1948. His major league career fielding average was .992. He batted .261 in 988 games.
All three of Newark’s starting outfield of 1937 returned for the ’38 season. The Bears’ best player was right fielder Charlie (King Kong) Keller, a powerfully built 5’10”, 190-pound left-handed hitter. In 1937 the 20-year-old Keller went directly from the University of Maryland to the top rung of the minors. All he did as a rookie was lead the International League in batting (.353-13-88), runs (120) and hits (189) and tie for the lead in triples (14). The Sporting News named him the Minor League Player of the Year. In 1938 he improved on those statistics, but finished second to Rosar in the batting race. Keller hit .365-22-129, led the league in runs (149), hits (211) and walks (108) and was second in RBI. He struck out only 56 times in 693 plate appearances. Frank Shaughnessy, International League president was quoted by Linthurst as saying “Keller was the greatest first year man in minor league history last season and is now one of the best players in all of baseball.” Baltimore business manager John Ogden, great pitcher of the Orioles dynasty of the 1920s, said, “Keller is the greatest player I have ever seen in the minors. Only Joe DiMaggio and Ducky Medwick are better players right now!”
Keller moved up to the Yankees in 1939 and hit .334-11-83 in 111 games. In the World Series he batted .438-3-6 as the Yanks swept Cincinnati in four games. He led all players in the Series in batting, homers, RBI, slugging (1.188), runs (8) and hits (7). He helped lead New York to pennants in 1941-42-43 and to World Series victories in 1941 and 1943. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball says “Keller was New York’s Mr. October before Reggie Jackson was born.” In his four World Series Keller batted .306-5-18 in 19 games with 18 runs scored. He joined the Navy after the 1943 season and returned to the Yankees in August 1945. His last full season as a player was 1946 when he hit .275-30-101 in 150 games. His first inning homer in the Major League All-Star Game started the American League on its way to a 12-0 rout. Problems with his back forced Keller out of the lineup for the season in June 1946 and limited him to part-time and pinch-hitting roles during the remainder of his 13-year major league career. He was released by the Yankees in December 1949 and signed by Detroit. After two years with the Tigers he returned to the Yankees in 1952, but quit after playing in only two games. He retired to his farm in Maryland, which he named Yankeeland, where he raised thoroughbred horses. His son, Charlie Keller III, played professional baseball, but was forced to retire because of similar back problems after leading the Eastern League in batting in 1961 while playing for the Yankees’ Binghamton farm club. The Yankee outfielder’s younger brother, Hal Keller, caught for Washington in 1949-50 and 1952. He was the farm director for the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers from 1964-78, player development director for Seattle, 1979-83, and Mariners’ general manager, 1984-85. In recent years he scouted for the Angels.
The most spectacular outburst of the season came from the bat of 31-year-old holdover center fielder Bob (Suitcase) Seeds. His teammate at Cleveland, outfielder Bibb Falk, gave him his nickname because he said Bob moved around so much he must have been living out of a suitcase. A native Texan and a right-handed hitter, Seeds began his pro career in 1926 and played for five full seasons, 1930-34, and part of a sixth, 1936, in the American League with Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and New York. He came to Newark in 1937 from Montreal and batted .305-20-114 in 151 games. Before 1937, he had never hit more than 13 home runs in a season. On May 6-7, 1938, at Buffalo, Seeds put on one of the most spectacular hitting feats in baseball history. In the two games he hit seven home runs, four of them in successive innings, which no one had ever done before, drove in 17 runs, reached base ten straight times and had nine hits and a walk in 11 plate appearances. Seeds had four homers and 12 RBI on May 6, three homers and five RBI on May 7. Newark won the two games 22-9 and 14-8.
On May 6 he singled in the second inning, homered with one man on base in the fourth, again homered with one on in the fifth, hit a grand-slam in the sixth, homered with one on in the seventh and singled in two runs in the eighth. On May 7 he homered in the first with two on, homered with the bases empty in the third, walked in the fifth, hit a solo homer in the sixth and finally was called out on strikes on a 3-2 pitch in the ninth. There was an oddity concerning the remarkable performance. Linthurst wrote “Bob wasn’t even using his own bat during the two games. He had borrowed Mickey Witek’s Pepper Martin model, a stick that was two inches longer than most bats and several ounces heavier.” Not surprisingly, Seeds switched to that model bat permanently.
In the first two months of 1938, Seeds hit .335 in 59 games with 28 home runs, 95 RBI, 73 runs scored and a .752 slugging percentage. At that pace, over a full 154-game season, he would have hit 73 homers and driven in 248 runs. The 28 homers placed him second in the International League for the season to Buffalo’s Ollie Carnegie, who hit 45. In June, the New York Giants purchased Seeds’ contract for a reported $40,000. During the remainder of 1938 he batted .291-9-52 in 81 games for the Giants. He was with New York in 1939-40, but not as a regular. His major league career average was .277 in 615 games with 28 home runs, the same number he hit for the Bears in 1938. He returned to the minors in 1941 with Baltimore, was with the Orioles and Indianapolis in 1942 and Little Rock in 1943-44. He managed the Travelers in the latter season, finishing fourth in the Southern Association. His minor league career average was .311-99-368 in 1,282 games. From 1946-49 Seeds owned and operated the Amarillo Gold Sox in the West Texas-New Mexico League, managing the team in 1946. He sold the club in 1950, but stayed on for a year as general manager.
Left fielder Jim (Gee Gee) Gleeson, a 26-year-old switch-hitter from Kansas City, MO, batted .310-16-81 and led the International League in doubles for the second straight year. In 1937 he hit 47 in 143 games, then increased that to 50 in 1938 although he was able to play in only 123 games. Gleeson began his pro career in 1933 in the Cleveland organization. After a fine year with New Orleans in 1935 (.320-13-105) in which he led the Southern Association in RBI and triples (21) he was promoted to the majors. He hit only .259-4-12 in 41 games for the Indians in 1936 and was sent back to New Orleans. He joined the Bears in 1937 and batted .298. In August 1938 he was sold to the Chicago Cubs to report the next spring. In one of the three Newark victories in the Junior World Series, Gleeson went 5-for-5, including a homer into the distant center field bleachers at Ruppert Stadium, as the Bears trounced Kansas City 21-4. His best season with the Cubs was 1940 when he batted .313-5-61 in 129 games, hitting 39 doubles and 11 triples. He was traded to Cincinnati in December 1940 and was released to Columbus early in 1942. Gleeson served in the Navy for three years in World War II. He rejoined Columbus in 1946, then was traded to Louisville. In 1947 he tied an American Association record for outfielders when he had a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage, handling 234 chances. After playing for Milwaukee in 1948-49 he returned to the Yankee organization as a player-coach at Kansas City in 1950. He managed Muskegon (Central) in 1951 and Binghamton (Eastern) in 1952 for the Yankees, finishing second both years and winning the playoff in ’52. He scouted for the Kansas City Athletics and was a major league coach for the team during part of the 1957 season. Gleeson was back with the Yankees organization in 1960-61, managing their AA clubs at Amarillo (Texas) and Binghamton. At Binghamton in 1961 one of his players was the son of his old Newark teammate, Charlie Keller. In 1964 Gleeson was a major league coach for the Yanks’ championship team. He closed out his career as a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Unlike the Newark outfield, the 1938 infield was completely different from that of the previous year. The first baseman was Les Scarsella who hit .307-14-89. Scarsella was on option from Cincinnati where he had been the Reds’ regular first baseman in 1936. He returned to the Reds in 1939. In five major league seasons he hit .284 in 265 games. 25-year-old Ham Schulte, born Herman Schultehenrich, hit .285-4-54 and led the league’s second baseman in fielding (.970) and double plays (83). He played one year in the majors, 1940, batting .236 for the Phillies and leading National League second basemen in fielding (.980). Schulte played in the high minors from 1934-46, then managed for several years. Third baseman Merrill (Pinky) May was Newark’s third highest hitter (.331-12-108) and was second on the team in RBI. In October, May was drafted by the Phillies. (His career is detailed in the resume of the Top 100 team he managed, the 1955 Keokuk Kernels.) Buddy Blair started the season at shortstop, but was limited to 49 games by injuries. His replacement was 22-year-old Mickey Witek (.296-6-60) who played for the New York Giants from 1940-48, batting .277. He led National League second basemen in fielding (.978), assists (441) and total chances (830) in 1942.
The Bears had no 20-game winners. Two pitchers tied with 17 wins each, right-hander Jack (Red) Haley (17-2, 3.47) and lefty Marius Russo (17-8, 3.15). Russo, 24, from Brooklyn, NY had the more successful career. In 1937 he went directly from Brooklyn College to Newark and was 8-8, 3.63. He was promoted to New York in 1939 and in five years with the Yankees had a 45-32, 3.10 record. He was 14-8, 3.28 in 1940 and 14-10, 3.09 in 1941. In World Series competition, Russo beat Brooklyn in the third game in 1941 with a complete-game 2-1 four-hitter and defeated St. Louis in the fourth game in 1943 with a complete-game 2-1 seven hitter, his only post-season appearances. He was in the Army for two years. He saw his last major league action in 1946, going 0-2, 4.34 in 6 games for the Yankees. Haley, a 23-year-old coal miner from New Salem, PA, was signed by the Yankees in 1934 and reached Newark in 1938. His .895 won-lost percentage led the International League. He won his first ten decisions and was 11-1 in July when he fell victim to pleurisy that sidelined him for several weeks. He recovered and went on to win two of Newark’s victories in the opening round of the playoff series against Rochester, giving up just one run in 18 innings. He shut out the Red Wings in the deciding game. Haley went to spring training with New York in 1939, but was returned to the Bears. He pitched for Newark, Columbus and Kansas City from 1939-41, but never came close to his winning 1938 record. After four years in the service he was 1-1, .4.85 in 13 relief appearances for the Bears in 1946, his last pro year.
Atley Donald, Newark’s leading pitcher in 1937, started the ’38 season with New York but was returned to the Bears on May 15, the majors’ cutdown date. He posted a 16-7, 3.66 record and led the league in strikeouts (133). 23-year-old right-hander Nick Strincevich, a one-time steeplejack from Gary, IN, was 11-4, 4.32 in both starting and relief roles. He pitched in the National League for Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia from 1940-48, with one year out for military service, with a 46-49, 4.05 record. The Bears’ principal reliever was 32-year-old left-hander Phil Page who had pitched briefly for Detroit (1928-30) and Brooklyn (1934). Page was purchased by the Dodgers from Seattle after leading the Pacific Coast League in losses in 1933 with a 10-24, 5.73 record. He was with Kansas City from 1934 until late in 1937 when he was transferred to Newark. In 1939 he returned to Kansas City, a Top 100 team, as a player-coach. Page managed in the Yankees organization in 1940 at Augusta (South Atlantic) and Norfolk (Piedmont) and in 1941 at Binghamton. He was a player-coach for Newark from 1942 through 1945, then scouted for the Yankees in 1946. From 1947-52 he was the Cincinnati Reds’ major league pitching coach. Page returned to the Yankee organization to manage Binghamton in 1953-54, finishing second and winning the Eastern League playoff in 1953. In 1955-56 he managed Binghamton, coming in second and fourth. He was a Yankees scout until June 1958 when he died of a heart attack following a Binghamton-Springfield game in his hometown of Springfield, MA.
Newark again dominated the International League All-Star Team as it had in 1937. The Bears’ all-stars were Scarsella, May, Witek, Keller, Rosar, Russo and Haley.
In 1941, yet another Newark team made the Top 100 list followed by an ordinary champion the next year. Shortly before the 1950 campaign, the franchise was relocated to Springfield, MA.
In comparing the two Newark champions of the late 1930s, the 1938 Bears out-hit their 1937 rivals by two points. They also scored more than 100 runs than their predecessors and out-homered them, 147 to 141. Despite this statistical superiority, the ’38 nine finished behind the 1937 club in the all-important category of wins - thus relegating them to a lesser yet still lofty position on the Top 100 list of great minor league teams.
|1938 International League Standings|
|1938 Newark Bears batting statistics|
|Leo Norris (Baltimore)||2B||78||262||35||72||27||11||2||5||24||37||1||.275|
|Bob (Suitcase) Seeds||OF||59||230||73||77||95||6||3||28||41||24||2||.335|
|1938 Newark Bears pitching statistics|