Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
| Bill Wambsganss|
(photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)
In the late 1920s, a team from America’s heartland bludgeoned the competition in one of the top minor league circuits in the land. Leading this team to victory was its young first baseman. Surprisingly, unlike most players occupying the position, this player accomplished his feats of glory not with power, but with speed.
The city of Kansas City, straddling the Kansas - Missouri border, got its first taste of pro ball in 1884 when it placed a team in the outlaw Union Association. Joining the league in June as a replacement for the defunct Altoona franchise, the Unions compiled a miserable 16-63 record over the rest of the season. Despite this lack of success, the team was one of only two Union franchises willing to play a second season in 1885 when the league folded.
After a one year gap, Kansas City returned to the major leagues, fielding a team in the National League. Here, the Cowboys fared little better than their Union brethren, finishing in seventh place with a 30-91 record. After being dropped from the National, Kansas City joined the rival American Association for a two-year stay beginning in 1888. Even in a third major league, the results were the same. The team finished last in 1888, rising only to seventh the following year.
During other 19th century years, Kansas City also participated in two minor leagues the Western Association (1888-91, 1893) and Western League (1885, 1887, 1892, 1894-99) which became the American League in 1900. In this space of time, the city earned more than their share of success, winning championships in 1888, 1890 and 1898.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Kansas City became one of the eight founding members of a brand new midwestern baseball league - the American Association. From the beginning, the team (called the Blues) struggled, not winning a pennant until 1918.
For a three year period during the teens, the Blues had company in the form of an outlaw loop - the Federal League. In June, 1913, the Covington (KY) Federal franchise moved to Kansas City where the team went 32-45 to finish fifth. During the next two seasons, the Federal raised itself to major league status, but the Packers remained in the second division in 1914, rising to fourth the following season.
Following World War I, the Blues put together a powerful Top-100 champion in 1923, which edged out St. Paul, which also made the list. After a few middling years, interrupted by a second place finish in 1927, Kansas City once more rose to the top - this time in the final year of the decade.
The 1929 Blues played winning baseball the entire season. Only once did the team lose as many as four games in a row and that slight setback was followed by a nine-game winning streak. Their main competition was a fine St. Paul club, but Kansas City took over first place to stay on June 19. The Blues clinched the pennant with one week remaining in the schedule and finally finished 8-½ games ahead of the Saints with a sparkling 111-56, .665 record - one of the best marks in American Association history. Kansas City led the league in only one offensive category, team triples (103). They were second in batting and third in fielding, but their pitchers gave up fewer runs (766 in 170 games) than any other team. Four of the seven pitchers with the lowest ERAs were Blues. Kansas City also was the American Association box office champion with an attendance of 281,376, 84,000 more than runner-up St. Paul.
In the Junior World Series, Kansas City faced an outstanding Rochester team that won the International League pennant by 11 games. The first four games of the best-of-nine series were played in Kansas City and when the teams shifted to Rochester the Blues held a 3-1 margin. The Red Wings won the first two games at home to tie the series at three wins apiece. The Blues took game seven, the second win for Lynn Nelson. After a day off, the next contest wound up in a 5-5 tie, called by darkness at the end of 11 innings. The next afternoon, Rochester took an early 4-0 lead, but Kansas City fought back and after seven innings the score was tied 5-5, the same as the day before. This time, however, the Blues pushed across a run in the top of the 11th to lead 6-5. Veteran right-hander Dixie Davis, who had celebrated his 39th birthday the day before, shut the door on the Red Wings in the bottom of the 11th and Kansas City was the Junior World Series champion.
The Blues were managed by 40-year-old former major league outfielder Edward Harrison (Dutch) Zwilling, who led Kansas City for nine seasons. Zwilling is in the trivia books on two counts. Of the thousands of players in major league history, his name is last alphabetically. He is also one of only two men who played for three major league teams in the same city in the 20th century. Dutch played for the Chicago White Sox in 1910, the Chicago Whales in the Federal League in 1914-15 and the Cubs in 1916. In 1914, the 5’6 ½ “ Zwilling hit .313-16-95, leading the Federal League in home runs and in 1915 he batted .286-13-94, topping the league in RBI. Dutch played for Indianapolis and Kansas City, then began managing in 1926 at Lincoln (Western). He was named skipper of the Blues in 1927, finishing third that year, just two games behind Casey Stengel’s pennant-winning Toledo Mud Hens, and tied for fourth in 1928. Kansas City dropped to fifth in 1930, was second in 1931 and sixth in 1932. Zwilling managed in the Western League in 1933-34, winning the pennant at St. Joseph in 1933 and coming in third at Sioux City in 1934. Dutch returned to Kansas City for three more years finishing third in 1935-36 and fifth in 1937. He managed Oakland (PCL) in 1938 and Birmingham (Southern) in 1939. Zwilling was a major league coach for Cleveland in 1941, then went into scouting, first for the Indians and Yankees. When the Mets were organized in 1961, Zwilling joined that club as a scout and remained with the team until his retirement in 1971.
| Joe Kuhel|
(photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Kansas City’s star first baseman was 23-year-old left-handed hitting Joe Kuhel, who batted .325 with 83 RBI and 135 runs scored. He hit only six homers, but led the league in triples with 26, eight more than his nearest competitor. In 1930, he was hitting .372 for Kansas City when the Washington Senators purchased his contract in July, beginning an 18-year major league career. Kuhel’s best year was 1933 when he hit .322 with 107 RBI and led the American League in fielding (.996) as the Senators won the pennant before losing the World Series to the New York Giants. Kuhel was the best fielding first baseman in the league in the 1930s, but never played in the All-Star Game because he had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Hall-of-Famers Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx. On May 13, 1937, he hit three triples in a game to tie the modern major league record. During spring training in 1938, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for first baseman Henry (Zeke) Bonura. “Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia” says “Sox fans were up in arms. The popular, flamboyant Bonura held the Sox’ home run record, but he fielded like an innocent bystander who didn’t want to become involved.” However, the quiet, hard-working Kuhel proved a bargain for Chicago. Bonura lasted just one season with Washington, but Joe “gave the White Sox the slickest first base play they had ever seen and hit with surprising power.” In 1940 he hit 27 homers to tie Bonura’s team record. Kuhel returned to Washington in November, 1943. In 1945 he was part of an unusual record. In 77 home games at spacious Griffith Stadium, the Senators set an all-time major league team record when they only hit one home run. That homer was hit by Joe Kuhel. He was repurchased by Chicago in June, 1946. His playing career ended in May, 1947, when the White Sox bought the Hot Springs club in the Class C Cotton States League and appointed Kuhel manager. In his big league career, Kuhel batted .277 with 2,212 hits in 2,104 games. He was named manager of the Senators in 1948. He didn’t have much to work with and Washington finished seventh in 1948 and last in 1949 with a combined 106-201 record. Kuhel was fired by the Senators after the 1949 season and retired from baseball.
The Blues had a quintet of hard-hitting outfielders, four of whom batted over .300. Ollie Tucker provided the most power. He hit .336 with a team leading 20 home runs and 108 RBI in 129 games, striking out only 21 times in 447 AB. Tucker, a 27-year-old left-handed hitter from Radiant, a town of 400 people in Northern Virginia, batted .335 with 2,496 hits and 238 home runs in 2,067 minor league games over 15 years, but hit only .155 in 34 games in the majors with Washington and Cleveland in 1927-28. The only time he batted below .300 in the minors was his last pro season, 1935, with Buffalo and Syracuse, when he hit .287. Denver Grigsby, another left-handed batter, was Kansas City’s best hitting regular (.345-4-94 in 140 games). Grigsby came to the Blues in 1926 after three years with the Cubs and hit over .300 in seven of his eight years with the team. He had batted .289 in 199 games for Chicago and had a .309 average in 14 minor league seasons. Fred Nicholson, a 34-year-old right-handed hitter, batted .344 in 98 games. He played ten seasons in the American Association, one with St. Paul, three with Toledo and six (1926-31) with Kansas City. Nicholson had a .311 average in 303 games in the majors with Detroit (1917), Pittsburgh (1919-20) and the Boston Braves (1922-23). He hit .360 for the Pirates in 1920. In the minors, in a career that stretched from 1913-35, he batted .303 with 2,479 hits in 2,219 games. In 1947-48, Nicholson was president of the Class C Lone Star League. Bob (Suitcase) Seeds, then a 22-year-old rookie up from Amarillo (Western), hit .342-4-57 in 100 games and was sold to Cleveland at the end of the season. Seeds played for the Indians, White Sox and Red Sox for five years, then achieved minor league stardom with the Top 100 Newark Bears of 1937-38. He returned to the majors with the Giants for 2-½ years, 1938-40.
The Blues’ best-known infielder was 35-year-old Bill Wambsganss, whose name frequently appeared in box scores as “Wamby.” In 1929, his last full season, he played 103 games at second and third, batting .295. Wamby had played ten years with Cleveland, two with the Red Sox and one with the Athletics (1913-26) with a .259 career average. On October 10, 1920, playing for Cleveland against Brooklyn, he executed the only unassisted triple play in World Series history. Harry Riconda, who hit .320-3-36 in 79 games at third base and shortstop, played for the Athletics, Braves, Dodgers, Pirates and Reds during six seasons between 1923 and 1930. In the 1920s he was a star in the early days of professional basketball with the Philadelphia Quakers and New York Whirlwinds.
On the mound, the Blues’ biggest winner was Max Thomas, a 23-year-old 6’3”, 170-pound left-hander with an 18-11, 3.11 record. Thomas won 208 games in a 19-year minor league career, but never pitched in the majors. The team’s best ERA belonged to the ill-fated Clyde (Pea Ridge) Day, a 30-year-old right-hander, whose nickname derived from his hometown of Pea Ridge, AR. Day went 12-5 and his 2.98 ERA was second in the American Association. The lives of Thomas and Day were to become intertwined in tragedy five years later. Day had pitched for the Cardinals and Reds briefly in 1924-25-26. He was drafted by Brooklyn from Kansas City after the 1930 season and went 2-2, 4.55 with the Dodgers in 1931 before returning to the minors. Day was described as “eccentric.” The Sporting News said he was “known as the hog-calling pitcher, whose piercing yells and screwball made him a unique figure in the game.” Hall-of-Famer Al Lopez, Day’s catcher with the Dodgers, recounted this story in an Associated Press interview. “One day in 1931, Day took the mound in an exhibition game against the Yankees. The fans had been reading about him being a champion hog caller, so they all started calling ‘Yip, yip yeeee!’ He strikes out the first hitter, puts the ball and glove down and lets out this call. He strikes out the next batter and does it again. Babe Ruth was on deck, and he gets a big kick out of it. He’s laughing at this guy. Then he has Ruth with two strikes. It gets real quiet. The fans are hoping he’ll strike out Ruth so he can yell again. On the third pitch, Ruth hits one a mile over the fence. Pea Ridge never did his hog call again.”
Day developed arm trouble and was released by Baltimore in 1933. He traveled to the Mayo Clinic for an expensive arm operation, but it didn’t help and he reportedly became despondent, a contrast to his usual carefree, fun-loving demeanor. In March, 1934, according to The Sporting News, he left Pea Ridge, AR, and went to Kansas City to seek treatment for lapses in memory. On March 21 he was visiting Thomas at the latter’s home when he suddenly took out a hunting knife and ended his life by slashing his throat despite Max’s attempt to stop him.
| Tom Sheehan|
(photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Lynn (Line Drive) Nelson, a 24-year-old right-hander, went 15-6, 2.99 and was third in the league in ERA. He won two games in the Junior World Series, one a 1-0 six-hitter in game three, besting Rochester ace Paul Derringer. At the end of the season he was purchased by the Cubs and pitched for them in 1930 and 1933-34. Nelson returned to the majors with the Athletics in 1937-38-39 and Detroit in 1940. He was a good hitter with Philadelphia, often used in a pinch-hitting role. In 1937 he batted .354-4-29 in 74 games. Nelson’s nickname, however, didn’t come from his offensive ability, but from the fact that so many hits off him were line drives. Rookie right-hander Lou Fette, used mostly in relief, went 7-3, 4.33. After eight years with Kansas City and St. Paul, he was purchased by the Boston Braves. In 1937, as a 30-year-old rookie, he posted a 20-10, 2.88 record and tied for the National League in shutouts (5). The most notable member of the Blues’ mound staff was 35-year-old Tom Sheehan, an American Association legend. Sheehan went 16-11, 3.78 and batted .341. Earlier in the decade he had starred for the Top 100 St. Paul teams in 1920, 1922 and 1923.
For the next 25 years, the Blues remained in the American Association, winning their share of titles. In 1936, the team became a farm team of the vaunted Yankees, which allowed the team to win a championship in 1938, followed by regular season titles the following two years with the 1939 champion securing a place in the Top 100 list. Later, the team won their final two championships in 1952 and 1953. In 1955, Kansas City and Columbus were replaced in the American Association by Omaha and Denver, with the former being eased aside when the Athletics moved west from Philadelphia. After the A’s left in 1968, Kansas City has been represented by the Royals from 1969 until the current day.
The 1929 Blues were a team that saw few equals in the nearly 100 years of the Association. In the storied history of the league, only two other teams (both Top 100 champions) were able to surpass Kansas City’s impressive 111 win total.
|1929 American Association Standings|
|1929 Kansas City Blues batting statistics|
|Pea Ridge Day||P||36||61||2||11||1||0||0||0||.180|
|1929 Kansas City Blues pitching statistics|
|Pea Ridge Day||12||5||.706||36||178||162||33||76||2.98|