Top 100 Teams
International League (Triple-A)
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
| Oscar Vitt|
In 1937, the New York Yankees’ top farm team obliterated the International League in an overwhelming season-long performance. Utilizing a lineup that many said could have competed successfully in the major leagues, the Newark Bears beat the rest of the field by a record margin. Capping the season, the team mounted a singular comeback against overwhelming odds in the Junior World Series.
After playing in a variety of minor leagues during the 19th century with mixed results, the city of Newark, New Jersey joined the top level Eastern League in 1902. Joining the Sailors in the Eastern that season was a team from nearby Jersey City. Through their years in the Eastern (later International League) the teams became became huge rivals. Located less than 10 miles apart, the two teams often played home-and-home holiday doubleheaders, consisting of a morning game in one location followed by an afternoon tilt in the opposing park.
In its first few years in the league, Newark floundered around in the second division, occasionally surfacing in the upper echelon. The team finished second in back-to-back seasons (1909-10) before winning its first flag in 1913.
Over the next several years in the league, the team continued to endure rocky times. In 1915, faced with Federal League competition, the team relocated to Harrisburg. The next year, after the Feds folded, the team took over the Peppers Park, playing there until the facility burned down in August, 1923. Two years later, plagued by poor attendance, the club was forced to find a new home and moved to Providence in May, 1925. Back in Newark the next year, the team finished third twice (1926-27), before finishing the rest of the decade in the second division. In 1931, the team, now called the Bears, rebounded to win 99 games, ending only two games behind Rochester’s fourth straight pennant-winning team. After the season, an event occurred which pushed the Bears over the top.
On November 12, 1931 the Bears were bought by beer magnate Jacob Ruppert, who also happened to own the New York Yankees. Ruppert’s stated purpose in buying the club was to use it for a developing ground for the Yankees, also sending the Bears spare parts from the big league club who were in need of a little International League seasoning. For Newark, the relationship worked well as the team won an impressive Top 100 pennant in 1932.
Following the initial success, the Bears went on to win flags in 1933 and 1934 as well. The 1933 club was led Jim Weaver’s league-leading 25 wins and 175 strikeouts while the 1934 squad was paced by future Yankee George Selkirk (.357) and by Vince Barton’s league-leading 32 homers. After a pair of rebuilding years in 1935 and 1936, the Bears came back stronger than ever the following season.
Newark started the 1937 campaign quickly and by May 20, had a 3-˝ game lead over the rest of the field. After winning 17 of 21 of their next games, the lead stretched to eight lengths as the team improved to 35-11. At the end of a lengthy homestand in June, the Bears’ record stood at 46-14, 13-˝ better than Montreal. In July, playing mostly on the road, Newark gradually increased its lead to 17 games. In August, playing mostly at home, the team bolted farther ahead, finally clinching the flag on August 23. The Bears ended the season with a splendid 109-43, .717 record, a whopping 25.5 games in front of Montreal. Overall, the team batted .299, scored 890 runs, collected 1,594 hits and hit 292 doubles and 80 triples - all league highs.
Following the regular season lambasting, Newark cruised through the International League playoffs in similar fashion. In the first round, the Bears beat Syracuse 2-1, 7-2, 8-0 and 3-1. In the finals, Newark also dispatched the Orioles in four straight: 2-0, 6-5, 7-5 and 10-7. The Baltimore series produced two games of interest. In the opener, Newark’s Joe Beggs tossed a one-hitter, the only hit coming on a hit smacked off the pitcher’s leg. In the second tilt, the game ended in a brawl when Baltimore batter Chet Wilburn objected to a called third strike, which ended the game. Although these two playoff wins were accomplished with ease, the road would get much tougher when the Bears went up against the American Association champion Columbus Redbirds in the Junior World Series.
Opening in Newark, Columbus took the first game of the series, 5-4. In the second game, the Bears spotted the Redbirds a 4-0 lead before tying the match, sending it to extra innings. In the 11th frame, Columbus pushed across a run to take the contest, 5-4. In the third game, the Redbirds took the lead in the sixth inning on an Enos Slaughter home run, going on to win the game 6-3. With a 3-0 series lead, and knowing the last four games (if necessary) would be played in Columbus, the Redbirds seemed confident in a victory. However, the Bears were not quite dead yet.
In Columbus, Newark staved off elimination with an 8-1 rout of the Redbirds. In game five, Newark ace Atley Donald threw a 1-0 three-hit shutout, pulling the Bears within a game. The shaken Columbus nine then proceeded to fall apart, dropping the sixth game, 10-1. The seventh game proved to be anti-climactic, as the Bears pounded the reeling Redbirds, 10-4, completing their remarkable comeback, the one and only time in the history of the Junior World Series such a feat had been accomplished. Ronald Mayer in his book “1937 Newark Bears,” says: “In the final analysis, the Newark Bears won the Little (Junior) World Series the same way they had won games throughout the regular season and into the playoffs. It was a combination of brilliant pitching, solid hitting, and tight defense…Newark sportswriters summed up the series and the season in these magnanimous words: ‘It was, in our opinion, the most dramatic triumph in the recent history of baseball - or any sport.’ “
The ’37 Bears were managed by 47-year-old Oscar “Ol Os” Vitt, who was in his second year at the Newark helm. Vitt was a native of San Francisco, but resided across the Bay in Oakland most of his life. He had intended to become an architect like his grandfather and graduated from the Wilmerding School of Industrial Arts in San Francisco. He was a sandlot star in spite of his size, 5’8” tall but weighing only 120 pounds. San Francisco Seals manager Danny Long offered Oscar $125 a month to play baseball and in 1910 he became the team’s third baseman, batting .232 in 205 games. He hit .269 in 1911 and was drafted by Detroit. He was a utility infielder during his first three years with the Tigers, then became the regular third baseman. In 1915, he had 385 assists and 593 chances accepted, modern major league records at the time. In March, 1919, he was traded to the Red Sox for three players. He remained with Boston for three seasons and in 1921 was a player-coach under manager Hugh Duffy. Vitt led American League third basemen in fielding three times, in 1915, 1916 and 1919. His major league career batting average was only .238 in 1,065 games. Vitt was sold to Cincinnati after the 1921 season, but as a ten-year player asked for and received his release. He signed with Salt Lake City in 1922 and was named manager for 1925. Vitt’s batting averages at Salt Lake were indicative of how the physical playing conditions in that city benefited the hitters. Oscar batted .315, .337, .333 and .345 in his four years there. He had hit only 4 home runs in ten years in the majors, but helped by the advent of the lively ball, he hit 19 in 1923 with 112 RBI in 188 games.
Salt Lake finished second in Vitt’s first year as manager with a team that featured Lefty O’Doul and Tony Lazzeri, who hit a record 60 home runs. The franchise moved to Hollywood after the ’25 season, and Vitt managed the Stars for the next nine years. In 1926, his batting average fell off to .252 in 110 games. His last year as a player was 1927 when he hit .375 in 32 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. He won back-to-back PCL championships in 1929-30. In 1931, starting May 7, Hollywood won 36 and lost 12 to vault from seventh to first place with an 8-˝ game lead. League directors again voted to split the season. In the second half, the Stars suffered one injury after another and lost 19 of their last 28 games to finish fifth. They lost the playoff to San Francisco, 4 games to none. There was no split season the next two years. Hollywood finished second in 1932 and third in 1933. In 1934, the Stars were fifth in the first half and a distant second to Los Angeles in the second half. In his book “Hollywood Stars,” Dick Beverage says: “Shortly after the season closed, Vitt resigned as manager. He had done so at the request of (owner) Bill Lane, he said. The Stars lost money again in 1934, and Lane was suffering financially. He wanted a playing manager in 1935 to save money. Although his announcement seemed plausible on the surface, relations between the two men hadn’t been good for several years. Vitt suspected that Lane had wanted to get rid of him for some time, and poverty was a convenient excuse….(Vitt) was extremely popular in Hollywood, and the fans were sorry to see him go…His clubs were always hustling….Vitt played hunches a lot and used his bench very well.”
In 1935, Vitt signed to manage his hometown Oakland Oaks. In Boston in 1920-21, Vitt had played for Ed Barrow, when the latter managed the Red Sox. Barrow, now the Yankees general manager, sent several players to Oakland in ’35. Under Vitt, the Oaks finished third overall in the split season. In his book “Nuggets on the Diamond,” the late Dick Dobbins wrote: “Vitt’s upbeat style was both abrasive and motivational.” Oscar obviously knew the game and was a good strategist. However, he apparently lacked what in today’s jargon could be called “people skills.” Interviewed for Dobbins’ book, “The Grand Minor League,” Frenchy Uhalt, who played for Vitt at Oakland, said, “Oscar Vitt was a good baseball man. He played with Ty Cobb, you know. Everybody who played for Cobb had to study the game just to keep up with him. He was full of tricks, but he had his shortcomings. As much as I admired Vitt, he would say things in front of his ball players that didn’t go very far. You can’t do that. He’d see a player on the opponents and say, ‘I wish I had him on my ball club.’ And here’s his player hearing that. You can’t say that and keep morale up.” In the same book, another Oak, Emil Mailho , said, “Vitt antagonized some of the players. He’d tell a player to his face what a great player he was, then he’d turn right around and bad-mouth him. That was a bad trait.” Those habits would lead to Vitt’s downfall five years later.
| Joe Gordon|
In 1936, Barrow hired Vitt to pilot the Yankees’ top farm team, the Newark Bears. Newark finished the season tied for second place with Rochester, then lost the one-game tie-breaker and was eliminated by first-place Buffalo in the first round of the International League’s Governors Cup Playoff. After the great 1937 campaign, Cleveland Indians President Alva Bradley hired Vitt away from the Yankees organization, giving him a multi-year contract and a bonus in addition to his salary. The contract was signed October 20, Oscar’s 22nd wedding anniversary. In the press conference, Vitt promised “a team that will hustle from April to November.”
Under Steve O’Neill, the Indians had finished fourth in 1937 and the team had not won a pennant since 1920. Cleveland came in third in both 1938 and 1939 with nearly identical records, 86-68 in ’38 and 87-67 in ’39. The 1940 season started auspiciously, April 16, with Bob Feller pitching a 1-0 no-hitter at Chicago on a bitter cold day. The Yankees, champions of four consecutive World Series in which they won 16 games and lost only 3, faltered. Instead of New York having a lock on first place, this time Cleveland, Detroit, Boston and Chicago all had a shot at the top rung of the ladder. The Indians were winning consistently and Cleveland was in first place in late May despite the increasing acrimony between Vitt and his players. The Sporting News said, “The situation reached a climax in Boston on June 11 while Feller was being hit hard by the Red Sox. Vitt stormed around the dugout, pounding the bench with a bat. ‘Look at him out there,’ he said. ‘My ace! And I’m supposed to win a pennant with pitching like that!’
“While returning to Cleveland that evening, a group of players met secretly on the train and drew a list of charges against Vitt to present to Bradley with the request that the manager be dismissed….The player committee met with Bradley on June 13 and presented their charges against Vitt, but Bradley refused to switch pilots. Gordon Cobbledick of the Cleveland Plain Dealer learned of the player rebellion and it became the biggest baseball story of the year.” The newspaper carried the story on its front page, calling the players “Crybabies.” Vitt reportedly was stunned and couldn’t believe the players wanted him fired. Around the league, especially in Detroit, the Indians’ principal rival for the league lead, fans and opposing players subjected the Indians to taunts and insults. In some instances, fans threw baby bottles, lollipops and diapers at the players. In spite of all this, Cleveland was battling the Tigers for first place into August, with the lead changing hands almost daily. In late August, Detroit suffered a slump and after the Labor Day weekend, the Indians led by four games. Then the Tigers rallied, starting by trouncing the Indians in a three-game series at home, 7-2, 11-3 and 10-5 to narrow the gap to just one game. By September 26, an off day for both clubs, Detroit held a two-game lead with three games to play. The final weekend found the two teams playing one another at Detroit. Vitt’s men would have to sweep the series to win the pennant.
The final battle was a managerial contest between two old teammates. Vitt and Detroit pilot Del Baker, a former catcher, had played together with the Tigers from 1915-17. In the series opener, Vitt started the league’s best pitcher, Feller, who was 27-10, 2.63. Baker wanted to give Schoolboy Rowe, whose turn it was to start, an extra day’s rest and, with the two game margin, could afford to gamble. He countered with a 30-year-old rookie, Floyd Giebell, who had been recalled from Buffalo, where he was 15-17, 3.73, at the end of the International League season. On September 19, he beat Philadelphia 13-2, going the distance in the game that put Detroit in a tie for first place with Cleveland. Tension at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium before the Friday afternoon opener, attended by 45,553 fans, was high. The Sporting News reported, “The crowd, which included 15,000 women (it was Ladies’ Day), displayed its hostility toward the Tigers by frequent showers of fruit, vegetables and eggs, interruptions causing the game to drag out to two hours and 39 minutes. The start of play was delayed when produce was tossed on the field….(catcher) Birdie Tebbetts, sitting on the bench, was knocked unconscious by a basket of tomatoes thrown from the upper deck. During the first inning, (left fielder) Hank Greenberg was struck by tomatoes when he caught a fly, the game being held up for ten minutes while the litter was removed. Umpire Bill Summers then warned the crowd that if the Detroit fielders were hampered by the throwing, each Cleveland batter who hit a fly ball would be called out….Vitt appealed to the crowd to ‘Please stop the throwing.’”
Feller pitched a three-hitter, but eight walks kept him in trouble. Detroit scored twice in the fourth inning on a walk to Charlie Gehringer and Rudy York’s two-out homer, his 33rd of the year. Cleveland had runners in scoring position in four innings, but each time Giebell bore down and escaped without a run crossing the plate. He pitched a six-hitter, struck out 6 and walked 2 as Detroit won the game 2-0 to clinch the pennant. After the game, Tigers owner Walter O. Briggs said he had decided to reward Giebell with a bonus equivalent to a full share of the World Series pool (the pitcher was not eligible for the Series). Giebell never won another major league game. In 1941, he was 0-0, 6.03 in 17 games, all but two in relief, striking out 10 and walking 26. He was shipped off to Buffalo, never to return.
After the game, Vitt and reliever Harry Eisenstat, a former Tiger, were the only Indians who went to the Detroit clubhouse to offer their congratulations. The next day, the mayor of Cleveland issued an official apology to Baker for the crowd’s behavior. Cleveland won the last two games, 2-1 and 3-2, to finish one game behind Detroit.
Vitt’s three-year contract ended with the closing of the season. No one expected Oscar to be back in 1941, but all Bradley would say was that the Indians’ board of directors would make their decision at the regular meeting October 28. On that date, the team made this terse announcement, “We have decided not to renew Oscar Vitt’s contract.” The Sporting News reported that Vitt, at home in Oakland, “was philosophical and slightly bitter. ‘I’m not surprised. It would have been impossible for me to work unless certain changes in personnel were made, and since there was no indication that they would be made, I saw the handwriting on the wall long ago.’ The Associated Press quoted Vitt as saying: ‘Just let the boys back there know I don’t intend to apply for unemployment compensation.’”
Vitt returned to the Pacific Coast League in 1941 to manage Portland. The Beavers had a poor team and finished last, as they did under three other managers in 1939-40 and 1942. Vitt went back to Hollywood, where he had been so popular, in 1942, but the Stars wound up in seventh place. In “Hollywood Stars,” Beverage says: “The season ended in gloomy fashion as the club merely went through the motions in September, losing 15 of the last 20 games. Oscar Vitt was not the same manager he had been in his previous tour of duty in Hollywood. He sniped at the players, was critical of them in the press and seemed much less organized than previously. Perhaps the experience at Cleveland had soured him.” That was the end of Vitt’s baseball career. Not long before his death in 1963, he told The Sporting News that many years earlier, The Saturday Evening Post had offered him a substantial sum of money to tell his side of the story of the 1940 Indians, but “I turned the offer down because it wouldn’t have done baseball any good. I like the game too much.”
The 1937 Newark Bears’ roster was filled with future major leaguers. Their most sensational player was 20-year-old outfielder Charlie (King Kong) Keller, a first-year pro from the University of Maryland. Keller led the International League in batting (.353-13-88), runs (120) and hits (189) and tied for the lead in triples (14). He was named Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. (The careers of Keller, fellow outfielders Bob Seeds and Jim Gleeson and catcher Buddy Rosar are detailed in the story of the 1938 Bears, Top 100 team No. 16.)
The Bear who had the most successful major league career was 22-year-old second baseman Joseph Lowell Gordon, called “Flash” after the popular comic strip character of the day. Gordon batted .280-26-89 in 151 games and was second in the International League in home runs and runs scored (109). Gordon was a native of Los Angeles, a right-handed hitter, 5’10” tall, weighing 175 pounds. He was a star shortstop at the University of Oregon, batting .418 as a sophomore, a halfback in football, competed in the long jump, was a gymnast and even found time to play the violin. He was signed by Yankees super scout Joe Devine and made his pro debut in 1936 with Oakland. Oaks manager Billy Meyer had intended to work the rookie into the lineup slowly, but when veteran shortstop Bernie DeViveiros suffered a broken finger, Gordon became a regular. He hit an even .300-6-56 in 143 games. The Yankees assigned Gordon to Newark in 1937 and decided to move him to second base. He led International League second basemen in putouts (383), assists (481), double plays (111) and errors (47). In 1938, Gordon replaced Tony Lazzeri at second base for New York. In his rookie year, he batted only .255, but hit 25 homers and drove in 97 runs in 127 games, following that up by hitting .400 in the World Series. He starred for the Yankees through 1943, then spent two years in the Army Air Corps. On his return to the Yankees in 1946, his average dropped to .210-11-47 in 112 games. In October, he was traded with infielder Eddie Bockman to Cleveland for pitcher Allie Reynolds. (Bockman is still active as a scout for the Marlins, having completed his 63rd year in baseball. After a long career as a player and manager, Bockman scouted for Philadelphia for over 30 years. Among the many players he signed are current major league managers Bob Boone and Larry Bowa. He won a scout of the year award in 1992.)
Gordon bounced back in Cleveland. In 1947 he hit .272-29-93 and in 1948 helped lead the Indians to the World Series championship, batting .280-32-124. The 32 homers still stand as the American League record for a second baseman. Gordon remained with Cleveland through 1950. His 11-year major league career record was .268-253-975 in 1,566 games. He hit 246 home runs as a second baseman, the American League record for that position. He led American League second basemen, or tied for the lead, in assists four times and in double plays three times. He was named second baseman on The Sporting News Major League All-Star Team in 1939-40-41-42 and 1947. Gordon was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1942 when he hit .322-18-103 in 147 games. Gordon played in eight Major League All-Star Games, hitting .200, and six World Series, batting .243-4-16 in 29 games. In the 1941 Series, as the Yankees defeated the Dodgers 4 games to 1, Gordon hit .500-1-5 (7-for-14), walked seven times and did not strike out. After the Series, Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy was quoted as saying, “The greatest all-around ball player I ever saw, and I don’t bar any of them, is Joe Gordon.”
Gordon was playing manager at Sacramento in 1951-52. The Solons were seventh in 1951 and eighth in 1952. He batted .299-43-136 in 148 games in 1951, leading the PCL in home runs and RBI. Gordon then took a job scouting for the Detroit Tigers, a position he held until July 9, 1956. On that date, he replaced Eddie Joost as manager of San Francisco. The Seals were now owned by the Boston Red Sox, who had acquired the franchise after the 1955 season. Joost had been appointed by Red Sox General Manager Joe Cronin, a fellow native San Franciscan. Joost managed the Philadelphia Athletics in 1954 and was a utility infielder with the Red Sox in 1955. He still played occasionally for the Seals. Joost began to have problems. The Seals lost nine in a row in late June, Joost had been suspended twice for run-ins with umpires and he knew that, despite his good relations with Cronin, Boston farm director Johnny Murphy did not like him. The situation reached a climax on July 8. Joost was playing third base and was ejected by the umpire after arguing a decision over a runner being called safe at the bag. Joost still had the ball in his hand and threw it out of the stadium. Naturally he was ejected again, and that night he was fired. Gordon replaced him with San Francisco in sixth place. The Seals were 33-29 under Gordon’s direction, but were unable to rise in the standings. In 1957, with an improved club, Gordon piloted the Seals to first place with a 101-67 record. Gordon made his last appearance as a player on the last day of the season, in the second game of a double-header with Sacramento. It was the Seals’ final game in the PCL before the invasion of the New York Giants. The game was loosely played, to say the least, and Gordon went 2-for-3, handling two chances at second base without an error.
On June 27, 1958, Gordon was hired to manage Cleveland, replacing Bobby Bragan with the Indians in sixth place. Under Joe’s direction, the Indians went 46-40 and climbed to fourth by the close of the season. In 1959, Gordon led Cleveland to second place, five games behind the White Sox and ten games ahead of third-place New York. Gordon and Cleveland GM “Trader Frank” Lane did not get along and when the Indians were eliminated from the pennant race September 22, Lane announced that Gordon was fired, then abruptly changed his mind. Gordon returned in 1960 and on August 3, with the Indians in fourth place, Lane and Detroit president Bill DeWitt shocked the baseball world. They announced an unprecedented trade in which the two teams swapped managers, Gordon going to the Tigers and Jimmie Dykes going to the Indians. Detroit went 26-31 under Gordon, finishing sixth. Citing interference from DeWitt as his reason, Gordon resigned the day after the season ended. On October, he signed to manage the Kansas City Athletics. That turned out to be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. In December, Charles O. Finley completed purchase of the Athletics and on June 19, 1961 with Kansas City in last place, Gordon became the first of many managers to be fired by Charlie. Life was more placid for Gordon after that. From October, 1961 through 1968, he was employed by the Los Angeles/California Angels as a scout and minor league batting instructor. He took one more fling at managing, piloting the expansion Kansas City Royals in their first season, 1969. The Royals finished fourth in the six-team Western Division with a 69-93 record. Gordon resigned at the end of the season and retired from baseball. He was in the real estate business in Sacramento until his death in 1978.
Newark’s first baseman was a 26-year-old Virginian, left-handed hitting George McQuinn. He started his pro career in 1930 and had worked his way up the ladder in the Yankees organization. In 1933 he hit .357-7-102 for Binghamton, led the Class A New York-Penn League in batting and was named the circuit’s MVP. For 1934, New York loaned him to Toronto where he hit .331. McQuinn played for Newark in 1935, batting .288 and led International League first basemen in fielding. Cincinnati purchased him conditionally in November, but after hitting .201-0-13 in 38 games, the Reds returned him to the Yankees. The Bears had Johnny McCarthy at first base, so McQuinn was once again loaned to Toronto where he hit .329 and led the first basemen in fielding. In 1937, he batted .330-21-84 in 114 games. He suffered a fractured thumb in a game in August, and did not return to the lineup for several weeks. With Lou Gehrig still going strong for the Yankees, New York left McQuinn unprotected on the Newark roster and in October he was drafted by the St. Louis Browns. In 1938, his rookie year, he batted .324-12-82 in 148 games, was second in the American League in doubles (42), fifth in hits and second among first basemen in fielding. From July 24 to August 25, he hit safely in 34 consecutive games. McQuinn was with St. Louis through 1945 and helped lead the Browns to their only pennant in 1944. In the ’44 World Series, won by the Cardinals 4 games to 2, George led both teams in hitting (.438-1-5). He was traded to the Athletics in October, 1945. Plagued by a chronic back problem, he slumped to .225-3-35 in 1946 and with the A’s having drafted Ferris Fain from San Francisco, McQuinn was released in December. Somewhat surprisingly, the Yankees signed McQuinn and in spring training he beat out four other competitors for the regular first baseman’s job. He hit .304-13-80 in 144 games, second best average on the team, in helping the Yanks to another championship. In 1948, now 38 years old, McQuinn dropped to .248-11-41 in 94 games and was released in October. In his 12-year big league career, McQuinn batted .276-135-794 in 1,550 games and had a .992 fielding percentage. He played in three Major League All-Star Games, in 1944, 1947, and 1948. He led American League first basemen in fielding in 1939-40-41 and 1944, in putouts in 1939 and in assists in 1939-40.
McQuinn began a managerial career in 1950, leading Quebec, one of the Top 100 teams, to the Canadian-American League championship. Quebec, a Braves farm club, moved to the Provincial League in 1951. McQuinn managed the team through 1954, winning championships his last three years. Still in the Braves organization, McQuinn managed Atlanta (Southern) in 1955, Boise (Pioneer) in 1956-57 and Topeka (Western) in 1958. He then scouted for the Braves, Senators and Expos until he retired in 1972.
Next to Keller, the highest batting average in the International League belonged to the Bears’ Ellsworth Tenney (Babe) Dahlgren, who played 85 games at third base and 40 at first. A right-handed batter, he hit .340-18-86 and was third in the league in triples (12). Dahlgren, a San Francisco native, was signed by his hometown Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League in 1931 when he was 19. He had graduated from Mission High, about a mile from Seals Stadium where the Reds played their home games. Before his 20th birthday, he was Mission’s regular first baseman. He hit .287-11-101 in 1932, .315-6-116 in 1933 and .302-20-136 in 1934, leading PCL first basemen in putouts all three years. Dahlgren was purchased by the Boston Red Sox and hit .263-9-63 in 149 games in 1935. Then the Red Sox acquired Jimmie Foxx from the Athletics and Dahlgren was sent to Syracuse in 1936. He batted .318-16-121 for the Chiefs and led the International League in triples (21). The Yankees purchased him from the Red Sox and optioned him to Newark for 1937. Dahlgren was with New York all of 1938, but got into only 27 games, batting .186. In 1939, he had the unenviable task of replacing Lou Gehrig when the Yankee immortal was forced by illness to retire on May 2. He batted .235-15-89 in 144 games and hit .214-1-2 in the World Series. Babe hit .264-12-73 in 1940, playing every game at first base, but he was never well liked by manager Joe McCarthy and the Yankees sold his contract to the Boston Braves in February, 1941. In the next six seasons, Dahlgren played with five more major league clubs: The Braves and Cubs in 1941, Cubs, Browns and Dodgers in 1942; Phillies in 1943, Pirates in 1944-45 and Browns again in 1946. His best year was 1944 when he batted .289-12-101 in 158 games and played in the Major League All-Star Game. He was with Baltimore in 1947 and Sacramento in 1948 before retiring as a player. His major league career average was .261-82-569 in 1137 games. He scouted for the Athletics and Orioles in the late 1950s and returned to the majors as a coach for Kansas City in 1964 under manager Ed Lopat.
The shortstop was 34-year-old Nolen Richardson, an excellent fielder who batted .257-0-67, playing in all 153 games. Although not much of an offensive threat, he put the ball in play, striking out only 26 times in 596 plate appearances. A fine bunter, he was second in the league in sacrifice hits (25). He led the shortstops in fielding (.961), assists (496), chances accepted (786) and double plays (105). Richardson was tall for a shortstop of that time, 6’1-˝ “, and had exceptionally long arms and big hands. A native of Chattanooga, TN, he grew up in Atlanta, GA, and was attending the University of Georgia when he was signed by Detroit in 1926. He played for the Tigers in parts of 1929 and 1931 and all of 1932 as a reserve infielder. Richardson was with Toronto from 1929-31 and in 1933-34 and was the International League’s all-star shortstop in 1934. Cincinnati purchased his contract at the end of 1934, but sold him to Newark before the 1935 season. He played briefly for the Yankees in 1935, then returned to Newark. After the 1937 season, the Yanks sold Richardson to Baltimore. Cincinnati reacquired him in 1938 and he hit .290 in 35 games for the Reds. They sold him to Indianapolis in 1939 and he played two seasons for the Indians before retiring. In 1951, Richardson had completed his first year as head baseball coach at the University of Georgia when he died suddenly on September 28 at the age of 48.
Frank Kelleher, a 20-year-old 6’1”, 195-pound right-handed hitter in his first full year in pro ball, batted .306-11-48 in 92 games, playing third base and the outfield. Another San Francisco native, Kelleher was signed off of the St. Mary’s College campus in June, 1936 and hit .348 with 17 homers and 61 RBI in 56 games at Class C Akron (Middle Atlantic). He developed into one of the most prolific home run hitters in minor league history. He played briefly with Kansas City and Oakland in 1938 before returning to the Bears, was with Newark in 1939 and Seattle in 1940, but didn’t become a regular until 1941. In that year, he hit .274-37-125 in 151 games for Top 100 Newark, leading the International League in home runs, RBI and runs scored (106). He started 1942 with the Bears, then was purchased by Cincinnati, but batted only .182-3-12 in 38 games. After going 0-for-10 in 1943, the Reds sent him to Syracuse. Kelleher refused to report to Syracuse in 1944 and Cincinnati gave in and sent him to Hollywood. He had an outstanding year with the Stars, coming within .00032 of a point of winning the Triple Crown. He hit .329-29-121 in 130 games. Frank spent all of 1945 and the first two months of 1946 in the service. He was with Hollywood for the rest of his career, retiring at the end of the 1954 season. Kelleher led the PCL in homers one more time, banging out 40 in 186 games in 1950. In “Hollywood Stars,” Dick Beverage writes, that when he retired: “A day was held in his honor during which his familiar number 7 was retired, the only occasion in Hollywood history when this was done. Kelleher hit 226 home runs in a Stars’ uniform, more than anyone who ever lived. He was probably the most popular Hollywood player ever and is usually the first player mentioned today when the Stars are remembered. He was not particularly fast and was just slightly better than average in the outfield…but he was a good hitter and served the Stars well during his ten years at Gilmore Field.” Kelleher had a career .283-358-1,360 average in 2,011 minor league games, ranking in the top twenty in home runs.
Newark’s number one catcher was the ill-fated Willard Hershberger. The 27-year-old right-handed hitter batted .325-5-62 in 96 games. He was signed by Washington in 1929 after graduating from Fullerton, CA, High, the alma mater of Hall-of-Famers Walter Johnson and Arky Vaughan. He was released during the season and signed for 1930 by the Yankees. He was a second baseman in high school, although he had caught a few games. Hershberger played his first two years with El Paso (Arizona-Texas). During the 1931 season, El Paso suddenly lost both its catchers because of injuries and Bill was the only other player available with any experience behind the plate. That’s where he stayed. Having been an infielder, he was faster and more agile than most catchers. El Paso won the pennant, Hershberger hit .356 and was named the league’s all-star catcher. The Yankees sent him to Springfield (Eastern), Erie (Central) and finally Newark in 1932. In 1933 he was at Binghamton (New York-Penn). With both Erie and Binghamton he was the league’s all-star catcher. He caught for Oscar Vitt at Hollywood in 1934, batting .307 in 114 games. He was with Newark all of 1935 and the first month of 1936, then spent the rest of that season with Oakland. On December 1, 1937, New York traded Hershberger to Cincinnati for first baseman Les Scarsella and shortstop Eddie Miller. For the next three years he was the Reds’ backup catcher behind Ernie Lombardi. He hit .276 in 49 games in 1938 and .345 in 63 games in 1939. He got into three games in the 1939 World Series and went 1-for-2.
In 1940, Hershberger was batting .378 in 40 games when Lombardi sprained his ankle in a game on July 23. Hershberger took over behind the plate. In the next eight games, Bill went 4-for-33, going hitless in the five games the Reds lost during that stretch. He was 0-for-5 in the second game of the August 2 double-header at Boston. His roommate, Bill Baker, had caught the first game. It was the first time that season the Reds had lost twice in one day. Manager Bill McKechnie later told Cincinnati baseball writer Tom Swope that he noticed Hershberger was especially moody as he dressed after the game. McKechnie talked with Bill for some time before they left the park and then brought him to his suite at the Copley Plaza Hotel where they conferred for more than two hours. McKechnie said he tried to reassure Hershberger that everything would be all right and that he would soon snap out of his slump. At that time, McKechnie said, Bill told him that he had tried to do away with himself earlier that day, but lacked the nerve to go through with it. Hershberger seemed to respond to McKechnie and told the manager he had shaken off his despondency. The two went to dinner together and McKechnie told Swope that, at that time, he felt he had saved the young catcher’s life. The next day, when the rest of the team left for Braves Field, Hershberger stayed in the hotel lobby, but told pitcher Paul Derringer that he would be out soon, catch one game and go 4-for-4. (Lombardi was ready to return to the lineup that day.) When he didn’t appear by 1:10 p.m., traveling secretary Gabe Paul telephoned him in his room. Hershberger said that, while he didn’t feel well and couldn’t play, he would come to the park and watch the games. When he failed to make an appearance by the end of the first game of the double-header, McKechnie asked a close friend of Hershberger’s, who was at the game, to go to the hotel. The door to his room was locked and when a maid used her key to get in, they found Hershberger dead in the bathroom. He had cut his jugular vein with a razor blade. Swope wrote that “Hershberger left no note, but none was needed to explain his actions as he had told McKechnie the night before he was going to end his own life at some future time because ‘my father did it and I’m going to do the same.’” Later, the players voted a full share of the World Series money, $5,800, to Hershberger’s widowed mother.
Newark’s top four starting pitchers: Joe Beggs (21-4), Atley Donald (19-2), Vito Tamulis (18-6) and Steve Sundra (15-4), combined for an amazing 73-16, .820 record. Add veteran Kemp Wicker (7-2), who was with the Bears on option from late May into July, and the five hurlers accounted for 80 of Newark’s 109 victories and 12 shutouts.
Beggs, a 26-year-old right-hander from Aliquippa, PA, tied for the International League in wins and was third in ERA (2.61). After graduating from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA, in 1934, Beggs was signed by the Yankees. In 1936 he went 22-9, 3.70 for Norfolk and led the Piedmont League in wins. After 1937, Beggs was promoted to the Yankees, but after going 3-2, 5.40, he was sent back to Newark for the next year-and-a-half. He was traded to Cincinnati for pitcher Lee Grissom in January, 1940, and for the next four seasons was one of the premier relievers in the National League. In his rookie year he went 12-3, 1.99 in helping pitch the Reds to the pennant and made one brief appearance in the World Series. In 1944 he was in one game, pitching a nine-inning shutout, before joining the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant. Returning to Cincinnati in 1946, Beggs became a full-time starter, going 12-10, 2.32, third in the league in ERA. After a slow start in 1947, he went back to the bullpen and in June was traded to the Giants. After pitching only 1/3 inning in 1948, he retired. His major league career record was 48-35, 2.96.
Donald, a 26-year-old right-hander who grew up in the bayou country of Louisiana, led the International League in winning percentage (.905) and had a 3.22 ERA. He won his first 14 decisions, the longest winning streak in the league since Rube Parnham of Baltimore won his last 20 starts in 1923. Unlike other Bears, when Donald was still an amateur he wasn’t pursued by the Yankees, he had to chase them. Although he pitched well at Louisiana Tech, he was ignored by Yankee scout Johnny Nee. Wanting to pitch for New York, he went to St. Petersburg, FL, well in advance of spring training in 1934 and was waiting when the team arrived. He wangled a tryout and so impressed Joe McCarthy that the Yankees signed him. He was 11-10, 4.55 at Wheeling (Middle Atlantic) in 1934 and 13-13, 3.11 at Norfolk in 1935, leading the Piedmont League in strikeouts (160). At Binghamton in 1936, Donald improved to 19-9, 3.12, striking out 189 and walking 65 in 248 innings. He led the NYP League in strikeouts and was third in ERA. He won 12 straight before losing to Trenton, August 24.
Donald started 1938 with New York, but after going 0-1, 5.25 in two starts with 14 walks in 12 innings, he was sent back to Newark. He went 16-7, 3.66 for the Bears and in 1939 moved up to the Yankees for good. In ’39 he had a 13-3, 3.71 record, leading the American League in winning percentage (.813). He won his first 12 games, tying the modern major league record for the most consecutive games won by a rookie. The record, shared with two other pitchers, still stands. Donald remained with the Yankees through 1945, when his playing career was ended by an elbow injury that required surgery in July. Donald pitched in two World Series, 1941 and 1943. His career record was 65-33, 3.52. He never had a losing season in 12 years of pro ball. For 28 years, from 1947 to 1975, he scouted for the Yankees. Probably his best known signing was a fellow Louisiana product, Ron Guidry.
The 5’9”, 170-pound Tamulis (18-6, 3.98), of Lithuanian descent, was one of the Bears’ two left-handed starters (Marius Russo was the other). A native of Cambridge, MA, he was a prep sensation at Boston English High, pitching his school to the city championship in 1930. Turning down several college scholarship offers, he was signed by Yankees scout Gene McCann shortly before his 19th birthday. He worked his way up the Yankee chain, Chambersburg (Blue Ridge), Cumberland (Middle Atlantic), Albany (Eastern) and Binghamton (NYP), culminating in 1934 with a 13-7, 2.74 record at Newark, striking out 135 and walking 70 in 217 innings. He made his major league bow September 25, pitching a seven-hit shutout at Philadelphia. Tamulis had a successful 10-5, 4.09 record with three shutouts for the Yankees in 1935. During the winter, he was stricken with pleurisy and missed half the 1936 season. Still not fully recovered, he was sent to Newark and remained there in 1937. After the ’37 season, he was traded to the St. Louis Browns. After going 0-3, 7.63 in 1938, he was claimed on waivers by Brooklyn and enjoyed three successful seasons with the Dodgers, going 29-19, 3.77. In November, 1940, Tamulis was traded to the Phillies in the deal that brought Kirby Higbe to Brooklyn. After six games with Philadelphia in 1941, he was back with the Dodgers, but after going 0-1, 5.56 in 18 total games he was released to Nashville. In 1942 he was 20-8, 4.28 in helping the Vols to the Southern Association and Dixie Series championships. He entered the service after the ’42 season and did not pitch again after the war.
Sundra, 27, ranked eighth in the league in ERA (3.09). He was a native of Luxor, PA, where his father was a coal miner. The family moved to Cleveland when he was 16 and Steve starred in sandlot ball there. He was signed by the Indians and made his pro debut in 1932, moving up to Toledo in 1934. Cleveland optioned Sundra to Minneapolis and Newark in 1935 and the Yankees obtained him in a trade in December. In 1936, he was 12-9, 2.84 for Newark, leading the international League in ERA. After one relief appearance with the Yankees in April, 1937, he was optioned back to Newark. Sundra pitched for New York for three years. His best season was 1939 when he went 11-1, 2.75. He won his first 11 decisions, not losing until the next-to-last day of the season. Combined with three victories at the end of 1938, he won a total of 14 straight games. He made one relief appearance in the 1939 World Series. Sundra was sold to the Washington Senators in March, 1941, and traded to the St. Louis Browns in June, 1942. He had a 15-11, 3.25 record for the Browns in 1943. He started 1944 going 2-0, 1.42 in three starts, then entered the Army in May. He returned to the Browns in 1946, but after going 0-0, 11.25 in two games in relief, he was released on May 29. That was the end of his baseball career. Later, he sued the Browns under the G.I. Bill of Rights, claiming that he should have been kept on the roster for one year. He asked for $5,413, the difference between what he had been paid and his 1946 salary, but lost in Federal court in a decision rendered in 1949. He worked in construction until he fell ill in late 1950. He died in March, 1952, four days before his 42nd birthday, a victim of cancer.
As an example of how completely the Bears dominated the league is the All-Star team selected by the International League’s managers at the end of the season. Bears were listed at every position but one: 1B - McQuinn, 2B - Gordon, 3B - Dahlgren, SS - Richardson (tied with Greg Mulleavy, Buffalo, and Wimpy Wilburn, Baltimore), CF - Seeds, RF - Keller, C - Hershberger and Rosar, P - Beggs and Sundra. Johnny Hopp of Rochester was the left fielder and Marvin Duke of Montreal was the third pitcher.
In its last dozen years in the International League, Newark walked away with several more titles, which included another pair of Top 100 teams in 1938 and 1941. Following the 1949 season, a victim of poor attendance, Newark relocated to Springfield, MA.
Whether or not the Bears could have been competitive in the big leagues is a matter for speculation. The team was located near the New York press machine, which kept feeding the public stories about its prowess. What we do know is that the team completely crushed the competition in one of the three top minor leagues in the land, winning the pennant by a record amount. Beggs, in remarks made at a reunion dinner in 1979, chronicled by Mayer, said: “There is no doubt in my mind that this was the best team in minor league history.”
If they weren’t, they certainly were close.
|1937 International League standings|
|1937 Newark Bears statistics||BATTER||POS||GP||AB||R||H||BI||2B||3B||HR||BB||SO||SB||BA|
|Babe Dahlgren||3B, 1B||125||482||106||164||86||34||12||18||48||42||2||.340|
|Frank Kelleher||3B, OF||92||294||47||90||48||15||4||11||25||32||2||.306|