Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Led by a future major league battery, this club finished with one of the largest margins of victory in minor league annals. Leading his charges to victory was a veteran manager who would achieve distinction in his own right.
The town of Keokuk, located on the Mississippi River in the southwestern corner of Iowa, joined the first major league organization, the National Association, in 1875. After going 1-12, the Western club dropped out of the league in May. Ten years later, Keokuk joined the ranks of minor league ball, albeit briefly. On June 6, 1885, the town inherited the 4-22 record of the disbanded Omaha club - the Western League’s worst team. Nine days later, after going 3-5, the Hawkeyes found themselves without a league when the Western folded.
In the first part of the 20th century, a team called the Indians spent 12 years (1904-15) in the Class D Central Association. During the first four years, when the circuit was named the Iowa State League, the team finished no higher than fourth in any season. In the next eight seasons, the Indians fared little better, ending over the .500 mark only once.
In 1929 Keokuk returned to professional baseball, placing a team in the Class D Mississippi Valley League. This entry, also known as the Indians, won the town’s first title in 1931, finishing two percentage points ahead of Cedar Rapids. Following the 1933 season, in which Keokuk finished last, the now Class B league disbanded. Two years later, the Indians joined the Class A Western League for a single season, and finished sixth.
After World War II, Keokuk joined a revival of the Central Association, now a Class C circuit. The team, known as the Pirates after their major league sponsor, hit a high point of second place (1949) in their three years in the league.
In 1952, Keokuk joined the Three-I League, an established Class B circuit. The Three-I (Indiana-Illinois-Iowa) had been around since the start of the century, although it lay dormant for several seasons in the 1930s. The Keokuk Kernels’ first two seasons were spent in the second division, but when the team joined the Cleveland Indians’ family of clubs, the dividends were felt immediately. The team finished a close second in 1954, setting the stage for a record-breaking performance the following year.
Keokuk was managed by 44-year-old Merrill (Pinky) May, who had captained Indiana University’s Big Ten championship team in 1932. May was signed by famed New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell and advanced steadily through the organization. In 1938 he hit .331-12-108 for the Top 100 Newark Bears (International) and was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in October. May was the Phillies’ third baseman for the next five years and led the National League in fielding three times. In 1940 he played in the Major League All-Star Game. That was his best year at the plate, batting .293 in 138 games. He had a career .275 average in 665 games. May was hard to strike out, fanning only 121 times in 2,215 times at bat. After service in the Navy, May began his managerial career in 1947 at Albany (Eastern), a Pittsburgh affiliate, where he remained for five years. His 1949 Senators finished first by 14 games, but lost the first round of the playoffs. May joined the Cleveland Indians organization in 1952 and piloted Spartanburg, Sherbrooke and Reading before landing in Keokuk in 1955. In the last week of their championship season, Keokuk fans honored Pinky with a night and presented him with a purebred Hereford heifer for his 140-acre farm at Laconia, IN. He stayed in Keokuk two more years, then managed ten other minor league teams until he retired after the 1971 season. He led two other teams to league titles and piloted two clubs that finished first and lost in the playoffs. Despite a 1,624-1,534, .514 record, May never got a chance to return to the big leagues except vicariously. One year before he retired, his son, catcher Milt May, embarked on his own 15-year major league career.
Russ Nixon, only 20, led the Three-I League in batting (.387-5-77), 36 points ahead of runner-up Gordy Coleman, and hit safely in 32 consecutive games ending July 11. It was his second consecutive batting title. In 1954, playing for Jacksonville Beach, he hit .387-6-96 to lead the Florida State League. Nixon jumped all the way to AAA Indianapolis in 1956 where he hit .319. He arrived in Cleveland in 1957 and spent 12 years in the majors with the Indians, Red Sox and Twins with a .268 average in 906 games. When his playing career ended, Nixon began managing in the Cincinnati organization in 1970. After six years as a manager, he was a major league coach for the Reds until July 21, 1982, when he replaced John McNamara as Cincinnati skipper. Nixon managed the Reds from then until the end of 1983, finishing sixth in the National League West both years. He was a major league coach for Montreal in 1984-85 and Atlanta in 1986-87. He started 1988 as manager of the Braves’ AA Greenville farm club and on May 22 replaced Chuck Tanner as Atlanta pilot. Nixon managed the Braves until he was replaced by Bobby Cox, June 22, 1990. Once again, Nixon’s teams finished sixth in the National League West in 1988-89 and were sixth when he was fired in 1990.
Coleman, 21, batted .349-16-77 in 93 games. He moved up to AA Mobile in 1956, where he switched to first base, then spent two years in the service. Returning to Mobile in 1959, Coleman hit .353-30-110 to win the Southern Association Triple Crown. He went 8-for-15 in six games for Cleveland at the end of the season and was traded to Cincinnati in December. After three months with Seattle (PCL) in 1960, Coleman was promoted to the majors and was the Reds’ first baseman until 1967. His best year was 1961 when he hit .287 -26-87 in 150 games and led National League first baseman in assists (121). He helped lead Cincinnati to the pennant, batting .250 in the World Series, which the Reds lost to the Yankees, four games to one. Coleman had a career .273 average with 98 home runs. He was named to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1972. At the time of his death in March, 1994, Coleman was a member of the Reds’ television broadcasting team.
The Kernels had a true utility player, 24-year-old Enrique (Hank) Izquierdo, a native of Matanzas, Cuba. During the season, he played at least one game at each of the nine positions, batting .302-7-55 in 119 games. He saw the most action in the outfield, 57 games, and was behind the plate in 27 contests. He remained in the Cleveland organization for seven more years, although he was on loan to Havana (International) in 1957-58-59. In 1961 he was a player-coach at Jersey City (International) and in 1962 was Cleveland’s bullpen catcher. Minnesota picked him up in 1963 and he finally made the majors in 1967 at the age of 36 when the Twins brought him up from Denver (PCL). He hit .269 in 16 big league games. Izquierdo was at Oklahoma City (American Association), Houston’s AAA club, in 1968-69, the second year as a player-coach. In December, 1968, he was driving a taxi in Miami, FL, when he was shot in the stomach during a holdup and almost died. In 1969, he was suspended for the last six weeks of the season for swinging a bat at the head of Tulsa catcher Ted Simmons during an altercation at home plate. Starting in 1970, he played and managed in the Mexican League for several years.
Another 1955 Kernel who reached the majors at an advanced age was outfielder Billy Williams, who played the first month of the season with Keokuk. In August, 1969, in his 18th year of professional baseball, after nine seasons in the Pacific Coast League, the Seattle Pilots brought the 36-year-old outfielder up from Vancouver. He got into four games, going 0-for-10, then was released. He owned a men’s clothing store in Berkeley, CA, and became well-known as an expert on wines. After almost twenty years away from baseball, his old friend, Cleveland manager Doc Edwards persuaded him to return to the game. In 1988-89, Williams coached and managed in the Indians organization, then became a major league coach on the staff of Cleveland manager John McNamara. From 1992-99, he again coached and managed in the Indians farm system.
Catcher Armando Flores, who hit .324 for Keokuk in the first month of 1955 before going to the Mexico Tigers of the Mexican League, is in the record book for an earlier rare achievement. On June 25, 1952, playing for Laredo TX, in the Gulf Coast League, he became one of only three minor league players ever to hit two grand-slam home runs in one inning. It happened in the 12-run eighth inning of a 30-7 rout of Texas City.
On the mound, Keokuk’s top winner was right-hander Jim (Mudcat) Grant, who turned 20 on August 13. Grant went 19-3, 3.46, leading the league in wins and percentage (.864) and tying for the lead in complete games (16). He celebrated July 4 with some fireworks of his own by hitting three homers and driving in seven runs in a 12-2 victory, the home runs coming in consecutive innings, the sixth, seventh and eighth. A year earlier, in his first pro season, Grant led the Northern League in wins (21-5, 3.40). His 14-year major league career began with Cleveland in 1958, and he pitched for the Indians until he was traded to Minnesota in June, 1964. Grant’s best season was 1965 when he was 21-7, 3.30 in helping pitch the Twins to the American League pennant. He led the league in wins, percentage (.750) and shutouts (6). In the World Series, which the Twins lost to the Dodgers, 4 games to 3, Grant went 2-1, 2.74 with complete-game victories in the first and sixth games. He also pitched in the Major-League All-Star Game in 1965 and was named American League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. After three seasons with Minnesota, Grant pitched for Los Angeles, Montreal, St. Louis, Oakland and Pittsburgh. He had a 145-119, 3.63 career record. Mudcat had a younger brother, left-hander Julious (Swampfire) Grant, who also started in the Cleveland organization and got as far as the Pacific Coast League.
Bill Dailey, a 20-year-old right-hander, went 17-4, led the league in ERA (2.52) and was second in shutouts (4). He pitched for Cleveland and Minnesota from 1961-64 with a 10-7, 2.76 record. His best year was 1963 with the Twins, 6-3, 1.99 with 21 saves. Second to Dailey in the league in ERA was 22-year-old Bob Yanen (17-4), 3.12) After a 9-11 year at Mobile (Southern), he developed arm trouble and never won another game. One other 1955 Kernels pitcher reached the majors. He was 21-year-old right-hander Bobby Locke (8-4, 4.15), who came down from Reading (Eastern) in mid-season. Locke pitched for Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and California during nine seasons between 1959 and 1968 with a 16-15, 4.02 record.
Keokuk placed three players on the Three-I League All-Star team, Nixon, Coleman and Izquierdo. May was chosen Manager of the Year. Although the Kernels had five of the top nine pitchers in the league in ERA, none of them, not even Grant or Dailey, made the All-Star team.
Despite their great record, the Kernels were seventh in attendance, drawing only 39,179 fans through the gate. After two more years with no improvement in attendance, Keokuk dropped out of the Class B Three-I League and joined the Class D Midwest League. As a Cardinals farm club from 1958-61, Keokuk finished in the first division only once, fourth in 1959. In 1962, as a Dodgers affiliate, in an expanded ten-club league, Keokuk had a decent team, bur few fans in the stands. The club surrendered its franchise to the league on August 7 and that was the end of professional baseball in Keokuk. (The team played its remaining home games in Dubuque and was called the Midwest Dodgers.)
Keokuk, although plagued with more than its share of mediocre squads through the years, still managed to showcase a fine champion in 1955. In plastering the Three-I League, the Kernels set two records that were never broken. No other league team - in the 50 years of the circuit - managed to better the Kernels’ 92 wins or .730 winning percentage.
|1955 Three-I League Standings|
|1955 Keokuk Kernels batting statistics|
|1955 Keokuk Kernels pitching statistics|