Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
| 1921 Memphis Chicks |
(Photo courtesy of Memphis Redbirds)
Led by a hard-hitting first baseman from Texas and a Cuban pitching ace, the 1921 Memphis Chicks rolled to an easy pennant. In doing so, they became the first Southern Association team to reach 100 wins.
The city of Memphis, located in western Tennessee, hosted several amateur teams in the 1860s. Clubs such as the Atlantic, Athletic, Bluff City, Eureka, Mechanic and Oriental tilted with one another as well as with visiting nines. In 1877, the Red Stocking club joined the League Alliance, going 7-8 in the minor’s first loop. Eight years later, Memphis became a founding member of the Southern League, the South’s first professional circuit. After finishing last in 1885, the team had an up-and-down existence for the rest of the 19th century, copping a sole flag in an abbreviated 1894 campaign with a 39-17 record.
After 15 years of hit-or-miss operation, which saw the league on hiatus for four seasons, the Southern League went under after the 1899 season. Two years later, a new league called the Southern Association was formed, which included Memphis as a charter member. Shortly thereafter, the team won the pennant with a 73-51 record in 1903, following with an 81-54 championship the next year. The club, which was called both the Egyptians and Turtles over the next few years, slid into mediocrity, finishing in the first division only a handful of times.
| Russwood Ballpark|
(Photo courtesy of Memphis Redbirds)
The modern era of Memphis baseball began in 1914 when local businessman Russell Gardner purchased controlling interest in the club and turned its day-to-day operation over to his son-in-law, Thomas R. Watkins. Watkins had been a football and track star at the University of Tennessee. In his book “50 years With the Chicks,” David Bloom wrote: “Watkins had little interest in baseball until he became associated with the sport financially. Overnight, he turned into an avid fan and worked diligently until he mastered the intricacies of the business.” In time, “they dubbed him ‘Trading Tom’ and he didn’t come by the name accidentally. (He) had many a good player during his long tenure at the helm of the Chicks and he knew how to drive a hard bargain. Many a baseball chattel moved through the fingers of Watkins and he always managed to obtain top price.”
One of the first things Watkins did was to change the nickname of the team from Turtles to Chickasaws (the local American-Indian tribe) to honor the amateur team of that name that pioneered baseball in the 19th century. Of course, the name was shortened by the fans and the press to “Chicks.”
In the first seven years of the new regime the Chicks had only two first division finishes, third in 1915 and fourth in 1917. Finally, in 1921, success both artistic and financial, came to Memphis. The club invested heavily in the building of new stands at Russwood Park, doubling the seating capacity to 11,500. With a winning team on the field, the fans responded and the Chicks led the league in attendance with 254,725. Memphis won on opening day and was never out of first place, although they had to stave off a late-season drive by New Orleans. The Chicks finished with a 104-49, .679 record, 7-½ games ahead of the Pelicans. The team was second in batting (.297), but led in runs (874), hits (1,577), total bases (2,171) and doubles (287).
The 1921 Chicks were led by Spencer Abbott, who had piloted Tulsa to the Western League pennant the previous year. Abbott, a 43-year-old native of Chicago, broke into pro ball as a pitcher in 1898. He never reached the majors as a player. He hurt his arm in 1901 and switched to first base. He first managed at Fargo (Northern) the last month of the 1903 season. Over the next 11 seasons he managed seven clubs in five leagues. In 1913 he had the experience of being fired in June when his San Diego team was in first place in the Class D Southern California League with a 31-13, .705 record. He caught on at Pasadena, but the league folded a month later. Abbott left managing after 1914 and umpired in the Western League for part of the 1915 season. That summer he was appointed assistant police chief of Topeka, KS, and held that position until 1919 when he returned to baseball as Tulsa manager. Abbott remained at Memphis in 1922 when the Chicks finished second. From 1923-34 he managed seven teams, seeing service in all three Class AA leagues. He had another first place team in 1931 at Portland in the Pacific Coast League. In 1935 Abbott had his only taste of the big leagues as a Washington Senators coach. He returned to managing in 1936 and, except for the war years of 1943-44-45, piloted teams through 1947. He then scouted for Washington until illness forced his retirement in 1950. Altogether, he managed for 34 years with a 2,180-2,037, .517 record, ranking fifth in total victories in minor league history.
As frequently happened in that era, the Chicks had a set lineup for the entire season. Of the seven infielders and outfielders, three played in every one of Memphis’ 158 games. Two played in 156 games, one in 152 and one in 151. Two catchers split the work evenly. For the most part, it was a veteran lineup. Only two of the nine position players were under 27 years of age. Several of the Chicks had the best seasons of their careers. Was that because of Abbott’s managerial skills or was it just a coincidence?
The heart of the Memphis lineup was first baseman Howard (Polly) McLarry, a 30-year-old native of Leonard, TX. McLarry hit .353-15-135 in 156 games, led the Southern Association in RBI and walks (107), was second in slugging (.570) and third in batting. He had played two games with the White Sox in 1912 and spent the entire 1915 season with the Cubs, batting .197 in 68 games. In 1918, playing for Binghamton, he led the International League in batting (.385) and doubles (26). He was with Memphis for three years, 1920-22, and finished his 18-year playing career in 1928. McLarry had a career .317 average with 2,723 hits in 2,440 games.
The player who went on to the longest major league career was 23-year-old third baseman Andy High, who hit .321-2-57 in 152 games and walked 92 times. He came off the highly productive sandlots of St. Louis to start his pro career with Memphis in 1919. He was sold to the Dodgers at the end of the season and played 13 years in the National League with Brooklyn, Boston, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Philadelphia with a .284 career average. “Handy Andy”, who was only 5’6” tall, was a member of the Cardinals’ championship teams in 1928, 1930 and 1931. In nine World Series games he hit .294. In September, 1930, High was a hero on consecutive days in key victories over Brooklyn. On the 16th with the score 0-0 in the tenth, High pinch-hit a double off Dazzy Vance and scored the winning run in a 1-0 triumph. The next day, again as a pinch hitter, he singled home two runs to beat Dolf Luque, 5-3. A year later, “Handy Andy” drove in the winning run against the Cubs that ended a 20-inning marathon. In the deciding game of the 1931 World Series, High had three of the Cardinals’ five hits off George Earnshaw in the 4-2 victory. High managed Syracuse (International) in 1934 and Hazleton (New York-Penn) in 1935-36, then was a Brooklyn coach in 1937-38. He scouted for the Dodgers from 1938-1963. An older brother, Hugh High, was an American League outfielder with Detroit and New York for six years (1913-18) and a younger brother, Charlie High, was an outfielder with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1919-20.
The Memphis shortstop was a much-traveled veteran, 33-year-old, 5’5”, 130-pound Tommy McMillan. In his first year with the Chicks and fifth in the Southern Association, he had his best season in a career that spanned 25 years (1904-29). McMillan batted .322 with 40 doubles in all 158 games, the only time he hit over .300. He played in the majors with Brooklyn and Cincinnati from 1908-10 and with the Yankees in 1912 with a .209 average in 297 games. He stayed with Memphis until 1923 and was with 19 different teams during his career. At second base was Cliff Yockey, 27, who had been purchased from St. Paul after playing in 1920 for Joplin (Western). Yockey was another “iron man,” playing in every game.
Behind the plate was 25-year-old Bernard (Bud) Hungling, one of the three Chicks on the way to the majors. Hungling, who hit .322-2-55 in 122 games, played for Brooklyn in 1922-23 and later, in 1930, for the St. Louis Browns, batting .241 in 51 games. The other receiver was 33-year-old Bob Dowie, who came to Memphis from New Orleans in 1920 and went back to the Pelicans in 1922.
Outfielder Howie Camp hit .345-5-99 in 156 games, fifth in the league in batting. Camp, 33, played five games in the majors, batting .286 for the 1917 Yankees. A good minor league hitter, Camp had a .313 career average with 2,370 hits in 1,954 games. Outfielder Rhino Williams, 27, from Santa Cruz, CA, came to the Chicks from another Top 100 team, the 1920 Fort Worth Cats. He, too, played in all 158 games, batting .326 and was second on the team in RBI (129). His only big league experience was four games with Brooklyn in the Federal League in 1914, batting .267. He hit .314 in 15 years in the minors with 1975 hits in 1,777 games. The third regular outfielder was another baseball nomad, 29-year-old Don Brown, who hit .331-9-106 in 151 games. Brown played one game for the Cardinals in 1915 and 14 games for the Athletics in 1916, batting .250. In a 15-year career (1911-25), he played for 23 teams in 15 leagues. As with McMillan, 1921 was his best year at the plate.
The ace of the Chicks’ pitching staff was 28-year-old right-hander Oscar Tuero, a native of Havana, Cuba. Tuero led the Southern Association in wins (27-8) and shutouts (6), was fourth in ERA (2.68) and tied for third in innings pitched (325). He was another who enjoyed the best year of a long career with the ’21 Chicks. He broke in with Jersey City (International) in 1913 and reached the majors late in 1918 with the Cardinals. He was with St. Louis all of 1919 with a 5-7, 3.19 record, leading the National League in games pitched (45). The major league portion of his career ended with two games in 1920 giving him a 6-9, 2.88 record. He arrived in Memphis in mid-1920 from Kansas City and finished the season with an 8-8 mark. Tuero was traded to Atlanta in 1922 and pitched in the high minors for the next ten years. He pitched and managed in the lower minors off and on for another decade. In 1941, at the age of 48 and in his last year in pro ball, he went 1-1, 4.50 for Shreveport in the Texas League. He also played for many years in the Cuban Winter League. Tuero pitched two no-hitters, 4-0 for Waco (Texas) against Shreveport, June 24, 1925, and 2-1 when he was managing Newton-Conover (North Carolina State) against Cooleemee, August 5, 1937. The latter game, when he was almost 45, made him the oldest pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter.
Memphis had a second 20-game winner, 23-year-old right-hander Paul Zahniser (22-12, 3.45) who was third in the league in wins and hurled four shutouts. Zahniser had pitched for Bloomington (Three-I) in 1920. After a 20-12, 2.75 season with the Chicks in 1922, he was purchased by Washington. He was with the Senators in 1923 and the championship season of 1924, although he did not appear in the World Series. He pitched for the Red Sox in 1925-26 and briefly for Cincinnati in 1929 with a 25-47, 4.66 record.
Watkins sold controlling interest in the Chicks in 1940 and retired from baseball. In December 1947, Memphis became a major league farm club for the first time when the Chicago White Sox bought majority interest in the club. The White Sox pulled out after 1956, but the team remained in the Southern Association through 1960. The league disbanded after 1961. The city returned to baseball in 1968 with a Texas League franchise called the Memphis Blues, a New York Mets farm club, and remained until 1973. The Memphis Chicks were back, in 1978, in the Southern League, in a new facility called Tim McCarver Stadium. During this period, Memphis won only two championships, in 1969 in the Texas League and in 1990 in the Southern. In 1998, the city joined the 16-team Pacific Coast League as the Memphis Redbirds, a St. Louis affiliate. In 2000, the team moved into a new stadium, AutoZone Park, drew 859,851 fans, second in the minors to Sacramento by only 2,000, and won the PCL championship.
The 1921 Southern Association champions, in posting an impressive win total, set a mark that was never bested. Although equaled three years later by another Memphis entry, the 1921 Chicks’ victory total of 104 was never topped by any other Southern Association team.
|1921 Southern Association Standings|
|1921 Memphis Chicks batting statistics|
|1921 Memphis Chicks pitching statistics|