Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In 1931, the American Association Columbus franchise joined Rochester of the International League as the top farm teams of the St. Louis Cardinals, riding the wave of the future. A couple of years later, enjoying this largess, the team put together one of the best clubs of the era.
The city of Columbus, centrally located in the state of Ohio, after playing in a variety of major and minor leagues in the 19th century, became one of the founding members of the American Association in 1902. This top-tier minor league circuit became the most stable league in the land, remaining virtually untouched for 50 years. In the loop’s first decade, the Columbus franchise won a trifecta in 1905-06-07, with the first of the group landing in the top 100. It would be 25 years before Columbus won another championship. For 12 consecutive seasons (1919-1930) Columbus had losing teams and only once finished above sixth place. The Senators, as they were known then, came in last five times between 1921 and 1927. In 1926, Columbus set a new mark for utter futility with a team that was the worst in American Association history. They won only 39 and lost 125, finishing 64-½ games out of first place and trailing seventh-place Minneapolis by 34 games! Then the team became competitive once more thanks to the efforts of the St. Louis Cardinals and their talented general-manager, Branch Rickey.
As far back as the 1880s, a scattered few major league teams had controlled minor league franchises for the purpose of having a ready supply of easily acquired talent. However, most big league clubs purchased players piecemeal from minor league sources. Beginning in the 1920s, Branch Rickey and the Cardinals sought a different method. He rightly reasoned that if the team controlled a series of minor league teams, in different levels, they could pick the best players for promotion, later selecting the cream for the Cards.
The first piece purchased by the Cardinals was the Ft. Smith club in the Western Association. Later, Rickey added the Texas League’s Houston club and the Syracuse (later Rochester) International League team. This paid off, as the Cardinals won the 1926, 1928 and 1930 National League pennants, utilizing mostly home-grown talent. In 1931, Rickey and the Cardinals added another link - the American Association’s Columbus club. In the first year of St. Louis ownership the renamed Red Birds finished fourth and in 1932 climbed to second. Local authorities had decided to build a new ballpark to replace Neil Park, baseball’s first all steel and concrete facility, opened in 1904 and subsequently enlarged to 10,000 capacity. The new park, Red Bird Stadium, seating 17,000, opened June 3, 1932. Two weeks later, an overflow crowd of 21,000 saw the first night game.
In 1933, Columbus stormed to the American Association pennant with a 101-51, .664 record. Columbus president Larry MacPhail had persuaded the league directors to institute a playoff system that involved designating two divisions. The Eastern Division comprised Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville and Toledo, the Western Division was made up of Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Although only one eight-team set of standings was kept, the top clubs in each division would meet for the right to play the International League champion in the Junior World Series. Columbus beat second place Minneapolis, who finished 15-½ games in back of the Red Birds, four games to two. The International League used the new Shaughnessy playoff system. Although Buffalo finished fourth with a losing record (83-85, .494), 21 games behind first-place Newark, it was the Bisons who won the playoff. Columbus then defeated Buffalo, five games to three, in a surprisingly hard-fought series.
Milwaukee led the league in the first few weeks of the season, but Columbus took first place on May 17 and never relinquished it. In the Spalding Baseball Guide, Frank Colley wrote: “Under the capable guidance of Raymond Blades, former St. Louis National outfielder, Columbus made a runaway race of it … despite many trials and vicissitudes. It was Blades’ first experience as a manager, but he made good from the start, receiving able assistance from Mike Gonzalez, veteran of many major league campaigns, who served as coach and second-string catcher. The team was strengthened early in May by the addition of 1B Art (Whataman) Shires, 2B Charley Wilson, SS Gordon (Oskie) Slade and P Jim Lindsey, all sent by the parent club (Slade from St. Louis, the others from Rochester). Early in June, charges were filed by other club owners, alleging that Columbus was guilty of salary violations. Following a hearing, American Association T.J. Hickey found the club guilty and ordered disposition of the four stars. Although denying salary violations, a denial later supported by the report of Judge W.G. Bramham, president of the minors, the St. Louis ownership agreed to abide by the ruling, and an overnight shakeup resulted. Shires, Wilson and Lindsey, along with P Fred (Sheriff) Blake, were sent to Rochester, International League farm club of the Cardinals, while Slade was recalled by St. Louis. In their places came 2B Burgess Whitehead from St. Louis and 1B Mickey Heath, SS Benny Borgmann, P Jim Winford and P Ed Heusser all from Rochester.” During the reorganization period, the Red Birds lost eight in a row, but remained in the lead. Not long after, Columbus won 25 of 27 games.
Off the field, in June, MacPhail resigned to become vice-president and general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Two years later he brought night baseball to the majors. After a long career as a major league executive and club owner, MacPhail was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978. He was succeeded as Red Birds president by George M. Trautman, former Ohio State athlete and coach and an official of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. In 1935, Trautman was named president of the American Association, and was in office until 1945. In 1946 he was general manager of the Detroit Tigers. In December, 1946, he succeeded Judge William G. Bramham as president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, a position he held until his death in June, 1963.
Ray Blades, 36, had been an outfielder with the Cardinals for ten years (1922-32) and had a major league career .301 average. He was a player-coach from 1930-32. Blades played for St. Louis in three World Series, 1928, 1930 and 1931. His best year as a regular was 1925 when he hit .342-12-57 in 125 games. In 1931 he batted .396-4-25 in 45 games. In his second season at Columbus in 1934, the Red Birds finished second, two games behind Minneapolis, but beat the Millers in the playoff and defeated Toronto in the Junior World Series, five games to four. In 1936 the Cards shifted Blades to Rochester where he managed for the next three years. In 1939 he was promoted to St. Louis, replacing Frankie Frisch, who had been fired in September, 1938. Blades piloted the Cardinals to second place, 4-½ games behind Cincinnati with a 92-61, .601 record. When the Cardinals dropped to seventh (15-25, .375) he was replaced June 8, 1940 by Billy Southworth. In 1941 he managed the Cardinals’ Southern Association farm club at New Orleans. He was a Cincinnati coach in 1942, then piloted New Orleans, now a Dodgers affiliate, again in 1943. Blades returned to the American Association in 1944 to manage Brooklyn’s farm club at St. Paul. In his three years there, the Saints made the playoffs each season, but never won the title. He was a Brooklyn coach in 1947-48 and in the latter was 1-0 as an interim manager between the departure of Leo Durocher and the arrival of Burt Shotton. Blades again was a coach for St. Louis in 1951 and closed out his careeer as a Chicago Cubs coach form 1953-56.
The Red Birds’ most productive hitter was 32-year-old outfielder Henry Nicholas (Nick) Cullop (.313-26-143) who led the league in triples (22) and was second in RBI and third in home runs. In 25 years as a player, Cullop had the most career RBI (1,857) in minor league history and is fourth in career homers (420). He had a lifetime .312 average with 2,670 hits in 2,484 games. Like many top hitters of the era, Cullop started out as a pitcher, with Madison in the South Dakota State League in 1920. In 1925 with Atlanta he led the Southern Association in homers (30) and hit .310 with 139 RBI to earn a shot with the New York Yankees. He was 1-for-2 as a pinch hitter in 1926, then was sent to St. Paul. Cullop was in the American League all of 1927, batting .231-1-9 in 47 games for Washington and Cleveland. Back in Atlanta in 1928 he hit .352 and was acquired by Brooklyn. He hit .195-1-5 in 15 games for the Dodgers in 1929 and was returned to Atlanta, then was purchased by Minneapolis. During the 1929-30 off-season tragedy struck Cullop. Both of his children died, one after falling out of a window of the Cullops’ apartment in St. Louis, the other, two months later, of a fever. Nick’s wife suffered a nervous breakdown. In April, in the third game of the 1930 season, Cullop was beaned and for a time was plate-shy. He went 1-for-15 and struck out 11 times. He had only one homer in his first 28 games but then bounced back and hit 53 in 111 games to set a new American Association season record of 54, 12 more than the previous high and 25 more than his nearest competitor that year. Cullop led the league in total bases (393), runs (150) and RBI (152). Cincinnati purchased him in September and in 1931 he batted .267-8-48 in 108 games for the Reds. That was his last year in the majors and he landed in Columbus in 1932. Nick played for the Red Birds for five years, then two seasons each for the Cardinals’ farm clubs in Sacramento and Houston. He began his managerial career in the St. Louis organization in 1941 at Asheville (Piedmont) and led Pocatello to the Pioneer League title in 1942. In 1943, he returned to Columbus. The Red Birds finished third, then swept the playoffs and took the Junior World Series from Syracuse, four games to one. Cullop was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Manager of the Year. After another season at Columbus, he managed Milwaukee for five seasons, making the playoffs every year but 1946. For Cullop, 1947 was a repeat of 1943, the Brewers finishing third, winning the playoffs and the Junior World Series from Syracuse, then again being named Minor League Manager of the Year. In 1950 he moved to Baltimore for two years. Cullop came back to Columbus, now in the International League, to manage Kansas City’s AAA club in 1955-56. He retired after the 1959 season.
Outfielder Jack Rothrock (.347) and second baseman Burgess Whitehead (.346) had the team’s highest batting averages. Rothrock, a 27-year-old switch-hitter, had arrived in the majors with the Red Sox in 1925 as a shortstop and in his 6-½ years in Boston played every position. His best year was 1929 when he hit .300-6-59 in 143 games. In 1932 he was traded to the White Sox, who sold him to Toronto. After driving in 94 runs in 126 games during the regular 1933 season, Rothrock hit .454 with 15 RBI in eight games in the Junior World Series earning him a return to the majors. If there had been a Comeback-Player-of-the-Year award in 1934, Rothrock probably would have won it. He played every inning of the season in right field for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, the famed “Gas House Gang”, batting .284-11-72 and scoring 106 runs. Although he hit only .233 in the World Series against Detroit, he led the Cards in RBI (6). In the 1935 Spalding’s Baseball Guide, John B. Foster wrote of the Cardinals who had finished fifth in 1933, “Two additions to the team, Rothrock and (C Bill) Delancey, helped to make it…more than appears on the surface, a unit of almost incredible strength.” While with the tail-end Red Sox, “Rothrock always appeared to be too good for the company he was keeping.” In 1935 he dropped off to .273-3-56 and was dispatched to Rochester for 1936. Rothrock returned to the majors for one final year in 1937 with the Athletics. During his 11 years in the majors he batted .276.
Whitehead, a 23-year-old Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina, moved up to St. Louis where he was the utility infielder on the 1934 and 1935 teams. His movements in the field were so fluid he was nicknamed “The Gazelle.” He was traded to the Giants in December, 1935 and was the regular second baseman for the National League championships teams of 1936-37, batting .278 and .286. In 1937 he led National League second basemen in fielding (.974) and played in the Major League All-Star Game. Whitehead suffered a nervous breakdown and was on the Voluntarily Retired List all of 1938. He returned to New York in 1939 for three years, but was never as good a player as before his illness. He had a major league career average of .266 in 924 games.
In shortstop Bernhard (Benny) Borgmann, who hit .340 and stole 28 bases in 90 games, Columbus had a future Hall-of-Famer. Not in baseball, however. Borgmann never played a game in the majors. In 1961, he was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as one of the great pioneers of the game. He started playing professional basketball after graduating from high school in 1917 and continued for 20 years. Only 5’8” tall, he was the leading scorer wherever he played. Benny was a member of the Original Celtics and also starred for the Fort Wayne Hoosiers, Paterson (NJ) and George Halas’ Chicago Bruins. He led the American Basketball League, the top pro circuit of the day, in scoring five times, the last when he was 38 years old. He also coached the Syracuse and Paterson pro teams and Muhlenberg College. Although he got a late start in baseball, he spent 45 years in the game as a player, manager and scout. He didn’t play his first pro game until he was 31, in 1928 with Wilkes-Barre in the NYP League. He joined the Cardinals organization in 1932 when he hit .321 for Greensboro and led the Piedmont League in runs (1922) and stolen bases (51). Borgmann began his managerial career in the St. Louis organization in 1935 and spent four years in the Middle Atlantic League, winning championships in 1935 and 1938. He was promoted to Sacramento (PCL) in 1939. The Solons lost their first ten games of the season, all at home, but Borgmann eventually led the team to fourth place (88-88) and a surprising victory in the Governor’s Cup playoff. He piloted Sacramento again in 1940, finishing fifth. He managed other Cardinal farm clubs the next two years. Borgmann then became a scout, working for St. Louis for many years and for Minnesota, Seattle and Oakland before retiring in 1973.
The Red Birds third baseman was Lew Riggs, another of the 24 players who wore a Columbus uniform that year to perform in the majors during their careers. Although he hit only 11 homers in 1933, three came on consecutive times at bat against Toledo. After helping the Red Birds to another championship in 1934, Riggs was bought by Cincinnati and was with the Reds for six years. In 1936 he played in the Major League All-Star Game. His major league career average was .262 in 760 games.
Outfielder Hal Anderson (.272-3-62) was second in the league in stolen bases (32) and fifth in runs scored (109). He was a fixture in the American Association for 11 years (1926-36) six with St. Paul and six with Columbus, sandwiched around a brief 1932 stint with the White Sox (.250 in six games). He managed Asheville (Piedmont) and New Orleans for the Cardinals from 1937-40, then was out of baseball for four years. He scouted for St. Louis for a year then returned to Columbus to manage the Red Birds in 1947-48-49, getting to the playoff final round in 1948.
Behind the plate was 21-year-old Bill DeLancey, who hit .283 in 123 games and was second on the team in homers (21) and RBI (97). Promoted to St. Louis in 1934, he was an integral part of the championship Gashouse Gang team. He started the year as the second-string catcher behind veteran Spud Davis, but was number one by mid-season and caught every inning of the seven-game World Series. For the year he hit .316-13-40 in 93 games. After the 1935 season, when he batted .279-6-41 in 103 games, he contracted tuberculosis and was out of baseball for two years. Returning to the game in 1938, the Cardinals appointed him manager of their Class D Albuquerque farm club in the Arizona-Texas League. He led the club to the pennant and was named all-star manager. He managed there again in 1939. DeLancey felt strong enough to attempt a comeback with St. Louis in 1940, but could play in only 15 games, batting .222 before he had to quit. He went back to managing for the Cardinals, in 1941 at Pocatello (Pioneer) and 1942 at Asheville (Piedmont) playing in a few games, but was forced to retire because of his health. He died on November 28, 1946, his 35th birthday. Although DeLancey played only two years in the majors, Branch Rickey called him one of the three greatest catchers he had ever seen. The other two were Hall-of-Famers Roy Campanella and Mickey Cochrane. Dizzy Dean said DeLancey was the best catcher he ever pitched to.
Columbus’ top three pitchers were right-handers Paul Dean and Bill Lee along with Clarence (Lefty) Heise. Dean, who turned 20 during the season, won the league’s mythical triple crown, leading in wins (22-7), ERA (3.15) and strikeouts (222). The previous year he had a 7-16 record in his first year at Columbus, but pitched a no-hit, no-run game against Kansas City, August 30. Paul moved up to St. Louis in 1934, joining his older brother, Dizzy. In his rookie season he won 19 and lost 11 with a 3.44 ERA, pitched a 3-1 no-hitter against Brooklyn and had two complete-game wins over Detroit in the World Series, 4-1 in the third game and 4-3 (with only one earned run) in the sixth game. In temperament, Paul was the direct opposite of his brother. Unfortunately when he came up to the Cardinals some sportswriter decided to call him “Daffy,” but where Dizzy was boastful and bombastic, Paul was quiet and unassuming. Dizzy had an excellent assortment of pitches to go with his natural speed, but Paul was strictly a fastball pitcher. Paul had another fine year, 19-12, 3.37 in 1935 as the Cards just missed a second straight pennant. In 1936 he was a holdout and didn’t report until the last day of spring training, many pounds overweight. He later said that he tried to throw too hard too soon and strained his arm. He won his first five starts, but they were his only victories of the season. He pitched only 92 innings, finishing with a 5-5, 4.60 record. The next year he was in one game facing three batters, all of whom scored, giving up one hit and two walks. Dean went down to the Texas League in 1938, going 8-16, 3.72, but showed some promise of a recovery at the end of the season when he went 3-1, 2.61 for St. Louis, pitching two complete games, one a shutout. His problems returned in 1939 and he pitched only 43 innings for the Cardinals, mostly in relief, with a 0-1, 6.07 record and finished with Columbus (2-2, 4.25). The Giants drafted him from Columbus in October and he had a 4-4, 3.91 record for New York in 1940. He was 0-0 in brief appearances with the Giants in 1941 and the Browns in 1943, finishing a once-promising major league career with a 50-34, 3.75 record. He later managed in the minors and operated the Clovis Pioneers in the West Texas-New Mexico League in 1949-50.
Lee, 23, from Plaquemine, LA, went 21-9, 3.79 and was second in the league in wins. After the season, Branch Rickey decided to bring Dean up and sell Lee to the Chicago Cubs for $40,000. It was a decision Rickey might later have regretted. In 1935 Lee (20-6, 2.96) led the National League in percentage (.769) and was fifth in ERA. In September the Cubs won 21 consecutive games to overtake the first place Cardinals. Lee won five of them, including the pennant clincher. In 1936 with an 18-11, 3.30 record, he tied for the National League lead in shutouts (4). In 1938, in helping the Cubs to another pennant, Lee went 22-9, 2.66, leading the league in wins, ERA and percentage (.710) and shutouts (9). Four of the shutouts came in succession during the September pennant drive. He pitched in two Major League All-Star Games, 1938-39. Lee later pitched for the Phillies and Braves and finished his major league career with a 169-157, 3.54 record.
Heise, 25, went 17-5, 3.88 and led the league in percentage (.773) He had come up through the Cardinals organization and in 1932 had a 20-8, 3.08 record for Elmira (NYP). He got into only one major league game, with St. Louis in 1934, pitching two innings before going back to Columbus where he was 9-7, 4.78. Heise never won another game. He was 0-3 in 10 games in 1935-36-37. A son, Jim Heise, pitched for Washington in 1957.
Six Red Birds made the American Association All-Star Team: DeLancey, Borgmann, Rothrock, Dean, Lee and Heise - but not Cullop.
Columbus lost its American Association franchise when the Cardinals moved their AAA farm club to Omaha after the 1954 season. A local group then purchased the Ottawa International League team and transferred it to Columbus. The city remained in the league through 1970. The franchise was turned back to the league and Columbus was without baseball until it returned to the International League in 1977. Franklin County bought Red Bird Stadium, remodeled it and renamed it Cooper Stadium in honor of Harold Cooper, who started his long baseball career as the Red Birds’ clubhouse boy in 1935 and rose to become president of the International League.
During its last years in the American Association and in its tenure in the International League, Columbus won several more titles, including three in a row from 1941-43 and a pennant in 1992 with a top 100 team.
By the mid-1930s, virtually all major league teams had at least one farm team. The Cardinals’ system also grew, reaching an all-time high of 32 teams in 1940. The farm system was here to stay.
The 1933 Red Birds, utilizing the Cardinals’ farm system as well as the talents of players like Nick Cullop and Paul Dean, flew to the pennant with ease. These efforts allowed the team to post the most wins of any Columbus team in history--no small feat considering the city’s lengthy stay in professional baseball.
|1933 American Association Standings|
|ST. PAUL||78||75||.510||23.5||KANSAS CITY||57||93||.360||43.0|
|1933 Columbus Redbirds batting statistics|
|1933 Columbus Redbirds pitching statistics|