Top 100 Teams
Pacific Coast League (Triple-A)
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Through the years, the City by the Bay has witnessed many fine baseball teams. This was especially true during the decade of the 1920s, when hard-hitting clubs from San Francisco dominated the finest minor league circuit in the land, placing several teams on the Great Teams top 100 list. The decade of domination was culminated in 1928, when the Seals shellacked their league-mates under yet another heavy hitting barrage.
In 1903, a team called the San Francisco Seals became a charter member of what would become one of the top leagues in the country. Called the Pacific Coast League, it operated outside the realm of the National Association in 1903, before joining the ranks the following season. Once instated, the Pacific Coast League became, with the Eastern League and American Association, one of the top three circuits in the United States.
During the first 15 years of the loop’s history, the Seals took home only two pennants. The first came in 1909, when a juggernaut of a team won 132 games to finish in the top 100. Eight years later, in 1917, another San Francisco team won the flag, easing by the Los Angeles Angels by a two game margin. In the following decade, the team would ratchet up their effort several notches.
The 1920s were a decade of dynasties in minor league baseball - Baltimore in the International League, St. Paul in the American Association, Fort Worth in the Texas League - and in the Pacific Coast League, the San Francisco Seals. The Seals won four championships in seven years, 1922, 1923, 1925 and 1928, and all but the 1923 team made the Top 100 list. The 1928 Seals boasted perhaps the greatest outfield in minor league history. All reached the majors and one made the Hall of Fame.
While only two seasons had intervened, just four players on the 1928 club had been members of the 1925 squad, outfielder Smead Jolley, shortstop Hal Rhyne and pitchers Ollie Mitchell and Dick Moudy, and only Jolley, Mitchell and Moudy had been with the club continously.
Following the 1925 campaign, manager Bert Ellison resigned because of illness and was succeeded by 44-year-old Richard (Nick) Williams. Williams grew up in San Francisco and studied engineering at the University of California where he was half of a reversible battery with Orval Overall, who starred for the great Chicago Cubs teams of the 1906-1910 period. One day Overall would pitch and Williams would catch, the next day they would switch positions. Williams signed with Seattle in 1904 and joined San Francisco the next season. In the PCL, he played mostly at first base and in the outfield. In 1908, he led the Seals in hitting (.272) and was voted the team’s most popular player. Nick left the team after the 1910 season to begin his managerial career with Portland in the Class B Northwestern League. He led the Colts, owned by the Portland PCL team, for four years, then piloted Spokane for three seasons. In World War I he was an artillery captain. Williams returned to the Seals in 1922 as a coach and scout. Among the players he discovered were Paul Waner, Earl Averill and Dolph Camilli. He managed San Francisco from 1926-1931. In his history of baseball in the Bay Area, “Nuggets on the Diamond,” Dick Dobbins describes Williams’ abrupt departure from the Seals. “Nick Williams managed the team to the (1931) championship only to be fired two days after the conclusion of the playoffs for ‘unsatisfactory personal habits.’ That was the team’s euphemism for drinking too much. Also fired at the same time was trainer Denny Carroll, widely known at the time as the best in the business. Williams and Carroll had engaged in a wild, drunken brawl, conduct which (GM Charlie) Graham found intolerable.”
After the 1925 championship season, Graham sold Waner and Rhyne to Pittsburgh for $95,000 and players. By today’s standards, that would be at least a million-dollar deal. The Seals also sold the PCL’s top pitcher, Doug McWeeney (20-5, 2.70), who was drafted by Brooklyn. In 1926, the team plunged from first to last as the pitching staff faltered, but Williams was rebuilding with rookies who captured the fans’ fancy and the Seals actually led the league in attendance. The 1927 club rebounded to fourth place and the stage was set for another pennant-winning year.
At its annual meeting in November, 1927, the PCL directors voted 6-2 to adopt a split-season schedule for the first time since 1905. The dissenting clubs were San Francisco and Oakland. This move, as it turned out, led to a dramatic finish to the 1928 season. San Francisco won nine of its first ten games and was never in danger of losing the lead throughout the first half. They ended the stanza with a 58-34 record, five games ahead of second-place Hollywood and eight games in front of third-place Sacramento. The second half was a different story, a hard-fought race among those three teams with no one able to take more than a three-game lead. On September 16, the Solons and the Sheiks were tied for first at 50-30 with the Seals two games behind. A week later, Sacramento had taken a three-game lead over Hollywood and a four-game lead over San Francisco. The Seals made up ground while the Sheiks faded out of the picture. On the morning of the last day of the season, the Seals were one game out of first place. San Francisco beat seventh-place Los Angeles, but Sacramento lost at home to last-place Seattle and the Seals and Solons were tied at 62-37. This necessitated a best-of-three game playoff. Sacramento won the first game 5-1 at home before a record crowd of 11,000 at Moreing Field. Game two moved to San Francisco with another record crowd, 17,000, jamming Recreation Park. Sacramento won 10-7 giving them the second half title. In the championship playoff, the teams split the first four games, two in each city, all in front of capacity crowds. The Seals won game five at home, then traveled to Sacramento where they won game six and the pennant. Had there not been a split-season, San Francisco would have won by eight games over Sacramento and Hollywood, which finished with identical 112-79 records.
The Seals dominated the batting statistics, but finished a distant sixth in fielding. They led the league in hitting (.308), runs (1129), hits (2059), total bases (3053), RBI (1019) and home runs (182) and tied for the lead in doubles (393). Their home run total was 68 more than runner-up Sacramento’s. The great outfield contributed heavily to those gaudy totals. Right fielder Jolley was a triple-crown winner, leading the league in batting (.404), homers (45) and RBI (188). He also led the league in hits (309) and total bases (516), giving him a .675 slugging percentage. This is considered by many to be the finest single season performance in PCL history. Center fielder Earl Averill led the league in runs (178) while finishing second in homers (36) and RBI (173) and sixth in batting (.354). Left fielder Roy Johnson tied for the league lead in triples (16), was fifth in batting (.360) and fourth in stolen bases (29). Second baseman Gus Suhr (.314-22-133) topped the league in doubles (64) and was third in runs (156). Late in the season Cleveland offered Graham $100,000 for the three outfielders, but the bid was rejected. The Indians then are reported to have offered to trade their starting outfield of Charlie Jamieson, Homer Summa and Sam Langford, plus some cash, for the Seals trio, but that was turned down also.
At the end of the season, Graham sold Averill to Cleveland and Johnson to Detroit, each for $50,000, and Jolley to the White Sox for $35,000. Jolley was not to report until 1930. Averill was an immediate major league star, batting .332-18-96 in his rookie year. He had a 13-year .318 career average with 2,019 hits and played in five Major League All-Star Games. In 1975, he was elected to the Hall of Fame. In his rookie season, Johnson hit .314 and tied for the American League lead in doubles (45) and assists by an outfielder (25). He played in the majors for ten years with the Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees and Braves. His younger brother, Bob Johnson, hit .296 in 13 years (1933-1945) with the Athletics, Senators and Red Sox and was a seven-time American League all-star.
The most colorful of the three was the 6’3-½ “, 210-pound left-handed hitting Jolley. Smead began his career as a pitcher. He was acquired by the Seals in August, 1925 from Corsicana of the Texas Association where he hit .352 with a league-high 26 homers. In the closing weeks of the Seals’ 1925 championship season he hit an amazing .447 with 12 homers and 43 RBI in only 38 games. He batted .346-25-132 in 1926, then led the PCL in batting (.397) and RBI (163) in 1927. In 1929 he “dropped off” to .387, but led the league in hits (314). Jolley is the only player in history to have 300 or more hits twice. In 1930, Smead batted .313-16-114 in his first year with Chicago and with the White Sox and Red Sox had a four-year major league average of .305. He failed to stick in the big leagues because of his fielding deficiencies. He had a fine arm, leading PCL outfielders in assists in 1928 with 35, but was slow afoot and not too agile. Dobbins writes that “Graham later regretted selling Jolley to the White Sox, feeling the expanse of Comiskey Park’s right field was not in Jolley’s best interest. A more cozy park might have allowed Jolley to become a star.” He was traded to the Red Sox in April, 1932. An experiment to turn him into a catcher ended after a few games when Smead had great difficulty in handling pop flies. Back in the minors, Jolley won four more batting titles in the International (1936), Pacific Coast (1938) and Western International (1940-41) Leagues, the latter in his final two years in pro ball. He had a minor league career average of .366, third best in history, with 1,593 RBI and 3,037 hits. Jolley had eleven 100-RBI seasons and seven 200-hit years.
Suhr was a 22-year-old native San Franciscan who had been signed by the Seals in 1925. In 1929 he shifted to first base, his position for the rest of his career. In 1929 he hit .381-51-177 with a league-leading 196 runs and was purchased by Pittsburgh. He was the Pirates’ first baseman for 9-½ years, finishing his major league career with the Phillies in 1940. He had a .279 career average with 114 triples and 818 RBI. For many years he held the National League record for most consecutive games played, 822, from September 11, 1931 to June 4, 1937. Suhr came out of retirement in 1943 to play three more years with the Seals during World War II.
Suhr’s keystone partner, Hal Rhyne, hit .312 with 106 RBI. He had returned to the Seals after two years with Pittsburgh. Following the 1928 season he went back to the majors for five more years with the Red Sox and White Sox, batting .250. Third base duties were split between veteran Babe Pinelli and 17-year-old first year pro Frank Crosetti, both native San Franciscans. Pinelli had come down from Cincinnati in mid-1927 after eight years in the majors. He was a National League umpire for 22 years (1935-1956) and worked in six World Series. He was behind the plate in Don Larsen’s perfect game against Brooklyn in 1956. Crosetti became the Seals’ shortstop in 1929 and after three outstanding seasons was purchased by the Yankees. He was player and coach for the Yanks for 37 years (1932-1968). As a player he had a knack of getting on base and led the American League six years in times hit by a pitch. Crosetti set the major league record for being in uniform for the most World Series, 22, seven as a player and 15 as a coach, all for the Yankees. Suhr and Crosetti still live in Northern California.
Several players shared first base with Hollis Thurston (.347-24-98) seeing the most action there. Thurston also pitched, with a 9-7, 4.59 record. He had pitched five years for the Browns, White Sox and Senators (1923-1927) and after posting a 22-11 record for the Seals in 1929, went back to the majors for four more seasons with Brooklyn. He had an 89-86, 4.25 major league career record. Thurston was the principal in an oft-told baseball story. He won 20 games for the eighth-place White Sox in 1924, almost one-third of the team’s total victories. He was a holdout the next spring and after several exchanges of letters, in which Hollis pointed out well he had done, White Sox executive Harry Grabiner wired him, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.” Thurston signed. For many years after his playing career ended, he was a highly regarded scout for the White Sox. Although always fastidious and well-groomed, Thurston’s lifelong nickname was “Sloppy”, perhaps in the same way some large men are called “Tiny.”
Joe Sprinz was behind the plate for 158 of the team’s 191 games. He played most of the next seven years in the American Association with very brief major league stays with the Indians and Cardinals. Sprinz returned to the PCL in 1936 with the Missions and rejoined the Seals in 1938. He became famous for an incident that took place on his 37th birthday, August 3, 1939. Dobbins writes, “With the Seals in the thick of the pennant race and the World’s Fair being held on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, the great hustler Walter Mails negotiated a stunt in which the Seals catcher would catch baseballs thrown by (manager) Lefty O’Doul from the 450-foot high Tower of the Sun. Sprinz caught five balls, (Larry) Woodall caught three. The event was a success, but Mails, not satisfied, negotiated the “Great Balloon Drop,” in which the catchers would attempt to catch balls thrown from a blimp circling 1,000 feet above the baseball diamond on Treasure Island. A large crowd was on hand. Neither Woodall nor Sprinz was enthused about the stunt. When the signal came to start the drop everybody backed away, leaving Sprinz standing alone. The first ball landed in empty bleachers. The second embedded itself in the field. That should have been a clue for Sprinz, but he went on. With glove held above his head, he tried to keep up with the (third) ball but misjudged it. The ball glanced off his mitt, crashing into the side of his face. Sprinz awoke in the hospital with 12 broken bones, a badly lacerated face and five teeth knocked out. It was later estimated the ball was traveling 150 miles an hour.” Sprinz ended up with a line in the Guinness Book of Records (highest catch attempted), three months in the hospital and five years of headaches. Joe remained with the Seals as an active player through 1946, then coached and scouted for the team for several years. In 1945, at the age of 43, he caught 106 games and hit .303. After he left baseball, he was a probation officer and investigator for the San Francisco district attorney’s office. In 1969, at the age of 67, he caught three innings in a Seals-Oakland Oaks old-timers game at the Oakland Coliseum.
Late in the season, Jimmy (Ike) Caveney joined the Seals from Oakland as a reserve infielder. Caveney, a native San Franciscan, had been the Seals’ star shortstop in 1919-20-21 before being sold to Cincinnati, where he played the next four seasons. Caveney stayed with the Seals as a player through 1931, then was appointed manager when Nick Williams was fired. He piloted the Seals for three years until replaced by O’Doul in 1935. Caveney was Joe DiMaggio’s first manager.
One of the rookies who played part of the season with the Seals was to leave a very important mark on baseball in the Bay Area. He was 21-year-old outfielder-first baseman Jerry Donovan, another native San Franciscan. Donovan was an AAU All-American basketball player who had led the Olympic Club to the national championship before signing with the Seals. In five-plus years with San Francisco, Donovan hit .306. Joe DiMaggio once said that when he was in his early teens, Donovan, a graceful fielder, was his idol and old-timers say their fielding mannerisms were similar. Ironically, it was Donovan who DiMaggio replaced in the Seals outfield. Donovan also played for Sacramento, Seattle and Oakland, but his career was ended prematurely by a serious back injury. After World War II, Donovan was named president of the new Far West League in 1948 and a year later, of the California League. The Far West folded after the 1951 season, but Jerry remained as head of the prosperous California League through 1955. At that time the Boston Red Sox purchased the San Francisco franchise and Donovan’s life long friend Joe Cronin appointed him president of the Seals. The Seals went out in a blaze of glory, winning the PCL pennant in their last year, 1957. When the Giants moved to San Francisco, Donovan became the major league club’s business manager and remained a club executive for 24 years. Former New York sportswriter and longtime Giants publicist Garry Schumacher wrote that “all of those who came with the team from New York are deeply in his debt. He helped them, making it so much easier to become San Franciscans themselves.” In November, 1977, a testimonial dinner was held for Donovan in recognition of his fifty years in baseball, attended by hundreds of his friends. DiMaggio was the chairman of the event and its principal speaker.
On the mound, the Seals featured a trio of major league veterans who combined for 71 victories. Walter (Dutch) Ruether, 35-year-old lefty, (29-7, 3.03) led the league in wins and complete games (28). An excellent hitter, Ruether batted .316 in 72 games. The previous year, Ruether had a 13-6, 3.38 record for the champion New York Yankees, a performance that today would have earned him a seven-figure salary, but then just gave him a one-way ticket to the PCL. In 11 major league seasons, Dutch went 137-95, 3.49. He was 19-6, 1.81 for the World’s Champion Cincinnati Reds, third in the National League in ERA. He pitched the opening game of the World Series, beating Chicago 9-1 on a six-hitter and going 3-for-3 with a pair of triples. He is one of only six players, and the lone pitcher, to hit two triples in a World Series game. Ruether managed Seattle in 1934-35-36, then scouted for many years for the Cubs and Giants.
Right-hander Elmer Jacobs, 35, (22-8, 2.56) led the PCL in ERA, shutouts (6) and strikeouts (159). At one point in the season he pitched 35 consecutive scoreless innings. In a 21-year career he won 270 games, 50 in nine major league seasons. He was a 20-game winner in the PCL five times. In his book “Pacific Coast League Stars,” John Spalding writes, “Elmer Jacobs was a sneaky cheat who doctored the ball on the mound or the pitcher with the strongest hands in baseball - or maybe both.” Opponents began to complain about his pitching style when he arrived in Seattle in 1921, saying he was doing something illegal, but umpires failed to find any banned substances. Years later, San Francisco Chronicle writer Ed Hughes wrote that what Jacobs, who weighed only 165 pounds, did was raise the seams a little by twisting the ball in the powerful grip of his hands, enabling him to do “funny things” with the ball.
Walter Mails, 6’, 200-pound left-hander, had a 20-12. 3.96 record for the pennant winners. Mails was one of the most pompous, overbearing, arrogant, egotistical players who ever put on a uniform. To the fans he was a great showman, but many of those he worked with on and off the field thoroughly detested him. He was born in the town of San Quentin, CA, “outside the walls,” he always said, where his mother was postmaster for many years. He reached the majors with Brooklyn in 1915 when he was only 20, but after going 0-2 in 13 games in 1915-16 he went back to the minors. Dodger manager Wilbert Robinson called Mails “the brashest rookie I’ve ever met.” A typical hard-throwing, wild southpaw, Mails acquired the nickname “Duster” because of his proclivity for brush-back pitches. He embellished on that, calling himself “The Great Imperial Duster,” which he later shortened to “The Great Mails.” His hour of glory came in 1920. With five weeks to go in the hot American League pennant race, Cleveland needed to bolster their pitching staff and bought Mails from Sacramento, where he was 18-17, 3.21, for $35,000 and two players. During September Mails won seven and lost none with a 1.85 ERA, pitching six complete games, including two shutouts. The Indians won the pennant by two games and it is safe to say they couldn’t have done it without Mails. In the World Series, won by Cleveland 5 games to 2, Mails pitched 6 2/3 innings of three-hit shutout relief in a 2-1 loss in the third game, then shut out Brooklyn, 1-0, on three hits in game six. After the 1920 season Mails played in a California winter league with Ty Cobb and, according to Franklyn Lewis in his book “The Cleveland Indians,” Cobb discovered that Walter couldn’t take a ribbing. Cobb carried that message back to the American League the next season. Lewis writes that Mails’ “rabbit ears were tuned in to every bench jockey in the American League. Led by Cobb, these experts in ridicule drove the Duster out of the big time.” Mails went 14-8, 3.94 in 1921 and fell to 4-7, 5.28 in 1922. He was back in the PCL with Oakland in 1923. He was up briefly with the Cardinals in 1925-26, his last big league stops. Mails joined the Seals during the 1926 season and remained with them through 1929. He then pitched for Portland, Chattanooga and Kansas City before rejoining San Francisco for his last three active seasons. After his playing career ended Mails was hired by Charlie Graham to do publicity and promotional work for the Seals. During World War II, in spite of his age, Mails enlisted in the Marines, although he did not see combat duty. After the war, he worked briefly in the Far West League, one year as a manager and one as a business manager. He rejoined the Seals in 1954 as publicity director. When the Giants came to San Francisco, Mails stayed on doing public relations and promotion work, eventually becoming director of the club’s speakers’ bureau, a position he held until his retirement in 1972.
Five Seals made the 11-man 1928 PCL All-Star team: Jolley, Averill, Johnson, Ruether and Thurston, the latter as a utility player.
San Francisco won pennants in 1931 and 1935 and four consecutive Governor’s Cup playoffs, 1943-46. The 1946 championship team was especially outstanding, just missing the top 100 list. After the 1957 title season, the Seals franchise moved to Phoenix to make way for the major league San Francisco Giants.
Although finishing with fewer wins than their 1922 and 1925 counterparts, the 1928 San Francisco Seals were a worthy team in their own right - capping an impressive run of champions that few franchises have equaled.
|1928 Pacific Coast League Standings|
|1928 San Francisco Seals batting statistics|
|Ike Caveney (Oakland)||3B,1B||125||457||51||120||47||22||3||6||1||.263|
|Ping Bodie (Mission)||OF||117||333||58||116||62||22||1||10||2||.348|
|Frank Welch (Hollywood)||OF||62||161||22||47||23||8||0||4||0||.292|
|1928 San Francisco Seals pitching statistics|