Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
| Bubbles Hargrave|
(Photo courtesy of National Baseball
Hall of Fame)
In the early 1920s, three teams from St. Paul earned enough wins to gain inclusion on the Top 100 list. One won a pennant in 1922. Another finished the next year as one of the best second place teams of all time. The third, just a notch better, played in 1920. This winner, like the other two, was led by one of the all time greats in minor league managing circles.
The city of St. Paul, Minnesota, fielded teams in three different pro leagues during the 19th century. In 1884, 1886-87, a club played in the Northwestern League. Following the completion of the Northwestern campaign in 1884, the team played nine games in the Union Association, which was later called a major league. Next followed a several year stint in the Western League (1888-1892, 1895-1899), sometimes called the Western Association.
In the first year of the 20th century, a team called the St. Paul Saints joined a new Western League. After finishing second to Kansas City, the city opted to put a team in another new league. Called the American Association, this league placed teams in many of the populous cities of the Midwest, including former big league venues like Indianapolis, Columbus, Kansas City, Louisville and Milwaukee. It would turn out to be St. Paul’s home for the next 50 years.
In the American Association’s first season, the Saints (sometimes called the Apostles) finished third, but rebounded to win the flag the next year. Sporting an 88-46, .657, the 1903 champions narrowly missed a place in the Top 100. The team only won one more game than second place Louisville, but in a quirk of the schedule, had eight fewer losses and won the flag by 4-½ games. In 1904, St. Paul repeated with a 95-win champion. After the season, the team participated in the first Little World Series. In what would become a long-running event with the Eastern/International League, the Saints lost the initial matchup, two games to one.
In 1913, while the Saints were in the midst of a 15-year pennant drought, another St. Paul team entered Organized Ball. Playing in the Class C Northern League, the St. Paul Colts lasted until July 23 when, with a 28-54 record, relocated to La Crosse, WI. Minneapolis (another current American Association city) also placed a team in the Northern League, giving the Twin Cities four pro teams in 1913.
In 1919, St. Paul returned to the winners’ circle, taking the pennant with a 94-60 champion. After the season, the Saints nine journeyed west to take on the Pacific Coast League champion Vernon Tigers in what was billed as a miniature World Series. The series was to be a best-of-nine games affair, the same length as the major league World Series of the day. Because the PCL season finished later then the American Association, all games were played on the West Coast. In a hard-fought, rancor-filled battle, Vernon won the series 5 games to 4. Dan Griner (21-14) was the pitching star for St. Paul. He won three of the Saints’ victories, all complete games, giving up only two runs in 27 innings. Lefty Dick Niehaus was the other St. Paul winner, on a six-hit shutout. The outcome wasn’t decided until two were out in the last half of the ninth inning of the ninth game when the Tigers pushed across the winning run as Wheezer Dell edged Niehaus in a 2-1 pitchers’ duel. In his book “Barbary Baseball,” Scott Mackey says, “In that series, not only did Vernon players taunt and bait umpires and opponents, they started several fist fights as well. At the close of the series, a riot erupted and American Association umpire Jim Murray was beaten by Vernon fans. Eastern writers labeled the Tigers and their fans ‘thugs’ and ‘hoodlums’ who damaged the good name of baseball.” The Saints and American Association President Thomas J. Hickey complained bitterly about the unsportsmanlike conduct of the host club and its supporters. Hickey said that if Vernon won the PCL title in 1920, which they did, his league would refuse to continue the series.
| Goldie Rapp|
(Photo courtesy of National Baseball
Hall of Fame)
St. Paul made few important changes in the roster for 1920. Goldie Rapp replaced Fred Smith and Charles McDonald at third base. Niehaus was sold to Cleveland and veterans Fritz Coumbe and Steamboat Williams were added to the pitching staff. The outcome of the 1920 American Association pennant race was never in doubt. St. Paul won its first eight games and after three weeks was 18-3. Toledo was second during the first two months, Minneapolis number two for most of the rest of the season. From June 26 to July 1, Saints pitchers shut out their opponents for 45 consecutive innings. The string was broken when Kansas City’s Bunny Brief homered in the seventh inning of a July 1, 7-2 St. Paul win. When the season ended, the Saints had a 115-49, .701 record, 28-½ games ahead of second place Louisville with Toledo third and Minneapolis fourth.
Following the regular season, the American Association and International League revived the sporadic Junior World Series. The two leagues’ championship teams had met in 1904, 1906, 1907 and 1917. Baltimore, Top 100 team # 9, won the 1920 International League pennant. In the best-of-nine series, the Saints were beaten 5 games to 1. However, in only one game was Baltimore’s winning margin more than three runs. St. Paul lost the last two games 6-5 and 1-0. Center fielder Elmer Miller hit .375 and Rapp batted .348. Don Riley, writing in the St. Paul Dispatch in 1953, said that “the final game, at Lexington Park, nearly brought on a riot when the fans thought the umpires were costing the Saints the game. Danny Boone was almost bounced for throwing his glove into the stands to protest one decision. Headlines the next day called the work of the officials (Bill Finneran of the American Association and M.J. Stockdale of the International League) ‘umpiracy.’ Perhaps the easy going the Saints had in the regular season brought about their downfall.”
St. Paul led the league in almost every offensive category. Their .301 team batting average was 21 points better than Minneapolis, the second place team. They scored 961 runs, 201 more than runner-up Toledo! The Saints led by wide margins in hits (1,679), total bases (2,368) and stolen bases (229), and by smaller amounts in triples (101) and home runs (66). (1920 was the last year of the dead ball era, the team leader in home runs in 1921 had 120.) Defensively, St. Paul led in fielding with a .967 average, five points better than Louisville. No team pitching statistics were kept, but the Saints gave up the fewest opponents runs, 597, 95 fewer than Indianapolis, the runner-up.
St. Paul was managed by 44-year-old Michael Joseph Kelly, one of the great figures of American Association history. Kelley managed for 28 years in the Association, winning a league-record five pennants with St. Paul. He was born in Templeton, MA, and The Sporting News reported that he was offered scholarships to Dartmouth, Harvard, Brown and Amherst. “His father envisioned a law career for his son, but when Mike signed as a first baseman with Augusta, ME (New England), his father told him: ‘Michael, my boy, I’m terribly disappointed with your decision to become a professional ballplayer.’” Kelley reached the National League in 1899, batting .241-3-33 in 76 games for Louisville. In 1900 he played for Indianapolis in the new American League, not yet recognized as a major league. He began his managerial career in 1901 at Des Moines (Western) with a seventh-place finish. Only twice more in his long career did one of his teams finish that low in the standings. When the American Association was organized in 1902, Kelley was hired to manage St. Paul. The Saints were second in the inaugural season, then won two consecutive titles. In 1906 he moved across the river to pilot the Minneapolis Millers, finishing third. He returned to Des Moines in 1907, but left in May although the team had a 13-7 record. Mike started 1908 as manager of Toronto (Eastern), but was back in St. Paul in August. He spent the rest of his career in the American Association. He piloted the Saints from 1909-12 and managed Indianapolis in 1913, his only eighth place finish. He served as business manager at St. Paul in 1914, then returned to the field. Kelley managed the Saints for nine years (1915-23), winning championships in 1919, 1920 and 1922. After the 1923 season he purchased controlling interest in the Minneapolis club and managed the Millers from 1924-31. His career managerial record was 2,390-2,102, .532. His victory total is the third highest among all managers in minor league history. He continued to operate the team as club president until he sold the franchise to the New York Giants in 1946. His Millers, managed by Donie Bush, won pennants in 1932 and 1935, and finished first in 1934 before losing the playoff to Columbus. Kelley was the last independent operator in the American Association and Nicollet Park in Minneapolis was the last to install lights, in 1937.
The Sporting News said: “Kelley grew wealthy on his shrewd player manipulations. Of the many players he sent to the majors, probably his best deals, from a financial standpoint, were those involving Bubbles Hargrave, bought for $500 and sold to the Reds for $25,000; Tom Sheehan and Chuck Dressen, bought for $2,500 and peddled to the Reds for $40,000; and Clint Hartung, acquired for a $1,000 bonus and sold to the Giants for $25,000. Mike’s biggest mistake in the talent market, he admitted, was in refusing to pay the Tigers $4,000 for a wild young left-hander, Carl Hubbell, who later was sold by Beaumont to the Giants for $25,000. Kelley boasted that he never hired a scout. ‘I get all the dope on players from umpires,’ he said. ‘I cultivate their friendship. Umpires make the best scouts and it doesn’t cost as much.’ Kelley signed a washed-up Joe Hauser and Nick Cullop and they became the mightiest left- and right-handed home run hitters in American Association history.
“Mike played first base with Miller Huggins at second on the Saints in 1902. In later years, Kelley refused to select between Huggins and John McGraw as the greatest manager. He considered Huggins his all-time favorite player. ‘Hug was the greatest,’ he often remarked. ‘Miller was the smartest, too, and probably the most courageous. He weighed only 120 pounds. He was my best pal from the time he came to St. Paul to play for me in 1902 until he died in 1929.’”
Two years after Kelley retired, he was given the honor of calling the 1948 National Association convention in Minneapolis to order. In banging the gavel, he accidentally brought it down on his left hand, breaking three fingers! Mike passed away in Minneapolis, June 6, 1955.
The battle for the American Association batting championship was one of the closest in league history, with eight players hitting between .330 and .335. The title was won by St. Paul third baseman Goldie Rapp (.3351) who finished one-half point ahead of his teammate, catcher Bubbles Hargrave (.3346). Toledo outfielder Al Wickland was third (.3341) and Kansas City centerfielder Wilbur Good was fourth (.3338). 28-year-old Joseph Aloysius Rapp, a switch-hitter from Cincinnati, OH, got his nickname when he was a boy from his light blonde hair, although he was mostly bald by the time he reached St. Paul. He had been acquired after the 1919 season from Beaumont (Texas). He drove in 83 runs in 1920 without hitting a single home run and stole 49 bases, second in the league. He was sold to the New York Giants after the season. He played for the Giants and Phillies from 1921-23, batting .253-2-73 in 276 games. Rapp returned to the American Association in 1924, hitting .325 for Toledo, then played three years in the International League with Rochester and Reading.
The Saints had another league-leader in 31-year-old left-handed hitting first baseman and leadoff batter Lee Dressen, who was first in runs with 131 and stolen bases with 50, one more than Rapp. It was his third stolen base title. He had led the American Association with 55 in 1917 and 46 in 1919. Dressen, a native of Ellinwood, KS, played for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1914, batting .233 in 46 games. He was acquired by St. Paul in 1915 and remained with the Saints through 1921, except for 1918 when he hit .178 in 31 games for Detroit. The 1920 season was Dressen’s best with the Saints as he hit .294-4-78 in 154 games. He had as many triples, 16, as he did doubles. Lee had little power, hitting only 17 home runs in six years with the Saints. In 1922 he quit the Saints to play “outlaw” baseball in one of the industrial leagues that flourished at the time. He was carried on St. Paul’s Ineligible List for several years and never returned to O.B. Lee was not related to Chuck Dressen who played third base for St. Paul from late 1921 through 1924 and was best known as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s.
In the middle of the infield were shortstop Lute (Danny) Boone and second baseman Marty Berghammer. More than thirty years later, Don Riley of the St. Paul Dispatch said that “The Berghammer-Boone combination probably has not yet been surpassed (in the American Association). Kansas City will point to Phil Rizzuto and Jerry Priddy, but for batting power, steady performance and personalities which ignited their mates, Boone and Berghammer were peerless.” They played together from 1919-25 and their careers are covered in detail in the report on the 1922 Saints, Top 100 team # 88, as are outfielders Bruno Haas and Joe Riggert.
The 1920 center fielder and cleanup hitter was Elmer Miller, a 30-year-old right-handed hitter who was between tours with the New York Yankees. Miller hit .333-8-104 in 159 games. He was second in the league in doubles (46) and fifth in batting, RBI and runs (108). He started his pro career with Duluth (Northern) in 1911, was purchased by Cincinnati and sold to the Cardinals before the start of the 1912 season. He went back to the minors after batting only .189 in 12 games with St. Louis. He returned to the big leagues late in 1915 with the Yankees and remained with New York through 1918. Miller was released to St. Paul in 1919 and batted .314 in 154 games for the pennant winning Saints, leading the league in home runs (15) and tying for the lead in triples (16). In 1921, he hit .313-18-96 in 102 games for the Saints and was re-acquired by the Yankees at the end of July. He hit .298-4-36 in 56 games for the Yanks’ first pennant winners and played center field in all eight games of the World Series, batting .161. Miller was traded to the Red Sox in July 1922, his last year in the majors. In seven big league seasons, Miller batted .243-16-151 in 413 games. In 1923 he jumped to the Beloit, WI, Fairies in the outlaw Midwest League and played for the team sponsored by the Fairbanks-Morse Co. for five years. He worked for the company until his death in November 1944.
The fourth outfielder was 30-year-old Vern (Duke) Duncan who batted .313-2-64 in 118 games. Duncan was with the Saints for three years, 1919-21. A native of Clayton, NC, he played briefly for the Phillies in 1913 and two full seasons with the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League in 1914-15 with a career average of .279-4-97 in 311 games.
Starring behind the plate was 28-year-old Eugene Franklin (Bubbles) Hargrave, who hit .335-22-109 in 142 games. As noted earlier, Hargrave was second in the American Association in batting by one-half a point. He was also second in home runs, with one fewer than Kansas City slugger Bunny Brief, third in runs (115) and fourth in RBI. He led the league’s catchers in fielding (.984). Riley described Hargrave as “a master of judgement and a fiery competitor.” In his book, “Baseball Nicknames,” James Skipper wrote that Hargrave stuttered. “He had great difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘B’ which resulted in the unkind nickname of ‘Bubbles.’ Hargrave detested the nickname.” A native of New Haven, IN, Hargrave never should have become a ballplayer if his father had his way. “My dad always thought I should get into some kind of more useful employment,” he once told The Sporting News. “So I went into the upholstering business. I didn’t like it because there was too much dust.”
Hargrave started his pro career with Terre Haute (Central) in 1911 and made his major league debut with the Cubs in September 1913. He spent all of 1914-15 as a backup catcher for Chicago, then played for Kansas City in 1916-17 and Memphis (Southern) in 1918. He joined St. Paul in 1918 shortly before the American Association suspended operation July 21. In 1919 he hit .303 in 146 games. Following his outstanding 1920 season, Hargrave was purchased by Cincinnati and caught for the Reds for the next eight years, six times hitting over .300. His best year was 1926 when he led the National League in batting (.353-6-62 in 105 games). Under today’s rule, he would not have qualified for the championship because he did not have 477 plate appearances, but at that time the requirement was playing in 100 games. In 1927, he led National League catchers in fielding (.988). In 1929 he was appointed playing manager of St. Paul and led the Saints to an excellent 102-54, .614 record, finishing second behind Kansas City, top team number 28. Hargrave also was second in the league in batting (.369-9-85). He was back in the majors in 1930 with the Yankees. His career major league average was .310-29-376 in 852 games. He caught for Minneapolis in 1931 and Buffalo in 1932, batting .372-10-60 for the Bisons. He was out of baseball in 1933, then finished his career as manager of Cedar Rapids (Western) in 1934. After he left baseball, he was a supervisor for a valve company in Cincinnati for many years.
| Charley (Sea Lion) Hall|
(Photo courtesy of National Baseball
Hall of Fame)
The American Association’s top pitcher in 1920 was 35-year-old St. Paul right-hander Charley (Sea Lion) Hall who had a 27-8, 2.06 record. He led the league in wins, ERA, percentage (.771) and lowest opponents batting average (.213) and was third in innings pitched (327). In later years, his Saints manager, Mike Kelley, maintained that no pitcher ever was better in a single season than Hall in 1920. Fred Lieb wrote in The Sporting News: “Sea Lion Hall they used to call him. He had a raucous penetrating voice like a fog horn at sea, and when he roared, especially from the coaching lines, you could hear him all over the stands.”
Hall was born Carlos Clolo, of Mexican parentage, in Kerrville, TX. Lieb said: “Hall pitched in the big leagues….when inelegant players referred to Charley as ‘the Greaser.’ He didn’t mind Sea Lion, rather relished it, but Greaser was a fighting word, and Charley was in plenty of fights. He capitalized on his ability with his fists and in handling rough customers.” That stood him in good stead in his post-baseball years when he was a police officer in Ventura, CA, then Ventura County Sheriff and jailer. He died in Ventura December 6, 1943.
Sea Lion broke into pro ball with Seattle (Pacific Coast) in 1904, just before his 19th birthday and had a 28-19 record in his rookie year. He was sold to Cincinnati in June 1906. The Reds sent him to Columbus a year later, then to St. Paul where he finished 1908 and started 1909. Midway through the 1909 season Hall was traded to the Red Sox and pitched for Boston through 1913. He had a 15-8, 3.02 record for the 1912 World Series champions, 0-0, 3.38 in 10 2/3 innings of relief in the eight-game Series. The Red Sox released Hall to St. Paul in 1914. After a 24-10, 2.62 season with the Saints in 1915, he was purchased by the Cardinals, but was back in the minors in mid-1916 with Los Angeles. He pitched for the Angels again in 1917, then was re-acquired by the Saints. Hall pitched briefly for Detroit in 1918 after the American Association shut down. He was back with St. Paul for five more seasons, then was traded to Sacramento. He pitched for the Solons in 1924 and Minneapolis and Birmingham (Southern) in 1925 before retiring. In his major league career he went 54-47, 3.09. In the minors he won 284 and lost 244 with a 3.32 ERA. Sea Lion pitched four nine-inning no-hitters, two for Seattle in 1905-06, both against Oakland, and two for St. Paul in 1918 and 1920, both against Columbus. In addition, in 1909 he pitched nine no-hit innings against Louisville, only to lose the game in the 12th. In 1915, Hall set the American Association record, never broken, for most consecutive wins, 16.
Hall told Lieb that “the highlight of his career came in Detroit while pitching for the Red Sox. The Tigers were at bat in the ninth, the bases were loaded and Boston held a one-run lead. Hall was rushed in as a relief pitcher at this point and he struck out Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and Jim Delahanty, Detroit’s famed murderers’ row of that era, in succession, to save the game for Boston.” In 1922-23, Charley’s catcher at St. Paul was Cuban Mike Gonzalez. “One of Hall’s favorite stories was how he and Mike jabbered so much Spanish that they talked Bunny Brief, the Association home run leader, into striking out in the pinch. ‘St. Paul was leading 4 to 3, when Brief came to bat with the bases full and two out in the eighth inning,’ the Sea Lion used to relate. ‘Brief was awfully hot, and piling up the home runs. Eventually I worked the count down to three and two. I had to get the next one over, take a chance at Bunny knocking it out of the park, or force in the tying run. So, I called time and walked to the plate to talk it over with Gonzalez. We spoke in Spanish, which annoyed Brief, who couldn’t understand what we were saying. As I walked back to the pitching mound, Mike continued to jabber away as only a Latin can. Bunny became so interested in Gonzalez’ Spanish that he wasn’t ready for the pitch. It came right over for a called third strike, and Brief was so mad that he could have broken his bat over our heads, while we gave him a good Mexican-Cuban horse laugh.”
The Saints had two other 20-game winners and one pitcher who just missed the charmed circle. Rees (Steamboat) Williams, a 28-year-old right-hander, was 20-6, 3.34, second to Hall in winning percentage (.769). Williams, a native of Cascade, MT, pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals briefly in 1914 and all of 1916 with a 6-8, 4.42 record. He was with the Saints in 1915 and 1917, Milwaukee in 1918 and the first part of 1919 and St. Paul again from mid-1919 to 1922. Howard Merritt went 21-10, 2.63, fourth in the League in ERA and tied for third in wins. Merritt, a 25-year-old right-hander from Tupelo, MS, pitched for the Saints from 1918-25. His best years were 1919 (19-9, 2.62), 1920 and 1923 (20-11, 3.37), three pennant winning seasons. He won 215 games in 14 minor league seasons, but never pitched in the big leagues. He played one game for the New York Giants in 1913, his rookie year, as an outfielder.
Fritz Coumbe, 30-year-old lefty, had a 19-7, 3.14 record after coming down from Cincinnati early in the season. In the Junior World Series, he was the starting and winning pitcher in St. Paul’s only victory and was the hard-luck loser in the 1-0 finale. Coumbe, a native of Antrim, PA, had pitched for the Red Sox and Indians in 1913 and Cleveland from 1914-19. His best season was 1918 when he went 13-7, 3.08. He returned to Cincinnati in 1921, his last major league season. His big league career record was 38-38, 2.80. He was traded to San Francisco where he pitched for another another Top 100 team. Coumbe played for Salt Lake City from 1923-25 and Hollywood in 1926. A good hitter, he switched to first base after encountering arm problems and in 1925 he batted .331-21-99 in 153 games for Salt Lake with a .543 slugging percentage. He died in 1978 in Paradise - California.
Following another two Top 100 teams in 1922 and 1923, the Saints remained in the American Association for another 37 years. Pennants were few and far between for St. Paul after the 1920s. The team won exactly three (1931, 1938 and 1949) before leaving the league after the 1960 season.
For several important reasons, the 1920 Saints are considered by many to be the greatest team in the nearly 100-year history of the American Association. First, the team won more games than any other league team. Secondly, their margin of victory was never surpassed. Finally, only one American Association played .700 ball over the course of a season - the 1920 St. Paul Saints.
|1920 American Association standings|
|1920 St. Paul Saints batting statistics|
|Bruno Haas||OF, P||130||446||73||137||64||24||5||11||27||46||12||.307|
|Sea Lion Hall||P||50||108||10||21||8||5||1||0||4||23||0||.194|
|1920 St. Paul Saints pitching statistics||PITCHER||W||L||PCT||G||GS||CG||SH||SV||IP||H||BB||SO||ERA|
|Sea Lion Hall||27||8||.771||48||327||233||88||133||2.06|