Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In the years following WWI, a baseball dynasty arose in one of Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Playing on the east bank of the Mississippi in a top minor league circuit, the St. Paul Saints put together a group of teams that ranked among the finest in American Association’s history. The 1922 version featured a rifle-armed backstop, catching a pitcher who would soon see his own career hanging in the balance.
The city of St. Paul can trace its involvement in baseball back nearly to the dawn of the minor leagues. In 1884, a team called the Apostles represented the city in the minors’ first strong league - the Northwestern League. Late in the season, the city enjoyed a flirtation in the major leagues, when the club, now known as the White Caps, joined the ill-fated Union Association for nine games. Following the season, the team went back to the Northwestern for an additional four years. In the last dozen years of the 19th century, St. Paul fielded a team most years in leagues variously called the Western League or Western Association. In the 12 years, the team finished no higher than second.
In 1902, the Apostles became a charter member of a new, upper-tier minor league in the Midwest. Given the name American Association, this circuit consisted of teams in Columbus, Milwaukee, Toledo, Kansas City, Louisville as well as a club in nearby Minneapolis. In the Association’s second year of existence, the club won its first flag with a sparkling 88-46 record, narrowly missing inclusion in the top 100. The team won again in 1904, but afterward hit a dry spell for the next 15 years.
In 1919, St. Paul’s American Association entry, now known as the Saints, finished on the top rung with a winning percentage of .610. In the season following, the team kept its pennant with a colossus of a club that finished on the top 100 list. After a dip into the second division in 1921, the Saints rebounded strongly the following season.
The 1922 St. Paul Saints flattened their Association competition, finishing 15 games ahead of second place Minneapolis. However, the club didn’t statistically dominate the league, finishing fifth in the team batting and fourth in the run scoring races, garnering totals of .287 and 937 respectively. The team did manage to dominate in the baserunning department, pilfering a league-high 161 bases. After the campaign, the Saints dropped the Little World Series, five games to two, to the International League champion Baltimore Orioles, another top 100 team. St. Paul’s only victories were won by veteran lefty Rube Benton, 2-1 and 4-3. The series was marred by a near-riot at the end of the last game, played in St. Paul, which the Orioles won 4-3. International League umpire Doll Derr was escorted from the field by police after the game when the crowd swarmed onto the field to protest a decision he had made in the eighth inning. International League president John C. Toole and Baltimore vice-president Charles Schmidt were jostled by the angry fans and had to be rescued by the police as the latter tried to clear the park.
For 1922, manager Mike Kelley, in his 17th year at the helm of the Saints, made some key changes to the roster of the sixth-place team of the previous year. To the starting lineup he added veteran major league catcher Mike Gonzalez and two talented rookies, third baseman Chuck Dressen and center fielder Walter (Seacap) Christensen. To the pitching staff he added ex-major leaguers Elwood (Speed) Martin and Tom (Shotgun) Rogers. However, the biggest change was that he had Benton and big right-hander Tom Sheehan for a full season. Both had come down to the Saints in mid-1921, Benton from the Giants, Sheehan from the Yankees, and had sub-par 6-7 and 7-9 records in the second half. In 1922, Sheehan was 26-12, 3.01, leading the American Association in wins, ERA and innings pitched (332). Benton (22-11, 3.24) was third in ERA and tied for second in wins with perennial Saints star Charley (Sea Lion) Hall (22-8, 3.65).
Behind the plate Gonzalez was the field general. He caught 131 games, hit .298 and sparkled defensively. Years later, The Sporting Years, in summarizing his career, said, “His accuracy in throws to second often amazed his teammates and opponents.” Unfortunately, at that time, no statistics were kept on what percentage of base runners a catcher threw out trying to steal. Gonzalez, a 6’1”, 200-pound native of Havana, Cuba, made his American debut in 1912, playing one game for the Boston Braves. He was the third Cuban to play in the majors. The next year he was a member of an all-Cuban squad that comprised the roster of the Long Branch, NJ, team that won the championship of the Class D New York-New Jersey League. He jumped all the way to the majors in 1914 with Cincinnati, then spent four years with the Cardinals, three as their number one catcher, and three seasons with the Giants as a backup receiver. After another stellar year with St. Paul in 1923, Gonzalez returned to the Cardinals. In 1925 he was traded to the Cubs and remained with them through 1929. After a year with Minneapolis, Mike once again joined the Cardinals for his last two seasons as an active major league player. In 1,042 major league games, he hit .254 and got into one World Series, in 1929 with the Cubs.
Gonzalez began his coaching career in 1933 as a player-coach for Columbus, another of the top 100 teams. The next season he moved up to St. Louis and was a Cardinals coach through 1946. In September 1938, he became the first Cuban to manage a major league team. The Cards fired Frankie Frisch in September and Gonzalez finished the year as temporary manager, leading the sixth-place club to an 8-8 record. Two years later, in mid-1940, Senor Mike managed the Cardinals for a week between the firing of Ray Blades and the hiring of Billy Southworth, the team going 1-5. In the last game he coached for St. Louis, October 15, 1946, Gonzalez became an integral part of baseball lore. In the bottom of the eighth, it was Mike, coaching at third base, who frantically waved Enos Slaughter home with the winning run that gave the Cardinals the World Series championship. Gonzalez did not return in 1947 because of an unusual set of circumstances. He owned and managed the Havana club in the Cuban Winter League.
That team had ties with the Mexican (summer) League. In 1946 a number of major leaguers jumped their contracts to play in the Mexican League and were placed on the Ineligible List. So, too, was Gonzalez. Eventually, he was reinstated and was offered a coaching job by the Braves. However, he decided to confine his efforts to running his Havana franchise.
Gonzalez had started managing the Havana team in the 1914-15 winter season. He won 14 championships, most in league history, the last one in 1953. In 1933, at the age of 42, he led the league in batting (.432). In 1955 he was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. When Fidel Castro came to power he banned professional baseball and 1960-61 was the last season for the Cuban League. Some of Gonzalez’ other property was confiscated, but because he was a national hero, he was allowed to keep his car and chauffeur. He died in Havana in 1977 at the age of 86. Gonzalez also is remembered as the presumed author of one of the game’s undying phrases, written while on a scouting assignment for St. Louis in the 1920s. In his own style of English he wired this assessment of the player, “Good field, no hit.”
The top-hitting regular was left fielder Bruno Haas at .331-8-90. Haas probably was the most popular player who ever wore a Saints uniform. He played for St. Paul for 11 years, 1920-1930, batting .323. Haas was a stocky 5’9”, 185-pound left-handed thrower who started out as a right-hander batter, then became a switch-hitter in the mid-1920s. He is in the major league record books for something he did in his first professional game, with the Philadelphia Athletics, June 21, 1915 - as a pitcher. For financial reasons, Connie Mack had dismantled his 1914 American League championship team and the A’s fell from 99-53 to 43-109 in 1915. Mack was desperate for pitchers, using 27 in 1915. Haas was the star of the Worcester, MA, Tech team, which was coached by Mack’s son, Roy, and became one of many who jumped from the amateur ranks to the Athletics. Pitching the second game of a double-header against New York, June 21, Haas went the distance, losing 15-7, giving up 11 hits, three wild pitches and 16 walks, the modern major league record. Haas was in 12 games for the A’s, six as a pitcher (0-1, 11.23) and six as an outfielder, going 1-for-18 (.056). He went to Wilkes-Barre (New York State) as an outfielder in 1916 and to Newark (International) in 1917. He was in the Navy in 1918, training as a pilot, then played for Milwaukee in 1919 before joining the Saints. In the fall of 1921, he played for Akron and Cleveland in the fledgling National Football League. Haas was traded to Toledo in 1931, then played for Milwaukee, New Orleans and Des Moines through 1932. The next year, in the depths of the Great Depression, a few brave souls revived the Class D Northern League. Haas was one of them, being awarded the Winnipeg franchise. He owned and managed Winnipeg through 1938 and still played occasionally. He then sold his interest in the club and was out of baseball the next three years. He returned to manage Grand Forks (Northern) in 1942 and played in a few games at the age of 51. After the war, Haas managed Fargo-Moorhead (Northern) from 1946-48, playing one last game in 1946.
St. Paul’s keystone combination of shortstop Lute Boone and second baseman Marty Berghammer played together from 1919-1925 and were at their peak in 1922. Boone hit .287 in 167 games and led the team in RBI (115). He had played for the Yankees from 1913-1916 and for the Pirates briefly in 1918. He was in the American Association for 14 consecutive years, 1917-1930, with Toledo, St. Paul, Kansas City, Louisville and Columbus. In 1933, like Haas, Boone helped organize the revived Northern League. In the circuit’s first three years he was the league president as well as owner, manager and player for the Crookston, MN, Pirates. He may have picked the team’s nickname because he was a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, PA. In 1933 Boone hit .387. He sold the club after the 1935 season, resigned as league president and in 1936 managed Wausau in the same league for one year before retiring from the game.
Berghammer, who also lived in Pittsburgh, played for the White Sox briefly in 1911 and for Cincinnati in 1913-14. In an interview years later, he said that he had been paid $3,500 a year by the Reds, but jumped to the Pittsburgh Federal League team in 1915 because they offered him a three-year contract at $6,000 a year plus a signing bonus of $5,000 which they paid him in 5,000 one-dollar bills! The Federal League blew up after the 1915 season, but he still had the bonus. He could have returned to the Reds, but St. Paul offered him more money and a two-year deal. Berghammer hit .288 with 86 RBI in 1922. He stayed with the Saints through 1925, then was appointed manager of the Western League Tulsa Oilers. He won championships there in 1927-28 and had the Oilers in first place in mid-1929 when he was named manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. He remained at the helm of the Brewers through the middle of the 1931 season, but the team finished in the second division each year.
Left fielder Joe Riggert played for St. Paul for 12 seasons, 1912-1913, 1915-1924. He led the American Association in triples three times, with a career high of 23 in 1913. Riggert is the minor league career leader in triples with 228, 28 more than runner-up Fred (Snake) Henry. In the majors Riggert played for the Red Sox in 1911, the Dodgers and Cardinals in 1914 and the Braves in 1920, batting .240 in 174 games. In the minors, he had a career average of .301 with 2,717 hits.
St. Paul’s fourth outfielder, Tim Hendryx, hit a team-high .341 in 108 games. Before coming down to the Saints, he had played eight seasons between 1911 and 1921 with the Indians, Browns, Yankees and Red Sox, batting .276 in 418 games. His best year was 1920 with Boston when he hit .328 with 73 RBI in 99 games.
The team’s most controversial player was pitcher Rube Benton, although not because of anything he did in the year and a half he wore a St. Paul uniform. Benton, a talented left-hander, had a 150-144, 3.09 record in a major league career that spanned 16 seasons, 1910-1925. He won 15 or more games five times. Benton reached the majors with Cincinnati after less than a year in pro ball. However, within a few years he had acquired a reputation for “not keeping in proper physical condition,” as Baseball Magazine writer F.C. Lane put it - translation, drinking. In mid-1915 he was acquired by the Giants. In 1917 he was 15-9, 2.72 and was 1-1 with a 0.00 ERA in the World Series that the Giants lost to the White Sox, 4 games to 2. He pitched a 2-0 five-hitter to beat Eddie Cicotte in game three and lost the sixth and final game 4-2 as Chicago scored four unearned runs. That was the famous game during which Giants third baseman Heinie Zimmerman chased Eddie Collins across the plate with the winning run in a rundown botched because the first baseman neglected to cover the plate. Benton was in the Army in 1918, had his best year, 17-11, 2.63 in 1919, then fell off to 9-16, 3.03 in 1920.
After the 1920 season and in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, Benton charged that in 1919 Braves infielder Buck Herzog, a former Giants teammate, had tried to bribe him to lose a game. Herzog vehemently denied the accusation and counter-charged that Benton had advance knowledge the Chicago players were going to throw the 1919 World Series and had bet on the Reds. (That same situation was enough to get Browns’ second baseman Joe Gedeon permanently banned from baseball.) Herzog backed up his assertion with affidavits signed by Boston teammates Tony Boeckel and Art Wilson.
Hearings were held to determine the truth. Herzog stoutly maintained his innocence. Benton admitted he had made a bet, not uncommon among players at that time, but denied he knew the Series had been fixed. Lane wrote, “Unfortunately for his own case, Benton was far from a perfect witness. His statements were in a sense confused and contradictory. Nevertheless nothing was brought to light which would incriminate him in crooked deals, his rather unsatisfactory testimony being evidently the result of an intellect that responded none too keenly to clever cross examination.”
Benton was not placed on the Ineligible List, but in 1921 although he had a 5-2, 2.88 record in June he was informally considered “undesirable,” probably due in least in part because of the drinking. The Giants released him to St. Paul where Kelley had agreed to take him. After his fine 1922 season with the Saints, his old club, Cincinnati, who had finished second to the Giants, traded pitcher Cliff Markle and a bundle of cash to St. Paul for Benton. National League President John Heydler refused to approve the transaction and notified the Reds that Benton was ineligible to play in the National League because of “undesirability.” Cincinnati argued that if Benton was undesirable for the National League he must also have been undesirable for the American Association, where he had been permitted to play for 1½ years. According to Lane, the National League voted 6-2 to sustain Heydler, with Cincinnati and New York in the minority. Meanwhile, St. Paul had appealed that ruling to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Heydler agreed to await Landis’ decision before taking further action.
In his 1983 Baseball Research Journal biography of Benton, Steve Boren writes, “If Landis decided against Benton, he would be permanently banned. However, if Landis vindicated Benton, the league, although respecting that decision, did not necessarily have to reinstate Benton. If Landis should make no decision and the final adjustment was left to Heydler, then Benton undoubtedly would be banned for life. Landis shocked the baseball world by ruling for Benton and chastising the league for depriving him of the right to earn a living. This stance was contrary to what Landis had ruled in all other similar cases. Irate, Heydler publicly criticized Landis. However, after a closed meeting with the Commissioner, Heydler quietly reversed his position.” In 1923, Benton was 14-10, 3.66 for the second place Reds who finished 4 ½ games behind the Giants. After 7-9 and 9-10 seasons with Cincinnati in 1924-25, he returned to the American Association where he pitched eight more years for Minneapolis, now owned by his old St. Paul boss Kelley. In November 1930, Rube was seriously injured in an auto accident, suffering a badly crushed pitching hand, but recovered to post a 13-13 season in 1931. In 1932, at 45, he went 18-7 to help pitch the Millers to the championship. Benton retired in 1934 and died in an automobile accident in 1937.
The following season, despite winning 111 games, the Saints finished a close second to Kansas City. Although finishing two games in arrears, the 1923 squad ended up on the top 100 list. In 1924, the Saints returned to the top with their fourth pennant in six years.
Over the remaining years of their existence, the team won three more regular season pennants (1931, 1938 and 1949) with a playoff win (1948) sandwiched in between. Following the 1960 season, the Saints left the American Association to make way for the Minnesota Twins.
Although somewhat overshadowed by their counterparts in 1920, the 1922 St. Paul Saints should not be relegated to second-tier status. The team showed true championship mettle by utilizing its roster of major league veterans, to post one of the highest win totals in American Association history.
|1922 American Association Standings|
|1922 St. Paul Saints batting statistics|
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|1922 St. Paul Saints pitching statistics|
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