Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In 1922, the St. Paul Saints finished with a stellar 107-60 record, easily claiming the American Association pennant and a place in the top 100 list. The next year, the team collected four more wins, yet their season was not nearly as successful. This was simply because the team finished one place lower in the standings. This slide in the standings was certainly no fault of the pitching staff, which excelled behind a quartet of top hurlers.
Baseball had its professional beginnings in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1884. Here, a team called the Apostles joined the Northwestern League. In September, after compiling a 24-48 record, the team jumped ship, joining the major league Union Association as a replacement team. The club, called the White Caps, went 2-6-1 in nine road games, earning the distinction of being the only major league nine not to play a single home game.
In 1886, St. Paul returned to the Northwestern League for a two year stay. Next, the city fielded a team in the Western Association in 1888, staying in the loop after the name was switched to Western League in 1892. After dropping out in 1893, the St. Paul club rejoined the Western in 1895, staying through the end of the century. During this time, the club posted its best seasons in 1887, when the club finished a close third with a record of 75-45 and 1895, when the team finished second with a 74-50 record.
Two years after the dawn of the 20th century, the city of St. Paul and seven other midwestern cities formed a new top-ranked minor league. Called the American Association, the loop also featured a team located in nearby Minneapolis, giving St. Paul a natural rival for many years.
In 1903, the St. Paul Apostles won their first American Association pennant, sporting a 88-46 record. The next year they repeated, later inaugurating a post-season classic with a rival league. Following the 1904 season, the Apostles were challenged by the Eastern League’s champion, the Buffalo Bisons. In this series, later dubbed the Little World Series, Buffalo bested St. Paul, two games to one. The Little World Series, pitting the Eastern (later International)League against the American Association, would continue in sporadic fashion for the next 70 years.
Following their pennant of 1904, St. Paul would wait 15 years for a return to the top rung. In 1919, the team, now called the Saints, won the flag. Following the season, the team played a group of games against the Pacific Coast League champion Vernon Tigers. In the series, played entirely in California, the Tigers were leading the Saints, five games to four, when play was halted by St. Paul after several perceived misdeeds by their hosts.
In 1920, the Saints returned to the top, fielding a team in the upper echelons of the top 100 list. After a dip to sixth the next year, St. Paul won once again with another top-100 team in 1922. The following season, the team, once again broke out strongly. Unfortunately for the Saints, this time they had company. For the past two years, the Kansas City Blues had featured strong teams, finishing third both times. In 1923, the Blues added 20 wins to their 1922 total, finishing with an astonishing 112-54 record. The Saints strove mightily, but finished just short with a 111-57 mark, two games out of first.
1923 was Mike Kelley’s 18th and last season as St. Paul’s manager. His teams had won five American Association championships and finished in the first division 12 times. In November, 1923, Kelley purchased controlling interest in the across-the-river rival Minneapolis Millers and became the team’s president and manager. He remained in uniform through 1931, but the best the Millers did in his eight years as manager was a second-place finish in 1928. His 30-year managerial record was 2,390-2,102, .532. Only two minor league managers, Stan Wasiak (2,530) and Bob Coleman (2,496) won more games than Kelley. Mike remained as owner and president of the Minneapolis club until 1946 when he sold the franchise to the New York Giants.
The strength of the 1923 Saints was pitching. They had four 20-game winners who combined for 100 of the team’s 111 victories. Tom Sheehan, 6’3”, 220-pound right-hander, led the league for the second straight year in wins and ERA (31-9, 2.90) and tied the American Association record for most victories in a season. Cliff Markle went 25-12, 3.36, Sea Lion Hall was 24-15, 3.50 and Howard Merritt had a 20-11, 3.37 record. Markle led the league in strikeouts (184) and was third in ERA. Merritt was fourth in ERA and Hall was fifth.
Thomas Clancy Sheehan reached the majors in his first full season in pro ball, in 1915 at the age of 21 with the tail-end Philadelphia Athletics, going 4-9, 4.15. In 1916 he had a respectable 3.69 ERA, but pitching for a bad ball club he was 1-16. After three years with Atlanta, leading the Southern Association in wins (26) in 1920, Sheehan was purchased by the New York Yankees. He was 1-0, 5.45 in 12 games in relief for New York in 1921 before being sold to St. Paul in mid-season. After his stellar 1923 season, Sheehan and third baseman Charley Dressen who had cost Kelley a combined $2,500 were sold to Cincinnati for $40,000 in one of the Saints’ many transactions with the Reds. Sheehan was traded by Cincinnati to Pittsburgh in 1925 and returned to the American Association with Kansas City early in 1926. His major league totals were 17-37, 4.01. In his six years with Kansas City, Sheehan again led the league in wins (26) in 1927. He finished his playing career with three seasons at Hollywood (PCL), bowing out after a 16-14, 3.69 season in 1934. The next year he joined Cincinnati as a coach for three seasons and was a Brooklyn coach in 1938. Sheehan managed Minneapolis from 1939-1943, finishing second in 1939 and third in 1940. He was a Boston Braves coach in 1944, then became a scout for the Giants in 1945. In May, 1946, with Minneapolis in seventh place, the Giants decided a change of managers was needed and sent Sheehan in to take over the reins. The Millers enjoyed a 14-game winning streak in June and finished fourth although they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. In 1947 they again finished fourth and lost the first playoff round. Sheehan returned to scouting duties with the Giants until June 18, 1960.
That year San Francisco was an overwhelming pre-season favorite to win the National League pennant and they were playing in brand-new Candlestick Park. Under Bill Rigney, the team got off to a good start and on May 8 they completed a three-game sweep of visiting Pittsburgh to oust the Pirates from first place. The two clubs vied for the top spot for the next month. Then, by winning three straight from the Giants at San Francisco and two more at Los Angeles while the Giants were losing eight of eleven, Pittsburgh took a four-game lead. Although the Giants were still in second place with a 33-25 record, San Francisco owner Horace Stoneham abruptly fired Rigney and replaced him with his long-time friend Sheehan. It was not a popular move. Rigney, who had managed the Giants since 1956, was well-liked and had led the team to third-place finishes in 1958-59. Sheehan was known to the fans only as the club’s super-scout and he was disparaged by much of the media. One writer, combining Sheehan’s middle name, his off-the-field appearance and his onetime off-season occupation, referred to him as “Clancy, the House Dick.” Under Sheehan the team had a 46-50 record and finished fifth, 16 games behind the Pirates. Sheehan returned to scouting for the Giants and remained in that position until he retired.
Markle, a 29-year-old, 5’9” right-hander, had come to St. Paul after the 1922 season in the deal that sent Rube Benton to Cincinnati. He had pitched for the Yankees in 1915-16 with a 6-3, 3.13 record and was 6-11, 3.78 for Cincinnati in 1921-22. Markle went back to the Yankees from St. Paul briefly in 1924, then returned to the Saints. He had a minor league career record of 211-144, 3.69. Although Merritt, a 5’10” lefty, won 214 games in a 14-year minor league career, he never pitched in the majors. He played one major league game, in 1913 at the age of 19, as an outfielder for the Giants.
One of the Saints’ impressive youngsters was 22-year-old, 5’6 ½ “ center fielder and leadoff batter Walter (Seacap) Christensen, a San Francisco native of Danish parentage. Christensen had been purchased by St. Paul from Joplin (Western) at the close of the 1921 season. He was with the Saints for four years and improved at the plate each season. In 1923 he batted .296 and led the league in walks with 102. In 1924 he hit .314-8-75 and led the league in runs (145). In 1925 he boosted his average to .325 and led the league in stolen bases (49). Christensen was bought by Cincinnati and in 1926 helped lead the Reds to second place, just two games behind St. Louis. He hit .350, second in the National League, three points behind teammate and ex-Saints catcher Bubbles Hargrave. However, he fell off to .254 in 1927 and by August was back in the American Association with Columbus. He was purchased by the PCL Mission Reds in 1929 and batted .319 for the first-half champions. Christensen also was known as “Cuckoo Christy,” an extrovert whose antics pleased the fans, but sometimes drove managers up the wall. He enjoyed doing somersaults in the outfield, usually when the ball was not in play. Sometimes, however, he would somersault while waiting for a lazy fly ball to come down. On at least one occasion, it backfired. In “Nuggets on the Diamond,” Dick Dobbins writes, “With the Reds leading by one run in the bottom of the ninth and runners on base, Christensen went after a fly ball, did a somersault, then dropped the ball. The Reds lost the game, and an angry (Manager Red) Killefer chased Christensen all the way into the centerfield clubhouse.” Christy moved on to Milwaukee early in 1930 and played for the Brewers through 1933, hitting over .300 each year. He missed most of the 1931 season after breaking his leg in a game and his speed suffered after that. He retired as an active player in 1934. For many years, Christensen was an umpire in Northern California, principally in college and semi-pro games, but working as a substitute in the PCL on occasion.
Another of the rising stars of the 1923 Saints was their 24-year-old third baseman, Charley Dressen, who hit .304-12-99 and led the league in doubles (50). St. Paul had bought Dressen from Peoria (III) in September, 1921. Before that, he had been part of the history of another sport. In 1920, the 5’6”, 145-pound native of Decatur, IL, was the quarterback for George Halas’ Decatur Staleys who finished second in the first season of the American Professional Football Association. The next year the team became the Chicago Bears and a year after that the APFA changed its name to the National Football League. Dressen played two more seasons in the NFL with Racine, WI, then decided to stick to baseball. After a brilliant 1924 season with the Saints in which he hit .346-18-151, he was purchased by Cincinnati and played for the Reds until 1931. His best year was 1927 when he hit .292 and led National League third baseman in fielding. (.967). In his book “The Artful Dodgers,” Tom Meany said that while Dressen was with the Reds “he was known for two outstanding talents: the ability to palm a baseball for the hidden-ball trick… and the extraordinary ability to guess when an opposing batter was going to pull what he thought was a surprise bunt.” In 1931, Dressen was sold to Minneapolis and rejoined his old St. Paul mentor, Mike Kelley. Dressen began his managerial career in 1932 at Nashville in the Southern Association. He was the Vols’ playing manager again in 1933 and at the end of August was hitting .333 with 93 RBI in 127 games with his team in third place. New York Giants third baseman Johnny Vergez was stricken with appendicitis and manager Bill Terry sent a distress call to Nashville for the veteran Dressen. He finished the season with the National League champion Giants, but didn’t get into the World Series. Dressen returned to Nashville in 1934, winning the first half. On July 18, he was appointed manager of the last place Cincinnati Reds. He remained at the helm of the Reds through 1937, but never finished higher than fifth. In 1938 he went back to Nashville and finished second. Dressen was a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1939-1946 and for the New York Yankees in 1947-48. In 1949 he replaced Casey Stengel as manager of the PCL Oakland Oaks. The Oaks finished second in 1949 and won the pennant in 1950.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the Dodgers had done well under Burt Shotton, first in 1949 and second in 1950, but Walter O’Malley wanted someone more colorful than the quiet Shotton who managed from the dugout in street clothes. The Dodgers had to compete in the media with the Giants’ bombastic Durocher and the Yankees’ loquacious Stengel. In Dressen he had the perfect solution, a sound baseball leader who was never at a loss for words. He was also controversial. Red Smith once observed, Dressen “has a gift for saying and doing graceless things on important occasions.” Charley managed the Dodgers for three years, losing the 1951 pennant to the Giants in the famous best-of-three playoff and winning the National League championship in 1952-53. In both years Brooklyn lost the World Series to the Yankees, 4 games to 3 in 1952 and 4 games to 2 in 1953. By then, Dressen felt he deserved more security than just another one-year contract. Other successful National League managers, Durocher, Charlie Grimm, Eddie Stanky had received two or three-year deals. Dressen wanted three years, but O’Malley said that was against his policy of one year contracts only. Peter Golenbock, in his book “Bums,” wrote: Dressen had been successful. He had brought controversy, humor and excitement, and he had increased attendance, but O’Malley didn’t care. The owner resented Dressen’s manner, his personal publicity and the fact that Dressen’s wife, Ruth, had written a letter demanding a three-year contract. O’Malley became angry.” He called a press conference and, with Dressen present, reiterated that the Dodgers did not believe in long-term contracts, but Dressen was welcome to sign a one-year pact. Dressen said he felt he had earned a three-year contract, but would accept one for two years. They left. In the next few days, Dressen tried to reach O’Malley, but his calls were not returned. He realized he was through and two weeks later signed a three-year contract to manage Oakland. After a third-place finish in 1954, Dressen returned to the majors to manage Washington. The Senators finished seventh in 1955 and eighth in 1956. On May 7, 1957, with the team in last place, Dressen was replaced by his long-time coach Cookie Lavagetto. Charley returned to the Dodgers as a coach in 1958-59, then managed Milwaukee in 1960-61. The Braves came in second and were third in 1961 when Dressen was replaced by Birdie Tebbetts on September 7. He managed Toronto (International) in 1962 and in 1963 was scouting for the Dodgers when he was appointed manager of Detroit on June 18 with the team in ninth place. They finished in a tie for fifth and were fourth in 1964. On March 9, 1965, Dressen suffered a heart attack, but returned to the helm of the Tigers May 31 and again led the team to a fourth-place finish. On May 16, 1966, with Detroit in third place (16-10), he suffered another heart attack and died on August 10.
The St. Paul Saints went on to win another flag in 1924, before scattering three more pennants (1931, 1938 and 1949) over the next thirty years. After the 1960 season, the Saints along with the Minneapolis Millers left the Twin Cities to make room for the major league Minnesota Twins, who were relocating from Washington, D.C.
Although finishing just short in the 1923 American Association pennant race, the second place Saints deserve a place in the minors’ top 100 list. In the 95-year history of the American Association, only two teams have bested St. Paul’s 111 wins in 1923. Unfortunately for the ’23 Saints, one of the two achieved their glory in the very same year.
|1923 American Association Standings|
|1923 St. Paul Saints batting statistics|
|Sea Lion Hall||P||47||113||17||35||23||4||1||3||11||11||2||.310|
|1923 St. Paul Saints pitching statistics|
|Sea Lion Hall||24||13||.649||46||298||322||77||66||3.50|