Old School Minnesota Baseball, Part III: Mike Kelley and the St. Paul Saints

In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James writes a lengthy article about the 1919 to 1925 Baltimore Orioles, which he considers the best minor league team ever.  The St. Paul Saints during roughly the same period (1919 to 1924) were probably the second best minor league team ever.

Michael Joseph “Mike” Kelley was sort of the Connie Mack of American Association/Minnesota baseball.  Like Mack, Kelley was born in Massachusetts of Irish decent.  Like Mack, Kelley worked in a relatively small baseball market, but built two great teams during his many years as manager of the St. Paul Saints.  (Philadelphia was not a small major league market; however, Philadelphia wasn’t big enough after the 1930’s to support two major league teams.  The Twin Cities as a whole was a great market, but from the formation of the American Association in 1902, the West Side of the Mississippi River belonged to the Millers and East Side to the Saints).  Also, like Mack, Kelley began his managing career as a player manager.

Kelley began his minor league managing career with Des Moines in the Western League.  His team finished a dismal 7th.  Only two more times in his remaining 29 years of managing would a Mike Kelley-led team finish that far out of first.

Kelley was one of the founders of the American Association in 1902.  His first great St. Paul teams were the 1903 and 1904 outfits.  The 1903 team finished 88-46 and the 1904 team went 95-52.  Kelley was only 27 and 28 years old those years, so he was still one of the teams’ on-field stars, although he apparently missed some time with injuries.

Also on the 1903 team was fiery and diminutive second baseman Miller Huggins.  In 1904, Huggins was sold to the Cincinnati Reds, where he began a 13 year major league career, before going on to greater fame as the manager of the NY Yankees.

The only other star of the 1903 and 1904 ball clubs that I was able to find any information on was pitcher Charlie Chech.  Chech was born in Madison, Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin before his professional baseball career.  It was still rare in those days for a professional ball player to have gone to college; Christy Matthewson of the Giants brought a tremendous amount of respect to the game because he had gone to college at Bucknell in Pennsylvania before he began his professional career.

Chech went 24-9 for the Saints in 1903 and put up an even better 27-8 to lead the American Association in wins in 1904.  Chech was sold to the Reds in 1905, where he went 14-15 with a 2.89 ERA.  (Kelley must have had an especially good relationship with August Herrman, the owner of the Reds (or someone else in the Reds’ front office) because many Saints ended up with the Reds a season after a big year for St. Paul).

In 1906, Chech had a 2.32 ERA pitching 66 innings for the Reds in 11 games.  However, he went 1-4, so the Reds sold his contract to Toledo, back in the American Association.  He went 25-11 in 1907 and was sold back up to the majors for 1908.  He had his best major league season in ’08 going 11-7 for the Indians with a 1.73 ERA.  However, he got off to a slow start in 1909 going 7-5 with a 2.94 ERA (as in 1906, however, his run average was substantially higher than his ERA) in 17 games for the Red Sox, and was sold back to the Saints mid-way through the season.  He went only 5-9 for the Saints in the second half of 1909.

Chech’s had his last big year for the Saints in 1910 going 19-15 (through the first decade of the American Association’s existence, ERA was apparently not a statistic the league kept) and pitching in 299 innings. He had a down year in 1911 going 11-13, and was sold to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.

The Coast League at that time was probably not as strong a league as the American Association or the International League, the two eastern AAA-level leagues; by the early 1920’s it would be, and by 1930, the PCL was the best of the three.  Chech had a few more strong years for the Angels before calling it a career.

After the Saints fell to 5th place in 1905 (the Columbus team won the next three American Association pennants), Mike Kelley became the manager of the Millers, who finished 3rd in 1906.  For some reason, Kelley left the American Association, returning to Des Moines in the Western League, which was about the equivalent of what we would consider a AA league today, where he managed for 20 games in 1907.  This may have reflected his declining abilities as a baseball player, as opposed to those as a manager.  After another abortive season with Toronto of the International League, where he managed the Maple Leafs to a losing record over 74 games, he returned to manage the Saints in August of 1908.

After finishing 5th, 4th and 4th in 1909-1911, the Saint finished a disappointing 6th in 1912, and Kelley apparently got the boot.  He managed Indianapolis to a last place finish in 1913, and then miraculously returned to manage the Saints in 1914 for the third time.  The Saints finished 2nd in both 1915 and 1917, sandwiching a 4th place finish in 1916.  The Saints finished a disappointing 6th in the war-shortened 1918 season, but the team had a winning record at 39-38, and Kelley had been stocking the club with players who would make the Saints a powerhouse.

From 1919 through 1924, the Saints won four American Association pennants in six years and finished with the American Association’s best regular season record in five of those years (the AA must have had some sort of playoff between the top teams, because the Kansas City Blues, led by their slugging 1Bman Bunny Brief, played and beat the International League’s Baltimore Orioles in the 1923 Junior World Series).  The strongest Saints team was the 1920 team that went 115-49, although the 1922 and 1923 teams won 111 and 107 games, respectively.

Unfortunately, the Saints are not better remembered today because their heyday was overlapped by Baltimore Orioles teams that won 7 consecutive pennants between 1919 and 1925, and were almost certainly the best minor league teams of the 20th Century.  The only one of those Oriole teams that won fewer than two games for every loss was the 1925 team at the end of the dynasty that went a meager 105-61.

The Saints were also not a great post-season team.  They lost 3 of the 4 Junior World Series they played in, although it must have given the team and its fans great satisfaction to beat the Orioles in the Saints’ last Junior World Series appearance in 1924.

Like the Orioles of that era, the Saints were a dominating team that was built around dominating pitching.  The first of these minor league pitching stars was Charles “Sea Lion” Hall.  Hall was actually a Latino originally from Ventura, California; his real name was Carlos Clolo.

Hall/Clolo originally pitched for Seattle in the early years of the Pacific Coast League.  After a few big years there, he was purchased by the Cinci Reds, where he went 8-9 over parts of two seasons with an ERA of about 3.00.  This apparently wasn’t good enough, because he was sold to Columbus in the American Association during the 1907 season.

The Saints first acquired him mid-way through the 1908 season, and at first he was not successful.  In 1908 and 1909, Sea Lion went a combined 12-34.

Strangely enough, this apparently poor performance was enough to get him back to the majors with the Red Sox in late 1909.  He remained in the bigs through the 1913 season going 45-32 during that period.  His best seasons were 1910 when he went 12-9 with a 1.91 ERA and 1912 when he went 15-8 with a 3.02 ERA for the World Champions.  In both seasons he led the AL in relief wins with 6.

After a down year in 1913 when he went only 5-5 and his ERA ballooned to 3.48, he was sold back to St. Paul.  After going 24-10 with a 2.62 ERA in 1915, he went back to the majors in 1916 with the St. Louis Cardinals.  The Cards were one of the doormats of the NL in those days, and Sea Lion got off to a terrible start going 0-4 with a 5.48 ERA in 10 games.  The Cards sold him to the L.A. Angels, and after a couple of so-so seasons in the PCL, the Saints reacquired him before the 1918 season.

Hall had a fantastic year in 1918, going 15-8 with a 1.85 ERA (remember, this was a short season due to WWI).  He went up to the Detroit Tigers at the end of the season for what turned out to be his last major league shot.  He bombed, giving up 10 earned runs in 13 innings.

However, as was often the case in those days, the majors’ loss was the high minors’ gain.  Hall went back to St. Paul in 1919 and had five fantastic seasons.  His record for those years was as follows:

Year        Wins     Losses     ERA

1919          17         13            2.29

1920          27*        8             2.06*  (The * means he led the league)

1921           20         14            4.36   (he led the A.A. that year with 54 games pitched)

1922           22          8             3.65

1923           24         13            3.50

Like a lot of minor league aces, Hall was a control pitcher who had nearly as many walks allowed in his career as strikeouts.  Bill James’ theory about these kind of pitchers is that they tend to rely more on knowing the various hitters’ strengths and weaknesses than the power pitchers do.  Thus, they need to go through the league a few times to learn the hitters’ tendencies before they can be really effective.  In those days, a minor leaguer given a shot at the majors had to make an impression in a hurry.  If he didn’t, it was back to the minors, and the major league team found another young buck to show them what he could do.

Nevertheless, Hall was probably one of the best pitchers in baseball, at least during his career year of 1920.  After the 1923 season, Kelley peddled him off to Sacramento of the Pacific Coast league.  Hall was already 38 at the end of the 1923 season, and Kelley was right to assume he didn’t have much left.  Hall’s last year as a professional was 1925 which he split between the Minneapolis Millers and the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association, an AA-level league.

Minor league stars also appear to have a much higher prevalence of having their best seasons in their 30’s.  Major league players as a group peak at roughly age 27 (statistically speaking, it really is that young), with most major league regulars having their best seasons between ages 26 and 31.  The minor league stars of the pre-WWII era, seem to have had many players who didn’t really put it together until they were at or close to 30 years old.  By that point they were no longer major league prospects and could put up great numbers every year in the high minors and never get a real shot at a major league job.  These kinds of players were worth more to the top minor league teams than to the majors.  There were no multi-year contracts in those days, so if a player suddenly got old, he could be unceremoniously dumped, either outright or sold off to a lower minor league.  The major league teams always valued young players who had a better chance of having a long major league career if things broke right for them.

Also, in those days a top minor league team like the 1919-1924 Saints or the 1919-1925 Orioles had revenue streams as good or better than some of the major league teams.  Before 1925, major league games weren’t even regularly broadcast on the radio, except for the world series, and it took surprisingly long for teams at any level to take advantage of this new revenue source.  The thinking at the time was, “Why would fans pay to see the game when they could hear it on the radio for free?”  It is this kind of rock-solid logic that major league team owners have shown even to the present day.

The upshot is that at least until the late 1920’s, almost all of a team’s revenue came from the gate receipts and concessions, and a good minor league team in a big minor league city could consistently outdraw a bad major league that had to share its city with another major league team, such as the worse of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, the Boston Red Sox and Braves, and the Philadelphia Phillies and A’s.  Further, before 1925, at least, the top minors had no obligation to sell their stars to the major league teams, unless, of course, a major league team made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Unfortunately, the phenomenal success of the early 1920’s Orioles (and to a lesser extent the Saints) compelled the other owners in their leagues to push for a system whereby each minor league had to sell off its stars after only a couple of seasons or risk losing the players to the majors in a draft at a fixed price.  With the Orioles making a mockery of the International Association pennant race by June each year, it was hard for the other teams to make any money.  The deal the minor leagues entered into in 1925 was the beginning of the end of minor league independence and, along with television in the 1950’s when everyone around the country could watch major league baseball, led inevitably to the current state of affairs where the minors (with the exception of independent A leagues like the Northern League and the Atlantic League) exist solely for the purpose of farming major league talent.

Here’s another article on the St. Paul Saints.  In Part IV of this series I will tell you about the other big stars of the 1920’s Saints.  [Part II of the Series is here, and Part I is here.  Here’s a article about Sea Lion Hall as a Boston Red Sock.]

Explore posts in the same categories: Baltimore Orioles, Baseball History, Minnesota Twins

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