Old School Minnesota Baseball, Part IV: More St. Paul Saints Aces

In Part III of this series, I told you about Mike Kelley and Sea Lion Hall.  In this post, I will tell you about some of the other stars of the 1919-1924 Saint Paul Saints.  As I wrote in Part III, the Saints were a team built on pitching, so I will talk about their pitchers in this installment.

A great star who had two fantastic seasons for the Saints was Tom Sheehan.  He was from Grand Ridge, Illinois, and after a couple of seasons in the Illinois-Missouri League and the III League (Illinois, Indiana and Iowa), he was purchased by the Philadelphia A’s.

The A’s were AL champs in 1910, 1911, 1913 and 1914.  They were famous for their “$100,000 infield”, which Connie Mack sold off to the other teams in the American League after the 1914 season, because the A’s couldn’t draw enough to keep them (and their big salaries) despite winning all those pennants.

Naturally, Sheehan came up with the A’s in 1915.  He went 4-8 that year with a 4.15 ERA on a bad team.  In 1916 the A’s were far worse — at 36-117, they had the lowest winning percentage (.235) of any team since 1900 (even worse than the 1962 Mets who went 40-120, a .250 winning percentage).  Sheehan went 1-16, despite a 3.69 ERA, which was considerably higher than the AL’s overall ERA of 2.81 that year, but not terrible.  It was that kind of season for the 1916 A’s.  Jack Nabors went 1-20 with an even better 3.47 ERA.  Both Sheehan and Nabors were gone from the majors after that season.

Sheehan was traded or sold to Atlanta in the (AA) Southern Association before the 1917 season.  He had a good year that year, spent a year in the army in 1918 and then had two fantastic years for the Crackers.  He went 17-3 in 1919 and 26-17 in 1920.  He led the Southern Association in wins and innings pitched (375) the latter year and was sold to the NY Yankees.  He got off to a poor start in 1921, with a 5.45 ERA in 32 innings before the Yankees sold him to St. Paul for $2,500.  He finished the year at St. Paul going 7-9, but with a respectable 3.19 ERA.

Sheehan’s numbers for the next two seasons were as follows:

Year    Games   Wins    Losses   Innings   Walks  Strikeouts  ERA

1922       53*        26*       12           332*        132       121    3.01*

1923       54*        31*        9            335          116        89      2.90*

Wow!  What these numbers suggest is that Sheehan was a great pitcher for a great team.  As his league-leading ERA’s suggest, these were great years for hitters in the American Association.  Looking at his strikeouts-to-walks ratio, I also suspect that he had great defense behind him in St. Paul, because hitters put a lot of balls in play against him.  It wasn’t uncommon for effective pitchers to give up nearly as many walks as strikeouts in those days, but it was unusual for a pitcher with his ratios to be the best pitcher in the league.

Kelley sold Sheehan to the Cincinnati Reds after the 1923 season for a reported $40,000.  That was big money in those days, especially for a player who was then about 30 years old.  Remember, that the Red Sox sold Ruth, major league baseball’s brightest young star, for $125,000 in 1919.

Sheehan went 9-11 with a 3.24 ERA for a middle-of-the-pack Reds team in 1924.  After poor years in 1925 and 1926, he found himself back in the American Association, this time with Kansas City.  He led the A.A. in wins (26) and innings (331) in 1927, and he had a few strong years for Hollywood in the Coast League in the early 1930’s.

Another ace on the early 1920’s Saints was Howard Merritt.  He was born and died in Tupelo, Mississippi.  Naturally enough, he started his career in the Cotton States League and quickly rose to be a star in the Southern Association.  He went 20-15 for Memphis in 1915 and 20-14 for Chattanooga in 1917, before being sold to the Saints in mid-1918.  Here are his main numbers for the Saints from 1919 through 1924:

Year     Wins    Losses   ERA

1919      19            9           2.62

1920      21           10          2.63

1921      19           14          3.76

1922        9             9          5.05

1923      20           11          3.37

1924      19           17          4.68

As the numbers suggest, Merritt was something of a good-year-bad-year pitcher, most likely based on over-work during his good seasons.  1925 was his last year with the Saints.  He went 6-13 with a 4.78 ERA.  His last year in organized baseball was 1926 when he was generally ineffective for Atlanta and Mobile, both of the Southern Association.  He was only about 32 at the end of the 1926 season, so it may well have been arm problems that brought his career to a sudden end.

Another pitcher who had a couple of fine years for the Saints was Cliff Markle.  Unlike the majority of minor league pitching stars, Markle was a strikeout pitcher.  In 1913, at age 19, he led the Appalachian League with 214 strikeouts while pitching for Morristown.  In 1914, at the age of 20, he dominated the Virginia League, going 31-9 with a league leading 265 strikeouts for Norfolk.  He led the league in Wins, Games, Innings, and K’s that year.

In 1915, Markle led the Texas League (a AA-level league) with 228 strikeouts, while going 19-11 for Waco.  That got him purchased by the Yankees, where he went 2-0 in 3 games with a 0.39 ERA in 23 innings at the end of the 1915.  What could keep him from becoming a major league great?

Major League impatience and his own hot temper apparently.  He went 4-3 with a 4.50 ERA in 11 games for the Yankees in 1916 and got sold or traded to Toronto in the International League.  The Yankees were a team on the rise in 1916, although they wouldn’t be a real contender until they acquired Ruth in 1920, and they gave up awfully fast on a 22 year old pitcher with a rocket arm.  On the other hand, Markle was still very wild, as his 31 walks to 14 strikeouts for the 1916 Yankees indicate.

Markle was so-so for Toronto for the rest of 1916.  He still needed to improve his control before he could dominate the higher level of talent.  However, my source for Markle’s career indicates that he managed to get himself suspended for the entire 1917 season (did he punch out an umpire?  go into the stands after a fan?  jump to an outlaw league?).  Whatever the reason, he did not play for two years, as he lost the 1918 season also to military service.

Markle had a strong year for Salt Lake City in the PCL in 1919 and had two strong years for the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association in 1920 and 1921.  This earned him another shot in the majors with the Cincinnati Reds.  In half of 1921 and in 1922, he went a combined 6-11 with an ERA of about 3.78.  Not bad, but not good enough to stay in the bigs.

The Saints acquired him before the 1923 season began, and he had the following two seasons:

Year      Games   Wins   Losses  Walks  Strikeouts  ERA

1923        54*         25         12         117       184*   3.36

1924        40           19           9         110       128     3.01

The Saints sold him back to the Yankees at the end of the 1924 season, but he was again ineffective and came back to the Saints for one more year in 1925.  He went 13-18 that year with a 4.84 ERA and was sold or traded down to the Southern Association the next year.

The Saints had some other effective pitchers during their glory years, but these are the guys who I have found a substantial amount of information on.  In Part V, I will tell you about some of the Saints position players.  [Here are Part I and Part II of the series.

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