Old School Minnesota Baseball, Part VI: A Few More Stand-Outs

Here are a few more players who deserve mention in any discussion of professional baseball in Minnesota before major league baseball arrived in 1961:

Spence Harris.  He was Minnesota through and though, born in Duluth in 1900 and died in Minneapolis in 1982.  He played regularly for the Minneapolis Millers from 1928 through 1937 at 1B and in the outfield, with very brief respites with the Washington Senators at the end of 1929 and the Philadelphia A’s at the beginning of 1930.  He had a more extended trial with the Chicago White Sox in 1925 and 1926, but he lacked the power necessary to be a major league star in the 1920’s and ‘30’s.  As a hitter in the top minor leagues, however, he was outstanding. He is the all-time minor league leader in hits (3,617), doubles (743), runs scored (2,287) and total bases (5,434), the vast majority of those numbers compiled in what would be considered AAA leagues.  He also chipped in 150 triples, 258 HRs and 1,769 RBIs (4th all-time in minor league history).

In his nine full seasons as a Miller, he hit at least .322 eight times (five times at .340 or better), led the American Association in runs scored three times and scored more than 120 runs seven times.  He also led the American Association in doubles and HRs once each and drove in 100 or more runs six times.  He was a remarkably consistent hitter at the pinnacle of his career as a Miller.  Here are his two best seasons as a Miller:

Year    ABs    Hits    2B  3B  HR   Runs   RBI    SB  BA

1928    669*   219* 41* 4    32*  133*   127   25 .327

1933    631     224   47  10   22    138*   106   13 .355

After finishing his career as a Miller, he played in the Pacific Coast League, mostly for Portland and Seattle for eight years, including the War years, and finished his career in the late 1940’s, probably as a player-manager, for Yakima in the Western International League and Marysville in the Far West League.  He was probably 48 years old when he took his last professional at-bat.

Andy Cohen.  Andy Cohen is best remembered today, if at all, as one of John McGraw’s attempts to find a Jewish star for the Giants to bring the Jewish New York fans into the Polo Grounds.  Andy had a big year at Buffalo in the International League in 1927 at age 22.  He played second and short, hitting .353 with 118 RBIs that year.  The Giants brought him to New York, and he was the Giants’ starting 2Bman in 1928 and 1929.  He hit .274 with a .403 SLG in 1928 and .294 with a .383 SLG in 1929.  While these numbers look pretty good for a middle infielder, the league averages in those two years were .281 and .294.  He didn’t walk much, and his defense appears to have been average at best among NL 2Bmen in those years.

Despite the fact that he was only 25 going into the 1930 season, the Giants sent him to Newark, back in the International League, and he never played in the major leagues again.  The Millers acquired him from Newark two months into the 1932 season, and Andy was the Millers’ starting 2Bman through the 1938 season.  For the Millers, he hit above .300 three times with a high of .320 in 1937.  He scored 106 runs in 1934, 90 runs in 1935 and drove in 82 in 1937.

As I mentioned in an earlier installment of this series [see below for links], besides Harris and Cohen, the Millers also had sluggers Joe Hauser and Buzz Arlett for a number of seasons in the early and mid-1930’s.  Nicollet Park, where the Millers played, was a great hitters’ park, and the Millers collected players who could hit.  These must have been good teams, but they generally weren’t good enough to win the American Association pennant.  1932 was the only year in the 1930’s that the Millers played in the Junior World Series, losing to the Newark Bears 4 games to 2 that year.  The St. Paul Saints only year in the Junior World Series in the 1930’s was the year before, 1931, when, ironically, they lost to what is now the Twins’ top farm team, the Rochester Red Wings (then a Cardinals-controlled team) 5 games to 3.

Perry “Moose” Werden.  He was Minnesota baseball’s best player of the 19th Century.  In the late 1800’s, the distinction between the “major” leagues and the “minor” leagues was often nominal at best.  Generally speaking, after 1876 everyone recognized the National League as the best league in America.  However, there were plenty of major league caliber players who played little or not at all in the so-called major leagues, and there were numerous leagues which billed themselves as “major” leagues, with greater or lesser degrees of success.  From at least 1884 through 1889, the original American Association, which started play as a “major” league in 1882, was as good as the National League.  In 1884, the Union League billed itself as the third “major league”, and although it got a few major league stars to jump to it, it folded after a year.

Also, until the early 1890’s, a small number of top black players were allowed to play in some predominantly white minor leagues, mostly in the Northeast and upper Midwest, but did not play in the NL.  This necessarily meant that some great players were playing in the “minors” rather than the “majors”.

During this era, teams and cities also routinely bounced around between “major” and “minor” leagues from season to season.  For example, when the major league American Association started play in 1882, it fielded franchises in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Louisville, St. Louis; all of these major cities had had major league teams at some time during or after the National League’s first season in 1876, but had all dropped out of the NL by 1882 for one reason or another.  The other two AA teams were in Pittsburg and Baltimore, large cities which have had major league franchises for most of baseball history, with the exception of Baltimore’s gap from 1903 through 1953 (it was Baltimore which put together and supported the best minor league team ever in the 1920’s).

Meanwhile, in 1882 the NL fielded teams in Providence, Buffalo, Troy (NY) and Worchester (MA), cities which have not had major league teams for well over 100 years and which were small cities even in 1882.  The American Association further established itself as a major league by selling its cheapest seats for 25 cents (the NL charged 50 cents for games) and by allowing the sale of beer, which the NL did not.

Perry Werden was born in St. Louis in 1865 and spent most of his career playing in Midwestern cities.  As a result, he bounced back and forth between the majors and the minors, depending on whether the cities he played in had major league teams and whether the franchises he played for were currently playing in major or minor leagues.  His first professional records were for the St. Louis team in the Union League in 1884 when he was 19 years old.

The Union League’s St. Louis franchise was probably the only major league caliber team in the league, and it ran away with the pennant, finishing with a 94-19 record, 21 games better than the next best team.  Werden was primarily a pitcher that year, finishing 12-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 16 games, all starts.  He only hit .237 that year in 76 ABs.  However, after 1884, Werden rarely pitched again and played primarily as a 1Bman.

After the Union League collapsed, Werden spent the next four seasons playing mostly for Lincoln and Topeka in the Western League (which may have been the league that eventually became the American League in 1901) and for Memphis and New Orleans in the Southern Association.  He also played briefly during those years for Des Moines in the Northwest League (the upper Mid-West was still called the Northwest in those days), for Troy (already no longer a major league city) in the International Association, and for Washington in the National League.  He led the Western League in doubles (27) and HRs (9) in 1886 and the Southern Association in HRs (5) and stolen bases (65) in 1888.

In 1889 and 1890 he played for Toledo.  Toledo had been a major league town in the American Association in 1884 and then returned to minor leagues.  In 1889, Moose led the International Association in hits (167) and batting average (.394).  In 1890, when a majority of the top players in the NL and the American Association tried to start their own league, the so-called Players League, the Toledo team returned to the American Association, so Werden’s stats for 1890 are considered “major league”.  He hit .295 that year, scored 113 runs and led the AA with 20 triples.  The American Association was the weakest of the three “major” leagues in 1890, but Werden’s numbers are still impressive.

Toledo dropped out of the American Association after 1890, and Werden was transferred to the AA’s Baltimore franchise for the 1891 season.  He had another strong year, hitting .290 with 104 RBI’s, good for 5th in the league, and 18 triples, which tied him for 3rd.  When the American Association collapsed after the 1891 season, and its four strongest teams were absorbed into the NL, Werden returned to his hometown St. Louis for the 1892 and 1893 seasons.

With only 12 major league teams, down from 16  since 1883 (and many more than that in 1884 and 1890), the level of play in the NL was high; and Werden’s numbers dropped with the higher level of competition.  He only hit .258 in 1892.  That was higher than the league average of .245, however, and his 8 HR’s were tied for 6th in the NL.

In 1893, the pitcher’s mound was introduced and the pitcher’s spot was moved back from 55 to 60 feet.  As you can imagine, with the pitcher moving further away from the hitter, offense exploded throughout baseball.  In 1893, Werden hit .279 for St. Louis, which was actually a point below the league average.  His HR total also dropped to only 1, but that almost certainly had more to do with the ballpark in St. Louis than it did with Moose, because he led the NL that year with 29 triples.  That was an NL record (although it only lasted until the hitting-crazy 1894 season, when Heinie Reitz hit 31) and was the second highest single season major league total to that date after the 31 triples Dave Orr hit for the original New York Metropolitans in the AA in 1886.

As you can tell from his statistics mentioned above, Moose Werden was a power hitter, usually at or near the top in triples and HRs in every league he played in.  In 1894 through 1896, a number of factors converged which enabled Werden to have several truly amazing seasons.  First, he was sold to Minneapolis in the Western League, because St. Louis was unwilling to meet his salary demands.  As with Nicollet Field a generation or so later during the lively ball era, the Minneapolis ballpark in 1894 was a great place for sluggers to hit.  According to one on-line source, the park was only about 250 feet down the foul lines.  Also, 1894-1896 compare with 1929-1930 and the early 2000’s as the best years to hit in baseball history. In that three year period, players combined for eight .400 seasons, including four in 1894 alone.

As a veteran player at the peak of his career with substantial success against major league talent, Werden was really too good for the Western League in those years.  Here are the numbers for his first three seasons in Minneapolis:

Year    AB    Hits   2B   3B      HR   Runs RBIs    BA

1894   518   216    33     8      43*   140   n/a    .417

1895   563   241*  39     7      45*   179   n/a    .428*

1896   575   217    42    18*   18*   145   n/a    .377

To put his numbers in context, however, these were great hitters’ years in a great hitters’ park.  In 1894, his .417 batting average was only good for 5th in the Western League, and teammates Henry Hines and Frank Burrell hit .430 with 34 HRs and .379 with 32 HRs, respectively.

In 1895, teammate Daniel “Bud” Lally hit an even .400 with 236 hits, 49 doubles, 13 triples, 36 HRs and a league-leading 205 runs scored!  As a team, the Millers hit 219 in 1895, a team record in organized baseball that would stand for many years.   Also, in 1895 the best player on St. Paul’s franchise in the Western League, Bill George, hit .403 with 240 hits and a league leading 63 doubles.  These were indeed great years for hitters.

Even so, Werden’s HR totals in 1894 and 1895 were the two highest totals in organized baseball history up to that point.  As you can probably guess from the numbers, the Minneapolis park was reconfigured for the 1896 season (essentially, they raised the fences), and Werden’s HRs dropped and his triples soared.

Werden returned to the NL in 1897 with the Louisville team.  He hit .302 that year with 14 triples and 5 HRs, the latter two numbers both right around 10th in the NL.  He broke his leg in the off-season, however, missed the entire 1898 season, and never played in the major leagues again.  He returned to Minneapolis the next year and had two more fine seasons.  In 1900, after League President Ban Johnson had renamed the “Western League” as the new “American League,” but before Johnson declared it a major league, Moose had a great season, hitting .315 and leading the league with 39 doubles and 9 HRs.

Strangely enough, when the American League declared itself a major league in 1901, it left one of its best hitters behind.  The new major league did not have a franchise in the Twin Cities in 1901, and perhaps for that reason, Werden played in St. Paul and Des Moines that year in a new Western League.  In 1902, when Minneapolis and St. Paul joined the new (minor league) American Association, Werden returned to Minneapolis.  He was in his late 30’s by then and his skills were beginning to fade.  He played for Memphis in the Southern Association in 1903, Fargo in the Northern League in 1904, and then finished his career with two seasons playing for Vicksburg and Hattiesburg in the Cotton States League.

Werden died in Minneapolis, his adopted home town, in 1934.  Here are two articles about Moose Werden and the Millers in those days.  Here is SABR’s article on Moose Werden.

Earl Smith.  Earl Smith was a major league semi-regular, getting between 199 and 353 ABs for the St. Louis Browns and the Washington Senators each year between 1917 and 1922 and finishing with a career major league batting average of .272.  With two months to go in the 1922 season, the Senators traded or sold Smith, already 31 years old, down to the Millers.  He was a starter for the Millers for the next 8 years, hitting between .302 and .353 in seven of those seasons.  He had great power, hitting at least 43 doubles five times with a high of 64 in 1924 and 20 or more HRs four times, with a high of 31 in 1925.  As a result, he drove in more than 100 runs six times and more than 120 runs five times.

Reb Russell.  You may have heard of Ewell “Reb” Russell (he was from Jackson, Mississippi) as one of the great young pitchers in the 1910’s who quickly blew out his arm (there were an awful lot of those guys in the 1910’s, even more so than today).  In six seasons for the White Sox between 1913 and 1918, he went 81-59 with an ERA of 2.34.  The White Sox were one of the great teams of that period, winning the AL pennant in 1917 and 1919 (the latter year being the famous “Black Sox” year).  Russell worked as a fourth starter and relief specialist, making 147 starts and pitching 93 games in relief (he was later retroactively awarded 13 career saves) during those six seasons.

Reb was having serious arm problems by at least 1918, and by 1919 he just couldn’t pitch anymore, at least not with any regularity.  So he did what a lot of great ballplayers did in those days: in his 30’s he reinvented himself as a fantastic minor league.

The Millers acquired Reb in 1919 (the season he turned 30), and after a season adjusting to life as a position player and hitter, he began to put up some great years with the bat.  His best year as a Miller by far was 1921.  Here’s his line from that year:

Year   AB   Hits   2B  3B  HR Runs RBIs  BA

1921   549  202  35   18  33   118   132   .368

Russell hit nearly as well for the Millers in the first half of 1922, so they sold or traded him up to the Pittsburg Pirates for the second half.  In 220 ABs with the 1922 Pirates, Reb hit .368 again with 14 doubles, 8 triples and 12 HRs.   Not bad for a 33 year old in only his fourth season as an everyday player.

In 1923, Reb cooled off, hitting only .289 in 291 ABs, but with 18 doubles, 7 triples and 9 HRs.  However, the Pirates were a team on the rise (they’d win the World Series in 1925 and another NL pennant in 1927) and must have wanted younger players they could develop into stars, because they sent Ol’ Reb back to the American Association after the 1923 season.  Reb still had a lot of baseball left in him, however.  He hit 30 HRs and drove in 131 for the Columbus Senators in 1925 and led the American Association in hitting with a .385 batting average for Indianapolis in 1927.

Babe Barna.  Herbert Paul “Babe” Barna was a slugging corner outfielder who played six years for the Millers (1941, 1944-1948).  Barna was yet another left-handed hitting slugger the Miller’s brought in to take advantage of the short porch at Nicollet Field.

After hitting .336 with 24 HRs and 105 RBIs and leading the American Association with 29 stolen bases in 1941, Barna spent the end of the 1941 season, all of 1942 and the beginning of 1943 in New York with the Giants.  However, his power in Minneapolis didn’t arrive in the big time with him, and Barna, after also getting a look from the Boston Red Sox in late 1943, was back in Minneapolis in 1944.

In what were tough years for power hitters (dead war time baseballs), Barna led the American Association in HRs in both 1944 and 1945 with 24 and 25 dingers, respectively.  In his five seasons with the Millers, he hit between .288 and .324 each year, hit between 21 and 28 HRs, led the American Association with 122 runs scored in 1946 and also drove in 112 runs that year.  Nevertheless, he never got another shot at the majors.

Ab Wright.  A right-handed hitting slugger who played in parts of ten seasons with the Millers, six regularly.  He had a fine year for the Millers in 1934 (.353 batting average, 29 HRs and 131 RBIs), which got him a good look from the Cleveland Indians in 1935.

Wright later returned to Minneapolis in 1939 and was a stand-out performer for the Millers until 1944 when he was sold to the Boston Braves mid-season.  Wright hit .337 and led the American Association with 134 RBIs in 1939.  That, however, was nothing compared to his 1940.

Wright won the triple crown that year, leading the American Association with a .369 batting average, 39 HRs and 159 RBIs.  On July 4, 1940, he hit four home runs and triple in one game.  He was already 34 years old that year and declined rapidly thereafter, although he drove in over a 100 runs each of the next two seasons and led the American Association with 23 HRs in 1942.

Walter Tauscher.  He was the ace of the Minneapolis Millers’ staff from 1933 to 1941, compiling a 133-79 record during his nine year tenure.  As the numbers for the sluggers above suggest, Nicollet Park was an extremely difficult park in which to pitch.  In 1934, Tauscher went 21-7 to lead the American Association in wins, despite an unimpressive 3.89 ERA.  It was by far his best single season ERA as a Miller.

Tauscher went 18-9 with a 4.38 ERA in 1935 and 15-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 1940.  He also had seasons in which he went 15-8, 13-9 and 13-6 with ERAs of 5.46, 5.11 and 5.23.  Those are the kinds of numbers you see from top pitchers in the Texas/New Mexico/Arizona D Leagues of the last 1940’s and early 1950’s.  All hitting, all the time.

Jack Cassini.  Cassini was a terrific 2Bman for the St. Paul Saints from 1950 through 1953.  He hit better than .300 in three of those years, scored more than 100 runs three times and twice led the American Association in stolen bases, stealing 132 bases over the four year period.  Cassini lost three years of his career to WWII, and his top skills (the ability to draw walks and steal bases) were not as highly valued in the early 1950’s as they are today.  Even though he had a career minor league batting average over .300, he never got a serious shot in the majors.

Carlton East.  Another converted pitcher who became a terrific minor league hitter, East hit .375 and led the American Association with 31 HRs in 1923, his only full season with the Minneapolis Millers.  East finished his minor league career with a .364 lifetime batting average in a little over 3,300 at-bats.

John Gill.  Another left-handed hitting slugger who had one sensational year for the Millers.  In 1935, he hit .361 and led the American Association with 43 HRs, 148 runs scored and 154 RBIs.  The Millers then sold him up the Chicago Cubs.

Ray Dandridge.  The Negro League great and HOFer, who was possibly the best all-around 3Bman of his era (although his lack of power was the one big knock against him).  He was already 36 when the NY Giants signed him to an organized baseball contract in 1949 and sent him to Minneapolis.

Dandridge played four seasons for the Millers (1949-1952), and he was one of the best players in the American Association, which by that time existed to funnel talent to the major league clubs.  However, because Dandridge was black, old, and the Giants in those early days of integration had a de facto limit on black players of about two or three roster spots (spots held by Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson and later Willie Mays), Dandridge never got to play even one game in the major leagues.

Dandridge hit .362 in 99 games in 1949 and .311 with a league leading 195 hits in 1950.  His defense was as good as anyone’s anywhere, and he was enormously popular in Minneapolis.

That ends my series on minor league baseball in the Twin Cities before 1961.  If you’d like to read the other chapters, here they are:  Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V.

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