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March 29, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
New Beginnings on the Frontier
As Yogi Berra might say, we'll have all year to discuss the season. This week takes us in a different direction. Come, step into my TARDIS, as we examine the origins of professional baseball in each of the NL West cities.
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Johnson and Wolff's The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball informs us that Denver first welcomed pro baseball in 1886. The Western League's Mountain Lions, managed by W.W. Wallace, won the six-team league with a 54-26 record. William O'Brien was the hitting star, leading the league with a .352 batting average.
William, better known as Darby O'Brien, later played for the New York Metropolitans and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. The right-handed hitting outfielder batted .282/.344/.387 during a six-year stint in the major leagues. Others of note on that original Mountain Lions team included pitcher "Medicine Bill" Mountjoy and George "White Wings" Tebeau, both of whom enjoyed some success with the Cincinnati Red Stockings in the early years of their existence.
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In 1887, pro baseball arrived on the West Coast (the Pacific League came into existence in 1878 but was considered a non-signatory league). The four-team California League consisted of two squads representing San Francisco, and one each in Sacramento and Oakland.
The San Francisco Pioneers, managed by Mike Finn, led the league with a 24-21 record, finishing one game ahead of San Francisco Haverly. Finn, known as the Duke of Santa Clara, won five California League championships as manager. He also excelled as a pitcher and a catcher for the Pioneers, as well as for teams in the old Pacific League and its various permutations.
Nick Smith and Eddie Lorrigan were the big stars for the Pioneers. Smith's .307 batting average led the league, while Lorrigan finished with a 15-2 record.
San Francisco Haverly, managed by Henry Harris, featured strikeout king Billy Incell, who fanned a league-high 203 batters that season. Incell played for several Bay Area teams throughout the 1880s, leading the California League with 19 wins in 1888.
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Los Angeles' first venture into the world of pro baseball came in 1893. The Angels were part of a five-team California League that also featured clubs from Oakland, San Francisco, Stockton (first half only), and Sacramento (second half only).
Led by skipper Robert Glenalvin (who previously played second base for the Chicago Colts in 1890), the Angels went 51-44 and finished in second place, seven games back of the Oakland Colonels. The Angels' William "Rasty" White led the league with a .350 batting average, while left-hander George Nicol's 15-8 record stood above all others despite the fact that he bolted during the season to play for the Eastern League's Erie Blackbirds. Nicol spent parts of three seasons in the major leagues and is perhaps best known, if at all, for spinning a no-hitter in his debut.
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According to Bill Swank's Baseball in San Diego: From the Plaza to the Padres, the inaugural baseball game in San Diego occurred in 1871. After an assortment of commercial and winter league teams (including 1907's San Diego Pickwicks, which featured 20-year-old right-hander Walter Johnson), the San Diego Bears came into existence in 1913.
The Bears were part of the four-team Southern California League that failed to survive its initial season. Dick Cooley (aka Duff Cooley), who amassed 1,579 hits in a major-league career that spanned from 1893 to 1905, was the Bears' owner and Spencer Abbott their manager. Abbott had begun managing at Fargo of the Northern League in 1903 and would continue until 1947, when he retired with 2,180 minor league managerial victories to his name.
Under Abbott, the Bears went 31-13, but the rest of the league was struggling, at least in part due to the fact that the cities of Long Beach and Pasadena objected to having games played on Sundays. Toward the end of May, Abbott was sent to the Pasadena club (which then relocated to Santa Barbara) in an effort to help bring competitive balance to the league and restore fan interest (and with it, revenue). Cooley took over as manager of the Bears, but the league ended up folding on July 23.
The Bears finished in first place with a 56-33 record, 6 1/2 games ahead of the second place San Bernardino Kittens. On July 5 and 6, the Bears did something remarkable: they got no-hit on consecutive days, by a fellow named Blount and a fellow named Miller (the latter was a seven inning affair).
But the league never garnered much public support. Baseball in San Diego was dead, prompting Cooley to say:
I can't understand the people, and I don't believe they'll make baseball pay here in a thousand years. I'm convinced they don't want baseball in San Diego.
It wasn't 1,000 years, but San Diegans did have to wait until 1929 to welcome its next team, the Aces.
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Phoenix's first pro team, the Senators, appeared in 1915 and were part of the six-team Rio Grande Association that formed that year before disbanding on July 6. Herbert Hester's Senators finished 38-21, 1 1/2 games ahead of second place El Paso.
Pitcher Herb Hall—who tied for the league lead with 14 wins and 99 strikeouts—and catcher Byrd "Birdie" Lynn were the two players on that team who reached the major leagues. Hall, who had made his pro debut two years earlier for Long Beach of the aforementioned and similarly doomed Southern California League, went on to win 230 minor-league games (120 of them while pitching for a different Bears team, in the future NL West town of Denver). In 1918, Hall made three relief appearances for the Detroit Tigers, compiling a not-so-stellar 15.00 ERA. That marked the extent of his major-league career.
Lynn spent parts of 1916-1920 with the Chicago White Sox, hitting .237/.303/.289 in 242 plate appearances. He served as Ray Schalk's backup on the infamous 1919 squad but was not one of the Black Sox banned from baseball.
This is not to say that Lynn was without issues. In 1915, while with Phoenix, he found himself in a bit of controversy:
In mid June, during a game against El Paso, Phoenix catcher Byrd Lynn had struck umpire Harry Kane with a bat. The league ordered that Lynn be suspended for three games and fined him $50. Lynn served the suspension, but the fine was never paid. Phoenix manager Herb Hester put Lynn back in the lineup for a late June series against Tucson. Then, after several "heated" telegrams, Hester held Lynn out of the July 4th double header, which Phoenix swept anyway. But the league determined that Phoenix would be required to forfeit "at least five games" to Tucson.
"Heated telegrams"? It all sounds so quaint. What will people think of instant messaging 100 years from now?
At any rate, the matter became academic when the league folded a few days later. Pro baseball would not return to Phoenix until a new version of the Senators arose from the ashes as part of the Arizona State League in 1928.
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But that is enough history for now. As with the seemingly interminable spring training, it is behind us, and we will focus our attention on matters more pressing. Play ball!