Pay Days
Millers vs. Saints

By Stew Thornley
Author of On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers

“Even during the Depression, we could always count on a good crowd when the Saints and Millers played each other,” recalled Oscar Roettger, a pitcher and first baseman for the St. Paul Saints in the 1920s and 1930s. “Pay days—that’s what those games were.”

The diamond rivalry between Minneapolis and St. Paul was in its golden years during Roettger’s playing days, but its roots were part of the post-Civil War baseball boom in America. Minnesota veterans returning home from Bull Run, Shiloh, and Gettysburg waged their own War Between the Cities, a battle fought with less lethal weapons—bats and balls instead of muskets and bayonets—but one that lacked a cease-fire for nearly a hundred years.

From the town teams of the 60s and 70s, the professional nines of the latter 1800s, and finally the great Saints and Millers clubs of the 20th century, they fought—player vs. player, fan vs. fan, sometimes player vs. fan.

The newspapers joined the struggle, firing their artillery at enemy camps across the Mississippi River. In the 1890s, when both cities were represented in the Western League, the Minneapolis Tribune leveled a charge of “dirty ball” against its neighbors to the east, the Saints, who were owned and managed at that time by Charles Comiskey. “Manager Comiskey,” reported the Tribune, “will be served with a formal notice that the Minneapolis club will not play today’s game unless guaranteed that there will be no spiking of Minneapolis players, no interference on the part of the crowd, no throwing of rocks, no throwing of dust and dirt in the eyes of the Minneapolis players, and a few other tricks which the game yesterday was featurized by.”

The Western League changed its name to the American League and changed its status from a minor to a major league in 1901—sans Minneapolis and St. Paul. The following year, however, the Millers and Saints became charter members of the American Association. And by the time they hung up their spikes and shin guards for the final time, they had created a legacy for the incoming Twins to follow. Through their 59 years in the league, the Millers compiled the best winning percentage of all Association teams; the Saints followed a close second. In addition, the two teams shared the Association record with nine pennants each.

The year 1915 saw the hottest race between the Saints and Millers. Minneapolis’s early-season hopes rested on a southpaw from Hackensack, New Jersey, Harry Harper. In May, the young phenom no-hit St. Paul, but two months later the Saints didn’t even need their bats to pound Harper and the Millers, as the wild lefty walked 20 batters (in only eight innings), a performance that remains an Association record to this day. Harper was gone from the Minneapolis roster by the end of July, but the Millers hung on, edging out the Saints on the season’s final weekend to cop the flag by a game-and-a-half.

But no matter where they stood in the standings, the Millers and Saints ignited the passions of the partisans with their 22 inter-city games each year. Interest peaked each season with the holiday doubleheaders at Lexington Park in St. Paul and Nicollet Park in Minneapolis; a morning game at one park followed by a streetcar ride across the river for the afternoon game in the other was the Twin Cities’ primary entertainment on Decoration Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day.

Ab Wright of the Millers saved his biggest 1940 fireworks for the morning game on Independence Day. En route to winning the American Association Triple Crown that season, Wright belted four home runs and a triple against the Saints for 19 total bases, a league record never equalled.

And the explosions heard on the Fourth of July in 1929 were from a Nicollet Park brawl between the rivals, described by one writer as “the most vicious affair ever witnessed at Nicollet” and one that “required fully a dozen policemen to quell the disturbance.” Millers’ reserve infielder Sammy Bohne came out of the coaching box to land some of the hardest punches, and the next day the headline over Halsey Hall’s story in the Minneapolis Journal read, “Sammy Bohne Doesn’t Play, But Gets More Hits Than Those Who Do.”

Hostilities even extended into the stands at times. In 1959 Minneapolis manager Gene Mauch scaled the railing at Midway Stadium in St. Paul to confront a fans whose remarks Mauch deemed “a bit too personal.” In 1911, Millers’ skipper Joe Cantillon took a bat with him to silence a heckler in the box seats at Lexington Park.

But despite the occasional bad blood, Oscar Roettger—the main recipient of Sammy Bohne’s fists in that 1929 fracas—remembers that both teams were good friends off the field, often barnstorming across the state together after the season to “have some fun and get a little pheasant hunting done.”

Howie Schultz, a Saints’ first baseman in the 1940s, concurs and adds, “Fans were more involved in the rivalry that the players were.”

As for the players, a number of them wore the colors of both cities during their careers, among them Mauch, Angelo Giuliani, Bill McKechnie, and Johnny Goryl, but the most notable man to work both sides of the river was Mike Kelley.

Kelley helped found the American Association in 1902 and managed the Saints to pennants two of their first three years in the league; he also played first base in an infield that included Hall-of-Famer Miller Huggins. Kelley defected to Minneapolis in 1906 for a managerial fling that was as stormy as it was brief, but he later returned to skipper the Saints to three more league championships.

In 1924, Mike made the move again. Lured by an offer to become part-owner of the club, Kelley came back for another shot at managing the Millers. He eventually bought out the other owners and established a re-tooling factory for aging major-leaguers in Minneapolis.

Combining these players with youngsters on their way up, Kelley built the powerful Miller teams of the 1930s that included fence-crackers Wright, Joe Hauser, Buzz Arlett, Spencer Harris, Fabian Gaffke, and Ted Williams and an ancient but crafty pitching staff of Rosy Ryan, Jess Petty, and Rube Benton. Kelley also became famous for his Dalmatians that roamed the bullpen during games and menaced opposing right fielders chasing batted balls into that area.

The last of the independent owners in the league, Kelley finally sold out to the New York Giants in 1946. By this time, the Saints were a Brooklyn Dodger farm club, adding a local flavor to the Big Apple rivalry and giving Twin Citians the chance to watch Duke Snider and Roy Campanella play for the Saints and Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, and Hoyt Wilhelm perform for the Millers.

The battlefields on which they skirmished—Robert Street Grounds, Aurora Park, Lexington Park, and Midway Stadium in St. Paul; Athletic Park, Minnehaha Park, Nicollet Park, and Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis and suburban Bloomington—produced their share of decorated veterans. Eight members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame once played for the Saints, while Minneapolis produced 15 players and one manager who are now enshrined in Cooperstown.

What started as a Sunday-afternoon diversion in the 1860s—reflecting the larger struggle between two emerging metropolises to become the dominant city in the state—rapidly escalated and increased in intensity until it reached its Appomattox in 1961. On April 11 of that year the Minnesota Twins played their first game, finally forming a union among area baseball fans.

The baseball battle between East and West had ended. The Pay Days were history.

Copyright 1985 Stew Thornley

Minneapolis Millers Yearly Standings

Notable Millers

Nicollet Park

Twin Cities Ballparks

Minnesota’s First Major League Baseball Team

Minnesota’s First Major League Baseball Game

The Beginning and End of Nicollet Park

Night Baseball in the Twin Cities

Protested Games Involving the Millers

Millers vs. Havana in 1959 Junior World Series

Minneapolis Millerettes

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