Nicollet Park

Nicollet Park
Nicollet Park, home of the Minneapolis Millers from 1896 to 1955.

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

The Minneapolis Millers had a number of locales to hang their hats during their nearly eighty years of professional baseball: the original park at the corner of Chicago Avenue and 17th Street, in the days when handlebar mustaches were in vogue; another in the vicinity of the Milwaukee railroad shops bounded by 28th and 30th Streets and 24th and 26th Avenues in south Minneapolis; the band box in back of the West Hotel downtown; Minnehaha Driving Park and a field in White Bear Lake for Sunday games; and eventually Metropolitan Stadium, south of the city. limits. But the park most closely associated with the Millers was the one described by former Minneapolis Tribune writer Dave Mona as “:soggy, foul, rotten and thoroughly wonderful Nicollet Park.”:

Built at a cost of $4,000 to seat 4,000 fans, Nicollet Park, in its first season as well as its last, was home to a pennant winner. Also a center for prize fights and high-school football games, Nicollet is best remembered for its short right-field fence, only 279 feet, 10 inches from home plate.

Mike Kelley built his 1930s powerhouse around that fence, pouncing on sinewy southpaw swingers who could bombard Nicollet Avenue beyond. Halsey Hall remembers the right-field fence being made a little higher over the years-and awnings going down in front of the plate-glass windows on Nicollet Avenue businesses as insurance rates on window breakage rose.

The constant possibility of late-inning rallies kept fans in their seats until the very end. A typical Nicollet finish occurred in 1953 in the afternoon game of the Independence Day doubleheader. Trailing the Saints, 9-8, the Millers had two out and nobody on in the ninth when Clint Hartung walked and Ray Katt lifted a pop fly toward right that was caught by the breeze. When the ball came down it scraped the screen under the grandstand roof for a game-winning home run.

Sunday doubleheaders were often cut short by a law requiring games to be stopped promptly at 6:00 p.m. (The ordinance was repealed in 1941, but Mike Kelley continued to honor the policy.) In 1935 the Millers saw a 3-0 lead disappear as Toledo scored five runs in the top of the ninth. But the clock at Nicollet read 5:54 as the Millers came to bat. With shrewd stalling by Fabian Gaffke, Buzz Arlett and Joe Hauser, the clock struck six o’clock before the final out was made; as a result, the score reverted back to the last full inning, wiping out the Mud Hen runs and giving the Millers a 3-0 win.

That same season Babe Ruth made a Nicollet Park appearance in a game between the Minneapolis and St. Paul police teams. Ruth played half a game with each team, and contributed a double in five trips to the plate. Pitching for the Minneapolis Police team, Pete Guzy, former East High and Minnesota Gopher pitching sensation and later the longtime football and baseball coach at Edison High, was able to count Babe as one of his 18 strikeout victims in the game.

Opposing right fielders at Nicollet remember Mike Kelley’s Dalmatian—which were kept in the rightfield corner in the field of play and would growl threateningly at any player in a visitor’s uniform having to chase a batted ball into that area.

And it was the walls of Nicollet Park that Wheaties used to first unveil its “:Breakfast of Champions”: slogan in 1933.

The holiday doubleheaders at Nicollet and Lexington Parks—a morning game in one park and a seven-mile streetcar ride across the river for the afternoon game in the other—were the high points of the season for Millers and Saints fans.

In 1983 a historical marker was erected in front of the Norwest Bank on 31st and Nicollet, on the former site of Nicollet Park. The plaque was paid for in large part by donations from ex-players and fans. With their contributions came letters and notes to indicate that memories of Nicollet Park have not faded.

“:Nicollet Park holds the best memories in baseball for me,”: says Al Worthington. The hero of the 1955 playoffs recalls that he had great success at Nicollet Park (his three-year won-loss record at Nicollet was 24-5). Al also remembers the lack of heat in the clubhouse. “:It was so cold in April that taking a shower was almost like being outside when the sub-zero wind blew.”:

Hughie McMullen, who played in the late twenties, remembers even then Nicollet as a very old, run down park. “:The fences were held up only by the paint on them,”: says McMullen.

Eddie Popowski managed the Millers in their final year at Met Stadium. But as an outfielder with Louisville in 1943, he played at Nicollet and recalls players having their gloves and shoes chewed up by rats when they left them overnight.

Professional baseball fans in the Upper Midwest can now watch baseball without real grass, sun, or rain. But for sixty years the small, wooden structure at the corner of 31st and Nicollet was home to ten pennant-winning teams, and was the mecca for thousands of baseball fans.

Copyright 1988 Stew Thornley

A couple of notes:
One of the stories connected with the lore of Nicollet Park is a two-foot home run hit by Millers shortstop Andy Oyler. On a rainy day, so the story goes, Oyler hit a ball into the mud in front of home plate and circled the bases as the opposing team searched for the ball. As far as I know, this story was first told by Halsey Hall but without any details. Many years later, a book came out titled The 24-Inch Home Run, a compilation of strange but supposedly true baseball tales with Oyler’s home run being the title story. A few more details were provided in this story, such as the St. Paul Saints being the Millers’ opponent in the game. I tried contacting the author of that book a couple of times to find his source for the story and the details, but he never responded.

The fact is that Andy Oyler hit only one home run during the years he played for the Millers. It came in an 8-6 loss at Milwaukee on August 2, 1904, and the newspapers made no mention of there being anything special about the home run, something that surely would have been noted had the ball traveled only two feet. If anyone has any other details or insights on this story, please let me know.

The picture at the top of this page was taken before the final Sunday game played at Nicollet Park, during the 1955 Junior World Series against the Rochester Red Wings. There are many more photos of Nicollet Park in On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers. This was originally published in 1988 and was out of print for many years, but it was re-issued in 2000 and is now available through Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

Minneapolis Millers Yearly Standings

Twin Cities Ballparks

Notable Millers

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

Millers Rivalry with St. Paul Saints

Protested Games Involving the Millers

Millers vs. Havana in 1959 Junior World Series

Minneapolis Millerettes

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