The St. Paul Unions
Minnesota’s First Major League Team

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

Calvin Griffith’s announcement in October of 1960 that he was transferring his Washington Senators franchise to Minneapolis-St. Paul actually marked the return, not the beginning, of major league baseball in Minnesota. The distinction of being the state’s first team in the big leagues belongs to the St. Paul Base Ball Club, which, in 1884, played nine games in the ephemeral Union Association.

Founded by St. Louis millionaire Henry V. Lucas, who also served as league president and manager of the St. Louis team, the Union Association in 1884 joined the National League and American Association as a major league. The new association—an outlaw league—challenged the reserve clause and, as a result, was able to lure players from other league. In the end, though, it was this practice that caused the Union’s demise as its own players were, in turn, raided by the other leagues.

Altoona (Pennsylvania), Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington were charter members of the Union Association, but only five of the original eight survived the entire season. Altoona, after only 25 games, was the first team to fold.

The Union Association season opened April 18 with games in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Two days later, the St. Louis Maroons opened at home before 10,000 fans with a 7-2 win over Chicago. St. Louis won its next 19 games, as well, quickly killing any interest in the championship race. (The St. Louis pitching staff included Perry Werden, who posted a 12-1 record. Werden later turned his attention to hitting. Playing for the Minneapolis Millers of the Western League in 1895, Werden hit 45 home runs, a professional record that stood until Babe Ruth took up the practice.)

Meanwhile, a minor league in the Midwest was opening its season. The Northwestern League was made up of teams in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. Minnesota was represented by teams in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Stillwater (whose roster included Bud Fowler, who, 10 years earlier, had become the first black to play in organized baseball).

Ben Tuthill, later prominent in the theatrical world, served as manager of the Minneapolis entry. In forming the team, he and owner Joe Murch, a bartender at the Nicollet House, eschewed local talent—opting instead for “real ball players”—causing a trio of Mill City stars, Billy O’Brien, Charley Ganzel, and Elmer Foster, to cross the river and join manager A. M. Thompson’s St. Paul team. (Foster “Babe” Ganzel, the son of Charley and a namesake of Charley’s best friend, Elmer Foster, would star at third base for the Minneapolis Millers in the 1930s.)

The long-awaited first meeting between the Twin City rivals took place at the West Seventh Street Grounds in St. Paul on June 23 before 5,000 fans. Many of that throng were Minneapolitans, loaded with money, offering attractive odds to anyone wanting to bet on St. Paul. They had no problem finding takers. With Foster on the mound and Ganzel behind the plate, St. Paul shutout Minneapolis, 4-0, as the “real ball” players" were unable to get a runner past second base.

Led by its Minneapolis exiles, St. Paul made a strong run at pennant until Foster broke his arm, snapping it in two while throwing a fastball in an August game at Milwaukee.

The Northwestern League’s artistic performance was not matched with the same success off the field as most of its teams were financially unstable. Bay City (Michigan), riding a record of 40-13, was the first team to disband, on July 25. The carnage continued as other teams folded until only three were left. Winona (Minnesota) was added to the extant Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Paul franchises as the league struggled to continue operations. On September 3, however, the Minneapolis club folded, and, four days later, the league’s final game was played, with St. Paul losing in Milwaukee.

St. Paul immediately left on a barnstorming tour to the west, while Milwaukee indicated a desire to close out its season in the Union Association. Three weeks later, the Union Association admitted both Milwaukee and St. Paul to its ranks. The new teams played their first games on Saturday, September 27.

Before a small crowd in Cincinnati, St. Paul opened with a 6-1 loss, despite a strong mound performance by Jim Brown, who was victimized by poor support in the field.

Milwaukee, playing its first game at home, surprised Washington with a 3-0 victory, holding the visitors to one hit. The next day, Milwaukee again shut out the Nationals, 5-0, as Ed Cushman hurled a no-hitter, the Association’s second of the season. Milwaukee finished its brief stay in the Union Association with an 8-4 record, the .667 winning percentage being good for second place behind St. Louis.

St. Paul did not enjoy the same success that fell upon its erstwhile Northwestern League rival. After the team’s initial loss, it dropped its next two games in Cincinnati before moving on to St. Louis to face the powerful Maroons.

St. Louis took the series opener. But on October 5, St. Paul finally came out on top, in a game stopped by rain after five innings. The Minnesotans triumphed, 1-0, despite being held hitless by St. Louis pitching. The Maroons’ Charley Sweeney fanned the first six batters he faced, but Manager Lucas, wanting to save Sweeney’s arm for the tougher Cincinnati series coming up, moved Charley to the outfield and brought in Henry Boyle to pitch. Boyle did not allow a hit over the final three innings, but he did yield an unearned run in the fourth on two errors and a stolen base. For St. Paul, Jim Brown went the distance, giving up only one hit—a single to Sweeney.

St. Paul made it two in a row three days later with a 9-5 win in Kansas City. The game was decided by fielding miscues as Kansas City committed 15 errors and St. Paul 13. Only three of the 14 runs were earned. Brown struck out seven in winning his second game.

The brief winning streak ended the next day as Kansas City won, 7-2. After battling to a 4-4 tie in the series finale, St. Paul moved back to St. Louis and played its final game October 14, losing 14-1. For St. Paul, a season that covered two different leagues was over.

The St. Paul Unions had played nine games, all on the road, and finished their stint in the majors with 2 wins, 6 losses, and 1 tie, ranking them ninth among the 12 teams which had played in the Union Association.

Of the 11 men who played big league ball for St. Paul, few achieved notoriety elsewhere in the majors. Ganzel played in the National League until 1897, recording a .259 average in 14 major league seasons, and O’Brien hit .256 over five seasons, leading the National League with 19 home runs while playing for Washington in 1887. The major league experience of three of the players was limited to the time spent with the St. Paul Unions.

The Union Association brought down the curtain after only one season. The chief beneficiary of its brief existence was Henry Lucas, who bought what remained of the National League’s Cleveland franchise and moved it to St. Louis for 1885.

The St. Paul Base Ball Club also disbanded at the end of the 1884 season. It was nearly 77 years before Minnesota would again have a major league baseball team.

St. Paul Unions—1884
September 27—at Cincinnati; Cincinnati 6, St. Paul 1
September 30—as Cincinnati; Cincinnati 6, St. Paul 1
October 1—at Cincinnati; Cincinnati 7, St. Paul 0
October 3—at St. Louis; St. Louis 8, St. Paul 5
October 5—at St. Louis; St. Paul 1, St. Louis 0
October 8—at Kansas City; St. Paul 9, Kansas City 5
October 9—at Kansas City; Kansas City 7, St. Paul 2
October 12—at Kansas City; Kansas City 4, St. Paul 4
October 14—at St. Louis; St. Louis 14, St. Paul1

Final 1884 Union Association Standings
Year Won Lost
St. Louis 94 19
Milwaukee 8 4
Cincinnati 69 36
Baltimore 58 47
Boston 58 51
Chicago-Pittsburgh 41 50
Washington 47 65
Philadelphia 21 46
St. Paul 2 6
Altoona 6 19
Kansas City 16 63
Wilmington 2 16

Copyright 1980 Stew Thornley

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