The Many Dukes of Duluth

From actors to ambassadors, and of course baseball players, Duluth has had many "Dukes"

Baseball’s Individual Duluth Dukes
Long before the Duluth Dukes took to the diamond at Athletic Park in 1935, at least four different professional baseball players were known as “The Duke of Duluth” or the “Duluth Duke.”

Art O’Dea, the first Duluth baseball player to be called  “Duke,” seen here when he managed the Brandon, Manitoba, team in 1908. (Image: Zenith City)

Arthur Michael O’Dea was the first. Born in Halton County, Ontario, Canada, in 1875, O’Dea served as the playing manager of the minor league Duluth White Sox in 1905 and 1906. The Sox won the Northern League championship that year, but dipped to fourth place in the Northern-Copper Country League the following season. O’Dea was asked to resign as manager in a cost-cutting measure following the 1906 season, though he was welcome to stay on as second-baseman. In 1907 he opted to leave for a playing-manager position with the Lethbridge (Alberta) Miners of the Western Canada League, where to the delight of the fans (who called him “Sir Arthur”), he led the league in batting. The Duluth News Tribune, commenting on his status as a fan favorite, said “he may become a full-fledged duke.” In 1908, the Brandon (Manitoba) Angels hired O’Dea as playing manager.  He was referred to as the “Duke of Brandon” by the News Tribune, and from thereafter the newspaper called him “Duke Artie O’Dea.”

O’Dea spent 1909 out of baseball and living along the north shore of Lake Superior. The ball club in Superior, Wisc., lured him out of retirement to replace Lew Drill as manager in 1910. Oddly enough, this club, officially the Superior Red Sox, would be the first Twin Ports baseball team the News Tribune called the  “Dukes.” It was common practice for sports writers of the era to use a variety of nicknames for ball clubs to avoid repetitious words, and using the manager’s name was a typical nickname. The most famous example is probably the Brooklyn Robins for Wilbert Robinson, who managed the team from 1914 to 1931; the club officially became the Dodgers following Robinson’s retirement. the previous year the News Tribune and other newspapers called the Superior team the “Drillers” after manager Lew Drill. In 1910, because Duke Artie O’Dea managed the Superior team, the local papers called them the Dukes. It was short lived: By 1911, O’Dea was out of baseball for good and working as a St. Louis County deputy sheriff. A Duluth resident for 45 years, he died in Duluth at age 70 in 1946.

Darby “Dook” O’Brien, player-manager of the Duluth White Sox from 1909 to 1917. (Image: Zenith City)

The next duke in Duluth was Thomas James “Darby” O’Brien of Cleveland, Ohio. O’Brien joined the Duluth White Sox as their second baseman in 1908. He was promoted to playing-manager in 1909, and retained the role for eight years. He acquired his “Darby” nickname as a youngster when he was the personal bat boy of John F. “Cinders” O’Brien, aka “Darby O’Brien,” when Cinders pitched for Cleveland’s major-league teams from 1888 to 1890. Duluth’s Darby O’Brien was also called the “Dublin Dook,” or just plain “Dook.” For whatever reason, the News Tribune did not take to interchanging “Dooks” and White Sox until 1912. However, once the newspaper established the trend, White Sox players were sometimes referred to as “Dooklets.” These Duluth “Dooks” lasted until the city lost its pro team after the 1916 season. O’Brien continued to manage semi-pro teams in Duluth and Chisholm into the 1920s. He was 88 when he died in 1964 in Bay Village, Ohio.

Born in Bowling Green, Ohio,  Donald George “Rube” Marion got his start in professional baseball in the Zenith City, pitching for the Duluth White Sox in 1909 and 1910. For two seasons (1914–15) he threw for a combined 15–11 record for the Brooklyn Tip Tops of the Federal League, an ill-fated third major league. Before Brooklyn, and after Duluth, Marion played for Milwaukee.

Marion was married in June 1912 while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers. A month later local sportswriter A. J. Schinner had fun with Marion, and hung on him the royal title in question:. “Don Marion, the eminent Duke of Duluth and well known author of ‘Married Life the First Year,’ sunned himself for the Burghers, and let it be said that Don earned his salary with a will. The kid had everything, including his red flannel shirt, the glare of which must have offset the green screen in center field for he had the enemy buffaloed during the total of nine rounds, only five blows being gained off him.”

A year later the Milwaukee press dubbed another Brewer player the Duke of Duluth. In September 1913 the Duluth News Tribune announced that if Milwaukee won the American Association pennant, the team planned a barnstorming stop in the Zenith City, where they would plan an exhibition game against an all-star team made up of players from Duluth and Superior.  The newspaper went on to report that Milwaukee was managed by Newt Randall, who was “styled by the Milwaukee Sporting editors as the ‘Duke of Duluth.’”

Newt Randall, the second baseball player to be dubbed the “Duke of Duluth” by the Milwaukee press. (Image: Public Domain)

Randall was born in Canada in 1880 and moved to Duluth two years later. The outfielder started his baseball career in 1902 with a team in Cavalier, North Dakota. He was traded to Winnipeg in 1904 and a year later sent back to his home town to play for the White Sox, hitting .336 in 67 games. The Sox sold him to Denver the next year.

Randall jumped to the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 1907, but had trouble hitting. In June just before a game against the Boston Doves (today’s Atlanta Braves) Randall was traded to the Doves for Dell Howard. According to Terry Bohn of the Society for American Baseball research, Randall and Howard “literally exchanged uniforms and took their respective places in the outfield for their new teams.” After the season Boston sold his contract to the Brewers in the American Association. During his first season in Milwaukee Randall hit safely in 23 straight games with a .380 average.

Randall stayed with Milwaukee until 1915. Milwaukee sent him to Oakland, but he washed out before the trade deadline and was returned; the Brewers cut him loose. He returned to the Zenith City and signed with the White Sox, but he played poorly and was paid highly and found himself in a Hibbing uniform.

Because of the war, there was no Northern League after July 4, 1917. Randall went to work at the Minnesota Steel Plant in Morgan Park and played ball for Riverside in the Twin Ports Mesaba League, a four-team semipro league. In 1919 he became chief deputy sheriff of Hibbing, succeeding another Duluth baseball Duke, Arthur O’Dea. There Randall continued to play ball until 1922. This Duke of Duluth worked as a watchman at the steel plant, living out his days in the Zenith City.

The Duke’s Gerald “Peanuts” Peterson, a proctor native, was one of the Duke’s killed in a tragic bus accident. (Image: Anthony Bush.)

The Official Duluth Dukes Baseball Clubs 1935-1942, 1943, 1946-1955

When professional baseball was revived in Duluth in 1934, the club was once again named the White Sox. In order to not be confused with the Chicago White Sox—and because it was difficult to keep the team’s literal white socks clean on the ore-dust covered field at Athletic Park—the management decided a new name was in order. The club initiated a contest in the spring of 1935 whereby fans recommended a new name for the team, and whoever suggested the winning name would receive season tickets. Over 500 people participated in the contest, proffering 170 names. John Ball and Paul Weatherby both offered “Dukes of Duluth” in honor of fellow Duluthian Thomas Hall Shastid’s 1926 novel The Duke of Duluth, which was simplified as Duluth Dukes. This incarnation of the Duluth Dukes lasted through the 1942 when the Northern League was suspended because of the U.S. involvement in World War II.

The other professional Duluth Dukes played for all of six weeks in 1943 as a member of the Twin Ports League. The brainchild of Dukes’ owner Frank Wade, the league’s rosters were largely made up of industrial workers. The only Class E league in the history of baseball consisted of the Duluth Dukes, Duluth Heralds, Duluth Marine Iron, and the Superior Bays. The Dukes featured John Norlander at first base. Norlander, from Virginia, Minn., played basketball for Hamline University and for the Washington Capitals of the Basketball Association of America, now the NBA. The league folded prematurely on July 13.

The Northern League resumed play in 1946, and the Duluth Dukes remained a fixture through the 1955 season. The Superior (Wisc.) Blues ceased operations after 1955, and from then on the professional baseball teams who called Wade Stadium home have used both cities in their name. (Read more about the first Duluth Dukes here.)

Mickey Stanley, Dukes ’61, ’62. (Image: Society for American Baseball Research)

First Duluth-Superior Dukes 1960–1970
The first Duluth-Superior team had a familiar name to those who knew Duluth’s baseball history. As a farm team for the Chicago White Sox, the club was known as the Duluth-Superior White Sox from 1956 to 1959. The Dukes name returned in 1960 when the Detroit Tigers became the parent club. This Dukes club lasted until 1970, one year before the Northern League folded. Twelve players from the 1968 Detroit Tigers World Series championship team played for the Duluth-Superior Dukes of the 1960s, including Denny McLain, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, and John Hiller. You can read more about the 1960–1970 Duluth-Superior Dukes here.

First Amateur Duluth Dukes 1980–??
In 1980 Jeff Mordhorst started an amateur baseball team called the Duluth Dukes that played in the Minnesota Baseball Association’s Arrowhead League. Mordhorst was an assistant baseball coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he was also the sports information director. Sponsored by the Chinese Lantern-Brass Phoenix, the team featured then-Duluth resident and former Detroit ace relief pitcher Hiller, who had first come to Duluth in 1964 as a member of the professional Dukes. We do not know precisely when the team folded.

Ila Borders pitched for the Duluth-Superior Dukes in the 1990s, becoming the first woman pitcher to win a professional baseball game. (Image: Sports Illustrated Kids)

Second Duluth-Superior Dukes 1993–2002
Professional baseball returned to Duluth in 1993 with a brand new team with an old name. The Duluth-Superior Dukes played for 10 seasons in the independent Northern League. Ila Borders pitched for the Dukes in 1997, 1998, and 1999. In 1998, she became the first female winning pitcher in a professional baseball game. Despite a league championship in 1997, they had nine losing seasons, poor attendance and a revolving door of owners who could not turn a profit. After the 2002 season the club moved to Kansas City, Kansas, and became the T-Bones. The T-Bones left the Northern League and joined the American Association at the end of the 2010 season.

Duluth Padres Become Second Amateur Duluth Dukes
The Duluth Dukes will once again take the field at Wade Stadium in 2014. The team is not new. The squad was first established in 2007 as the Proctor Padres in honor of Proctor’s amateur team from the 1980s. As part of the Upper 13 League of the Wisconsin Baseball Association (WBA), the Padres played in Proctor for three years before moving to UMD’s Bulldog Park, prompting a name change to the Duluth Padres. The team reached the WBA Playoffs in 2008, 2012, and 2013. besides a new park and new name, 2014 sees the team moving to the Arrowhead League of the Minnesota Baseball Association. (You can discover more about the new Duluth Dukes, including a 2014 schedule, here and here.

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Baseball segment written by Anthony Bush with help from Tony Dierckins. David Ouse provided research about the naming of the 1935 Duluth Dukes. Tim Copelans of the Society For American Baseball Research provided research on Thomas James “Darby” O’Brien. Read more about the history of professional baseball in Duluth and Superior in Anthony’s archives, here.

From actors to ambassadors, and of course baseball players, Duluth has had many "Dukes"

6 Responses to The Many Dukes of Duluth

  1. i HAVE SOME INFORMATION ON NAT M. WILLS AS HE WAS IN OUR FAMILY, A RECORD BY VICTOR ENTITLED “NO NEWS OR WHAT KILLED THE DOG” WE HAVE A COPY OF IT AND ALSO SOME PICTURES OF NAT WILLS. HE LIVED CLOSE TO FREDERICKSBURG IN WASHINGTON D C. A OBIT DATED 1-1-1884 IS FOR SALLIE WILLS WIFE OF JOHN, HIS FATHER IS IN A LETTER.

  2. There have been many more Dukes of Duluth since the days described here. The Duluth Ambassadors, a booster group associated with the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, elected (or appointed) a Duke of Duluth each year from the late 1930s through at least the ’50s. They wore Hudson Bay (striped) wool coats and represented the city throughout the area and state. They also conducted an annual beauty pageant to choose a Duchess of Duluth to accompany the Duke. Then there were the Duluth Dukes, of course.

  3. Thank you for publishing the summary of the article about Nat Wills’ reception in Duluth in 1906! I would love to read any other local articles from that time that feature Nat Wills – are there online archives of the News Tribune by chance?

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