Following the collapse of the Northern-Copper Country League after the 1907 season, the Northern League was resurrected after a two-year absence. The league was formed in a meeting at Duluth’s St. Louis Hotel on February 6, 1908, with the Duluth White Sox, Fargo Browns, Winnipeg Maroons, and Brandon (Manitoba) Angels as charter teams. Alfred W. Kuehnow and J. C. McGreevy represented the Duluth White Sox. J. M. Lamb of Winnipeg was voted league president and secretary. Fargo’s W. J. Price was named vice president, and Kuehnow was chosen treasurer. Later that month Eau Claire and Superior, Wisconsin, were both awarded franchises.
Superior dropped out less than a month later after owner Ted Sullivan was denied a streetcar line extension to the ball park. Fargo threatened to leave if Eau Claire was not also removed, and Fargo had considerable leverage: it was the half-way point along the rail route between Manitoba and Duluth, making it a much more convenient location to all of the other teams in the league. Consequently, Eau Claire was scratched by the league for scheduling purposes, and the loop again had just four teams. Fargo then signed a number of former Eau Claire players to its roster.
Artie “Duke” O’Dea, the White Sox manager in 1905 and 1906, had left to manage a team in Leftridge, Alberta, in 1907 and was now managing the Brandon club. Duluth’s new player-manager, W. E. Morrow, came from San Antonio, Texas, where he not only managed the club but was also the owner. Another “Duke,” second-baseman Thomas “Darby” O’Brien—aka “The Dublin Dook”—made his first appearance in a Duluth White Sox uniform in 1908. O’Brien would remain with the club through 1916, serving as manager for the final eight years of his tenure.
For spring training the White Sox met in Aurora, Illinois, where Morrow resided. They scheduled exhibition games in Aurora and Freeport, Illinois, and Madison, Wisconsin, before playing their lone home exhibition game at Duluth’s Athletic Park on May 7. Those preseason games included an 8–3 loss to the all-black St. Paul Gophers on April 28 at Aurora. In Duluth, the Sox defeated the Kelley Hardware semi-pro team, 8–2, on May 7; the Duluth News Tribune attributed the hardware team’s loss to “Bone-headed playing.” The Sox then traveled to the Mesabi Iron Range for a series of games against local semi-pro teams before opening the season in Canada.
Over 5,000 people attended Winnipeg’s 5–0 opening-day win over Duluth at Happyland Park on May 14, the largest crowd to witness a baseball game in Winnipeg. Duluth returned home with a record of four wins and six losses. The home opener was played on May 28 against Winnipeg. Following the traditional Superior Street parade to kick off the season, Mayor Roland Haven gave a speech and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The celebratory mood of the 3,000 fans in attendance faded as Winnipeg scored six runs in the second inning en route to an 11–0 drubbing of the Sox. That was it for Morrow. Kuehnow fired him two days later and brought in Dave Williams as player-manager. Williams had been with Sioux City of the Western League since 1906 and had pitched for the Boston Americans in the American League in 1902.
Besides Williams, the 1908 Duluth White Sox featured two other players who reached the Major Leagues. The first, John Charles “Jack” Ness, was born in Chicago in 1885 and came to Duluth in 1908 to play for the White Sox, his first team in organized baseball. Ness batted .279 in 87 games for the Sox. The following year he batted .300 for Madison, Wisc., and did the same thing in 1912 for Williamsport, Penn. In 1914 he joined the Tigers in Detroit, where he batted .154 in 12 games before being traded along with $2,500 to the New Bedford Whalers of the New England League. Ness played for New Bedford for two years before heading west to play three seasons with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. He concluded his playing career back in the American League with the Chicago White Sox in 1916, batting .267 in 75 games. Ness died at age 72 in DeLand, Florida, in 1957.
Lester John “Larry” Pratt was 20-years-old in 1908 and, like Ness, Duluth was his first stop in organized baseball. Born in Gibson City, Illinois, in 1887, Pratt made his major-league debut in 1914, sharing rookie status on the Boston Red Sox with a 19-year-old left-handed pitcher named Babe Ruth. Pratt went hitless in five games. Having jumped his contract with Boston, he played 20 games of the 1915 season with the Brooklyn Tip-Tops and five more with the Newark Pepper of the Federal League, a short-lived third major league. He hit one home run, in his first plate appearance of the season. He retired from playing following the 1915 season. He died in Peoria, Illinois, in 1969 at age 81.
An incident of organized baseball’s troubled history with racism surfaced during the 1908 Northern League season. The June 10 edition of the Duluth News Tribune reported Fargo was in jeopardy of forfeiting all of its league wins because the Browns’ third-baseman, Dick Brookins, had more melanin in his skin than any other player in the league. It was of no consequence until an unnamed Northern League club considered signing famed pitcher George Wilson. Wilson, who was black, was released by Duluth when the Sox first joined the league in 1903—explicitly because of his skin color. In 1908 the league stonewalled the prospect of having an African-American on a club with a chance of winning the pennant.
The issue was not new. In 1907 Brookins had played for Houghton, Michigan, in the Northern-Copper Country League under the pretense that he was an American Indian. According to an article [http://sabr.org/research/perfect-right-play-billy-williams-dick-brookins-and-color-line] by Todd Peterson (Early Black Baseball in Minnesota), the White Sox and the Duluth News Tribune initiated an investigation into Brookins’ heritage, but dropped the matter as Houghton drifted out of contention for the pennant. While Northern League clubs were forbidden from signing Wilson or any other black players, Fargo was granted a pass on playing Brookins presumably for the same reasons as Houghton—the Browns were not in the pennant hunt, and Brookins claimed he was American Indian.
The league changed it schedule on July 26, and Fargo played the rest of its games on the road. The schedule change set up a potentially record-setting 24-game home stand for the Sox, but the Fargo team dissolved before the season ended. Duluth’s final league game was a 4-1 win over Winnipeg on August 13. A brief two-paragraph article in the Duluth News Tribune of August 15 announced Brandon as the league champion and the end of the season: “The season was not a financial success for any of the teams, everyone of them losing money.” The Sox finished in third place with a 45-45 record.
Kuehnow resigned as business manager on August 24, telling the News Tribune, “I’ll bet I’ve aged 10 years in the three seasons that I’ve been managing the local crew.” He had been involved with the White Sox since the club’s inception in 1903, first serving as treasurer. After returning full-time to the real estate business (his office was in the Torrey Building), Kuehnow lambasted his critics for not supporting the club and second-guessing his decisions. “Everything looks rosy to the fan on the outside. The birds are singing, kind-faced cattle graze in the beautiful green fields, birds sing sweetly and the little babbling brook flows murmuring on to its destination. That’s all very fine to the outsider. But get in. Come where you have to foot the bills for all this stuff. Get a peek at the books. Look over the expense list. Watch your bank account gradually slipping away from you. Then tell me this is a grand old game. It’s fine as long as someone else is footing the bills.” Despite quitting as manager, Kuehow retained ownership of the franchise.
While the second Northern League did not even make it through its inaugural season and the third-coming of the Northern League did not occur until 1913, Duluth enjoyed professional baseball for the next eight years, including a three-year membership in the Minnesota-Wisconsin League starting in 1909.
Story by Anthony Bush; originally appeared on Zenith City Online November, 2013.