The 1911 Duluth White Sox

After the Minnesota-Wisconsin (or “Minny”) League’s tumultuous 1910 campaign things did not look good for a 1911 season. But despite the financial struggle of every team in the league, the circuit remained unchanged for 1911: the Duluth White Sox, Red Wing Manufacturers, Rochester Bears (or Lunatics), and Winona Pirates in Minnesota, and the Eau Claire Commissioners, La Crosse Outcasts, Superior Red Sox, and Wausau Lumberjacks in Wisconsin.

The White Sox organization had essentially reformed its ownership and management in the middle of the 1910 when Jack Desmond, Joe Maitland and Dr. J. A. McCuen purchased the club. Secretary and treasurer Desmond’s optimism carried him to extreme measures: he contracted W. W. Whitney, representing the Interstate Dredge and Dock Company, to build a 3,500-seat, $30,000 ball park on the bay side of Minnesota Point at 15th Street. Desmond also declared he would resign if the facility was not completed in time for league play.

Construction involved creating land by pumping 600,000 yards of sand into the bay, filling a space where the water was between two and six feet deep. Work was delayed in the spring of 1911 due to a prolonged illness that caused Desmond to seek warmer weather. By the time the field was ready, the season had already started; the Sox played at Athletic Park again that year.

(True to his word, Demond sold his White Sox shares in November 1911. The intended White Sox baseball field was renamed Desmond Park and became a popular recreation facility throughout the 1910s, just the thing for “making of young manhood, good morals and healthy muscle in boys.” A swimming pool was added in 1912 and the park was used for amateur baseball and football as the “official grounds for the City League of Duluth, the Commercial League, the Elks Club, the Moose Club and the Owls Club.”)

Cleveland native Darby O’Brien returned for his third of eight seasons as playing manager. The team reported for practices at Cleveland’s Western Reserve University and, per custom under O’Brien, commenced on a preseason tour of exhibition games across the Midwest, which included stops in cities such as Kalamazoo, Michigan; Rockford, Illinois; and Madison, Wisconsin. The Sox arrived in Duluth on May 3 and played exhibition games in both Duluth and Superior before starting the season at Red Wing on May 10 with a 2–1 loss.

As usual, Duluth kicked off the season in grand fashion: Mayor Marcus B. Cullum and Dr. McCuen, rode white horses as they led the ninth annual parade along Superior Street from city hall westward to Athletic Park. (That same year Cullum and McCuen would face off in Duluth’s mayoral race; McCuen would win and serve as mayor for just one year, 1912).

Cullum’s pre-game oration earned cheers from the crowd of 2,500 fans after he said, “I can hardly believe that an American can really be rich and red-blooded unless he admires the game of baseball.” To illustrate the national pastime’s wide appeal, the Duluth News Tribune listed a cross-section of those in attendance: “well-known businessmen, lawyers, clergymen, painters, millionaires, politicians, theatrical professionals, conductors, butchers, grocers, druggists, street sweepers and—oh, well, everybody interested in anything goes to the baseball game!” Duluth defeated Red Wing 6–2 behind the pitching of Gene Woodburn.

Pitcher, prankster, and ventriloquist Gene Woodburn played for the 1911 White Sox before moving on to the big leagues. (Image: Public Domain)

Woodburn was born in Bellaire, Ohio, in 1886. He spent two years with Dallas in the Texas League before joining the White Sox in 1911. His stay in Duluth was short as the St. Louis Cardinals purchased his contract in July for $1,500. By the end of the 1912 season he was fired after an unremarkable big-league career—two wins and nine losses with a 5.50 ERA in 31 games.

Woodburn’s short stint as a pro might have had something to do with his dugout hijinks. A ventriloquist and prankster, Woodburn tormented his hot-headed manager, Roger Bresnahan, by throwing his voice while insulting the skipper with remarks like, “You four-flusher, what right you got to call yourself a manager?” Reportedly Bresnahan would then hop up and down, searching the nearby seats for his verbal assailant. Woodburn used this method to make remarks “concerning Roger’s ancestry, place of future destination, and personal habits.” Woodburn also picked on another temperamental soul, Chicago Cubs second-baseman Johnny Evers, calling him a “little crab and a human wart,” which sent Evers into a 10-minute rage of shaking his fists and searching the stands. When Bresnahan later caught Woodburn in the act, it spelled the end of his days as a big-league pitcher. He finished out his carer in the minors.

The 1911 Dukes also featured Elmer Miller, who went on to play in the big leagues. Miller began his professional career as a second baseman for Duluth in 1911. The Indiana native debuted in the majors for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1912, but eventually found himself back in Duluth after batting just .189 in 12 games. Miller again joined the White Sox to begin the 1913 season. A .347 batting average in 91 games earned him a ticket to the Mobile (Alabama) Sea Gulls of the Class A Southern League for the balance of the season. He was still with Mobile when his contract was purchased by the New York Yankees toward the end of the 1915 season. He spent the next several years bouncing between New York (1915–1922) in the majors, and Baltimore (1916) and St. Paul (1919–1921) in the minors.

Elmer Miller, who played for the 1911 Duluth White Sox and appeared in the 1921 World Series as the lead-off batter for the New York Yankees. (Image: Public Domain)

The high point of Miller’s career came when he batted lead-off and played center field for the Yankees in the 1921 World Series. The Yankees lost to their fellow Polo Grounds tenants, the New York Giants (featuring Superior, Wisconsin, resident and future hall-of-fame-inductee Dave Bancroft at shortstop). Miller hit a measly .161 in the series and was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1922. He concluded his career by playing out a five-year contract with an outlaw team in Beloit, Wisconsin, from 1923 to 1927.

According to Eau Claire baseball historian Jason Christopherson in Diamonds in Clear Water: Professional Baseball in Eau Claire, 1886-1912, the “Minny” league hit a snag in late June. La Crosse protested three games against Winona, accusing the Pirates of being over the $1,300 salary limit. The league president ruled in favor of Winona, but decreed that all league players must sign affidavits stating their salaries. Instead, Red Wing disbanded on June 26. The Manufacturers were not only likely over the salary limit, but were a miserable 13–29 at the juncture and saw no reason to continue. Wausau, playing respectably with a 21–22 record, voluntarily disbanded to provide the league a chance to create a new schedule.

League play ended on September 4 with Superior (72–36) in first place; Duluth (60–49) came in third. Christopherson again tells of the difficult season: “Finances for the league were so bad, in fact, that the official statistics for the league were never published. An official scorer for Duluth was not paid for his services and, in protest, he withheld his information. Without this data, the official statistics could not be compiled.”

The Minny League pushed on in 1912 with just four teams—Eau Claire, La Crosse, Rochester, and Winona—but disbanded in July of that year. Duluth and Superior embarked on a different, also failed, venture in 1912: the Central International League.

Story by Anthony Bush; originally appeared on Zenith City Online May, 2014.

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