Other than the major leagues, some of the best baseball was played on the northern prairies of the United States and Canada during the mid-twentieth century, most notably in the Dakotas and Manitoba, Canada. Two bartenders, a former teammate, and his own mother said, somewhere up north. Somewhere up north was getting on my nerves.
Several northern baseball leagues have operated at different levels of competition during the mid-twentieth century with teams located in the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba, Canada. Notable Northern League players during this era included Hank Aaron of the 1952 class-C Eau Claire Bears when he hit .336 with nine home runs, Jim Palmer with his 11-3 record and 2.51 ERA for the 1964 class-A Aberdeen Pheasants, Orlando Cepeda who hit .355 with 26 homers for the 1956 class- C Saint Cloud Rox, and nineteen-year-old Gaylord Perry who went 9-5 with a 2.39 ERA while with the St. Cloud Rox in 1958. Don Larson went 17-11 for the 1948 Aberdeen Pheasants and eighteen-year-old Roger Maris batted .325 with nine home runs for the 1953 Fargo-Moorhead Twins. Willie Stargell hit .260 for Grand Forks in 1960, and last and least, broadcaster Bob Uecker hit .171 for the 1956 Eau Clair Braves.
The Basin League, pioneer of collegiate summer baseball, was an independent league that existed between 1953 and 1973 with teams located along the Missouri River Basin in South Dakota and one from Nebraska. Ron Perranoski tossed a 1-0 shutout and Dick Howser scored the only run while leading their Watertown Lake Sox over the Valentine, Nebraska Hearts in a 1956 championship game. In 1957, big Frank Howard of Washington Senator fame, led the Basin League in batting average (.390), homers (8), and slugging percentage (.770). Don Sutton, while pitching for Sioux Falls, led the BL with his 2.20 earned run average. Also, Bob Gibson pitched for the Chamberlain Chiefs while Jim Palmer and Jim Lonborg pitched for the Winner, S.D. Pheasants. Dick Green and Jim OʼToole performed for the Mitchell Kernels in 1959 and 1966 respectively. Jimmy Williams and Dick Selma suited up for the Sturgis Titans. Dick Radatz, from Michigan State, led the BL with his 107 strikeouts and 10-1 record while Jerry Adair played shortstop for the Huron Jims. Notable Basin League players from Northern California were Barry Sbergia from San Mateo Junior College whose perfect 8-0 record for the Mobridge Lakers in 1970 is an all-time BL record for winning percentage and Pat Gillick, from Chico, California. Gillick pitched for the 1957 Winner Pheasants and went on to become General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Manitoba-Dakota League or ManDak League was a rogue, independent league that operated for eight years (1950-1957) in the province of Manitoba, Canada and the state of North Dakota. The all-professional ManDak was considered an outlaw league in that it did not abide by the rules and regulations of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players. Players often jumped from team to team, usually for better pay or more playing time as there was no restricted free agency. Minimum salary in the ManDak was $300/month with a cap of $900/month, about twice the amount offered by affiliated MLB minor-league teams. ManDak rosters consisted mostly of professional players with minor league experience, some ex-major-leaguers, and a few college and local players with exceptional talent. Approximately one quarter of the players came from the professional Negro leagues. The initial ManDak teams of 1950 included the Brandon Greys, Winnipeg Buffaloes, Carmen Cardinals, and Elmwood Giants from Manitoba and the Minot Mallards of North Dakota. Three ManDak players were later enshrined into Major League Baseball's Hall Of Fame -- Leon Day played for the Buffaloes and Greys. Willie Wells was the playing-manager for the Winnipeg Buffaloes and Ray Dandridge suited up for the Bismarck Barons. Other ex or future major-leaguers that played in the ManDak were the Drake brothers, Sammy and Solly, Jerry Adair, Mickey Rocco, Preston Gomez, and Roy "Stormy" Weatherly. A noted Canadian historian rated the league as just below Triple-A.
Mr. Hughes mentioned that somewhere up north might have been Minot, North Dakota. In 1948 and 1949, the independent Minot Merchants played against teams from North Dakota, Minnesota, and Canada; also against barnstorming teams including the Muskogee Cardinals, House of David, and Ligon All-Stars. In 1950, the Minot Mallards became a charter member of the ManDak League where they won four league championships and were runners-up twice. Satchel Paige briefly pitched for the 1950 Mallards. Fifteen years earlier, he had led his Bismarck, North Dakota Churchills to a National Baseball Congress semi-pro championship. After the demise of the ManDak, the Mallards played three seasons in the class-C Northern League. In 1958, middle-infielder Chuck Hiller hit .281 for the Mallards before logging eight seasons in the major leagues. In 1962, he became the first NL player to hit a grand slam in the World Series. Minot returned as the Merchants for two seasons in the Manitoba Senior Baseball League where they won South Division pennants in 1971 (13-7) and 1972 (11-9). Seven of the trophies at Van Roth’s shrine were from 1970-1977 and labeled MSBL. He disappeared during the latter part of spring, 1970.
They erected and dedicated a seven-foot bronze statue in his honor. Pete Beiden, born in Russia, never had a losing season in his twenty-one years while at the helm of Fresno State Baseball. Between 1948 and 1969, he won 601 games with only 268 losses for a .692 winning percentage. In 1951, his Bulldogs went 36-4, fourth-best in NCAA baseball history for winning percentage. Also, during the summer of 1947, Beiden managed his Atwater Packers to a California State semi-pro title and placed fourth at the National Baseball Congress World Series held annually in Wichita, Kansas.
In just a little over two decades, coach Pete Beiden and his successor Bob Bennett of Fresno State College, along with Roy Taylor, Hall of Fame college coach at Sequoias Junior College, sent more than a hundred college ballplayers into Western Canada to play semi-pro baseball for the summer months. The idea was fairly simple -- play several games each summer in cooler weather against some good semi-pro teams and gain an advantage over your opponents during next yearʼs college season. Some of these college players returned and went on to play in the minor leagues, some advancing to the majors, while a few never came back at all. It all began in 1949 when Walnut Creek, California businessman “Brick” Swegle persuaded Beiden to round up a group of collegiate ballplayers and barnstorm the Northwestern United States and Western Canada to compete for cash while playing in tournaments and exhibition games. Most of the players came from Beidenʼs Fresno State team. They won a lot of cash, which supposedly, after expenses, “Brick” kept for himself.
Fresno State catcher Bob Bennett joined Beidenʼs barnstorming contingent in 1952, then wore the mask for Roy Taylorʼs champion Kamsack Cyclones of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan League in 1953 before putting on the catcherʼs gear for the pennant-winning 43-17 Saskatoon Gems of the Saskatchewan Baseball League in 1954. After the 1969 season, Pete Beiden retired as head baseball coach at Fresno State and handed the keys to his former catcher, Bob Bennett. In his 34 years at Fresno, Bennett compiled a 1,302-759-4 career record including 17 conference championships and 21 NCAA tournament births. He produced 32 All-Americans, nine first-round draft picks, two College World Series appearances, and in 1984, was named Team USAʼs head baseball coach. In the year 2000, he was awarded the prestigious Lefty Gomez Award, emblematic for baseball excellence at the local, national, and international level, and was later inducted into College Baseballʼs Hall of Fame. Among his first scholarship offerings during his initial year of recruiting at Fresno in 1970 were Dick Ruthven, Brad Duncan, Danny Grimm, Jimmy Arroyo, high-school All-American Darrell Philips, and Yuba College pitcher Davie Van Roth.
“I hadn’t heard from the Yankee or Kansas City scout that had talked to me earlier and had no offers, not even a scholarship. Arrangements were made to visit several campuses in Southern California where Iʼd have to try out for a scholarship. After fielding ground balls, taking batting practice, and tossing a few pitches from the mound, both Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine University offered full-ride scholarships, but Fresno State is where I really wanted to go.” (Van Roth, Davie. Recollections & Journals of a Ballplayer. May, 1970}
On his way back from Southern California, Van Roth visited the Fresno campus and met coach Bob Bennett at his office. He handed Bennett a copy of his baseball stats and asked for a try out; however, the legendary coach took one look at his records and replied: No need to try out son. I donʼt care who you are or what league you played in. Anyone with stats like these deserves a scholarship. They shook hands and had a verbal agreement which included books, tuition, a meal ticket, and a room in the dorms that would be shared with another ballplayer. Mission accomplished thought Van Roth, and was about to walk out the door when Bennett inquired if his newest recruit was interested in playing ball in the Canadian Leagues for the summer. You get four-hundred a month plus room and board. Every year, Fresno sends some players up there for the summer. Van Rothʼs only response: When do I leave?
Three days later, Fresno State pitcher Dick Mailman arrived in Olivehurst-Linda and just like that ... Davie Van Roth was on his way to Canada. Mailman, a left-handed pitcher from Central California, was drafted by the California Angles after high school, but instead of signing a pro contract, accepted a scholarship from Fresno State and would be spending his second summer pitching in the Canadian leagues.
So how many games will we be playing? asked Van Roth.
We played nineteen league games last year plus six more in tournaments, replied Mailman.
What about the playoffs?
Forget about it. Dauphin rarely makes it to the postseason. We didnʼt last year and it doesnʼt matter because weʼll be back in Fresno registering for school before the end of the playoffs ... not only that, but the Brandon Cloverleafs and Hamiota Red Sox take turns winning the championship. The league revolves around Brandon. Their hitting is good enough to get them to the postseason so they use local pitchers during the regular season. Other teams have to use their third and fourth string pitchers during the playoffs because their starters are back in the States registering for college. The Redbirds will never win a championship ... and another thing; you better win all your games at home because you have to be 2-3 runs better on the road.
Why so? asked Van Roth.
Because the umpireʼs cheat. Each team provides their own local umpires and sometimes theyʼre relatives of the players. The home team gets every close call, even some of the ones that arenʼt that close; plus, the strike zoneʼs different. When the home teamʼs batting, the zone is four inches smaller; four inches larger when theyʼre in the field. Playing at Hamiota is the worst and itʼs almost impossible to win there.
Sounds like a real bush league to me.
Like you wouldnʼt believe.
They traveled north by northeast through Reno, Winnemucca, and Elko, Nevada; then Pocatello, Idaho; West Yellowstone, Wyoming; Billings, Montana and Minot, North Dakota before crossing the border to Virden, Manitoba, home of the Oilers, a team who Chicago Black Sox and California bad-boy “Swede” Risberg played for in 1929. After descending the pristine beauty of Riding Mountain National Park, Van Roth looked ahead and could see the dusty outskirts of Dauphin, Manitoba -- “Gateway to the North” and home of the Redbirds. Ahead in the distance, he saw a glimmering light. His mind grew heavy while his sight turned dim. Good God, he thought. What the hell did I get myself into this time?
SOMEWHERE UP NORTH