1918, The Year the PCL Threw in the Towel
The Year the PCL Threw in the Towel
© 2004 by Carlos Bauer
From the moment of the sinking the passenger ship Lusitania off the Irish coast in 1915, with the loss of 128 American lives, most people felt that the United States would eventually be dragged into the first World War. Nineteen sixteen was a nervous year for the republic, but the country managed to stay out of the conflict across the waters, and baseball even prospered. But in February 1917, the United States broke off relations with Germany, and in April the Congress declared war. On the home front, industry geared up for the war, and people’s minds drifted away from the national pastime. Out on the Pacific Coast, the cloud of war only began to appear after the 1917 season ended.
Going into the annual Coast League meeting in early November, President Allan T. Baum announced that there would not be any team changes for 1918. Once the two-day meeting ended, however, the league president issued the following statement: “Only the mere formalities are to be completed before the Portland Club will have been replaced by Sacramento. Portland has decided to enter the Northwest League next season.”
Portland had been a long-simmering problem, both for the California franchises, and for the Portland Beavers themselves. Portland had long maintained the season was too long, as the rainy season forced the Beavers to spend the last month of the season on the road. The expenses of that last road trip turned many profitable seasons for Portland into near break-even affairs, or even losses in some years. On the other side, the California clubs bemoaned all the money they were forced to spend on train fare, and additionally, for the two Southern California clubs, Tuesday games were lost when returning from Portland, as the train trip took two days. For the coming season, the Federal government had imposed an eight percent tax on passenger tickets and a ten percent tax on Pullman tickets. Add to that, just before Christmas, the Federal Government announced that it would be taking over all the railroads in the country for the war effort, and that left every league in the country wondering whether clubs would be permitted unrestricted use of the railway system, as they had during the 1917 season.
With the war drawing closer each day, owners wanted to retrench, and even some thought was given to cutting Salt Lake City loose from the league, making the Coast League an all California affair. What saved Salt Lake City was the fact that— since its entrance in the PCL in 1915— business leaders of that city gave subsidies for travel expenses to visiting clubs. Charter PCL member Portland never had such an arrangement, which made it much more often a candidate for being dropped from the league.
Part of the agreement with Portland owner Judge Walter W. McCredie called for the Portland club to sell its players to Sacramento, and that his nephew, Walt McCredie, long-time manager and one-time player for the Beavers, would join Sacramento as field leader. Then on December 1, Sacramento balked at the deal, citing Portland as requesting exorbitant amounts for players. But rumors circulated that the Sacramento principals had not secured all the financing to run a Coast League franchise. Charley Graham— who had been first a player-manager in the PCL, and then a part owner of the previous Sacramento franchise— put the group together, but apparently some of the partners got cold feet at the last minute. With the Sacramento franchise on shaky ground, league owners— then called magnates— began in earnest discussing the possibility of becoming a four-club circuit, Salt Lake City once again becoming the prime candidate for being dropped.
Finally, in January, a special league meeting was called for in Los Angeles to resolve all outstanding league issues for the coming season. At that meeting, Charley Graham showed up with another group of investors, and that group demonstrated that it had enough financial wherewithal to secure the Sacramento bid. Graham then became Secretary of the club. And a compromise was also worked out between Portland and Sacramento on players: Sacramento would be permitted to buy as many players as they wanted, but any player Sacramento didn’t want— or come to an agreement on price— would be offered on the open market.
Once the composition of the league had been settled upon, owners approved the traditional 30 week/30 series schedule that would run from April 2 through October 27. The league also took care of one other piece of outstanding business: For financial reasons, the league mandated sixteen-player rosters, the smallest since the early years of the league.
In the wake of the league confab, the new Sacramento franchise purchased five starters from Portland that would form the core of the new club. They also named Bill “Redmeat Bill” Rodgers, the Portland second baseman for the last six years, as playing-manager of the Senators. The very next day Walt McCredie, who had been the managerial choice of the first group of Sacramento investors, then signed to manage Salt Lake City. Presumably owner Bill “Hardrock” Lane thought that would give the Bees the inside track on any players Sacramento did not acquire. And that, in the fullness of time, is exactly what happened.
Shortly thereafter, the Vernon Tigers named its new manager, Vinegar Bill Essick, who pitched for Portland in 1905 and 1906, before being sold to Cincinnati. Owner Tom Darmody brought Essick west from Grand Rapids, where he had been manager and part-owner of the Class B Central League club for the past several seasons. Essick was about to embark on a very successful eight-year managerial career with Vernon before becoming the longtime Southern California scout for the Yankees. He picked up the moniker “Vinegar Bill” as a young pitcher who had, as one reporter wrote, “a rather sour disposition.” Vernon finished dead last in 1917, and its manager George Stovall got the boot the day the 1917 season ended.
Up in the Pacific Northwest that January, Judge Walter McCredie attended his first Northwest League meeting, where the league immediately changed its name to the Pacific Coast International League. The Pacific Coast League immediately filed a protest with the National Association, but that went nowhere with baseball’s national governing board. The Judge also announced the new nickname of his club, the “Buckaroos.” The name change was necessitated by the fact that Vancouver had used “Beavers” as their nickname since the 1916 season.
Underlying all the turmoil of the past few months was a constant rumor that two unnamed PCL franchises teetered on the brink of insolvency. Many reporters speculated that the two clubs were Vernon and, surprisingly, the San Francisco Seals.
Nothing in the Coast League is ever easy.
The run-up to training camp showed that clubs had more than the usual problems in filling roster spots, even the reduced sixteen-man ones. Any number of players had joined the service or had taken defense industry jobs, primarily in the Southern California oil industry, and/or shipyards up and down the coast. The Oakland Oaks were the worst hit club. On the eve of spring training, they only had one catcher on the roster, but he was at least last year’s starter, Dan Murray. The rest of the line up had more holes than a doughnut shop: two of their starting outfielders, Billy Lane and Hack Miller decided to remain in defense-related jobs; first baseman Rube Gardner retired shortly after the 1917 season closed; third baseman Rod Murphy joined the Marines; and starting shortstop Bill Stumpf had been drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The situation in Oakland looked so bleak that owner Cal Ewing threatened to fill his ranks with sandloters.
Two clubs decided to travel east to find players. Walt McCredie mined his contacts with major league clubs to get their surplus players; and Vernon’s new man, Bill Essick, scoured the Midwest, where he hoped his contacts would yield some fruit. Another club, the Los Angeles Angels, managed to retain a group of solid veterans, and added to the mix long-time Detroit Tiger right fielder Sam Crawford, who had decided to make Southern California his permanent home. San Francisco thought they had come up with an infield and pitching staff stronger than the one that carried them to the 1917 pennant, but their outfield appeared weak.
With all six clubs scurrying off to spring training all over Southern California and the Central Valley, a bombshell exploded: Long-time Seals owner Hen Berry sold the San Francisco club to a group headed up by Charley Graham (who was still part owner and Secretary of the newly formed Sacramento franchise) and Charles H. “Doc” Strub, who had been a teammate of Graham in college. Graham, of course, resigned his position with Sacramento, and disposed of his holdings in the club, before moving to San Francisco. Graham and Strub would control the franchise until the mid-1940s.
Spring training began under showers, and the weather stayed wet throughout the month of March. As training progressed, reporters began making predictions on what clubs should be strong and what clubs would not. Los Angeles and, surprisingly, San Francisco were thought to be the two strongest clubs in the league. Oakland, obviously, and Vernon— which retained much of the same pitching staff that finished last in 1917— were figured to finish at the bottom of the standings. Most observers felt that the Salt Lake City Bees, with four solid pitchers—three of whom (Ken Penner, Walt Leverenz and Jean Debuc) had won 20 or more games in the Coast League in 1917— would be the most improved team in the league. Sacramento seemed to be just a cut below Salt Lake City, even though it, too, had came up with a good crop of pitchers, and got some solid position players from the previous year’s Portland Beavers club.
The Bees’ chances took a turn for the worse, however, just as camp was winding up: pitchers Ken Penner and Jean Debuc rolled an automobile, putting both on the sidelines for a several weeks with broken ribs.
The PCL season opened officially on Tuesday, April 2 in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento, and by week’s end lowly rated Oakland had taken five games from the previous year’s pennant winning Seals to top to the standings. In Los Angeles, Sam Crawford exploded on the scene for the Angels, getting a couple of hits, stealing a base, and throwing out two runners in his first game. After the second week, both Oakland and Vernon had surged way out in front of the pack. San Francisco’s weak outfield manifested itself in the early going. Charley Graham bought long-time star outfielder Harl Maggert (.287 lifetime minor league average to go along with 516 stolen bases), who had become expendable when that club signed Sam Crawford, from the Angels. Maggert’s knees had been going for several seasons, but Graham thought there still remained some life in the old warhorse. As soon as he joined the Seals, Maggert twisted one his knees, and was sidelined for a week or so. To add to the Seal’s frustration, Roy Crohan— whom Graham had counted on to fill the shortstop position as he had in 1917— still had not shown up.
Yet, as soon as it looked the bleakest, the Seals righted themselves, and made a run on the league leading Salt Lake City Bees. Then, as quickly as they made their surge, the club took another dive, finishing up April once again at the bottom of the heap, though by then Crohan had joined the team.
The month of April ended with Vernon slipping past the Bees for first place by a single game.
During the first week of May, Oakland was hit by the first of many player defections. The already weakened Oakland Oaks lost their starting second baseman, Eddie Mensor, to a St. Helens, Oregon team in the Columbia-Willamette Shipbuilders’ League. Mensor had been one of the bright spots on the Oaks roster, hitting a solid .278 in a season dominated by pitchers.
The same week as Mensor jumped the Oaks, rumors spread throughout the league that several Coast League umpires were attempting to recruit players for defense industry companies in and around the Bay Area.
But what was happening on the West Coast had been taking place all across the country. The Sporting News ran an editorial that same week denouncing Bethlehem Steel, which had begun recruiting players from professional baseball, including major leaguers, for its steel mill league in Pennsylvania. “It now appears,” went the Sporting News editorial, “this privately conducted organization, operated for the purpose of furnishing recreation and entertainment for steel mill workers…is invading the ranks of players [in Organized Baseball] under contract, and under various subterfuges, endeavoring to induce some of them to break their pledges and repudiate their signed agreements.” While the Sporting News only dealt with Bethlehem Steel, the editorial could just as well have been written about shipbuilders on the West Coast. Or industrial firms in the Midwest.
In the second week of May, Salt Lake City jumped back in front of the Vernon Tigers by one game. While Salt Lake City had counted on its stellar pitching staff to take the club to the top, it was its heavy hitting that carried the day, at least in the early going. Three of their players topped the .300 mark, led by Larry Chappell at .372, and two others were just a notch below the .300 mark. Their pitching was hampered by the auto accident that sidelined the two pitchers, but one of those pitchers, Jean Dubuc, came back in late May, and ran off three straight wins. Veteran Walt Leverenz, who had pitched three seasons for the St. Louis Browns, topped the staff, and the league, with 6 wins.
The deeper into May the league got, the bleaker the future looked for the PCL. First, more players were notified that they were draft eligible, then Oakland got hit by three more players defecting to shipyard teams, and finally, Provost Marshall General Crowder issued his famous “Work or Fight” order, which made it harder for clubs to even fill gaps in their rosters from the ranks of sandloters. The order affected all men between the ages of 21 and 31, but it was commonly believed that the upper age limit would soon be raised to 40 years old.
With the war in full swing, many owners felt that attendance would dry up— just as it had during the last major conflict, the Spanish-American War— but PCL attendance held up surprising well early in the season, except at Rec Park in San Francisco, where a combination of bad weather and a bad ball club drove attendance way down.
Finishing up a full slate of doubleheaders on June 2, the league standings stood as follows:
Club W L Pct GB
Salt Lake City 32 26 .552 …
Los Angeles 34 28 .548 …
Sacramento 29 27 .518 2
Vernon 29 33 .468 5
San Francisco 29 33 .468 5
Oakland 27 33 .450 6
Los Angeles had slipped past Sacramento into second place by taking six out of eight contests from them, including a doubleheader sweep on June 2.
While pitching dominated in 1918, the talk of the league during the first two months of the season was Art Griggs, Sacramento’s fine first baseman, who was tearing up the league at a .445 clip, which was more than a hundred points above the number two batter, Jack Fournier of the Angels. Griggs, who had been a college footballer, started his pro baseball career in his native Kansas in 1905. By 1909 he had worked his way up to the majors for 2½ season before finding himself once again in the high minors. He battled his way back up to Cleveland in 1912— where he .304 in 89 games— but failed to stick the following season. After two years in the Federal League, mostly riding the bench, he found his way to the Coast, where his career resurrected. A lifetime .313 hitter in the minors (and .277 in the majors), 1918 was arguably his finest season. After hitting a league leading .378 in the PCL, he joined the Detroit Tigers, where he continued his hitting prowess with a .364 average in 28 games. Once again he didn’t stick in the majors in 1919, and found himself back with Sacramento. Griggs’ career ended in 1926 in the Coast League with the Seattle Indians. He went out with a bang, bidding farewell with an impressive .346 in 89 games.
Early June dealt the Coast League another body blow, and a special meeting was called for in San Francisco on June 8. The meeting was necessitated by to the National Railroad Board having raised train in the first days of June. This was the second time that year that the National Board had raised railroad fares. But this time the Board, without prior notice, more than doubled the fares, catching the league completely by surprise. The round-trip fare per player, Los Angeles-San Francisco, went from $21.50 to $45, and the California-Salt Lake City trip jumped from $40 to over $80. The Coast League— because of distances between cities— always had been held hostage by the railroads. For that reason the circuit only scheduled one seven-games series a week, rather than two series a week of other much more compact leagues. At the June 8 meeting, the league approved a plan to cut down on travel expenses by mandating all road trips would be made by automobile, save those to and from Salt Lake City. The league determined that the automobile trip between the Bay Area and Los Angeles would “only take” from Sunday night to Monday at 8:00 pm at the latest, giving players a night’s sleep before beginning the week-long series’ on Tuesdays.
Even though the special meeting was called to come up with a plan to cut travel expenses, wild rumors of the league shutting down completely swirled around the meeting. In closing the special session, the league declared to the press that the Pacific Coast League would not shut down until all of baseball was forced to close. That put the rumors to rest for a while. But just two weeks later the Oakland Tribune quoted Oakland owner Cal Ewing as saying that the league would stop operations after games on the Fourth of July. No sooner had the words appeared in the press, than some backtracking began. Ewing stated that he had been misquoted, declaring that he only said that if General Crowder’s “work or fight order” pertained to all of baseball, then the PCL would be forced to close down with the rest of the leagues in Organized Baseball.
Part Two tomorrow…