Part I: SEGREGATION AND ORGANIZATION, 1910-1915
Baseball in the American Southwest and across the border in the Mexican Northwest developed in the late 19th and early 20thcentury on an amateur basis, although mining companies formed teams and leagues, often short-lived, for which
baseballers were recruited from outside the area and offered jobs to induce them to stay and play. The military also played a role in the game’s development, as Fort Union in New Mexico Territory and Fort Apache in Arizona Territory were among army posts to field teams. Tombstone was a hotbed for the early game in the border region. In 1882 a civil engineer named George Rice, who operated the Boston and Arizona Mill in that southeast Arizona community, started a team called the San Pedro Boys (named for the nearby river) and later founded the Tombstone Base Ball Association. Warren Ball Park in Bisbee was opened in 1909 by the Phelps Dodge Mining Company for the entertainment of its workers and to create traffic for its streetcar line. The park still serves as the baseball venue for high school, amateur, and, periodically, professional ballclubs.
Early attempts to form baseball leagues along the border were segregated to exclude men of African descent, as was Organized Baseball in the 20th century until Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract in 1945. An effort to provide an alternative for those who were kept out apparently went for naught, as there are no indications that any teams ever took the field, but it is significant nevertheless. The circuit in question was for ballclubs composed entirely of African Americans, ten years before Rube Foster’s Negro National League became the first successful black baseball league. Moreover, it was five years ahead of the short-lived Class D Rio Grande Association, which was Organozed Baseball’s initial foray into the region.
The following item appeared on page four of the Bisbee Evening Miner for February 23, 1910:
ORGANIZING COLORED LEAGUE
The colored baseball players are organizing a league. The towns to be in the colored league are Bisbee, Cananea, Douglas, Tucson, and El Paso. George Gage has been asked to act as one of the managers of the new league, and Blue Webster is to be the manager of the Bisbee team. There are several clever ball players among the colored men of Bisbee and Webster says he knows of no reason why Bisbee should not have a fast team of colored players who would help furnish amusement for the local baseball fans next summer.
Unfortunately, neither the league nor the team is mentioned again, but other aggregations were developing for lighter-skinned players which coalesced between 1914 and 1917 as the Rio Grande Association, with a truncated 1915 season marking the first for the border region within Organized Baseball. The league’s founder was none other than John J. “Honest John” McCloskey, an important figure in the history of minor league baseball. McCloskey was an organizer and manager of some repute since 1888 when he started the Texas League, which still exists as a class AA professional circuit. He served as manager of TL clubs in Austin and later San Antonio during that league’s first season, and the following year he won the pennant for the Houston franchise. He managed other minor league teams in Texas and elsewhere, with notably unsuccessful major league stops in his home town of Louisville (1895-96) and at St. Louis (1906-08) in the National League.
McCloskey was manager and namesake for the El Paso Mackmen of the RGA, which also included names revived in later minor leagues, the Phoenix Senators and Albuquerque Dukes, along with the Tucson Old Pueblos, Douglas Miners, and Las Cruces Farmers. The 1915 season began with high hopes on April 27. Phoenix won the first half title, but attendance remained sparse all over, and by that time the league was already in serious trouble, Douglas and Las Cruces having disbanded on May 24 after having played only 18 and 19 games respectively. The league curtailed play after the games of July 5, with McCloskey’s El Paso team awarded the second half pennant. No playoff was held to determine a league champion, but Phoenix at 38-21 had the best overall record.
The league did attract some talented individuals, including those who at one time played or managed at the Big League level. McCloskey played in the minors from 1887 through 1905, usually for teams he managed, as a first and second baseman and at all three outfield positions. He managed at various levels in the minors as late as 1932, with little success except in class D. Kitty Brashear who managed Tucson had won his only Major League decision as a pitcher, in 1899 with Louisville. Outfielder Frank Huelsman, who led the RGA with 10 home runs for Albuquerque, had played three years in the Majors, with a 1904 season in which he saw duty with four different teams (the first to do so in MLB), all in the American League, including two stints with the Chicago White Sox. Rudy Kallio of Las Cruces later pitched in the Big Leagues for four seasons, and Stoney McGlynn who pitched for McCloskey’s El Paso squad had pitched for Honest John on the St. Louis Cardinals from 1906 through 1908. Finally pitcher Herb “Iron Duke” Hall, who won 14 games for unofficial league champion Phoenix, appeared three times for the Detroit Tigers in the wartime season of 1918.
It would be another 13 years before OB returned to the borderlands, but the next flowering of the game in the region would be in the “outlaw” leagues which took the field from 1925 through 1927, attracting perhaps the greatest array of talent ever to be seen in the Southwest.
Part II: OUTLAWS ON THE FRONTIER, 1925-1927
Before Organized Baseball came to stay in 1928, outlaws ruled the playing fields of the Southwest. These were not desperadoes with six-shooters, but men who for whatever reason were unable to secure contracts with teams in organized ball. What we now call independent leagues were then known as outlaw leagues, because like today’s indies they existed outside the authority of the National Association, and thus beyond the control of Major League Baseball. The Douglas Blues of the 1925 Frontier League and 1926 Copper League lived up to the outlaw moniker by hiring players banned from Organized Baseball to play and manage, in the persons of the notorious Hal Chase and members of the Chicago “Black Sox”.
Although acquitted in a court of law, seven members of the 1919 American League champion Chicago White Sox were banned for life – and beyond, as Shoeless Joe Jackson’s ongoing exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame attests – for their roles in throwing that year’s World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Chase was never formally banned, but was blackballed from ever playing again due to his suspected involvement in the incident, which occurred while he was a member of the New York Giants. One of the most gifted first baseman to ever play the game, he was widely thought to be a dishonest player. After newly-appointed commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis announced the bans on the Black Sox players in August, 1920, Chase became a pariah.
Hal Chase first appeared on the Arizona baseball scene in 1923 as player-manager of the Nogales Internationals, despite American League president Ban Johnson’s attempt to get the Mexican embassy in Washington to prevent him from playing for a team partly-owned by the ex-governor of Sonora. After stints in Williams and Jerome the following season, he landed a spot with the Douglas team for 1925 as a player, soon adding the position of manager to his duties. It was a controversial hire throughout the league, which also fielded teams in Ft. Bayard, New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Locals who opposed Chase due to his outlaw status were initially quite vocal, and his borrowed car was vandalized when he parked it near the border for a visit to Agua Prieta, Sonora. The flamboyant “Prince Hal” lived quietly, sometimes with his son Hal. Jr., rooming with the family of a local physician.
Chase eventually hired three Black Sox to play for the Blues: Buck Weaver, Chick Gandil, and Lefty Williams. Gandil had played for Cananea in the independent Cactus League before his Major League tenure. He and Weaver, second baseman and shortstop respectively, along with Chase at first and Cowboy Ruiz from the disbanded Internationals at third, gave Douglas an infield to rival the best anywhere during the second half of the season. The Black Sox and Chase came to be admired locally for their great skills as players, but were remembered as rough characters who hung out in the local pool halls. The Blues lost the second half championship in a controversial manner, and with it the opportunity to play in the Frontier League final playoff series, dropping a one-game tiebreaker to the eventual champion Juarez Indians on October 1 while claiming to have won the second half outright.
The biggest news in 1926 was made by one of the Black Sox who didn’t play in the league. Joe Jackson visited the Southwest and negotiated with both El Paso and Ft. Bayard, but never signed. Weaver was hired as Douglas player-manager for 1926 in the re-named Copper League, which for the season expanded to six teams, adding Bisbee, Arizona and Chino (representing Hurley and Santa Rita, New Mexico), though he soon relinquished his managerial duties. Chase was retained as a player only, and was allegedly involved with a gambler from Lordsburg, New Mexico in an unsuccessfuk attempt to fix a game in favor of opposing Juarez. Gandil had played for the Ft. Bayard Veterans in the 1925 post-season, and remained there as first baseman in 1926. That season he was joined by outfielder Jimmy O’Connell, who was banned from Organized Baseball for trying to throw a game while with the New York Giants two years earlier.
Black Sox pitcher Lefty Williams began the 1926 season with Douglas, but was ineffective and soon signed with Ft. Bayard. He took Gandil’s spot on the roster when the latter was released after being chased off the field by bat-wielding teammate O’Connell. The normally good-natured Jimmy snapped after Gandil, an ex-boxer, continued to ride him about his play. In the ongoing carousel of player moves, Gandil then signed with Chino as player-manager for the remainder of the season, leading the club to a strong second place showing in the second half. A seemingly re-juvenated O’Connell went on to become the dominant hitter of the league, batting .558 with 12 home runs, and led by him and Williams, Ft. Bayard won the league title.
The Copper League lasted for another year, down to four again for 1927, as Juarez had disbanded during the previous season after winning the first half title, and Douglas reverted to having a local league. Pro ball would not return to Douglas until after WW II, but the Bisbee Miners became the Bisbee Bees as OB took over in 1928. Chase remained in Douglas for most of 1927, unable to play except for a brief stint with El Paso due to a knee inury suffered in 1926, and held a job with a local car dealer at least through 1928. O’Connell stayed in Ft. Bayard as a player after the league disbanded, remaining there until the mid-1930s, and achieved a great reputation in the Silver City area as an organizer of youth baseball teams. With the demise of independent league professional baseball in the area following the 1927 season, true “outlaw” ball disappeared from the Southwest, setting the stage for OB’s lengthy reign.
Part IV, BACK ACROSS THE LINE, 1946-1958
Veracruz businessman Jorge Pasquel, who along with his brothers owned the Azules de Veracruz and held minority interests in other league franchises, was in 1946 named president of the Mexican League, the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (LMB). Already plundering the US Negro Leagues for talent, Pasquel as president began a policy of offering high salaries to attract Major League Baseball talent to his then-unaffiliated league. By 1947, financial losses would curb his acquisition of American players, but in 1946 MLB in panic mode responded by having its National Association encroach on LMB territory with an ill-conceived class B entity calling itself the Mexican National League. This was the first bi-national US-Mexico circuit, with one of its six franchises the El Paso Texans, previously of the still dormant Arizona-Texas League, managed by local resident and former New York Giant Andy Cohen. Also taking the field were future A-TL names, the Juarez Indios and Chihuahua Dorados. Those two ballclubs were tied for the league lead when the MNL was disbanded on May 27, a month after the Mexico City Aztecs and Torreon-Gomez Palacio Laguneros, directly competing with LMB franchises, dropped out under pressure from the Pasquel-controlled circuit, but not before Juarez defeated Chihuahua 6 games to 5 in a playoff series. Jorge Pasquel died in a plane crash in 1955, the same year the formerly independent Mexican League became part of the National Association, where it has remained as part of Organized Baseball ever since.
In 1947, with returning servicemen fully integrated back into the ranks of professional baseball, the class C Arizona-Texas League was finally brought back to life, only the name no longer fit as the Juarez Indios began the season on the field and won the first half championship before disbanding on June 22 and being replaced five days later by the Mesa Orphans. The Cleveland farm club Tucson Cowboys took the second half, but the playoffs were oddly won by the fifth-place Globe-Miami Browns, affiliated with the AL St. Louis team. That season also marked the beginning of a feud between two New York Yankee farmhands, both A-TL all-stars, that would carry over to the Major Leagues when they were on separate clubs. Billy Martin, third baseman of the unaffiliated regular season champion Phoenix Senators, and catcher Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney of the third place Bisbee Yanks, got involved in a conflict featuring flying spikes and hard tags leading to punches thrown and suspensions that spread from Phoenix and Bisbee to New York, St. Louis, and Washington when Billy played for the parent Yanks and Clint for the Browns and Senators. The last place El Paso Texans were managed by Andy’s brother, former Senators pitcher Syd Cohen, who went 17-5 on the mound and led the league with a 3.38 ERA, and would continue to pitch and manage in the low minors of the Southwest through 1955 at age 49. Long time major league infielder Joe DeMaestri was his shortstop and fellow all-star. 13-year Major Leaguer Joe Vosmik was manager of the year for Tucson, and hit .354 in limited duty as an outfielder.
Globe-Miami won again in 1948, but this time the Browns won the league as well, and took the final playoff 4 games to 3 over the revived Indios. From this season on, the league would not be without Mexican representation. Bisbee became Bisbee-Douglas, as the nearby towns would split the franchise through 1955. Phoenix finished first but El Paso won the playoffs under Syd Cohen in 1949, and Juarez rookie Memo Luna, who would pitch one game for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954, made his first all-star team. The Texans would repeat in the 1950 playoffs after Juarez won the league with Syd Cohen now in charge across the Rio Grande. Bisbee-Douglas became the Copper Kings and switched affiliations to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Tucson native George Nicholson signed with Phoenix and became the league’s first black player, and others soon joined him without incident, even in El Paso where Texas law could have prevented integrated play.
Faced with the beginning of a decline in minor league attendance, for 1951 the NA combined the A-TL with the SoCal/Baja-based Sunset League into the appropriately-named Southwest International League, adding teams in Mexicali and Tijuana, Baja California Norte; El Centro, California; Yuma, Arizona; and Las Vegas, Nevada. The first-half champion Mexicali Aguilas beat second-half winner Phoenix to take the playoff. Memo Luna now of the Tijuana Potros was again an all-star and led the league with 318 strikeouts and a 2.52 ERA. Pioneering African American Major League umpire Emmett Ashford began his career in the SWIL, without major issues from players or the law, but boycotted by his fellow arbiters, he was forced to call his first assigned series alone. The A-TL was back under that name for 1952 despite adding the Chihuahua Dorados for a season, who finished last but obliterated league attendance records drawing over 130,000 in 70 home games. There was no playoff but the Indios under local legend Manolo Fortes won the league title, as the former Sunset clubs retained the SWIL name, with Tijuana winning the league’s second and last title. Mexicali replaced Chihuahua in the 1953 A-TL, and Tucson won the league, again without a playoff. In its final year under that name, the Arizona-Texas League added the Nogales Yaquis and Cananea Mineros, with Phoenix winning without a playoff. Mexicali was now the only affiliated team, in the still vast St.Louis Cardinals system. Their Nate Moreland, former Negro Leaguer and Jackie Robinson’s JC teammate, won 22 games to lead the league, while Cananea sluggers 3B Leo Rodriguez and OF Claudio Solano (notable as one of OB’s few deaf players) set league season marks, the former tying Tony Antista with a .430 average and pounding out 259 hits, while Solano hit 47 home runs, his first of 3 seasons over 40 in the league.
Solano led the renamed Arizona-Mexico League in RBIs for 1955 as his Mineros won the league and set a home attendance record of 213,074 for the 140-game season. The Yuma Sun Sox joined the league and Phoenix became the Stars and joined the Pittsburgh Pirates system. Ruben Amaro of Mexicali, son of Cuban great Santos and father of future Phillies GM Ruben Jr., tied at 140 for the league lead in runs scored with future 5-year big leaguer Ellis Burton of Phoenix, and went on to play 11 seasons in the majors. First half champ Cananea won again in 1956, Solano leading the league in HR and RBI, in a revived playoff over second half leader Yuma. Phoenix switched to the Baltimore Orioles, and Tijuana withdrew on June 28. Always present Bisbee gave up, and Douglas was left to represent Southeast Arizona by itself. Phoenix won both halves in 1957, and Mexicali withdrew with 10 games remaining. Solano managed Cananea for the first part of the season, and won the triple crown while batting .402. The last league title was won by the Douglas Copper Kings, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Attendance was way down, as Phoenix had left to join the AAA Pacific Coast League, and excepting the later complex-based Arizona League, after 1958 the low minor leagues of Organized Baseball were gone from the Southwest for good.