Story and photos provided by Dennis Boyd, Bismarck Historical Society, 2016
The Early Years (1870's – 1919)
Baseball in and around Bismarck began in the 1870’s with games played primarily between teams from the various army posts in the area. Eventually pick-up teams appeared to play the army teams, but interest in baseball ebbed and flowed. By the 1880’s local businesses began sponsoring loosely knit teams to play each other, and in 1889 a Bismarck team, anticipating statehood and composed partially of professional players, won three games from a Grand Forks team to lay unofficial claim to North Dakota’s first state championship. For the next twenty years, interest in baseball declined due to geographic isolation, a poor economy, and the abandonment of the military posts in the area. In 1911 the business community organized the Bismarck Baseball Association and contributed funds to pay some ballplayers. A robust league including 20 teams and a team from the State Penitentiary had developed, but the advent of World War I would intervene.
The Churchill Era (1919 – 1936)
Neil Churchill moved to Bismarck in 1919 and began playing for a city team called the Grays. He was an excellent ballplayer and had played in Wisconsin as a catcher for eventual MLB Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes, the last legal spitball pitcher in major league baseball. By 1926 Churchill was named team manager, and he made a controversial decision to eliminate the previous practice of paying some of the ballplayers, returning the team to amateur status. Slowly the team became highly competitive, and in 1933 Bismarck was locked into a fierce rivalry with Jamestown over bragging rights. In July following a disappointing loss to Jamestown, which had previously integrated its team with several Negro League All-Stars, Churchill reversed himself and decided to return the team to semi-professional status, paying the players himself. Through his friendship with Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, Churchill lured Satchel Paige and three other Negro League players to Bismarck. Paige won seven games in August, and the team ended the 1933 season with a 38-12-5 record and a claim to the state championship.
Satchel Paige is generally regarded as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He is one of three players who played at least one season in Bismarck to be inducted into the Major League Hall of fame and one of two Bismarck pitchers to win a World Series ring. In 1948 Paige became the first Negro pitcher in the American League and at age 42 the oldest rookie in either league. Pitching for the Cleveland Indians in 1948 he combined with Bob Feller to win the World Series, and in 1971 he was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame.
In 1934 Churchill anticipated the return of Paige and hired several additional Negro League All-Stars. Although Paige did not return to Bismarck, the team was outstanding with a 61-19-3 record. At the end of the season a Major league Baseball team composed of many all-stars and eventual Hall-of-Famers was about to embark on a tour of Japan. As a tune up for the trip, a series of games was scheduled with Churchill’s team. Adding a few players from Valley City and Jamestown, Churchill’s team swept the last three games against the major leaguers, prompting one major league player to comment “ I knew there were a lot of very fine Negro baseball players, but he didn’t know they were all in Bismarck”. The stage was now set for a magical 1935 season.
In 1935 Paige did return to Bismarck, and Churchill added additional outstanding Negro League players, making the team fully integrated. His goal was to secure an invitation to the first National Semi-Professional Baseball Championship Tournament to be played in Wichita, Kansas. Throughout the season the team played some of the best barnstorming teams in the country, attracting national attention. Securing a tournament invitation, Churchill added a couple of additional players. At the tournament the team was undefeated at 7-0, with Paige winning four games and striking out 60 batters, still a tournament record in a tournament now played under the auspices of the National Baseball Congress. The team finished the season with 60-19-3 record. Winning the tournament was historically significant as it was the FIRST time a fully integrated team had ever won a national championship. The baseball world was electrified, and the tournament management immediately ruled that in future years no integrated teams would be allowed. Today baseball historians point to the 1935 national championship team as being pivotal in the eventual integration of major league baseball. Although it would be another 12 years before Jackie Robinson would integrate major league baseball, Churchill, Paige, and their Bismarck team gave baseball a peek into the future of integrated baseball. Years later Paige would describe the team as the “best he ever saw”, and official Major League historian John Thorn would describe the team as “the most dominant baseball team in the country, including the major leagues.
In 1936 Paige did not return to Bismarck. The rule barring integrated teams was suspended for 1936, and the team was invited to the National Tournament to defend their championship, but without Paige, the team fell short in its title defense, although future Hall of Famer Hilton Smith would win four games for Bismarck. After 1936 no integrated teams would be invited to the tournament until after 1947, when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers would finally break the long standing “color barrier” in organized baseball. After the season Churchill retired and the team disbanded. It would be 19 years before semi-professional baseball would re-appear in Bismarck.
Pictured above is Bismarck’s 1935 National Semi-Pro Championship team. According to Tom Dunkel, author of Color Blind, this is the only known picture of the team taken a few weeks before leaving for the National Tournament. Kneeling left to right are Joe Desiderato, Al Leary, Neil Churchill, Dan Oberholzer, and Ed Hendee. Standing left to right are Hilton Smith, Red Haley, Barney Morris, Satchel Paige, Moose Johnson, Quincy Troupe, and Double Duty Radcliffe. Note in the back row that Moose Johnson has his right hand on Satchel Paige’s left shoulder in a gesture that designates acceptance and friendship between the two players. Twelve years later a similar gesture may have occurred between Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson during a game played before a vicious, racist crowd in Cincinnati. Today baseball historians are questioning if the Reese – Robinson gesture happened, but there can be no doubt this gesture of friendship occurred in Bismarck in 1935.
The Barons (1955-1957)
Between 1936 and 1955 a robust, competitive amateur league developed in Bismarck, and by 1955 interest in baseball was high enough for a group of local businessmen to approach the Park Board seeking support to use the municipal ballpark by a new semi-professional team. Although there was some opposition by amateur players, the Park Board gave its approval, and after a “name the team” contest, the Barons began Bismarck’s second venture with semi-professional baseball. The Barons played in the Man-Dak League, with the teams being composed of numerous former major and minor league stars, outstanding college players, and a handful of talented local players. Perhaps the most prominent Bismarck player was Ray Dandridge who played on the 1955 team, hitting .360 with 118 hits, a league record. From 1955-1957 the Barons compiled a 132-95 record, winning the league championship twice. Although the level of play was skilled, the Barons and the Man-Dak League were beset from the outset with financial problems, and after the 1957 season, both the Barons and the League disbanded.
The Pards ( 1962-1964, and 1966)
The Pards were organized in 1962 as a minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, playing in the 8 team Class C Northern League. The team finished the season with a 60-62 record and would include two players who would move up to the Twins, Fred Lasher and Jerry Crider. In 1963, the Northern League was re-configured into a 6 team Class A league. The Pards would finish the season with a 56-63 record, but sent two players to the major leagues, Rich Reese who would play 10 seasons in the majors and Rudy May, who would pitch for 19 seasons. In 1964 the Pards finished the season with a dismal 39-80 record. Three players made it to the major leagues including pitchers Jim Ollom and Dave Boswell, and outfielder Andy Kosco. Ollom had a brief career with the Twins, but Boswell would play for seven seasons and Kosco would play 10 seasons. Although the team finished in last place, Kosco was the most exciting player in the Northern League, winning the league MVP and Triple Crown on the last day of the season, going 4-4 at the plate and hitting a dramatic homer in the ninth inning to secure the rbi and home runs portion of the title In 1965 Bismarck did not field a team, but in 1966 the Pards returned with an affiliation with the Houston Astros, again playing in the Northern League. The team finished the season with a 16-47 record, but fielded 7 players who would go on to major league careers, including Tom Griffin (14 years), Roric Harrison (7 years), Wayne Twitchel (10 years), Scipio Spinks (5 years), Bob Watkins (1year), and Otis Thornton (1Year). In addition infielder Fred Stanley would have a 14 year career, including three World Series with the NY Yankees. The team disbanded after the 1966 season.
The Dakota Rattlers (1995-1996)
The Rattlers appeared briefly in 1995, playing in the unaffiliated, professional Prairie League, finishing the season with a 30-42 record. In 1996 the team compiled a 33-44 record. Unable to capture the imagination of Bismarck fans, the team was beset by financial and management woes from the beginning, and it ceased operations following the 1996 season. After the 1997 season, the league also dissolved.
American Legion Baseball ( 1945- Current)
American Legion baseball was organized nationally in 1925. From 1945 through 2014, Bismarck has produced 12 state championship teams (1945,1949, 1956, 1957, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1971, 1982, 1986, 1997, and 2014). In addition Bismarck teams have finished as the state runner-up 13 times. Interest in American Legion baseball has been high through the years, and several dozen Legion graduates have gone on to play college baseball, and a handful have played in the high minor leagues as well as the major league. Perhaps the most successful Legion team was the 1966 team, which won the state championship and reached the Northern Region Six championship game undefeated before falling twice to Enid, Oklahoma.
In the early years of Bismarck baseball, games were played on at least four different fields. In 1921 Bismarck lumberman John A. Larson built a baseball field in the southwest corner of Washington Street and Front Avenue. In 1928 the ballpark was deeded to the Bismarck Park district, and in 1934 the grandstand was expanded, bleachers installed, and an outfield fence was erected. Seating was estimated at 3000 fans, and following the renovation, the Bismarck Tribune proudly proclaimed it to be a “big league baseball park”. During the Churchill era, there are numerous accounts of games attracting sellout crowds in excess of 3000 fans. Lights were added in 1949, and an electronic scoreboard was added in 1950. In the early 1970’s a fire destroyed the wooden grandstand, which was replaced by a concrete structure. In 1992 to accommodate the widening of south Washington Street, the park was moved slightly west and rotated 180 degrees. In 2014 the Park Board authorized a multi-million dollar total renovation of the field. Today it is again a ballpark of which Bismarck baseball fans are very proud. We are pleased to host a team in the Northwoods League and eagerly await the iconic cry of the home plate umpire – Play Ball !