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 were 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 a 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.