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Thursday, April 1, 2004 06:59 am

Champs of the Three Eye

The pride of Springfield was on the line as Carpet Slippers led his ragtag team against Ol’ Stubblebeard’s Cardinals

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COVER ILLUSTRATION BY NICK STEINKAMP

For Springfield and its central Illinois neighbor Bloomington, the 1935 baseball season was history in the making. It's a shame few witnessed it firsthand.

In the midst of the Great Depression, these minor-league baseball rivals engaged in a thrilling pennant race and controversial postseason series. Yet the grim economic times translated into sparse crowds and general indifference.

During the 1935 Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League season, Springfield (with the interchangeable nicknames of Senators and Solons) was led by owner-manager Robert Coleman, one of the greatest minor-league skippers in baseball history. Sixty miles to the north, the Bloomington Cardinals were led by player-manager Burleigh "Ol' Stubblebeard" Grimes, a future Hall of Famer who was famous for his spitball.

Unfortunately, these two legendary figures waged their epic contest in relative obscurity. During the Depression, residents of both communities generally concerned themselves less with local box scores and more with putting dinner on the table. In fact, the 25 cents for a bleacher seat at Lanphier Park was beyond the means of many Springfield residents. The same situation held in Bloomington, where the ticket sales at Fans Field (40 cents for both grandstand and bleacher seats) never met preseason expectations.

Springfield and Bloomington were members of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (also known as the Three Eye or Triple Orb), a national force in minor-league baseball for the first 60 years of the 20th century. Organized in 1901, the Three Eye was a Class B loop, the highest level of "low" minor leagues (classes B, C and D). National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees who passed through the storied league include Red Ruffing, Carl Hubbell, Hank Greenberg, Lou Boudreau and Warren Spahn. Among the dozens of Three Eye veterans who enjoyed successful big-league careers are Carl Erskine, Willie "Puddin' Head" Jones, Johnny Logan, Allie Reynolds, Charlie Root and Pinky Whitney.

The Great Depression played a significant role in the remaking of the game of baseball. Across the nation, minor-league baseball disappeared from countless communities as teams and entire leagues folded, sometimes midseason. In 1932, the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League suspended play in July, and the circuit remained dormant for the next two years. In the spring of 1935, the league agreed to reorganize, though expectations of financial success remained suspect. Only six cities were willing or able to field teams, two short of the league's standard complement. Joining Springfield and Bloomington were the Decatur Commodores (known as the Commies), the Fort Wayne Chiefs, the Peoria Tractors (also referred to as the Trax) and the Terre Haute Tots. In a demonstration of collective obstinacy rather than profitability, all six somehow finished the season.

 

In the spring of 1935, Springfield and Bloomington were cities visibly fraying at the edges. Although Springfield, with state government as an employment base, fared better than many similarly sized communities, it did not escape the Depression. For instance, Ridgely Farmers Bank, one of the city's largest financial institutions, failed in 1932. Even more troubling was the closure of area coal mines, despite significant concessions by the unionized workforce. Bloomington was hit hard by the economic crisis. By way of illustration, city streets superintendent Thomas J. Clark organized jobless men to clear and straighten Sugar Creek. In exchange for this labor, the city excused delinquent water bills.

Yet both central Illinois communities benefited from an infusion of New Deal investment. Springfield Mayor John W. Kapp, a Republican who remained generally supportive of New Deal programs, secured federal money for dozens of projects, most notably work related to the newly completed Lake Springfield. The summer of 1935 also marked the passage of several New Deal legislative landmarks, including the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act, the latter a measure designed to protect workers' rights to form unions and bargain collectively.

During the 1935 Three Eye season, the fortunes of Springfield and Bloomington rested with their respective managers. Before coming to the Three Eye in the twilight of his career, Burleigh Grimes was one of the finest major-league pitchers of his generation. He recorded 270 victories during a 19-year career that included stops with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. His last great season was 1931, when the 38-year-old hurler won 17 games for the World Series champion Cardinals. When Grimes retired during the 1934 season, he was the last big-leaguer to legally throw the spitball. (The major leagues banned trick pitches in 1920, although Grimes and 16 other spitballers were granted an exemption). In 1964, the veterans committee selected Grimes for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Although 1935 represented owner-manager Bob Coleman's only season in Springfield, he stands as the most influential figure in Three Eye history. He spent 24 seasons in the Class B loop, earning a record nine championships, all but one with Evansville. Big-leaguers seasoned under Coleman's watchful eye included previously mentioned Hall of Famers Greenberg and Spahn, as well as all-stars Emil "Dutch" Leonard and Tommy Bridges. He is one of only two managers in baseball history with more than 2,000 career minor-league wins. At some point in his career, he picked up the nickname "Carpet Slippers" after wearing slippers on the field because of foot trouble.

Despite tight purse strings, Coleman and club business manager Hap Troy pieced together a formidable Class B lineup. Springfield's 1935 roster featured six future big-leaguers, including three who enjoyed long and productive careers: George "Birdie" Tebbetts, Roy Cullenbine and Mike Tresh.

Yet minor-league rosters were forever in flux as players were signed, released, promoted and demoted at a startling pace. Money woes plagued Coleman the entire season, and in an effort to balance his books, he sold the highly regarded Cullenbine midseason, even though Springfield was in the midst of a pennant race. Grimes, on the other hand, never had the worries of meeting payroll common to many Class B organizations. Bloomington was an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, which operated the game's largest and best-financed farm system.

 

Once the 1935 season was under way, it was apparent that Springfield and Bloomington represented the league's elite and would battle for the Three Eye pennant. On June 9, Springfield completed a three-game sweep of the visiting Bloomington Cardinals, leaving the clubs tied with 18-11 records. Two days later, Springfield gained sole possession of first place after taking both ends of a doubleheader from the Decatur Commies.

As the Cardinals failed to gain ground on Coleman's squad, the cantankerous Grimes worked out his frustrations on the underpaid and overworked umpires. On June 12, in a losing contest against the visiting Terre Haute Tots, umpire Pooch Sommers "chased" Grimes for the second time in less than two weeks. At the game's end, hostile fans surrounded the two umpires, and someone even threw a sucker punch at Sommers. On July 1, Grimes earned another trip to the showers during a key contest with first-place Springfield. Bloomington Pantagraph sportswriter Fred Young credited the timely arrival of three deputies with preventing a mob action against the umpire crew.

On July 2, league officials and club owners agreed to split the season, giving Bob Coleman's club the first-half title. It was thought that starting anew would boost attendance, especially among the league's weaker clubs. The winner of the league's second half (barring a repeat) would then challenge Springfield to a postseason playoff.

The Bloomington Cardinals finished the season's second half atop the league standings with a 43-25 record. Springfield (38-28) was the only other club to finish the second season with a record better than .500. Thus the stage was set for the league's two best teams to meet in a best-of-seven playoff.

Unfortunately, late-season lineup changes cast a dark cloud over Springfield's chances. Despite success on the field, the team normally played before a scattering of fans at Lanphier Park. Coleman, who lost a bundle of his own money during the season and struggled with cash-flow problems, sold several key players before the series.

Despite the loss of key starters, Springfield manhandled the Cardinals in the first three games by scores of 9-0, 3-2 and 6-0. In the Sept. 11 series opener, the Cardinals committed five errors as Bloomington hurler Bill Cox proved no match against Springfield's Don French. Grimes spent much of the game arguing with the umpires, opposing players, fans and even Springfield sportswriters. "How Burleigh likes to talk!" commented R.A. Drysdale, an Illinois State Journal sportswriter. "You'd have thought he was president of the league to see him tell it to the umps before the opening game." Grimes' major-league invective also drew the ire of Illinois State Register sportswriter Frank Weir. "It is interesting to watch Burleigh Grimes manage his ball club in such a staid, dignified manner and learn just what a decade of Big League baseball will teach a man," Weir noted with obvious sarcasm.

After dropping the next two games, the shaken Cardinals returned home to Bloomington's Fans Field. In an attempt to boost disappointing attendance (the first three games drew an average of just 900 fans), league officials decided to play the Saturday, Sept. 14, contest the next day, hoping that a huge Sunday crowd would provide much-needed revenue for both clubs.

 

Grimes, who four years earlier had played a crucial role in the St. Louis Cardinals' World Series triumph over Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, started the fourth game of the Three Eye playoff. With an announced crowd of 2,200 in the stands, Ol' Stubblebeard surrendered seven runs. Bloomington's dormant bats, though, came alive, and the Cardinals scored 10 runs to extend the series for at least one more day. Bloomington then captured the fifth game by the score of 6-5. The eighth inning featured a minor scrap when Springfield's Clyde Smoll climbed into the stands and punched a loudmouth fan.

With Springfield still ahead three games to two, the Cardinals needed to win the final two contests to capture the postseason crown -- or at least that's what everyone thought. At first, it appeared that Springfield finished off Bloomington by winning the sixth game 5-2. But the victory proved chimerical. In the third inning, Cardinal first baseman Julian Foster hit a home run over the left-field fence. As he rounded third, he shook hands with teammate Hershel Martin. Umpire Pat Pfohl then ruled Foster out on account of Martin's interference, negating the home run. A disbelieving Bloomington bench exploded in anger over the decision to invalidate the home run. Yet despite the apparent righteousness of their cause, the Cardinals failed to file a formal protest until the game was over.

Three hours after the last called strike, flustered Three Eye League president L.J. "Genial Gene" Wylie ruled that the game must be replayed. Coleman refused, and Wylie was forced to declare Bloomington champions by forfeit. The Springfield skipper complained that league officials, viewing the game from box seats, could have immediately overruled the interference call. Yet with no such ruling forthcoming, Springfield continued the game, oblivious to the fact that the results would prove meaningless. "If that's the way they want to win pennants, it's all right with me," declared Coleman in the Illinois State Journal. "I've had my fill of the whole outfit."

Thus the league's postseason showpiece ended with a whimper of disqualification, not the bang of late-inning heroics. The final attendance figures added to the pervasive gloom. Bloomington, despite strong play, drew about 20,000 for the entire season. No doubt the economic crisis slowed ticket sales, but other factors, such as poor weather, played a role. Springfield fared even worse, drawing a meager 16,000.

"Verily, the failure of fans to back Bob Coleman's club belongs among the year's greatest mysteries," mused R.A. Drysdale of the Journal. The resultant $8,300 in Lanphier Park gate receipts fell far short of operating costs, including salaries, travel expenses and park upkeep. Coleman's losses were pegged at more than $11,000. Both clubs had drawn significantly higher in past. For example, Springfield had set back-to-back Class B attendance records in 1925 (113,000) and 1926 (123,000).

 

Years later, many Springfield baseball fans would consider Coleman's 1935 club the best in city history. Catcher Birdie Tebbetts recorded exactly 1,000 big-league hits in a 14-year career that included three seasons lost to military service. He then managed three different big-league clubs over the better part of 11 seasons. Roy Cullenbine was a major-league mainstay for 10 seasons, playing the outfield and first base for several teams, including the St. Louis Browns and the Cleveland Indians. Mike Tresh, another catcher, was the Chicago White Sox's backstop for more than a decade.

After the botched 1935 playoff, the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League was unable to organize for the 1936 season. The Depression still loomed large for the low minors, and the Three Eye's on-again, off-again status continued through the end of World War II. Bloomington's final season in the Three Eye was 1939. Springfield became an affiliate of the struggling St. Louis Browns and remained in the Class B loop until 1949.

As the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League fought to remain solvent, Grimes left the relative obscurity of Class B ball for the relative obscurity of livestock farming. Yet before too long he was back in baseball. For two seasons (1937-38), he managed the Brooklyn Dodgers, concluding his brief tenure with an unimpressive .432 winning percentage (130-171). After the disappointment of Brooklyn, Grimes returned to the minors to coach for another decade.

Bob Coleman left Springfield for the warmer, drier climate of San Antonio and the Texas League. In 1938, he returned to the old Three Eye to pilot Evansville, where he would spend 16 of the next 20 seasons. Between extended stays in Evansville he managed the Boston Braves for a year and a half. When Coleman stepped down in late July 1945, the perennially second-division Braves were 42 and 51, with 20 defeats occurring by one run or in extra innings.

Explained Coleman: "When even the batboy in Brooklyn says: 'That guy is going nuts,' it's time to let somebody else take the rap."

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