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The 1904 Duluth White Sox: Champs on the field, losers off

Before he became a hometown hero for the St. Paul Saints, Hank Gehring played pro ball for two seasons in the Zenith City, 1903 and 1904. (Image courtesy of www.almanacpark.blogspot.com)1 / 3
This 1902 baseball card shows Lee Quillen in his Minneapolis Millers' uniform a year before he played pro ball in Duluth for the 1903 and 1904 seasons.2 / 3
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When the 1904 Northern League season began, things looked promising for the Duluth White Sox.

Leonard Van Praagh returned for his second season as manager, and the squad was a perfect 10-0 in its preseason exhibition games played between April 23 and May 14. That run included road victories over teams in Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, and Minneapolis before returning home to host the Duluth Fashions (an independent club), a select team from the Duluth Commercial League, and teams representing Ashland, Hibbing, and Superior.

But despite a championship year, the 1904 season would be a financial loser for the White Sox.

The entire league had a shaky start. When the Northern League began as a financially successful independent (or "outlaw") league in 1902, its teams were centered along the Red River Valley. The league expanded the following year, adding teams from Duluth and Superior, but the only team that saw a profit were the Winnipeg Maroons -- the league champions.

In early 1904, the Duluth and Superior clubs were looking to join a league with less travel time and fewer expenses. Negotiations were in high gear for a new outlaw league that would include teams in Duluth, Superior, Appleton, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Oshkosh, Calumet, and Houghton-Hancock; but on March 12, 1904, the Northern League made concessions to the two Twin Ports clubs, and the league retained its same six teams from 1903: Crookston, Duluth, Fargo, Grand Forks, Superior, and Winnipeg.

And after its preseason run, Duluth looked poised to dominate the league.

Duluth opened the season with a series at Fargo. The home team spoiled the season's opening-day game for the White Sox. A crowd of 1,800 was on hand as the two teams paraded in carriages through Fargo's business district before the game, which Fargo won, 3-2. The Sox bounced right back, winning eight of 12 games on the road before returning home.

Except for Superior, Duluth faced every club in the league while on the trip -- and arrived back in the Zenith City in first place.

In their home opener on June 2, the White Sox faced the defending champions from Winnipeg. A parade of players marched from City Hall at Second Avenue East and Superior Street West toward Athletic Park, in the shadow of the ore docks. Led by Flaaten's 3rd Regiment Band, Duluth Mayor Dr. Marcus B. Cullum and city councilors followed in carriages, and at Eighth Avenue West the players boarded tally-ho wagons for the rest of the journey.

A crowd of 1,200 awaited them at the ball park, and Cullum tossed the first pitch. The Sox won, 6-3.

A June 18 home game against Superior took a dark turn. It was a foggy day and Duluth was trailing by a score of 8-3 going into the bottom half of the ninth inning. Duluth rallied for three runs and had a runner on base with none out when the umpire, Smith, called the game because he said he could not see the outfielders through the fog.

A "mighty roar" went up in the stands, and hundreds of spectators -- along with players -- rushed the field and surrounded Smith and threatened him with bodily harm. Two police officers averted a disastrous scene by escorting Smith to a carriage that was "hastily driven away."

The Duluth News Tribune reported emotions likely ran high due in part because "considerable money was wagered on the game and it was conceded that Duluth had every chance for a victory."

Van Praagh and Superior manager Don Cameron jointly filed a protest to league president Laxdal and agreed that if Smith were to show up at the park the next day he would be denied admission. Smith had wanted to call the game after eight innings, but both teams wanted to keep playing, "on the ground that the spectators should be given the worth of their money."

The final decision was not the first controversial call by Smith. The Duluth News Tribune reported that "It was asserted by many of the spectators that his guesses on balls and strikes were absolutely inexcusable and that he was equally deficient in his judgment on base running." Cameron had been ejected in the sixth inning after an argument over a play at first base resulted in his "engaging in a wrestling match" with Smith.

By mid-July, Duluth was running away with the league with a 33-12 record. Their closest opponent, Crookston, had a record of 24-22.

Despite this, the team was losing money, mostly due to poor attendance.

The first game of the doubleheader against Fargo on July 12 attracted only 300 fans, and even fewer showed up for the second game. The next day the Duluth News Tribune's headline read: "White Sox Play to Empty Seats."

The paper reported that manager Van Praagh had said, "It is most discouraging, and the future of baseball in Duluth is at stake... If the people do not patronize the game, it must be taken for granted they do not want it... In Winnipeg, several thousand people turned out to watch a losing team; in Duluth the receipts are too small to be mentioned."

But Duluth wasn't alone: attendance was down throughout the league and all teams were operating in the red.

On July 23, the league's schedule was modified to prevent the owners from experiencing "serious financial disaster." It was decided the season would end prematurely on August 15 instead of running until September 5.

Duluth and Winnipeg opposed the changes, but Superior was the only club close to breaking even financially. Duluth had dumped its more high-priced players since it was operating at about $1,000 over the league salary limit of $950. After the changes, Duluth carried just 10 players on its roster.

Only 100 people were in attendance as Duluth defeated Crookston, 6-5, at home on August 14. It was the only Northern League game played that day, the final curtain for the league's season.

Frank Sheppard stood as the only player for Duluth to have stayed with the team until the end of the season. Duluth concluded its second Northern League season with 53 wins and 21 losses -- a .716 winning percentage.

The Sox took the league pennant, but the future of the league remained in doubt.

Anthony Bush is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the general manager of the Duluth Padres amateur baseball club. He writes about sports history in the Twin Ports monthly on Zenith City Online. Catch up on Anthony's series on early professional baseball in Duluth and Superior at www.zenithcity.com.

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