Dayton's Pro Baseball History
By Jack Carlson and Marc Katz
Baseball and Dayton will be forever linked from the time the Dayton Dragons began play in 2000, as a Midwest League Class A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
The Dragons have set attendance standards throughout the minor leagues and through their first 19 seasons, sent more than 90 players to the big leagues.
Of course, there was baseball in Dayton before the Dragons, starting in 1884 and lasting – with a few dark seasons – through 1951, when the Cleveland Indians disbanded the franchise here.
Some highlights and lowlights of Dayton’s first half-century of pro baseball:
More than a dozen teams playing in at least five different parks called Dayton home, from the 1884 Dayton Gem Citys to the Dayton Indians in 1946-51.
There were also the 1920 Dayton Marcos, part of the Negro National League, more of a major league than a minor league, but lasting only one season here. The rest of the time the team was in operation, it played on a more minor league level.
It took Dayton 49 years to reestablish a team, which built – along with city and county help – Fifth Third Field in downtown Dayton, after Mandalay Sports and Entertainment bought the franchise and helped the Reds move from Rockford, Ill., to Dayton. The deal was finalized in 1999; the team was ready to play in 2000.
What happened nearly a half century before? Well, Minnie Minoso, a near Hall of Famer, played for the Dayton Indians in 1948, hitting .525 in 11 games. Pitcher Ryne Duren – famous for his fastball and thick eye glasses – was 17-8 with the 1951 Indians, the last team in town prior to the Dragons. Duren had a 2.73 ERA as well.
Before that, Hall of Fame infielder Billy Herman played for the Dayton Aviators
Way, way before that, the Gem Citys proved you could win and fail at the same time, capturing the Ohio Association championship, but lasting just one season financially.
Association Park, where the Gem Citys played, was on the Southwest corner of Brown and Stewart Streets.
Now a parking lot, the land and stadium were sold to John Patterson of the National Cash Register Co., who built NCR building No. 1 on the property.
A new team came along in 1885 and played in a park just across the Miami River off West Fifth Street just south of the railroad bridge, which survives. Riverside Park, where a Sinclair College building sits today, does not.
Part of the problem was fans could watch games from the railroad bridge
Of course, it did not cost as much to operate a team in those days. Al Beebe, a tailor at the old Beckel Hotel, was team president when a new franchise was started, and he along with every officer and board member contributed $52.50 toward the league assessment.
All the team needed was a place to play and players. A park was found just 10 days prior to the start of the season on National Street, just west of King Street. Today, that would be Home Ave. and James McGee Blvd.
The park built there from April 27-May 4 sat 1,500, with no roof, and was called Western Association Park.
On July 3, 1898, every player was arrested and fined $!0 for playing on a Sunday following a complaint by Second Lutheran Church Rev. E. Lee Fleck.
The team paid the fines.
The team moved to Fairview Park.
The league went broke and was out of business following the 1901 season as the league president took off with the treasury. He was found; the money was not. There was no pro baseball in Dayton in 1902.
A major league game was played in Dayton on June 8, 1902, between the Cleveland Blue Birds and Baltimore Orioles (managed by John McGraw) because Cleveland continued to have Blue Laws, prohibiting games on Sunday, while Dayton had relaxed those rules.
McGraw was not with the team as he was getting ready to sign a contract to manage the New York Giants. Still, 4,876 showed up to watch the Orioles best Cleveland 6-2.
In 1907, the monthly assessment per team in the Central League was increased from $150 to $175.
Minor league baseball came and went in the years after that, then came a few glory years at North Side Field, and the following excerpts sponsored by the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library in 1992:
By Roland L. Larke: The 1928 Season at North Side Field
After an absence of 11 years, minor league baseball was revived in Dayton with the restoration of the Central League. The renowned Branch Rickey of the St. Louis Cardinals felt that Dayton fans would support professional baseball and established a farm club to be called the Dayton Aviators.
Rickey called on men with backgrounds of minor league experience to serve as officials. Phil Bartelme became president, and Rickey himself was vice president. Ernest Lanigan as secretary had impressive credentials with years of service as a press writer with such organizations as the New York Press and Cleveland Leader, the Philadelphia Symphony and Washington and Lee University.
Ruth/Gehrig 1928 Exibition
On a cool but clear October day in 1928, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig stopped in Dayton at North Side Field on a barnstorming trip across the country. Ruth became a member of the Thompson Yellow Jacket Team, Dayton amateur champions, renamed the “Bustin’ Babes.” Gehrig was a member of McCall’s, the city’s semi-pro champs, the “Larruping Lous.”
Both played first base and pitched. Gehrig hit four consecutive homers, the first over the fence in the farthest part of the park in center field, one of the longest in the park’s history.
In an interview with Carl Finke, the Dayton Daily News sports columnist, before the game, Ruth said, “Say Finke, can you find out what kind of baseballs they are going to use in today’s game?
“Over in Columbus they had 50-cent balls that you couldn’t hit hard. And then the fans were disappointed because Lou and myself didn’t hit any home runs. The fans want to see us knock them out of the lot and they are disappointed when we fail. If they use cheap balls today I just won’t play.”
It looked like a dismal day for the Babe, but his lone homer in the eighth inning with the bases loaded made it a complete day for him and the fans.
In 1929 Bill Knelbelkamp of the Louisville Cardinals and owner of Churchill Downs took over the Dayton professional baseball franchise as the St. Louis Cardinals switched their interests to Ft. Wayne, also of the Central League.
The Knelbelkamp family of Louisville, Kentucky, continued to support their minor league Aviators in Dayton in 1930. The veteran American League star pitcher, Nick Cullop, a farmer out of Chilhowie, Virginia, became manager after a season as a pitcher on the staff of the 1929 Aviators. Frederick Howell, prominent Dayton attorney, who would become an outstanding exponent of the sport of baseball in Dayton, became club president, in 1930.
Because of the financial insecurity of the time, the Central League again disbanded in 1931 and Dayton was without minor league baseball. However, quality baseball was sustained at North Side Field with the support of Dayton sporting goods store owner John Shroyer’s promotional activity. He brought night baseball to Dayton with the House of David’s portable lighting system and exhibition games with major National League teams.
John Shroyer’s passion for baseball is reflected in this article by Jim Nichols:
"Shroyer’s efforts to bring major league teams to Dayton are shown in these letters of response from prominent officials.
"John Shroyer, Dayton sporting goods store owner who became the leading sponsor of local sports teams in the early 30s, kept the interest in quality baseball alive in the city in 1931 when there was a temporary suspension of professional Central League play. With his semi-pro team of local stars, he introduced night baseball to the city when the bearded House-of-David team brought their transportable lighting system to North Side Field for an exhibition. In ensuing years he was instrumental in the promotion of exhibition games with major league teams of the National League such as the Phillies, New York Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals."
Big city New York scribes following the Giants got a big kick out of their team playing in a field fenced in the midst of a cornfield and potato patches.
The determination of Ducky Holmes to install minor league baseball in Dayton began in 1932. As an independent owner and manager he fielded a team at North Side Field, appropriately called the Ducks. They played in the Central League, a league stumbling for stability. On June 21 the Akron owners moved their franchise to Canton. On July 21 Canton and South Bend disbanded which left a four-team league. The remaining teams were Dayton, Youngstown, Erie and Fort Wayne.
The ensuing season was a fairly successful one, with Dayton winning parts of a split season and the league championship.
The antics of feisty Ducky Holmes stirred the interest of fans. Most famous was
his managing the team perched on a light pole after being ejected from a game in Fort Wayne.
In 1933 after the demise of the old Central League, the Dayton Ducks became a member of the eight-team, Mid-Atlantic League. Besides the Ducks, the teams were: the Johnstown Pennsylvania Johnnies; four teams from West Virginia: the Beckley Black Knights, Charleston Senators, Huntington Boosters, and the Wheeling Stogies; and then three Ohio teams: Zanesville Greys, Springfield Chicks and Dayton Ducks.
Outstanding figures of the 1933 season included pitcher Johnny Vander Meer of double-no-hit fame, who was starting his professional career.
Dutch Ussat, veteran Dayton amateur, semi-pro, minor league infielder with major league experience with Cleveland, took time off of his job at Delco to substitute briefly at second base.
Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh Pirates – Ducks Exhibition
In 1933, the Pittsburgh Pirates were in Dayton for their experience at night baseball with the Ducks. Honus Wagner, the all-time great player and coach with the Pirates, complained about the poor visibility in the pre-game twilight practice. Honus continued to grumble even though it was explained to him that the poor visibility after sunset was characteristic of night baseball and that visibility would improve as darkness deepened. No further proof was forthcoming since the gathering clouds opened and the game was rained out.
The Dayton Amateur Baseball Commission, Incorporated, was commissioned by the State of Ohio in 1927. Judge Frederick Howell was one of its founders. Although there were some rules regulating player participation prior to that time. A two-year waiting period was required of pros before returning to amateur status.
Amateur and semi-pro baseball teams in the city of Dayton used North Side Field when it was not in use by the minor league professional clubs. During the 1920s and early 1930s Dayton’s Amateur Baseball Commission organized amateur teams into leagues such as the American, National and Federal Leagues. Suburban and church leagues were also formed.
The larger Dayton industries sponsored semi-pro clubs who also were formed into leagues. Most outstanding was the league consisting of McCalls, Delco, Frigidaire, NCR, Wright Field and Inland. The most unique semi-pro league was the General Motors Oldchebuipon league, the name derived from General Motors cars.
House of David – Shroyers Exhibition – 1931
Night baseball was introduced to Dayton fans when the House of David team from Benton Harbor, Michigan, erected their portable lights at the North Side Field for a game with the William A. Shroyer & Son’s semi-pro team. The House of David team, a group of talented long-haired, bearded players, introduced the novelty of baseball under artificial lighting in many American major and minor league parks during the summer of 1931. There was mixed reaction from baseball followers to the effects of illuminating a ballpark with eight sets of bucket lights on poles powered by a 200,000-watt generator in this game.
By the end of WWII, Hudson Field was built on West Third Street, just below the Veteran’s Administration grounds.
That was where the last pro teams in Dayton played – until the Dragons arrived.