The Blue Grass League in Lexington
For many Lexington Legends fans, twentieth century baseball is but a distant memory. Nevertheless, modern Lexingtonians who love the game might not be surprised to learn that their ancestors enjoyed the color, drama, and excitement of professional baseball in central Kentucky many decades ago. Here’s an introduction to the “Lexington Legends” of yesteryear!
THE BGL IS BORN
In the spring of 1908 the longtime dream of central Kentucky baseball fans finally materialized: a fully professional league playing a regular schedule of games from April to September. The Blue Grass League’s arrival was hotly anticipated. The nearby metropolis of Louisville had enjoyed major league status until 1900 and continued to thrive as a minor league franchise. Western Kentucky cities competed in a fast minor circuit known as the Kitty League. For Lexington and its neighbors, amateur or semipro baseball was no longer good enough.
The 1908 Blue Grass League consisted of six teams: the Frankfort Lawmakers, Lawrenceburg Distillers, Lexington Thoroughbreds, Richmond Pioneers, Shelbyville Millers, and Versailles Aristocrats. (After 1908 Lexington’s nickname would be shortened to the Colts.) The BGL was launched as an experiment, but its backers saw quickly that they had not underestimated fan interest.
Frankfort won the 1908 pennant, but the Thoroughbreds finished second, and Lexingtonians filled Belt Line Park, near the present site of Applebee’s Park, to watch them. They liked the look of Tommy Sheets, the entrepreneur/athlete who owned, managed, and played for the team. They cheered enthusiastically for pitcher Milton McCormick, whose bid for a perfect game against Richmond was stymied only by an outfielder’s misplay; hard-hitting first sacker Charles Wahoo; James “Polar Bear” Barnett, a cool customer at the hot corner; and aptly named catcher Eddie Crouch, who confounded Frankfort by throwing out three would-be basestealers at third base to preserve a shutout.
When it became clear that the original schedule of 50 games for each team would not nearly slake the public’s thirst for baseball, the schedule was reworked in midseason to include an extra 20 contests. Only last-place Versailles failed to prosper. When the Aristocrats gave up the ghost in July, a team was organized in Winchester to complete their schedule.
Baseball in 1908 had no rival as America’s most popular team sport. Its rules were no different than those of today’s game. The loosely wound “dead ball” of that era, however, rendered power less important than strategy and clever baserunning. Few batters had the brute strength to propel a 1908 ball over the fence, and the preferred hitting style emphasized bat control, punching the ball precisely to the areas between the fielders. The single umpire kept the game moving, and most of the contests, which began at 3:30, were completed in less than two hours.
In 1909 the BGL, after a year of operation as an independent league, was admitted officially to Organized Baseball when it joined the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Under the National Association, minor leagues were classified A, B, C, or D according to the population of their member cities. The BGL was designated a Class D league and adopted a 120-game schedule.
BGL teams were stocked almost entirely with Kentuckians or players from neighboring states. Whatever the term “Class D” might imply, the BGL was fast company, and it took an exceptional ballplayer to stick. Most of the men who tried out were not signed, and box scores are replete with the names of players whose professional careers were over after just a month, a week, or a game. Men who couldn’t cut the mustard at bat or in the field, or who drank to excess or were unable to get along with their teammates, were quickly replaced.
Because rosters numbered only 12 or 13 players, teams sought all-around athletes who could play several positions. Most clubs carried three pitchers and expected them to work all nine innings of every start, plus fill in as outfielders on days they weren’t taking their turn on the mound. If a doubleheader was scheduled on a pitcher’s day, he hurled both games. In 1909 Lexington’s George Robbins, knocked out of the box by Winchester in the second inning on Sunday, July 4, redeemed himself the following day by throwing two nine-inning shutouts in two cities! After whitewashing Paris in Paris in the morning game of a holiday doubleheader, Robbins repeated the feat when the teams met again that afternoon in Lexington. All in a day’s work!
Each of the BGL clubs was locally controlled. None had a major league affiliation, for the “farm systems” of today did not exist. Radio, television, and the internet hadn’t been imagined, much less invented. While a team made money from advertising and concessions in its ballpark, or the occasional sale of a player’s contract to a team in a higher league, its foremost source of revenue was ticket sales. Competitive teams drew well. Persistent losers attracted few fans and went bankrupt.
Lexington was a special case. Its population of 35,000 was much larger than that of the BGL’s other cities, and although support for the renamed Colts eroded during a subpar 1909 season, the club continued to show a profit.
The 1909 Colts had a future big leaguer in outfielder Al Kaiser, but Kaiser’s play did make up for the defection of Polar Bear Barnett to Paris, which had taken Lawrenceburg’s place in the BGL. The Colts had trouble fielding and couldn’t seem to score runs. They were no-hit by Paris righthander Jack Scheneberg, but even this loss was less humiliating than what befell them on May 10, when Fred Toney of the Winchester Hustlers held them hitless until the Hustlers pushed across a run to beat them in the bottom of the 17th inning. Toney struck out 19 and walked just one in this masterpiece, which is still the longest no-hit game in the history of Organized Baseball.
Winchester, led by Toney and catcher-manager Newton “Daddy” Horn, would outlast Richmond to capture the 1909 BGL pennant. Lexington would finish 26 games out.
On August 4 the Colts, desperate after having won just one of their previous 17 games, signed a green but eager young infielder from northern Kentucky named Jim Viox. With Viox leading off and playing third base, Lexington defeated Frankfort, Winchester, and Richmond in quick succession, signaling an immediate end to the team’s misfortunes. Eventually manager Sheets moved Viox to shortstop, and the Colts played solid baseball the rest of the year.
Two years of team ownership, business and field management, and regular outfield play had sapped Tommy Sheets’ energy. He needed a partner, and in 1910 he found one in fiery Hogan Yancey, a former Kentucky (now Transylvania) University athlete who’d played six seasons in the high minors. Yancey purchased part ownership in the Colts and assumed field management duties. His first decision as manager was to install himself as the Colts’ center fielder and cleanup hitter. Sheets continued to handle the club’s business affairs and play right field.
This arrangement worked well, for the Colts improved dramatically in 1910. They might have challenged Paris for the pennant had not star moundsman Frank “Bugs” Edington jumped the club in the heat of the race, declaring that he would rather “plow corn and hoe potatoes” than play baseball. “Edington was going good for a man just breaking into professional baseball, and he looks good for better company in a few years, provided he treats his contracts with the requisite good faith,” tut-tutted the Lexington Herald. Perhaps heeding this admonition, the prodigal twirler slunk back to the Colts after two weeks in the cornrows. True to the Herald’s forecast, Edington ascended directly from Lexington to the big leagues in June 1912.
Lexington’s second-place finishes in 1910 and 1911 kept the turnstiles humming, but other cities were not as fortunate. In Shelbyville, not even the stellar play of center fielder Charles “Casey” Stengel could offset three seasons of losing, and the franchise was moved to Maysville in August 1910. Attendance declined in Frankfort, Richmond, and Winchester when their teams dropped out of contention. Interest remained keen, however, in Paris, whose powerful Bourbonites dominated the league. It was rumored that Paris lured star players with under-the-table payments that circumvented the BGL’s salary cap.
Jim Viox was Lexington’s sparkplug and drawing card. Just 5-7 and stockily built, Viox could hit, run, field, and throw, and his heroics led the Colts to victory after victory in 1910 and 1911. In the spring of 1912 Viox earned a spot on the roster of another second-place team, the National League Pittsburgh Pirates.
Viox played a reserve role in the Smoky City that season, filling in occasionally for Bobby Byrne at third base, Honus Wagner at shortstop, and Art Butler at second base. But in June 1913 the Sporting News reported, “It is certain that Butler will get no further chance to play second base unless Viox drops dead.” Viox, praised the Sporting News, “is a terrific hitter [and] and a nifty fielder. He is a very strong chap, and he gets a lot of heft into his smashes. He is also speedy on the bases, and altogether a mighty valuable man.”
Viox, at age 22, was now the double-play partner of Wagner, the greatest shortstop ever to play the game. The kid infielder who electrified Lexington audiences for more than two seasons was the best position player the Blue Grass League would produce.
A league-wide surge in offense helped boost attendance in 1911. The new cork-centered ball introduced nationally by Spalding Sporting Goods traveled farther than its predecessor when hit squarely. Predictably, batters began to dig in and swing from the heels. All the BGL parks sported outfield advertising signs that promised money and merchandise to any player who could hit a ball off or over them. Now those prizes were being claimed. Charles “War Horse” Ellis of Lexington clouted 13 home runs, more than any BGL player had hit before.
In the century’s second decade, however, an American with 25 cents to spend on entertainment had options other than baseball. The rising popularity of motion picture and vaudeville shows hurt the minor leagues, which, like the BGL, typically operated on a shoestring. 1912 saw the Winchester franchise transferred to Nicholasville, where it foundered, and thence to Mt. Sterling. Frankfort could barely meet its payroll despite a pennant-winning team led by the charismatic “Double-Os,” outfielders Ovid Nicholson and Ollie Gfroerer.
Although Lexington was not a contender in 1912, its fans still came out, especially to watch the wonderful battery of pitcher Charles Vallandingham and catcher Ralph Vanlandingham. Hogan Yancey, however, relinquished the reins of the Colts in midseason. It occurred to ballplayer Yancey that his greatest aptitude was for arguing with umpires, and, looking ahead to life after baseball, he decided to become a lawyer. In the summer of 1912 he was appointed Lexington city attorney. Yancey would later serve two terms as Fayette County attorney, and in 1924 Lexington voters elected him mayor.
THE BGL DIES
After the 1912 season ended, BGL president Thomas M. Russell was convinced that the league could survive only by expanding to the population centers of northern Kentucky. Against the advice of Yancey and Sheets, Russell announced the BGL’s intention to operate franchises in Covington and Newport. The Cincinnati Reds, however, would not tolerate competition on their doorstep, and the National Association, under pressure from the major leagues, cast out the BGL and declared its players free agents. The glorious Blue Grass League, unwilling to continue as an outlaw circuit, disbanded.
The unexpected demise of the Blue Grass League in March 1913 didn’t keep Lexington out of Organized Baseball for long. With the ink barely dry on the BGL’s death warrant, Lexington co-owners Tommy Sheets and Hogan Yancey secured the admittance of the city’s beloved Colts to the Ohio State League. Like the Blue Grass League, the OSL was a Class D circuit that had been operating since 1908.
The BGL Maysville Rivermen, renamed the Burley Cubs, were also admitted to the reorganized OSL, which had added a pair of West Virginia teams, the Charleston Senators and Huntington Blue Sox, to pre-existing Buckeye State franchises in Chillicothe, Hamilton, Ironton, and Portsmouth. For Lexington the new arrangement meant increased travel. The BGL Colts had never had to journey farther than the 60 miles from Lexington to Maysville, so players rarely spent a night away from home. Now Maysville was Lexington’s nearest opponent, with Charleston and Chillicothe over 150 miles distant. The 1912 Colts rode to away games in automobiles, but in 1913 they would travel by train. Only the most dedicated fans would now accompany the team to away games.
For the OSL, the 1913 season began inauspiciously. With the exception of Lexington, all the OSL franchises were located in river-straddling cities whose ballparks had been damaged by catastrophic spring flooding. The Colts, aided by dry facilities which permitted a normal spring practice schedule, got out of the gate fast and battled the Chillicothe Babes for the league lead throughout May and June. Fan enthusiasm was further whetted by the team’s snazzy new home uniforms, which, observed the Herald’s Jacques DeJust, “glare up like the brass knob on the post office flagstaff at noon hour on a hot August day.”
Both Sheets and Yancey had now retired from field duty. The new Lexington manager was Woodford County’s Hub Dawson, a hard-charging catcher-first baseman who had tarnished his reputation as a sportsman by physically attacking an American Association umpire a few seasons earlier. Dawson was “a man of quick temper and easily aggravated,” according to sportswriter Ben May, but the ever contentious Yancey recognized a kindred spirit and lured Dawson back to Kentucky.
Dawson’s toughness and competitive spirit were legendary. In a June contest against Maysville he clouted a two-run homer off future big leaguer Lee Dashner in the first inning. After he assumed his defensive position at first base, however, a hard-hit liner shattered one of his fingers. Undaunted, Dawson played the entire game and recorded 16 putouts and 2 assists as Lexington won 8-3.
When he wasn’t handling first base, Dawson caught a fine pitching staff anchored by veterans Charles Vallandingham and Harry Camnitz, former Western Kentucky collegiate standout Leslie Woodrum, and 6-6 teenage stringbean Ed Monroe, a future New York Yankee who formed, with the 6-5 Dawson, what was touted as baseball’s “longest” battery.
Under Dawson the Colts hustled, which exacted a physical toll but paid off in wins, at least for a while. The game of June 27 was typically crowd-pleasing. Facing Huntington’s invincible Al Mamaux, who would win 21 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in both 1915 and 1916, Lexington trailed 4-0 after 8 innings. In the 9th the Colts pushed across a couple of runs with aggressive baserunning before, with 2 out, pitcher Camnitz tied the contest with a base-clearing triple. Then Camnitz stilled the Blue Sox bats until Lexington plated the winning tally in the bottom of the 11th. “The finish of the game was worth going miles to see,” reported the Herald’s Russell Wharton. “When the crisis came it seemed like every man on the team forgot about broken fingers, lame legs and busted ankles.”
By August, however, the Colts had broken down. A frustrated Dawson continued to play but relinquished his managerial post. When the team tumbled out of pennant contention, the streetcar company that served League Park (off North Broadway near the present site of Applebee’s Park) ceased its late afternoon service, obliging fans to walk back into town. With only their most diehard rooters continuing to come to the park, the Colts finished the 1913 season, which had begun with so much promise, in fifth place.
To stimulate interest in the 1914 campaign, the Colts treated Lexington fans to a preseason exhibition game with the Cleveland Naps, perennial American League pennant contenders. The Naps, as they had promised to do, used their entire regular lineup. Lexington fans especially enjoyed watching “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, who banged out 3 hits, and Napoleon Lajoie, the great second baseman whose star shone so brightly that the team had adopted his nickname. Cleveland won 6-2, but the game was competitive and raised hopes that the 1914 Colts would be something special.
Hub Dawson was back for another season in a Lexington uniform, but managing the team was another Woodford County native, Howard Guyn. Unlike Dawson, Guyn was an even-tempered field boss who neither baited umpires nor allowed his players to do so. Although Guyn believed in discipline (he would enforce an 11:30 curfew), he was a benevolent taskmaster. He would manage the Lexington team until the end of its life in the Ohio State League, after which the Herald declared, “No manager ever lived who was better liked by his players than Howard Guyn.”
Guyn played second base and pitched occasionally (and effectively). The team’s lineup was solid at every position. Lexington had, in Skip Crouch, Howard Cain, and Benjamin Franklin Goodman, what might have been the hardest hitting outfield in all of Class D ball, and Dawson was still a dangerous batter. All the infielders (Guyn, first baseman Frank McEvoy, shortstop Mike Konnick, and third baseman Bill White) could field and hit. Moreover, no team was more colorful. In addition to White, the Colts featured pitchers John Black, Harry Green, and Red Hart, plus utilitymen Jim Brown and Fred Blackwell! Lexington fans, sensing a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, returned in droves.
Once again the Colts displayed early speed. They spent all of June in or near first place while showing a flair for the dramatic. Konnick won a game in Ironton with a towering smash that dented a distant outfield advertising sign. Informed that he had won 100 loaves of bread for hitting the sign, the Colt shortstop instructed the bakery to distribute the loaves to needy families. A week later, after the Colts lost the first game of a home doubleheader with Chillicothe, a spectator waved a five dollar bill at Goodman as he strode to bat in the second game, promising to give him the banknote if he hit a home run. Goodman obliged, igniting a 6-run inning and a Lexington victory. The fan paid up.
While the turnstiles hummed in Lexington, the league as a whole was in trouble. The OSL began the 1914 season with 8 teams, but half of them were broke by July, leaving only Charleston, Chillicothe, Lexington, and Portsmouth to compete to the finish. The bankrupt teams’ players were dispersed to the surviving clubs, but when the Colts were not awarded the man they coveted, outfielder Ralph Shafer, the team seemed to lose its competitive fire. After a half season of .600 ball, the Guynmen limped home at a .400 pace and finished with the worst record of any of the surviving clubs. That the dispute over Shafer was finally settled in the Colts’ favor in August seemed to make little difference. Once again the team had tantalized its fans, only to disappoint them.
The OSL began 1915 with a revived Ironton franchise and a new entry in Frankfort, which had been without professional baseball since the demise of the BGL. Frankfort nicknamed its team the Old Taylors in honor of its players’ favorite beverage. But while the Old Taylors staggered home to a fifth place finish, Lexington played good ball all year and would have won the championship but for the always powerful Portsmouth, led by future big league stars Austin McHenry and William “Pickles” Dillhoefer.
Lexington fans were saddened when fireballing Ross Elliott, “The Tennessee Walter Johnson,” developed a sore arm that obliged him to return to his home in the Volunteer State. Another injury was even more damaging. Early in May, manager Guyn changed places with prize acquisition Ralph Shafer, moving to left field so Shafer could play second base. Shafer and Cynthiana-born shortstop Hervey McClellan formed a superb double-play tandem. But Shafer’s banner season ended prematurely when he broke his right leg sliding into home plate in Chillicothe on June 22. Shafer, who had appeared in a big league game for Pittsburgh in 1914, would not play major league baseball again, while McClellan would spend several years with the Chicago White Sox.
The 1915 Colts featured no fewer than 4 former University of Kentucky stalwarts. They were pitchers Ad Thomas and Jim Park, third baseman J.A. “Biscuit” Reed, and right fielder Floyd “Rasty” Wright. Wright was a speed merchant and defensive standout whose favorite play was to throw out batters at first base on what they thought to be base hits to right. Park was so accomplished a product that he was pitching for the American League St Louis Browns before the 1915 season ended.
The Ohio State League, like most of the Class D leagues of that epoch, was an enterprise which owed its continued existence to the extraordinary resourcefulness and energy of a handful of civic-minded, baseball-loving businessmen. Revenues were so tight that every rainout was a disaster. With motion pictures and vaudeville carving out ever-larger wedges of the entertainment pie, baseball struggled to stay alive in minor league cities across America. When, in July 1916, 3 of the 6 OSL franchises declared themselves unable to operate, the league was finally forced to disband. Whether Lexington could have won the 1916 pennant will never be known. The second-place Colts were gaining on Portsmouth when competition was suspended.
Minor league baseball, ailing by mid-decade, would barely survive the social disruptions caused by America’s entry into World War I. Of the 44 minor leagues that started the 1914 season, only one, the 8-club International league, was still operating in August 1918. Happily, the game’s appeal survived the war, and after hostilities ceased the minors began, league by league, to rebuild.
THE BGL IS RESURRECTED
In 1921 the popularity of the Reos, a crack Lexington semipro team, inspired a group of entrepreneurs to organize another professional circuit in central Kentucky. The revived Blue Grass League, recognized and granted Class D status by the National Association, commenced play in April 1922 with teams in Cynthiana, Lexington, Maysville, Mt Sterling, Paris, and Winchester. The new BGL began cautiously, scheduling games only on Thursdays and Sundays, but added, in response to fan demand, regular Saturday games in midseason.
The Reos became the Studebakers when player-business manager-part owner Jesse Morton signed a contract with a rival auto dealer. “That name Studebakers might be all right for a baseball team, but we’ve got to write it into one-column headlines all summer,” complained Herald columnist J.A. Estes. “But then the team might have been named Pierce-Arrows or Duesenbergs or Frontenacs, any of which would have been worse!”
Fans flocked to see the Studes, as the Herald quickly dubbed them. The atmosphere at the ballpark was so lively that the director of the motion picture Crossroads of Lexington chose to shoot the film’s climactic sequence there before the Studes’ game with the Paris Mammoths on July 2. The baseball scenes helped make the film a hit when it was released later that summer.
Unfortunately the Studes, although loaded with talent, ended their season in turmoil. In August Morton got rid of several fan favorites, including southpaw strikeout sensation Claude Monhollen and first baseman-manager John “Pat” Devereux. After 6 regulars quit the team en masse on October 2, Lexington forfeited its final 3 games to finish in last place.
Perhaps to change its luck, the team restored its Reos nickname in 1923. Madison County’s Jim Park, the former American League twirler who had returned to Kentucky to play ball and practice law, purchased part ownership and agreed to act as business manager. These Reos featured a trio of former college stars in pitcher Paul “Pete” Cooper, first baseman Oakley Brown, and shortstop Albert B. “Happy” Chandler, plus crowd pleasers like portly, bespectacled flychaser Rush Meadowsand scrappy third baseman Jim Hurst, the pride of Quicksand, Kentucky.
The high point of the Reos’ 1923 season may have been their August 2 contest with the Mt Sterling Essex in Lexington. Mt Sterling’s manager and pitching ace was shine ball artist Hod Eller, who had won 20 games for the 1919 Cincinnati Reds, plus 2 more in the World Series. Before the game Lexington’s Jack Ries approached Eller and said, “Hod, I would like to pitch against you today. I feel lucky and believe I can trim you.” But Lexington skipper Doug Harbison had other plans, sending Hurst to the mound for his first professional start. The converted infielder did the trimming as the Reos beat Eller and the Essex 5-1. Harbison, playing second base, scored 2 runs and drove in another, and Meadows homered.
But there were too few of these triumphant afternoons. Under Harbison the team was an also-ran once again as the Cynthiana Cobblers (named in honor of manager Bill Schumaker) edged out the Pat Devereux-led Winchester Dodgers to win the 1923 pennant.
Maysville and Mt Sterling dropped out of the BGL in 1924. Lexington fans hoped that now, with just 4 clubs left in the league, their team might finally deliver a championship. A brand new ballpark, Stivers Field, at the intersection of West Fourth and Blackburn streets, fueled their optimism, as did the announcement that the team’s new manager would be erstwhile hometown hero Jim Viox.
Viox, the great Lexington Colt shortstop on 1909-11, was now 33 years old. After 5 seasons of major league glory he had continued to earn a living playing ball in the Class A American Association and Class B South Atlantic League. The opportunity both to manage and to return to his native Kentucky appealed to Viox. And if 15 years of professional competition had left him with too many spike wounds to cover the middle of the infield effectively, he could still hit, field, and throw well enough to play right field.
Grizzled veteran that he was, Viox was not Lexington’s elder statesman. That honor belonged to left fielder Charles “War Horse” Ellis. Born in Tennessee in 1884, Ellis had journeyed north to play for Winchester in 1909. After helping the Hustlers win the 1909 pennant, Ellis married a local girl and made Winchester his permanent home. But the high-spirited slugger didn’t get along with Newton “Daddy” Horn, Winchester’s paternalistic manager, and sought his release in June 1910, after which he signed with Lexington. He was still playing left field in Lexington in 1924.
Ellis, observed Ben May, “always hits the ball hard. He not infrequently puts one over the fence for a homer, and two-baggers are even more ordinary.” The War Horse derived special satisfaction from hitting Winchester pitching. An exasperated Winchester fan, bottling magnate G.L. Wainscott, offered two dozen bottles of his popular soft drink Roxa-Kola to any Winchester pitcher who struck Ellis out. Not many of them collected.
1924 would be the BGL’s swan song. Winchester’s last-place finish, while pleasing to Ellis and the Lexington rooters, all but killed fan interest there, and Lexington itself had little to crow about. The (once again renamed) Studebakers finished third.
Lexington brought back Jim Hurst but wasn’t able to sign his brother Don Hurst, who led the BGL in batting and home runs while pitching and playing the outfield for Paris. Lexington shortstop Jimmy Inman had the satisfaction on converting one of Don Hurst’s hard liners into a triple play on June 19, but such moments were infrequent. Paris, doubly inspired by Don Hurst’s batting and the acquittal of star lefthander Ray Miner in his midseason murder trial, won the 1924 pennant. (In 1932 Don Hurst would drive in 143 runs for the Philadelphia Phillies to lead the National League.)
The 1924 Studebakers were, with the exception of a 2-month entry in the ill-starred Mountain State League in 1954, Lexington’s last twentieth century representatives in Organized Baseball. Lexington’s 1908-1924 teams provided hundreds of exciting and dramatic games, but produced no championships. Hindsight reveals a pattern of hopes raised, then dashed.
The 2001 Lexington Legends gave the city something it had never had, a championship-caliber team competing in a fine professional league. Club officials and fans hoped that 2001 was merely the first of many more years of good baseball in the Bluegrass.