No one knows exactly when baseball started in South Dakota. The earliest known game was in 1872 in Sioux Falls, according to newspaper reports. Sioux Falls defeated Vermillion 36-32. Future U.S. Senator Richard F. Pettigrew played for Sioux Falls.  

Baseball probably was played in Dakota Territory well before this — most likely by the soldiers stationed there, said Dan Brosz, the curator of collections with the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center.

By the time South Dakota became a state in 1889, baseball was a regular fixture, he said.

Standing in the baseball exhibit at the Cultural Heritage Center, with the sounds of an organ playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the background, Brosz showed off some of the photos and other artifacts of the time period.

“Every town had a team of some sort,” Brosz said. “A lot of the bigger towns, they actually had a field; a lot of smaller towns, they just played in a farmer’s field, gather enough people and play.”

And based on one of the old photographs on loan to the museum, it looks like baseball was popular on the reservations as well, he said.

Amateur games

Although baseball was still amateur play at the time, by the 1880s towns were actually hiring “ringers” to come work for them, Brosz said.

How the game was played was still in flux. Brosz pointed to one picture in which players were using a ball larger than a modern softball.

It’s fairly easy to explain baseball’s popularity.

“During the summertime, that’s what you did on Sundays — you go into town to watch the ball game. You weren’t going to work the fields,” he said. “It was entertainment, relaxation, a social gathering.”

That was most of the time. Some towns, such as Redfield, had blue laws prohibiting baseball on Sundays. People had to go out of town to enjoy the games.

Baseball was so popular then, that it became a source of civic boosterism. The team was a way to attract settlers to come and live in town, Brosz said.

Teams were a huge source of pride. In Volga, a cigar maker honored his town’s team, which won the regional championship that year. The cigar box had a photograph of the team on the front.

Brosz pointed to a poster hanging in the baseball exhibit. It described the events for a weeklong Fourth of July celebration in Huron in 1882, and baseball was a huge part of the celebration.

(Another event on the poster was an “Old Maids Race” in which unmarried women over 40 were invited to participate. The prize was one husband.)

Longtime baseball fan and Pierre resident Carla Sahr, meanwhile, had a slightly different take on what baseball was like in those early days.

“It was big-time gambling. Big time,” she said. “There were probably five or six teams in Pierre, and the businesses had a team. The courthouse had a team. It was betting.”

At this time, five or six passenger trains would run through Pierre every day.

“A team would hear of a good pitcher in Aberdeen. And he would bring him in on the train as a little secret. And they’d bet on the game, and here was this new pitcher,” Sahr said.

The other teams did this, too, she said.

However, Sahr agreed with Brosz on one important aspect.

“Baseball has always been a community thing because it’s not just one group. It’s been a community effort. The business people always hired the kids,” she said. “And lots and lots of volunteers.”

Semi-pro play

Sioux Falls fielded a professional team in 1885. But teams rarely lasted more than a season because of the lack of steady game schedules.

Still, more cities got into the game. One famous example was the Hub City Nine, founded in Aberdeen on May 14, 1889 by none other than L. Frank Baum, a store owner who later became a newspaper editor before writing the “Wizard of Oz” book series.

“He was their general manager, and did manage for a little while. But he was kind of the guy behind the scenes that wrote the contracts, got all the equipment, tried to find the games. He loved baseball, Baum did,” Brosz said.

According to information provided by the Cultural Heritage Center, organizers hired players for $50 a month and built a baseball park within two weeks. The first game was May 30.

The baseball park sat 500 people, according to information from the center. But the same source also said that more than 1,000 tickets were sold for the first game. However that worked out, fans were treated to an 18-16 victory over Redfield for that first game.

The team was successful — at least on the field.

“They traveled all around the state, just trying to play whoever would play them. They beat up on pretty much everyone. They went up to North Dakota and beat them up pretty badly,” Brosz said.

One rather odd anecdote from this time is that some people, rather than pay admission to the ballpark, would find a spot on a nearby building and watch the game from above. South Dakota magazine reported that a certain Lester J. Ives would sell seats on his roof for 10 cents.

The ball club fought back by putting up a latticework atop the fence to obscure the view, but Lester then installed high chairs on his roof. The team responded by stringing canvas above the lattice.

When that wasn’t enough, Henry Marple, the team manager, got a fire hose and aimed it at the roof. Marple was quoted as saying, “(If) the powerful stream [should] knock Ives & Co. from the rooftops and result in their death, over thirty of the stockholders, all businessmen, have guaranteed the management to stand by them and pay funeral expenses if required.”

Fortunately, it never got to that point, South Dakota magazine reported.

The team faced another obstacle, though: They were too good.

“The Hub City Nine never lost to any of their league opponents. Fans became bored, and game attendance dropped. With low ticket sales, owners lost revenue,” according to literature provided by the Cultural Heritage Center.

Baum tried to turn that around by organizing a double header against the St. Paul Indians on July 25.

“It was the event of the summer. Three special trains ran to accommodate the crowd, and local hotels filled with excited fans,” the literature from the museum stated.

The Hub City Nine lost both games.

After that, the team toured North Dakota. At this point it’s worth noting that this was the year that  both Dakotas gained statehood — on Nov. 2, 1889.

The Hub City Nine played the North Dakota cities of Jamestown, Bismarck, Mandan, Grand Forks and Fargo, winning every game and returning home to much fanfare as the unofficial champions of the Dakotas.

But luck did not stay with the team. A second double header, this time against the Minnesota Millers, did not break even financially. Bad weather kept attendance low, and opposing teams were few and far between. The team disbanded after only one season, according to literature from the Cultural Heritage Center.

Yet another team from the same year was the Sioux Falls Canaries. They were formed as in 1889 as the Yellow Kids, after a popular comic strip of that era, “The Yellow Kid.” Because of their yellow uniforms, the team earned the nickname “Canaries.” The team played until 1903, but the name was revived in 1930, and the team was successful until the team shut down after the 1941 season with the advent of World War II.

League play

By 1920, a professional league had formed, but it lasted for only four years. The South Dakota League featured teams from Aberdeen Huron, Madison, Miller, Mitchell, Redfield, Sioux Falls and Wessington Springs.

For the 1921 and 1922 seasons, North Dakota teams were included and the name changed to the Dakota League, In its final year, the North Dakota teams were no longer involved and the name reverted back to the South Dakota League.

South Dakota had several brushes with the Major Leagues. Jim Bottomley, who played for the  Mitchell Kernels in the South Dakota League, went on to the Cardinals and the Reds; Al Simmons rose up from the Aberdeen Grays in the Dakota League to play for the Philadelphia Athletics. Both of them went on to become Hall of Famers, Brosz said.

“A tiny, tiny, lower-level league developing two Hall of Famers is just amazing,” he said.

Still other major leaguers from the South Dakota League or the Dakota League include Larry Duff, George “Showboat” Fisher, Willie Ludolph, Frank Naleway and George Stueland, according to literature provided by the Cultural Heritage Center.

Other personalities

The South Dakota League wasn’t the only avenue to fame. There’s the case of Charles “Deacon” Phillippe, who was hired as a ringer for Redfield in the 1880s. Later, he played for the Louisville Colonels and the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1903, with the Pirates, he had the honor of pitching the first-ever World Series game against the Boston Americans, winning the game against Cy Young.

Also, several major league players would sometimes come to South Dakota in the off-season to play — either to pick up some extra cash, or for the love of the game, or both. One of the most famous examples was Oct. 19, 1922, when Babe Ruth played in Deadwood.

A less illustrious example of a brush with the majors came in the aftermath of the infamous 1919 “Black Sox” scandal. Swede Risberg, a shortstop banned from the major leagues for his role in the scandal, played for Sioux Falls and Watertown which weren’t affiliated with the majors.

There’s another fairly well-known player who benefited because South Dakota wasn’t affiliated with the majors. Satchel Paige eventually made it to the majors, but in the 1930s, the big leagues banned players of color. In that era,  Paige played for Bismarck — and Brosz believes that he pitched his first game for Bismarck at Hyde Stadium in Pierre.

“I can’t confirm that. But I know he pitched at Hyde Stadium,” he said.

Then there was the native South Dakotan who also made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame — in an entirely different way. Amanda Clement was born in Hudson and got her start playing baseball with her brothers if the team was short of boys. She also called her friends’ games as an umpire, and in 1904, at the age of 16, she debuted at a semi-pro game in Iowa when the scheduled umpire failed to show.

She quickly became popular and was soon in demand throughout the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, earning a spot in the history books as the first paid female umpire in the United States.

More info

The literature accompanying the baseball exhibit at the Cultural Heritage Center stressed the importance of baseball in the early days of the state.

“Going to the ballpark cemented community identity and pride as towns challenged each other on the diamond. Non-playing fans enjoyed the game as much as the players on the field. Baseball reflected the wider social and economic world in which the game matured. Just as corporate America became more professional and organized, so did baseball,” the literature stated.

It’s also worth noting that the Cultural Heritage Center will host two programs about baseball history. This first is at 2 p.m. this Saturday and will focus on the former Northern League, which included South Dakota and featured players such as future Major Leaguers Hank Aaron, Jim Palmer, Lou Brock and Willie Stargell.

The second program, as part of the Cultural Heritage Center’s connection with the Smithsonian Museum, will be at 2 p.m. June 5. The Smithsonian-created program will discuss Hank Aaron focusing not only on Aaron and his record 755 home runs, but also his role as a civil rights icon.

There is no fee to attend these programs, but regular admission fees apply to visit the baseball exhibit and museum galleries.

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