Minor League history: Michigan State League

Through the decades, there have been seven leagues that adopted the name Michigan State League. The first one ran two seasons from 1889 through 1890. The second run was during the 1895 season. In 1897 the third edition lasted only one season. The 1902 run was the fourth one. From 1902, it lasted nine years before the next edition saw the light; that edition would last for four seasons 1911-1914. Another one year run was in 1926 and the final edition lasted only two years: 1940-1941.

Cities represented 1889-1890:

Flint, MI: Flint Flyers 1889-1890
Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids Shamrocks 1889-1890
Greenville, MI: Greenville 1889
Jackson, MI: Jackson Jaxons 1889
Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Kazoos 1889
Lansing, MI: Lansing Senators 1889-1890
Manistee, MI: Manistee 1890
Muskegon, MI: Muskegon 1890
Port Huron, MI: PortHuron 1890
Saginaw, MI: Saginaw 1889

Unlike many other leagues of those days, the stats of the 1889-1890 Michigan State League are still available. When Jackson and Saginaw ended the season in a virtual tie with Jackson having a 60-37 record and Saginaw a 59-40 record, Jackson played some of its make-up games to get enough victories to clinch the pennant. But Saginaw protested and MSL president Curtis sustained the protest and awarded the championship to Saginaw. Due to an abysmal 32-42 record, the Kalamazoo Kazoos moved to Flint during the season. The move did not help them much as the club finished the season in last place with a 38-59 record.

The first run of the Michigan State League would not finish its second season as it folded halfway 1890 when the Grand Rapids Shamrocks left the league and joined the International League.

Cities represented 1895:

Adrian, MI: Adrian Demons
Battle Creek, MI: Battle Creek Adventists
Jackson, MI: Jackson Jaxons
Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Kazoos
Lansing, MI: Lansing Senators
Owosso, MI: Owosso Colts
Port Huron, MI: Port Huron Marines

Baseball schedule, Michigan State League, May 1895 -
Schedule of the 1895 Michigan State League

In 1895, the second edition of the Michigan State League saw the light. In that sole Afbeeldingsresultaat voor bud fowler baseballseason, the Lansing Senators finished in second place with a 56-36 record. Part of that Senators team was 47-year old Bud Fowler, who was the first Afro-American to play professional baseball back in 1878 in the International Association. At the time he played with Lansing, Fowler was the only Afro-American to play professional baseball. But during that 1895 season, Fowler also played for the Adrian Demons before being traded to Lansing.

The disbanding of the Port Huron Marines and the Owosso Colts on September 3rd and the replacement of Battle Creek by Jackson on August 8 was an omen of the league folding after the season.

Teams traveling distances of 2,400 miles was no rarity in those days and likely the reason of the financial mishap of several clubs.

Battle Creek joins Michigan State Baseball League, 1895 -
Newspaper article about the formation of the 1895 MSL.

But after a hiatus of a year, the Michigan State League returned in 1897.

Cities represented 1897:

Bay City, MI: Bay City
Flint, MI: Flint
Jackson, MI: Jackson
Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo
Lansing, MI: Lansing Senators
Port Huron, MI: Port Huron
Saginaw, MI: Saginaw Lumbermen

But also in 1897, the league would not make the end of the season. After Kalamazoo moved to Flint on July 12, Jackson disbanded on July 20 and Lansing disbanded a week later, the league eventually folded on August 16.

Cities represented 1902:

Battle Creek, MIBattle Creek Cero Frutos
Flint, MI: Flint
Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids Colts
Jackson, MI: Jackson
Lansing, MI: Lansing Senators
Muskegon, MI: Muskegon Reds
Saginaw, MI: Saginaw White Sox

The Michigan State League would not start up again until 1902. But it would be another woeful season. Financial troubled Saginaw moved to Jackson on July 20 and Grand Rapids disbanded on the same date. Financially strapped Lansing disbanded one month later, causing the league to fold once more. 

Only after nine years, another attempt was made to start a new Michigan State League. This time, the league would be much more successful as it lasted four seasons. The 1911-1914 Midwest State League wasn’t a new league quite exactly. It was nothing more than an expansion of the West Michigan League that changed its name when expanding. The MSL would be a Class D league during its four-year stretch.

Belding, MI: Belding Champs 1914
Boyne City, MI: Boyne City Boosters 1911-1914
Cadillac, MI: Cadillac Chiefs 1911-1914
Holland, MI: Holland Wooden Shoes 1911
Ludington, MI: Ludington Mariners 1912-1914
Manistee, MI: Manistee Colts 1911; Manistee Champs 1912-1914
Muskegon, MI: Muskegon Reds 1911; Muskegon Speeders 1912-1914
Traverse City, MI: Traverse City Resorters 1911-1914

Most of the teams would have predictable names like Chiefs, Boosters or Reds but one team came up with something original, giving a nod to its Dutch roots as the Holland MSL franchise was named Wooden Shoes. Looking to their 48-71, last place but one, one may think the team actually played on clogs. Holland would only stay one season in the MSL. After the 1911 season, Holland was replaced by Ludington.

For three seasons, Manistee was dominating the league. After its first championship, the Manistee Colts renamed itself into Manistee Champs. In the next two seasons, the club would win the league as well. Only during the 1914 season, the club did not fare too well. With a 56-51 record, the club was expelled and its place was taken by Belding. Nevertheless, the club had three Major Leaguers on its roster. Henry Benn’s contract was bought by the Cleveland Indians, then named Naps (after its former manager Nap Lajoie). Benn would play only one game with Cleveland in 1914). Hub Hart was a former MLB player, who was a catcher for the Chicago White Sox from 1905-1907. After his MLB career, he continued to play in minor league baseball. During his college days, he was considered the best college catcher in the country. Despite his modest batting average (.259) with the Champs in 1913, Earl Smith eventually worked his way up to the Majors, where he stayed seven years with three different clubs: Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Browns and the Washington Senators.

A 1926 mid-season merger of the Class D Central League and the Class B Michigan-Ontario League resulted in another Michigan State League.

Cities represented 1926:

Bay City, MI: Bay City Wolves, from Michigan-Ontario League
Charlotte, MI: Charlotte Giants
Flint, MI: Flint Vehicles, from Michigan-Ontario League
Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids Black Sox, from Central League
Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Celery Pickers, from Central League
Ludington, MI: Ludington Tars, from Central League
Muskegon, MI: Muskegon Reds, from Central League
Port Huron, MI: Port Huron Saints, from Michigan-Ontario League
Saginaw, MI: Saginaw Aces, from Michigan-Ontario League

The new Michigan State League wasn’t quite a success as it folded once more after the season. The new league started on June 15. After a bit more than a month, Flint moved to Charlotte and played its first game on July 25.

For the first time since 1897, Kalamazoo joined the league again. But once again its participation would not be a fruitful one as the team finished in seventh place with a 39-59 record. 1926 would be the last time for Kalamazoo to appear in professional baseball for the next seventy years.

The seventh and final Michigan State League would see the light in 1940.

Cities represented 1940-1941:

Flint, MI: Flint Gems 1940; Flint Indians 1941
Grand Rapids, MI: Grand Rapids Dodgers 1940; Grand Rapids Colts 1941
Lansing, MI: Lansing Lancers 1940; Lansing Senators 1941
Muskegon, MI: Muskegon Reds 1940-1941
Saginaw, MI: Saginaw Athletics 1940; Saginaw White Sox 1941
St. Joseph, MI: St. Joseph Autos 1940-1941

With a team batting average of .297 and their top hitter Gerald Burmeister in the top of the MSL with a .360 batting average and 86 RBIs, the Lansing Lancers, part of Branch Rickey’s farm system of the St. Louis Cardinals, served as the doormat of the league.  In 1941, the club, now renamed Senators, would have a similar fate despite Everett Robinson’s BA of .345 and 95 RBI. The Senators would lose 78 of 113 games and finished at the bottom of the league once more. After the season, the club would fold.

The 1940 Michigan State League contained one very big name, not as a player but as a manager. Then future Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes was the skipper of the Grand Rapids Dodgers. When the spitball was banned in 1920, Grimes was one of seventeen pitchers that depended on the spitter, who were allowed to use it. Grimes was the last one to use the spitball until his retirement in 1934.

After a 108-game season and a five-game playoff, Flint and Saginaw advanced to the Michigan State League championship series. But the series was never played due to inclement weather.

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The St. Joseph Autos

One of the 1940-1941 teams was owned by a local car factory. The St. Joseph Autos were linked to the  Auto Specialties Company (AUSCO) of St. Joseph. The Autos did rather well in these two seasons but never made it to the top of the league. Thomas J. Woodruff would join the team in 1940 after he was sent down from Class B Three-I League because of a disappointing batting average of .248. Nevertheless, he was a promising shortstop. In the MSL, he hit a whopping .404 and stole seventeen bases before he broke his leg in a game against the Grand Rapids Dodgers. Even though he has had limited playing time, the league’s sports editors chose him in the league’s All-Star team. Shortly after the start of the 1941 season with the Autos, he was called up for military service. In 1944 he was killed in combat in the Philippines as his plane was shot down.

Thanks to unfortunate events on a global scale, the league would not return after 1941.

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