Legacy Of Northern League Baseball, The Aberdeen Pheasants
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In the early part of the ninetieth century, baseballs popularity was on the rise in South Dakota. In 1922, Babe Ruth visited the state as part of the western barnstorming tour. The Great Bambino and teammate Bob Meusel played an exhibition baseball game in Deadwood.
After World War II, baseball boomed in popularity. At one point, 448 professional baseball clubs were playing in fifty-nine leagues. One of those leagues was the Northern League.
Between the years of 1941 to 1971, South Dakota had four teams represented in the Northern League – the Sioux Falls Canaries, the Huron Cubs, the Watertown Expos, and the Aberdeen Pheasants. Of the four, no team showed as much success as Aberdeen.
The Aberdeen Pheasants were established in 1946 when a group known as the “Founding Fathers,” who were local businessmen of the community, decided they wanted professional baseball in Aberdeen.
Dennis Maloney is the former Secretary of Treasury for the Aberdeen Pheasants.
"This was a promotional thing," remembered Maloney. "And a lot of the Aberdeen businessmen thought, "If we can get a professional baseball team, it will help our business, it will help our community grow population wise. We'll look like a big prosperous city, so let's get with it." Which they did.”
This thinking convinced this group to travel to MLB’s winter meetings to pitch the idea of bringing a minor league team to Aberdeen. The relationship was formed…
“Now you'd be interested to know, when the Pheasants started, right after World War II, the St. Louis Browns were the franchise owner, and then the team moved to Baltimore, but it was the St. Louis Brown's team which wasn't very good," explained Maloney. "The theme in St. Louis was first in booze and first in shoes, and last in the American League. That was the tie, and once it got to Baltimore, of course Baltimore was really enthusiastic about Major League Baseball and they spent a lot of money getting very talented kids to play in their chain, in their system.”
One of those talented kids, who came to Aberdeen in 1947, was legendary pitcher Don Larsen. Larsen was called up to the Orioles after the Korean War, and was later traded from Baltimore to New York.
While with the Yankees, he pitched a perfect game in game 5 of the 1956 World Series. To this day, he’s the only MLB pitcher to pitch a no-hitter or perfect game in the World Series.
While guys like Larsen were making top money in the majors, younger and less proven players in Aberdeen were making around $1,500 a month.
Maloney: “Remember these are the 50s and the 60s, but this was the beginning to be making millions. If they were good enough, they were going to make it, and a lot of them were good enough. I was all for them getting every dime they could… when they were on the road they lived pretty humbly.
For some players, it was about more than baseball. They’d live in the community, work there in the offseason, and sometimes fall in love with a local girl.
"Tito Francona also played for the Pheasants and when he was playing there his son Terry Francona was actually born in Aberdeen," South Dakota State Historical Society Curator Dan Brosz. "Terry went on to have a decent playing career in the '80s and a more successful managerial career winning 2 World Series with the Red Sox."
Terry Francona currently manages the Cleveland Indians.
In 1951, a fire caused minor damage to the ballpark, and destroyed team equipment. The Aberdeen community would step up to the plate.
"It didn't take long to recover from it, and this city was willing to step up to it and do it, which was important," Maloney said. "But the revenue they were getting from taxes wasn't that bad either, so they were glad to do it."
Damages were quickly repaired and the Pheasants would begin to flourish.
The 1964 Aberdeen Pheasants team tends to be the one that most historians of the Northern League talk about.
"64 Aberdeen Pheasants, probably the best Northern League team ever." stated Northern League Historian Paul Gertsen. "[The Pheasants] had Cal Ripken, Sr. as manager, Jim Palmer, Hall of Famer on the team, and seven other people that made the Major Leagues."
The other seven were Mark Belanger, Mike Davison, Mike Fiore, Tom Fisher, Dave Leonhard, Lou Piniella, and Eddie Watt.
The team was so good that year, that the Baltimore Orioles major league club came to Aberdeen, mid-season, to play an exhibition game against the Pheasants – which was rare.
“That was quite an evening. That was quite and evening," explained Maloney. "All of these hot very capable ball player were really, of course, fired up with the game, because they wanted to impress the brass.”
Ripken Sr., who is the father of Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., spent three seasons managing the Pheasants. His son jr. was also a part of the team – as a batboy.
“I've never spoken to him about it, but I think if somebody would ask him, he would agree that his dad's role with the Aberdeen Pheasants and the Northern League was certainly primary in his role in becoming a great baseball player, and his love of the game,” said Gertsen.
The fan support in Aberdeen was strong – crowds of 3,000 people would fill the stands, which was unusual for a minor league club. Some fans were casual – others would never miss a game.
One of those fans was a local cartoonist, who drew a pheasant cartoon for the daily newspaper.
“Oh, our friend Gordie Haug. Gordie came up with this idea to take Philbert the Pheasant… He'd come up with these cartoons that would depict how the team played the night before or the day before," said Maloney. "He just wanted to draw his Philbert, so everything tied to the Pheasants became Philbert the Pheasant.”
Haugh kept drawing his cartoons until 1971 – the Pheasants final season and the end of the Northern League.
From 1946 to 1971, the Aberdeen Pheasants sent 26 players to the majors.
Two former Pheasants now belong to pro-baseballs hall of fame in Cooperstown – Pitcher Jim Palmer was inducted in 1990 and manager Earl Weaver was inducted in 1996.
Even though the affiliation between Aberdeen and Baltimore was eventually dissolved, the history and legacy will live on forever.