The Miller Who Was A Sinner

The subject of this entry is Foster Pirie Ganzel.  Foster didn’t go by Foster, he had a nickname, it was “Babe”.  At a time in Minnesota when a streetcar token could take you from Stillwater to Lake Minnetonka, Babe Ganzel switched sides.  In the mid 1930’s Babe played for the Minneapolis Millers.  A few years later he joined the St. Paul Saints.  For this switch some thought he was a sinner.

Ganzel was born into a family of ballplayers. Babe’s father, Charlie, played for the 1884 St. Paul Apostles who were later renamed the Saints. His uncle John Ganzel started his career in 1903 with the New York Highlanders (also known as the Yankees).   

Elmer Foster, a teammate of Charlie’s in St. Paul, gave young Foster the nickname of “Babe”.  Babe followed in the footsteps of his father and signed with Evansville in 1922.  Six seasons later he was playing outfield for the Washington Senators of the American League and batting .438.  He was good.  However, the following year his average nosedived to .077.   

Though the major leagues were done for him he still had a career in the minors.  From 1932 to 1935 Babe Ganzel played 3rd base for the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association.  His batting average during those 4 years was .306.  Babe was well known and well liked in the City of Lakes.

If you were a fan of baseball in those days it was easy to get to know your favorite players.   Both Lexington Park in St. Paul and Nicollet Park in Minneapolis were intimate ball fields.  A front row seat on the first or third baseline placed you only a few feet away from the action.  And a back row seat was still close enough to literally see the sweat rolling off the brow of your hero or target of ridicule.    

And if that wasn’t close enough for a fan, with a quick thumb of the phone book (a what?) an motivated person could look up the address of a player, meet them as they walked out of their home, and then accompany them onto the streetcar as they commuted to work.  In Babe Ganzel’s time there were no suburbs.  A ball player had little choice but to live in the city where he worked.  Plus, it was common sense.

It’s safe to say that Miller fans did not embrace Saints fans.  And Saints fans returned the feeling in spades.  Over the decades these two teams and their fans frequently resorted to boos, taunts, and heckling the opposing team whenever the mood struck them.  And on more than one occasion they struck with more than just a mood.  The story of this rivalry starts with what happened on the field, but it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning what happened off the field.

This storied 59 year long competition, also known as the “Streetcar Series”, includes multiple accounts of fisticuffs, fights, and all out brawls between fans, ballplayers, and even managers.  The rivalry between the Millers and Saints was so intense that few players dared switch sides.  To do so probably meant taking your life into your own hands. 

In 1938 Foster “Babe” Ganzel switched sides and got to avenge his firing from the Millers by leading his Saints to first place in the league and probably just as important, he beat the team that fired him.

An insight of how the Millers fans reacted when they learned their former favorite 3rd baseman was now the manager of their crosstown rival can be seen in the way these two towns disagreed on so many things including the naming of roads.  There is a bridge spanning the Mississippi providing the Twin cities with a major east-west thoroughfare.  This bridge has been there for more than 125 years.  The road east of the bridge is called Lake Street but west of it, it’s called Marshall Avenue. 

For these two towns to give a-common-road-different-names, one can only speculate on what names were given to a familiar baseball player who left one side and joined the other.  In St. Paul the Pioneer Press considered Babe a “Saint” (sic). In Minneapolis, allegedly only Priests, Reverends, and Rabbis were magnanimous enough to call him “sinner”. Others undoubtedly used a different word.

In his first year at the helm of the Saints, Babe Ganzel guided his team to first place of the American Association with 90 wins.  Saints owners were thrilled with the acclaim and with attendance.  By season’s end more than 250,000 (a team record) had filled Lexington Park often to more than capacity.  Saint Paulites came to see their winning team.  Minneapolitans braved the bridge to watch their “new kid”, Ted Williams.  The future Red Sox Hall-Of-Famer did not disappoint routinely pounding a ball completely out of the park and bouncing it off the tin roof of a nearby business. 

In the post season the Saints beat the Milwaukee Brewers 4 games to 3 but lost by the same ratio to the Saint Louis Blues in the Junior World Series.  So it should come at no surprise to learn that the St. Paul Pioneer Press sports writers loved Babe.  That was not the case in Minneapolis.  Several Tribune reporters openly questioned whether the Millers ownership had blundered when they let Babe Ganzel go in 1935 and then compounded the mistake by not inviting him back in ‘37.

In Mark Twain’s time St. Paul was called the last great city of the East while Minneapolis was known as the first great city of the West.  Separated by more than a river, these teams and their towns did have one thing in common; the love of baseball.  Babe Ganzel was one of the few players of that era who could say they were once loved on both sides of the Mississippi.