: August 21, 2008
An Overview of the Three-I League by Bill Steinbacher-Kemp
Our Readers' Submissions Vault
Minor league baseball remains an indispensable incubator for major league talent, but it no longer carries nearly the impact in exerted on U.S. town life decades ago. In this article, which first appeared within our pages on February 13, 2003,Bill Steinbacher-Kemp provides a thumbnail portrait of the legendary Three-I League.
Minor league baseball stands as one of the forgotten stories in American sports. During the first half of the twentieth century, the minors dominated the sporting life of communities throughout the nation. Before expansion, there were only ten cities with Major League clubs, and in an era before television and interstate travel, the box score in the local newspaper represented the closest most baseball fans would come to a big-time ballpark.
The Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (also known as the "Three Eye" or "Triple Orb") was a national force in minor league baseball for first sixty years of the twentieth century. The Three-I was a Class B loop, the highest level of "low" minor leagues (classes B, C, D, and E). Organized in 1901, the Three-I League survived for six decades, holding its own in the competition for leisure time and entertainment dollars against new-fangled inventions such as the motion picture, the automobile, radio, and, most infamously, television. Although it was one of the oldest and most stable minor leagues, it did suspend operations four times. The league shelved play in 1918 due to World War I, twice during the Great Depression, and 1943 through 1945 because of World War II.
Bloomington (Illinois), Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Decatur, Evansville, Rock Island, Rockford, and Terre Haute completed the inaugural season. The Hottentots of Terre Haute claimed the league\'s first pennant with a record of 72 wins and 39 loses. Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, now enshrined in Cooperstown, pitched for the championship club. The Hottentots skipper was Bill Kreig, one of the league\'s principal organizers. According to archival material housed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Kreig was instrumental in the 1886 sale of Connie Mack (then playing for Hartford, Connecticut) to the Washington Nationals.
The Rockford Red Sox captured the league title in 1902, and the Bloomington Bloomers claimed their first of four championships the following season. Although Evansville (known at one time or another as the River Rats, Evas, Pocketers, Hubs, Bees, and Braves) did not claim its first pennant until 1930, that city\'s eight Three Eye titles represent a league record. Evansville\'s skipper, the great Bob Coleman, managed all eight pennant winners (1930, 1938, 1941, 1949, 1952, 1954, and 1956-1957). His managerial career lasted a remarkable thirty-seven years, all but three in the minors. Coleman, who coached future greats Hank Greenberg, Warren Spahn, and others, is one of only two managers to collect 2,000 minor league victories.
Throughout its sixty-year history, economic hard times contributed to the regular upheaval of league membership. Clubs folded or moved, sometimes in midseason. In 1906, the circuit expelled the Davenport club because it drew 5,000 fans short of the league-mandated minimum. Even natural disasters played a role in the loop\'s continually shifting roll call. In the 1916 season, Decatur forfeited its franchise because a tornado blew off the roof of its ballpark grandstand. Hannibal, Missouri then replaced Decatur, and the Mules earned a second place finish with a 79-57 record, 6 games behind the pennant winning Distillers of Peoria. For extended periods in its history, the league\'s name was a misnomer. For instance, there were no representatives from Iowa from 1922 to 1936.
Before post-season playoffs were organized in the 1930s, the Three-I pennant winner occasionally competed against other minors league champions. In 1926, the Springfield Senators defeated Bay City of the Michigan State League 4 games to 0. Springfield then challenged Des Moines of the Western league, and led 3 games to 1 when cold weather forced cancellation of the series.
In May 1930, Decatur installed lights for night baseball, and attendance topped a franchise-record 70,000 for the season. Other cities followed Decatur\'s lead, but night baseball proved a short-lived savior for a league struggling amid the Great Depression. The 1932 season ended in mid-July, and the Three-I did not resume play until 1935. The league called off the following season, and the 1937 season ended with only four of six clubs still playing (Bloomington and Terre Haute ended operations in early July).
Even during its bleaker years, the Three-I remained a wellspring of Major League talent. Cooperstown inductees that passed through the loop include Luis Aparicio, Lou Boudreau, Mordecai Brown, Jim Bunning, Red Faber, Hank Greenberg, Burleigh Grimes, Carl Hubbell, Chuck Klein, Tony Lazzeri, Joe McGinnity, and Red Ruffing. A list of Three-I veterans who enjoyed successful major league careers would feature Eldon Auker, Hank Bauer, Del Crandall, Carl Erskine, Willie "Puddin" Head" Jones, Harvey Kuenn, Dutch Leonard, Johnny Logan, Claude Passeau, Allie Reynolds, Charlie Root, Pat Seerey, "Pinky" Whitney, and dozens more.
Yet in many ways, the rich history of the Three-I can best be read through the life stories of numerous players that never made it to the Major Leagues. For example, longtime minor league pitcher Harry Syfert played for the Bloomington Bloomers in 1904, Decatur the following two seasons, and then two more for Bloomington. After four years in Class B ball, he found himself playing for Nashville in the well-regarded Southern League. His career included stops in several other minor league circuits, culminating with a no-hitter for Winnipeg, Manitoba of the Northern League. In 1912, he returned from his continental wanderings to play for his hometown Bloomers, and the following year the club hired him to manage. In a 1939 article in the Bloomington Pantagraph, Syfert, then a grocer, reminisced about his youthful turn with the Bloomers. "Our entire club was made up of boys who lived within a radius of 100 miles and the fans knew them personally and turned out to see their friends play ball," the old hurler recalled. Once, after beating Dubuque on a Friday, Syfert received permission to spend all Saturday fishing. He returned Sunday to pitch 15 innings in a Bloomers win, a performance that included hitting the game\'s winning home run.
It\'s been said that statistics are the lifeblood of baseball. The history of the old Three Eye features several statistical curiosities. For almost seven decades, the Midwest loop held the record for the longest game in professional baseball. On May 31, 1909, the visiting Decatur Commies (short for Commodores) defeated the Bloomington Bloomers 2-1 in 26 innings. Remarkably, both winner Otto Burns (an outfielder making his first start) and loser Ed Clarke pitched complete games. Several days after the four-and-a-half hour contest the Bloomers fired manager Bill McNamara. The hard luck McNamara then finished the season catching for the Commies. This record fell in 1981 when the Pawtucket Red Sox defeated the Rochester Red Wings 3-2 in a 33-inning International League marathon.
Other statistics stand out in the annals of the league. The 1907 Dubuque Dubs, arguably the worst club in league history, batted .188 as a team while losing 109 of 131 games. Not surprisingly, four different skippers piloted the dismal Dubs that season. In 1922, Otto Pahlman of the Danville Veterans ran roughshod over opposing pitchers during his 50-game hitting streak. Pahlman batted .398 (78 hits in 196 at-bats) during the streak. Lou "The Mad Russian" Novikoff, who played 339 games for the Cubs in the early 1940s, was a member of the Moline Plowboys in 1938. Remarkably, Novikoff led four different minor leagues in batting average four consecutive years. In 1938, he led the Three-I League with a .367 average. The following year in Tulsa his .368 average was good enough to win the Texas League batting crown. In 1940, he batted a circuit-leading .363 for Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League, and in 1941, the Mad Russian hit .370 for the American Association\'s Milwaukee club.
The end of World War II proved a boon to minor league baseball in the United States. In 1945, there were but a dozen minor leagues in the nation. Four years later, there were a record 59 leagues in 448 communities. During this period, the Three-I enjoyed relative stability. Waterloo drew a single-season club record of 174,000 in 1947. Three years later, the league set an all-time attendance record of almost 783,000.
In the 1950s, with competition from television and the manpower drain of the Korean War, minor leagues throughout the nation began folding. Yet under the direction of legendary Chicago sports broadcaster Hal Totten, the Three-I survived into the early 1960s. Some may remember Totten as the radio voice of the Cubs and White Sox from the 1920s through the early 1950s. He was also the broadcaster for the first All-Star Game, held in Chicago in 1933.
Yet by the late 1950s, the league was losing clubs to the Class D Midwest League (known previously as the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League). Waterloo left the league in 1956 and Davenport followed two years later. With the end approaching, the league was the Three Eye in name only, as teams from Minnesota, Kansas, and Nebraska joined its ranks. The Three-I League suspended operations after the 1961 season, marking the end of the nation\'s oldest Class B league.
Bill Steinbacher-Kemp is a clerk at Milner Library, Illinois State University. This essay comes courtesy of his under-construction web site on the gone-but-not-forgotten Three Eye League.