By Lynn Bevill
John J. “Honest John” McCloskey, one of the legendary figures of minor league baseball, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, where he began playing semi-pro ball in the 1880’s. Primarily a catcher, he soon joined barnstorming teams that toured the Midwest and southwest. These journeys led him to El Paso, Texas in 1885, where he joined a ball club sponsored by the local smelter. McCloskey’s barnstorming across Texas, and his one season in El Paso, convinced him that the state was ripe for organized baseball; and during the fall and winter of 1887-88, he and other interested individuals struggled to form a new circuit. The result was the Texas League of Baseball Clubs, which overcame many obstacles during its first season and indeed, through much of the rest of the Nineteenth Century. But the Texas League, as we now know it, was launched, and “Honest John” became recognized as the father of this venerable minor-league circuit.
After the 1892 season McCloskey moved to Savanna (Georgia) of the Southern League. His career over the next twenty plus years read like a geography book. He had stops in places like Butte, Tacoma, Boise, and Vancouver in the northwest, San Francisco, Dallas and Ogden in the west and southwest. In 1895, still in his early thirties, McCloskey took over as manager of the National League team in Louisville, which he piloted for two seasons. A decade later, he served three years at the helm of the St. Louis Cardinals. In all, he managed 30 different teams in a period of 36 years, and his 44 year career in baseball even included service as an umpire.
But perhaps his greatest contribution to the game was his role as a league organizer. McCloskey founded five different leagues during his career, including the first one to bring “organized” baseball to Arizona.
In 1915, after serving for a season as a scout for the Cincinnati Reds. McCloskey returned to El Paso. In addition to being the largest city between Dallas and the West Coast, the “Pass City” also had become a hotbed for baseball. As a result, organizing a team, and even committing the city fathers to building a new stadium proved no problem. But, although McCloskey easily gained authorization from the National Association to form the Rio Grande Valley Association as a class D minor league, he did have trouble finding enough cities to participate and make the new league viable.
McCloskey needed cities with populations sufficient to support organized baseball. By late March of 1915 he had five such cities seemingly committed to the new league: El Paso, Texas; Albuquerque and Silver City in New Mexico, Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona. Other possibilities included Bisbee, Douglas and Nogales in Arizona, Roswell, Las Cruces, Lordsburg and Deming in New Mexico.
As part of his organizational effort, McCloskey sent J.W. Brown, who had recently managed a team in Winnipeg, Canada to Tucson. Brown moved quickly securing use of Tucson’s Elysian Grove for the home field and signing as manager Norman C “Kitty” Brashear, who batted 276 in 110 games as a utility man with the 1902 St. Louis Cardinals. In Phoenix, manager Herb Hester worked with H. Clap Parker and the local chamber of commerce to solidify the franchise in Arizona’s capital city. Albuquerque, with management by George Reed and partner Ward Isbell also progressed well; and in Silver City, Ed Markey seemed to be organizing what everyone considered to be another rabid baseball city. But organization of the Bisbee club failed to advance beyond conjecture, so a franchise was established in Las Cruces, under Bill Hurley. McCloskey then announced that he would visit all six cities, as well as Nogales and Douglas, with an eye toward possible expansion to an eight team circuit.
Although McCloskey at first had hoped to start the season on April 15, organizational problems caused several postponements of the starting date. The most unstable franchise was Silver City, where Bill Quigley, a veteran West Coast manager, had not yet arrived to run the club. On April 18, after visiting the New Mexico town, McCloskey was forced to announce that things were not working out, that Nogales and Douglas were candidates to field the league’s sixth team instead, and that (after two prior delays) the season’s opening date had been postponed to May 1. By April 23, McCloskey had awarded the sixth team to Douglas, which joined Albuquerque, El Paso, Las Cruces, Phoenix and Tucson as the league’s initial franchises. Organized baseball was poised for its debut in the southwest.
The following day, representatives of the six teams met to finalize league rules and operations. Franchise chiefs in attendance included Tucson’s Brown, Hester from Phoenix, Reed of Albuquerque, Burt Aaron of Douglas, N.C. Frenger and S. Manassee of Las Cruces, and McCloskey from El Paso. The league’s newly elected president, Ernest Hughes, chaired the meeting. Following a recommendation by the National Commission, the league set a salary limit of $1,200 a month per club, excepting the managers. Concern was high that the league be protected from franchise withdrawals, so each club was required to deposit $600 to insure two week’s salaries, and to post a $500 guarantee against withdrawal. The league also agreed to share all railroad fares, and that the proceeds from holiday games were to be pooled and equally distributed. (Imagine that- league management agreeing to a salary cap and revenue sharing, eighty five years ago!) In order to keep the league solvent, each team also agreed to place 10 percent of all daily receipts into a “sinking fund” to cover payment of umpires and official scorers, as well as upkeep of parks and other details. To maximize revenues, it was also agreed that all holiday games would be played in cities that were expected to produce the largest attendance and gate receipts.
The league also announced its list of officials for the six clubs; Phoenix, W.B. Twitchell as president, and F.B. Lang as secretary treasurer; Las Cruces, N.C. Frenger president, L.C. Sexton vice president, and Gustave Manassee secretary; Albuquerque, Ed L. Grose president, N.E. Neff vice president; El Paso, Maury Edwards president, A.H.E. Beckett secretary (N.E. Neff also was listed as El Paso’s vice president and it is impossible to confirm at this time whether he served as an officer for both clubs, or this was merely a redundant typo). The Douglas officials were to be announced later.
On May 1, Las Cruces began its season at El Paso, with the New Mexico club taking an 8-5 decision. Douglas opened at Albuquerque on May 4 with the home team taking the first official game played in New Mexico by a score of 9-6. Following the Phoenix-Tucson contest of April 27, the league was fully operational. By this time the clubs also had adopted nicknames. The Tucson team was known as the Pueblos or the Old Pueblos. Phoenix was called the Senators. Albuquerque, the “Duke City” was, and remains to this day the Dukes. El Paso took its cue from the manager and called themselves the Mackmen. The Las Cruces club was known as the Farmers. Only Douglas, which was awaiting the winner of a newspaper sponsored contest to name the team, lacked a moniker. The future of professional baseball in the southwest seemed assured.
But the feeling of assurance was to last for only nineteen days. On May 25, in the language of the time, the El Paso Times reported that the league had announced the “annulling (of) the franchise” of two teams, Las Cruces and Douglas. The primary reasons cited were insufficient capital and the lack of fan support. The Times commented that, although Las Cruces had tried, the city was simply to small; but that Douglas, on the other hand, “did not even make an attempt to help the club, according to reliable reports.”
The remaining clubs reaffirmed their commitment to a four team league, and began the process of acquiring the best players from the two disbanded teams. It was also agreed to close the book on the first part of the season, and to start again from scratch. The only objection to this came from Herb Hester of Phoenix, whose reason was apparent from the league standing through May 23.
Team Wins Losses Percentage Games Back
Phoenix 16 5 .762 —
Albuquerque 13 6 .684 2
El Paso 13 7 .650 2.5
Tucson 7 14 .333 9
Douglas 5 13 .278 9.5
Las Cruces 4 14 .233 10.5
With Douglas and Las Cruces disbanded, the league appeared to be competitive except for the Tucson club. Obviously, Phoenix, Albuquerque and El Paso were the better teams as that point. Regardless, a new schedule quickly was thrown together, and the league resumed operation on May 25 (the same day that Douglas and Las Cruces were dropped), with El Paso knocking off Tucson 8 to 7, and Phoenix beating Albuquerque 7 -3.
The league appeared to have gained a measure of stability and the rest of the schedule for May and June was completed. To read the newspaper accounts, all seemed well with the league. Phoenix and El Paso dominated in the win column; Albuquerque struggled somewhat, and dropped to around .500 ball; and Tucson continued to be the league doormat. El Paso was the strongest drawing city, as would befit the largest the largest metropolis in the circuit. Using the league’s holiday guidelines, the July 4th match ups featured Albuquerque visiting the larger city of El Paso, while Tucson met its rival at Phoenix.
But the holiday schedule was tinged by controversy. In mid June, during a game against El Paso, Phoenix catcher Byrd Lynn had struck umpire Harry Kane with a bat. The league ordered that Lynn be suspended for three games and fined him $50. Lynn served the suspension, but the fine was never paid. Phoenix manager Herb Hester put Lynn back in the lineup for a late June series against Tucson. Then, after several “heated” telegrams, Hester held Lynn out of the July 4th double header, which Phoenix swept anyway. But the league determined that Phoenix would be required to forfeit “at least five games” to Tucson.
The controversy over Lynn’s suspension became moot after the games of July 5th. That day, Tucson took the first game of a double header against Phoenix by a score of 13-5, but dropped the second 6-1. El Paso and Albuquerque also split, with the Mackmen winning the opener 6-0, but losing the second game, 5-2. In the same newspapers that reported the scores, the headline read: “Rio Grande Baseball Quits Business; Officials Pan Re-opening in spring of 1916.
Money proved to be the root of the league’s problem. The El Paso Times reported that of the four teams, only El Paso was not losing money, but that they were not making money either. The paper also charged that Phoenix and Albuquerque both had exceeded the league salary cap by spending as much as $2000 a month. In The Sporting News, McCloskey was reported as noting that transportation was the league’s biggest problem. He said that the railroads insisted on charging four cents per mile, a price, given the league’s great distances, the teams could not afford. Always the optimist however, McCloskey also stated that the league had received permission from the National Association to reserve the area for play in 1916, and he felt that baseball could still make a go of it there.
But organized baseball did not return to the area until 1928 when Tucson, Phoenix, Bisbee and Miami formed the Arizona League. El Paso saw no more organized ball until 1930, when the city joined the Arizona League. Albuquerque eventually entered the Arizona-Texas League in 1932. All of these cities but Bisbee and Miami have professional baseball today. Douglas did not gain another franchise until 1947, when it shared a team with Bisbee in the Arizona-Texas League. That club survived for seven seasons then joined the Arizona Border League in 1955. In 1956, Douglas finally gained a team of its own in the Arizona Border League, which survived for three seasons until the league’s demise in 1958. Sadly, Las Cruces never again fielded a team in “organized” baseball, and has suffered the indignity of being thus far omitted from the Baseball Hall of Fame display of teams.