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The 1903 Southwest Iowa League
Written by Tim Rask   
Thursday, 19 March 2009 11:28

In the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (1993), there were several cases of "missing" leagues for which no standings were available. One such league was the Southwest Iowa League, a class D circuit that operated in 1903. Further research confirmed the existence of this league, and its brief and tumultuous existence of this circuit illustrates some of the pitfalls encountered by small towns making their first forays into organized baseball.

Early in 1903, several communities in southwestern Iowa and southeastern Nebraska explored the possibility of forming a professional baseball league. A January 26 meeting at Shenandoah, Iowa elected a board of directors for the proposed circuit. The membership was left unresolved at the time, but the ambitious plans called for an eight-team league, with clubs to be selected from among seven Iowa towns (Blanchard, Clarinda, Council Bluffs, Essex, Malvern, Shenandoah, and Red Oak), and two Nebraska burgs: Nebraska City and Plattsmouth. The league's board announced that they would consider the application of any town which desired a berth in the new loop, provided a $100 application fee was posted. Two months of meetings, proposals, and fund-raising efforts followed, and the new league was formalized as the Southwest Iowa League at the Hotel Johnson in Red Oak on March 25. E.H. Whiteside, of Atlantic, was elected president, but only four franchises were awarded—to Atlantic, Clarinda, Shenandoah, and Red Oak. Council Bluffs and Nebraska City backed out of the new league when the other members declined to allow Sunday games, and other potential members also opted out of the new circuit. Glenwood and Malvern, Iowa failed to raise the necessary funds, and Creston, Iowa claimed the league's $400 monthly salary limit was too low.

The new league planned a 42-game schedule, with each club playing two games at home and two games on the road each week. Ten percent of all gate receipts were to go to the league treasury, with the remaining ticket revenue to be divided 60 percent for the home club, and 40 percent for the visitors. Additionally, each club appointed an umpire (subject to league approval) to officiate at their home games. Although the league was scaled back considerably from its original plans, the SWI seemed to have reasonable chances for success. The four towns of the loop had similar populations (ranging from 3,000 to 5,000) and the longest "jump" in the circuit—Atlantic to Shenandoah—was less than sixty miles, which promised to keep transportation expenses low. The business interests of the respective towns were liberal in their backing their home clubs (both Clarinda and Shenandoah reportedly raised over $1,000), and as the season approached, enthusiasm seemed high as each community vied to outdo its neighbors on the diamond.

The season opened on May 19, with Shenandoah visiting Clarinda and Atlantic hosting Red Oak. A good crowd of 600 attended the first game at Clarinda, which the home team won, 7 to 3. The second game of the series was shortened to five innings by rain, but Clarinda managed another victory, 1-0. Shenandoah notched two victories when the series shifted to that town, to even the records of the two clubs. Red Oak and Atlantic did not get the season started as smoothly. After a 10-5 Atlantic win, the teams were idled by rain for almost a week. The second game at Atlantic was rained out, and with Red Oak's diamond turned into a swampy mess, two games in that city were also postponed. When the clubs finally played again on the 25th, the game had to be moved to Red Oak's golf course, and only 250 spectators showed up for the home opener at the makeshift grounds.

Rain further affected Red Oak's game at Shenandoah on May 28th, as Shenandoah eked out a 1-0 victory in 11 innings. The winning run scored after a fair ball bounded into a mud hole. The constant deluge of rain became the top story in the circuit. The Red Oak Republican of June 5 even went so far as to publish the standings of the league as "Rain--.999, Base Ball--.001," and proclaimed the weather "execrable."

With rain dampening the enthusiasm for the game, the league faced its first crisis. In an attempt to boost fan support, arrangements were made to admit Creston and Bedford, two independent clubs whose Southwestern Iowa Base Ball Association (also known as the Buttermilk League) had fizzled. The press among the league towns expressed hope that the addition of the teams would spark a renewed interest in the circuit. Unfortunately, the plans were scuttled when Shenandoah balked at the additional travel expenses and nixed the expansion plans.

On the diamond, however, Shenandoah did its share to inject some life into the SWI. After their pair of season-opening losses to archrival Clarinda, the club rattled off eight consecutive victories to take a firm grasp on first place. The winning streak was capped on June 10 with a real pitching gem. Bert Bircher ofAtlantic struck out 11 Shenandoah batters, but Shenandoah's Cunion recorded ten K’s himself and prevailed with a 1-0 shutout. Cunion received some stellar defensive assistance from outfielder Blakely, who gunned down an Atlantic runner at the plate, and the local fans rewarded him by taking up a collection for his efforts. Second-place Red Oak cooled off Shenandoah by a whopping 19-2 count the next day, but for the most part, the league continued for the rest of the month’s play with competitive games. Further chinks in Shenandoah's armor were revealed by the independent Creston club, which split a pair of exhibition contests with the leaders.

Because of Creston's exhibition play against Shenandoah and other league clubs, there came a renewed call to admit the independent team to the league. At a June 25 meeting, Creston finally got its berth in the Southwest Iowa League, along with Osceola, which had only formed a club in mid-June. The league used the move to a six-team schedule to take care of some other controversies. The SWI instituted a flat $25 guarantee for visiting clubs instead of the percentage, and the league moved to hire its own umpires to avoidthe pitfalls of using the local arbiters.

Shenandoah, with a record of 13 and 5, was awarded the four-team flag, besting an 8-7 Atlantic club by 3 1/2 games, and a new, sixty-game schedule was begun on June 29. Fan apathy continued to be a problem, however. Atlantic's opening game earned the club a mere $28, only three of which remained in the club’s coffers after paying the required $25 to the visitors. The Red Oak Weekly Express of July 3 noted that "there were people on the square yesterday who didn't know that a ball game was being played," and suggested the local club hire an advertising agent.

On the field, the six-club circuit proved to be even more competitive than the four-team league. The attendance at the Fourth of July doubleheaders seemed to indicate that the league had turned a corner. Atlantic attracted 1,200 spectators to its 6-0, 6-0 sweep of Red Oak, and the Atlantic Telegraph reported the game injected a much-needed $242 into the coffers of the local club.

One thousand fans turned up at Shenandoah as the locals split with Clarinda by identical 4-3 scores, and Creston swept Osceola, playing their doubleheader in the neutral town of Afton.

Although Creston got out of the blocks quickly by building a 6-0 record (largely by pummeling league also- rans Osceola and Red Oak) the rest of the league quickly caught up. By mid-July, Creston was locked in a tight battle with Clarinda, which swept Creston on the 6th and 7th. The game on the 7th was particularly exciting. Creston used a 5-run ninth to tie the game, and took the lead with a tally in the top of the 14th. Clarinda answered in their frame with two runs for a hard-fought 10-9 win. Not to be outdone, Atlantic began the second half 10-2, creating a tight, three-way pennant race.

Once again, however, large crowds failed to materialize, despite attempts at promotional gimmickry. Red Oak experimented with a 6:00 p.m. starting time to allow more fans to attend. But, as luck would have it, each time the evening starting time was tried, overcast skies failed to provide enough evening light to allow a full nine innings. Atlantic tried a different tactic, urging fans to buy tickets for a late July four-game homestand in a $1 package. Teams were also permitted to arrange exhibition games on Sundays, and non- scheduled games were often added with league opponents to create morning-afternoon doubleheaders.

The team most in need of assistance proved to be first-half champ Shenandoah, which had slumped to a 9- 9 record in the second half and abruptly threw in the towel on July 18. The club declared it was $800 in the red, and wanted to avoid any further losses. The Shenandoah World cited excessive railroad fare, general lack of interest among fans, and some citizen disillusionment with the betting that went on in the stands. The paper saw little hope for the league, noting "the other towns in the league are still playing ball, but we do not see how they will be able to continue much longer unless the fans are willing to reach down into their pocket books extensively."

Shenandoah's abrupt departure earned that city scorn around of the rest of the league. The Clarinda Herald led the ridicule, commenting, "We do not blame the boys for quitting, but we do blame them for ever going into the association. They simply were trying to trot in too fast a class." The Red Oak Weekly Express added a dose of reality, noting, "We might make a little fun of Shenandoah at this time were it not for the shaky condition of our own town at the present time."

With the withdrawal of Shenandoah, the Southwest Iowa League was definitely at a crossroads. Nebraska City's refused an offer to assume the failed franchise on the grounds that the season was too far along, and the SWI was forced to make do with an unwieldy five-club loop. The league considered dropping Osceola, the easternmost town, but that club had improved since its horrid 1-11 start and was game to finish the season.

Rather than fold, the clubs in the league attempted to shore up their finances. The Clarinda boosters staged a horse race that earned $203.95 for the club, while Red Oak's fans passed the hat at a town meeting an raised a quick $150. A tour of the circuit by league president E.H. Whiteside revealed all clubs willing to continue. The Cass County Democrat of Atlantic noted on Whiteside's return that "all that is lacking to make the Southwest Iowa League a success at the end of the season is better attendance and it is hoped that this will be forthcoming. The towns...are now seeing better base ball than ever before and should be willing to pay for it."

Back on the diamond, a fine article of baseball was indeed being played, where Clarinda and Creston remained neck and neck for the lead. Atlantic, however, lost seven in a row to slip below .500. With the Atlantic Telegraph leading the outcry of the fans, the Atlantic management took a rather extreme course of action—it enlisted the services of a team from Ogden, Utah under the direction of W.E. Fulmer. In a July 30 game with Red Oak, Atlantic employed seven of the new men, who notched a 3-1 win despite 17 strikeouts by Red Oak's pitcher Polson. A subsequent 10-0 whitewashing of Creston, made the Ogden men the toast of the town. As the league season entered August, it seemed that a hot conclusion to the SWI pennant chase could be expected.

Despite the tight pennant race, controversies continued to crop up. When the league expanded, it had been hoped that the switch to league-hired umpires would resolve disputes. President Whiteside further tried to alleviate any difficulties by going over the rules with each club when he went on his late July tour of the circuit. Unfortunately, umpiring continued to be a constant sticking point, as protested and even forfeited games became commonplace, and numerous reports of players being fined for using profanity appeared in game reports. Atlantic, in particular was involved in umpire disputes, as both an August 12 game with Osceola, and an August 15 match with Creston were played under protest.

Atlantic, Clarinda, and Creston continued to battle throughout August, and Osceola won an occasional game from one of the leaders to play a spoiler role, but fans apparently were not impressed. Although some promotional gimmicks proved successful—most notably an August 3 Sunday exhibition between Atlantic and Creston at Lake Manawa (a resort area near Council Bluffs)—fans, and even the papers around the circuit seemed to lose interest.

Finally, on August 28, Red Oak failed to show for its series at Atlantic and announced its intention quit the league. With that, the league also threw in the sponge, but not without one last burst of controversy.

The Clarinda and Red Oak papers awarded the pennant to Clarinda, which posted a 26-18 record, 1 1/2 games ahead of Creston and Atlantic, which notched identical 24-19 marks. These standings failed to take into account Atlantic's unresolved protests. The Cass County Democrat reported that Atlantic's three protested games--one each against Clarinda, Creston, and Osceola--had all been awarded to Atlantic, which turned three Atlantic defeats into wins, and gave the club a 27-16 record. Adding two forfeit victories from Red Oak's failure to show for the final series of the season gave Atlantic a 29-16 record, good for a 3 1/2 game margin over second-place Clarinda's 25-19.

The Creston Semi-Weekly Advertiser was livid, accusing President Whiteside of bending the rules to bring the pennant to his hometown. "Whiteside may call this winning the pennant," wrote the Advertiser, "but the fellow who has the nerve to take a two handed club and lay in wait for his victims in a dark alley takes greater chances in the same kind of performance."

So was Atlantic's pennant justified? If one includes the two games forfeited by Red Oak, the point is really moot, as those two wins would have moved Atlantic into a half-game lead. However, no newspaper outside of Atlantic credited the forfeits as Atlantic victories, since the Red Oak club was considered disbanded at that point.

Regarding the protested games, it is not even clear that the decision to award them to Atlantic had been made by Whiteside. The August 25 edition of the Telegraph stated that Whiteside would defer to league secretary W.L. Lundy, a Clarinda resident, on all decisions affecting the Atlantic club. It is, however, far from clear that Atlantic deserved to be awarded with three wins. The August 12 game in which Osceola pounded Atlantic 15-3 was protested for vague reasons to the effect that the umpire was biased against Atlantic, which seems feeble grounds for a protest. On the other hand, in the August 15 game, the umpire awarded a tie game to Creston after two ejected Atlantic players failed to leave the diamond in a timely fashion. In these two cases, it would seem Atlantic may well have been in the wrong, and at the most, should have had one loss annulled.

Deserved or not, Atlantic won the "official" pennant, while Clarinda also claimed the flag. Strangely, neither the Clarinda Herald nor the Clarinda Journal even commented on Whiteside's action. Instead, papers around the circuit looked back on the season with fond memories. "We have had considerable experience, quite a little expense and a whole summer's worth of fun," wrote the Clarinda Herald. "We give $5 or $10 to a Fourth or July...celebration and it is all over in a day but this summer we have had one continuous round of pleasure for about the same expense." The presence of baseball was even credited with reducing Clarinda's crime rate.

Despite the warm feelings toward the national game, the Southwest Iowa League never reemerged. Creston and Osceola provided a postscript of sorts, playing a winner-take-all post-season series for a $1,500 purse. Osceola showed just how much it improved over the course of the season, as the fourth- place club clobbered Creston in five consecutive victories.

For most of the towns in the league, the 1903 Southwest Iowa League represented their only venture into minor league baseball. Clarinda and Shenandoah both fielded teams in the M.I.N.K (Missouri-Iowa- Nebraska-Kansas) League in 1910-11, but for the other four towns never reentered organized baseball. For them, the brief and tumultuous existence of the Southwest Iowa League would be their only legacy in professional baseball.

Appendix


First Half
TeamW.L.Pct.GB
Shenandoah135.722-
Atlantic87.5333 1/2
Red Oak79.4385
Clarinda512.2947 1/2

Second Half
TeamW.L.Pct.GBTeamW.L.Pct.GB
Atlantic versionClarinda/Red Oak version
Atlantic2916.644--Clarinda2618.591--
Clarinda2519.5683 1/2Creston2419.5581 1/2
Creston2320.5345Atlantic2419.5581 1/2
Osceola1829.38312Osceola1928.4048 1/2
Red Oak1526.36512Red Oak152638412 1/2


Shenandoah dropped out of the league on July 18, with a 9-9 record.

Newspapers used in research: Atlantic Semi-Weekly Telegraph, Cass County Democrat (Atlantic), Clarinda Herald, Clarinda Journal, Creston Semi-Weekly Advertiser, Osceola Democrat, Red Oak Republican, Red Oak Weekly Express, Shenandoah World, and Des Moines Register & Leader.