Editor’s Note: Nebraska is celebrating its 150th birthday in 2017. As the state observes its sesquicentennial, we are revisiting some of the state’s attractions. Today, we take a look at the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball in St. Paul…
Who would think that a guy from a small Nebraska village would rank as one of the all-time great pitchers in Major League Baseball? Grover Cleveland Alexander was born in 1887, a few years after his hometown of Elba was founded in central Nebraska. Alexander would grow up and spend two decades playing the game that was “America’s pastime.”
St. Paul is home to the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball. Alexander spent his off seasons in the town, and lived there after retiring from professional baseball. The baseball museum opened as a small display and moved to different locations around town before finally settling at its current location about 10 years ago. It’s located on the main street inside the Chamber of Commerce building.
Alexander – known as Pete by many – spent his entire 20-year professional career in the National League with three teams, the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. He pitched in three games, and won two, as the Cardinals went on to win the 1926 World Series. The third appearance was a game that made him a legend. After winning Game 6, he was sent to the mound the next day. He pitched three scoreless innings in shutting down the New York Yankees for the series-clinching victory. His last inning face-off against vaunted slugger Tony Lazzeri was the climax in a later movie.
Alexander has had a lasting effect on the Majors. His 373 wins are stilled tied for the all-time best mark in the NL. Christy Mathewson also won 373 games. The only recent pitcher to even sniff the mark was Greg Maddux, who won 355 games from 1986-2008. Warren Spahn won 363 games before calling it a career in the mid-1960s.
Alexander was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame after retiring from the game. A movie about his life starred Ronald Reagan and Doris Day.
Alexander’s central Nebraska roots were largely the reason for the opening of the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball. The community of more than 2,000 people has celebrated Alexander’s roots with an annual “Grover Cleveland Alexander Days” since the early 1990s.
Recognizing Alexander’s career and success evolved into celebrating more Nebraska baseball heroes. Omaha’s Bob Gibson – another Hall of Famer – was honored by the town.
The St. Paul museum has grown to include a Hall of Fame room for the Nebraskans inducted into the Cooperstown (NY) Hall, as well as honoring Nebraskans who have played Major League Baseball. Players’ memorabilia and other baseball-related exhibits are on display.
The Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball’s section honoring Nebraska’s members of the professional Hall of Fame includes Wade Boggs, Richie Ashburn, “Wahoo Sam” Crawford, Bill Southworth and Clarence Arthur “Dazzy” Vance, alongside Alexander and Gibson.
Each player has his own section, recognizing his professional accomplishments, along with memorabilia.
Alexander has a pair of practice cleats and baseballs on display.
The bat recognizing his entrance to the Hall of Fame is on display.
Gibson has ball caps and baseballs at his shrine. The Omahan spent all 17 seasons of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was considered the best pitcher of his era, and one of the best all-time. Major League Baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound because they thought it gave Gibson an unfair advantage.
Boggs was born in Omaha and lived in the Cornhusker State for eight years. He donated cleats and baseball caps to the museum for his display. He played most of his career with the Boston Red Sox, but spent a few seasons with Tampa Bay toward the end of a great career.
Ashburn – from Tilden – spent 15 seasons in the Majors. He was a five-time All-Star. His Phillies team faced the New York Yankees in the 1950 World Series. He was a career .308 hitter, with nine .300+ batting seasons. He won two batting titles.
Crawford – born in Wahoo; hence, his nickname – played 19 seasons in professional baseball. He owns the all-time triples hit recod with 309. Crawford was one of the best hitters during his career – .309 average – despite not winning a single season batting title.
Harvard-born Billy Southworth played Major League ball for 13 seasons, and later coached in the Majors for 13 seasons. He was considered an above-average player, finishing with a .297 average and 52 home runs. However, he had an outstanding World Series in 1926, as he hit .552 leading the Cardinals to the title. Alexander and Southworth were on the same team that season.
His career as a field manager was much more respected by baseball experts. He accumulated a.597 winning average, guiding the Cardinals for six seasons and the Boston Braves for about five seasons. His 1,044 career wins (704 losses) included two World Series. He also served as a player-coach for the Cardinals in 1929.
“Dazzy” Vance played small town baseball in Nebraska for a number of years, including in Red Cloud. He made his Major League debut in 1915 for the Pittsburgh Pirates. However arm injuries provided him spot appearances later with the New York Yankees that year. He struggled and made another appearance in 1918.
With a Major League career shelved, Vance pitched in the Minors. He regained his arm strength. In 1922, he was signed by the Brooklyn franchise. He played for the team until 1932. He finished the final three seasons of his career with the Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Vance’s Hall of Fame career seemed derailed before he rebounded to win the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1924, capping a 28-win campaign. He recorded a 2.16 ERA, while striking out 262 batters.
He led the National League in strikeouts from 1922 until 1928. Not too shabby for a guy who was once considered finished as a pitcher.
In addition to Hall of Fame members, the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball recognizes Nebraskans (or people who have had a major impact on baseball in the state) who have seen action in the Majors. More than 150 Nebraskans have played in the Majors, including several current players.
Perhaps the best known of the current bunch is Alex Gordon. The former Nebraska Cornhusker star is an All-Star and four-time Gold Glove-winning outfielder with the Kansas City Royals. He has played a key role in the Royals resurgence, with an appearance in the 2014 World Series. Kansas City has home field advantage for the 2015 playoffs.
Joining Gordon with Kansas City late this season was former NU pitcher Joba Chamberlain. The relief pitcher has seen his best playing days as a member of the New York Yankees, but has also played for the Detroit Tigers and the Toronto system. He joined the Royals’ minor league system with a stop in Omaha before being called up in September. I hope he is able to resurrect his strong pitching and enjoys a few more years in the Majors.
Creighton University’s Pat Venditte tied a Major League record in becoming only the second ambidextrous pitcher to appear in a game. He is the first to pitch with both hands in the American League. The Omaha native finished with a mark of 2-2, appearing in 26 games as a relief pitcher for the Oakland A’s.
Nebraska’s connection to Roger Maris’ great season of 1961 was Bob Cerv. The Weston native played for the Yankees three times during his 12-year career. Cerv was a roommate with Maris and Mickey Mantle during the season in which Maris hit 61 home runs, becoming the then-record for most home runs in a single season. He broke the record previously owned by the great Babe Ruth. He won two World Series with the Yanks.
His best season came in 1958 as a member of the Kansas City Athletics. He hit .305 with 38 homers and 104 RBI. He was named as an American League All-Star that season.
One of the newest members of the Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball is Huskers baseball coach Darin Erstad. Erstad was a dual-sport star for Nebraska in the early 1990s – a punter for football, as well as an All-American baseball player. Erstad, a North Dakota native, was inducted for his impact on Nebraska baseball, as a player and now the head coach.
In the Majors, Erstad won three Gold Gloves with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, as well as being a two-time All-Star. He led the American League in hits and singles during the 2000 season.
The Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball is worth a trip to St. Paul. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. during the week. You can call to set up a weekend visit.
For more information, please visit www.nebraskabaseballmuseum.com.