|Lou Brock with the "Rox"|
Monday, April 25, 2016
Remembering the old St. Cloud "Rox" of baseball
It was a plum for that Central Minnesota city to have a tie with big league baseball. Orlando Cepeda played with the Rox. Lou Brock graced the basepaths for that club. Gaylord Perry showed his pitching prowess there.
The Rox in their original incarnation, the only incarnation I care about, existed from 1946 to 1971. They played in the Northern League. It's a fascinating story that can get overlooked. Stearns County was known for having a passion for baseball. World War II was ending when a group of St. Cloud businesspeople formed the St. Cloud Baseball Association. The leader was Frank Murphy, president of the Coca-Cola Bottling Works in St. Cloud. Ah, the power of soft drink money!
I'm sure at that time, St. Cloud lived up to its reputation as a haven for German Catholics, to the extent you might feel like an outsider if you had different stripes. St. Cloud slowly took steps to being a more diverse place. The stereotype lives today although I'd argue it's mostly retro image.
Germans were never placed in internment camps like the poor Japanese. If they had been, St. Cloud would have shriveled considerably. Anyway, we beat the Germans in World War II, and in the wave of prosperity following that - the creation of the great U.S. middle class - baseball bloomed in St. Cloud. Imagine, a major league affiliate team in St. Cloud where you might see stars of the future.
Today there is a team called the Rox in St. Cloud but it doesn't have the same distinction. It rides the coattails of those old fabled Rox, using the name but not having the same prestigious major league connection. Today's Rox belong to the Northwoods summer wooden bat college league. Other teams of this type are in Alexandria and Willmar.
I don't know why the old Rox had to reach the end of the road.
Frank Murphy was quite the civic activist in St. Cloud. The St. Cloud Baseball Association sold stock. The St. Cloud Daily Times held a naming competition: "Rox" won the day, inspired by St. Cloud's reputation for granite.
Murphy tackled the logistics such as uniforms and equipment. All that was needed now was players! This was accomplished through a working agreement with the Minneapolis Millers, the high-tier Minneapolis minor league team. The Millers were good enough to be competitive with major league teams on many days. They provided a fine service to baseball fans in the Twin Cities. We might forget that the Millers were the home team at our old Metropolitan Stadium for five years, before we got the Twins! It's rather sad the Millers were so quickly forgotten after the Twins came.
This reflects a peculiar trait of minor league baseball: It's a much lower rung on the baseball ladder, by a wide difference, from the major league teams we follow each day. What's interesting is that people who make their living in baseball don't hesitate to reinforce this whole dichotomy, i.e. the majors are everything, it's the only place to be, and the minors are obscure - you want to escape it if you can. It seems rather sad.
Minor league baseball is an extensive business that ought to be promoted by the whole baseball establishment, and yet it's treated like the red-haired stepchild. I would like to think the likes of Brock, Cepeda and Perry would have fond memories of their St. Cloud stint, as it evidently was an essential step on the ladder for them. But major leaguers seem never to share inspiring words about their minor league experience. Why not? They should be more glass-half-full. You only live once.
The Millers sent players to the Rox for development and training. The first Rox team won the 1946 Northern League title. This was a Class 'C' league with teams from the Upper Midwest and Canada. Major league "parent" clubs sent young players to these teams for seasoning.
The Rox became a minor league affiliate of the Giants in 1947. Over the years, the Rox showcased players from the Cubs and Twins in addition to the Giants. The Rox won eight Northern League titles and two playoff titles in their 25-year history. Of special distinction: 61 Rox members reaching the majors after playing in St. Cloud. I don't think today's Rox can boast that kind of connection.
St. Cloud residents supported the old Rox by providing housing and of course attending games. The high water mark with attendance was in 1948, when 66,389 came through the turnstiles. The home ballpark was Municipal Stadium, located between 25th and 27th Avenues on St. Cloud's famous (or infamous) Division Street, a most busy artery.
The St. Cloud Baseball Association began each season with a parade and banquet, welcoming the new players, Catholics or not (LOL). Business-sponsored fan clubs sprouted like the Knot-hole Gang.
The Northern League faded to where just four teams were playing at the end. Finally the end came in 1971.
In 1997 a revival in baseball came to St. Cloud in the form of the "River Bats." It was a Northwoods League team. College and amateur players vie. In 2012 the River Bats changed their name to the Rox, helping keep alive memories of that original, exciting team. I'm not sure why the name "Rox" wasn't coined immediately. Maybe the original Rox were viewed in somewhat sacred terms. That wouldn't surprise me. Imagine being able to attend a baseball game in St. Cloud and seeing the likes of Lou Brock. Or Orlando Cepeda. Or Gaylord Perry. What a trip. Years later those guys would be household names in the baseball firmament.
St. Cloud would seem quite obscure in this background. But it was an essential stepping stone, the kind of stepping stone that no big leaguers should ever diss. But they do. It's just reality. I remember when Cal Ermer was interviewed at the end of his baseball career. He had gotten a shot managing the Twins in the late '60s. I think he was managing Toledo at the end. I was amused because the interviewer tried rather painstakingly to coax some positive words from Ermer about working in the minors. No dice. Ermer put his foot down saying "the majors are the only place to be."
I remember a Twins player once, last name of Becker, who slid in his fortunes and ended up playing in Fargo. There was a bit of controversy there as Becker publicly gave the "party line" about being in the minors: basically it sucks. Fargo people took it personally and I cannot blame them. I wonder if PR minds have gotten involved in baseball to discourage this kind of talk. Be positive even if you aren't feeling it. There are some worse things in life than being made to live in Fargo.
As for St. Cloud, I lived there myself in the mid-1970s, those grand disco years. I found St. Cloud to be quite the fine environment. I wasn't German and I wasn't Catholic. But I found it to be quite fine. I loved my landlords the Lommels. Here's a toast to them and to the old St. Cloud "Rox" of the Northern League. Play ball!
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org