They were on the brink of elimination. Their backs were against the wall. It was win or go home.
You could trot out every cliche in the sports book, as the Calgary Bronchos tried to keep their Western Canada League championship hopes alive in 1920.
After losing the first three games of their best-of-nine series in Regina against the Senators, the Bronchos clawed their way back into the series in front of their hometown fans for the final six contests.
They split the next two games, setting up the nearly-impossible task of winning each of the next four games. To tell you how rare that feat is, just one team in Major League Baseball (MLB) history has ever come back in a playoff series to win four-straight after being pushed to the point of elimination: the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
The Bronchos were in trouble. What happened next wasn’t just improbable or incredible.
In the eyes of a few, the fix was in.
The 1920 championship series saw the top team in the first half of the season face the best squad from the second half in a best-of-nine. And it was fitting to see Regina and Calgary in that series.
With player-manager Bill Speas at the helm, the Senators were the team to beat heading into July. They sported a 37-12 record to finish with six more wins than the Bronchos.
The Calgary side, led by manager Joe Devine, returned the favour in the second half, putting together a 41-22 mark, which was five more wins than the second-place Senators.
Through the course of the season, the two teams faced off numerous times, with both taking home their share of nailbiters and blowouts.
Both franchises also featured players who had either spent time in Major League Baseball, or had a future date in the big leagues. The Bronchos had Milt Steengrafe, Nelson “Chicken” Hawks and Walter “Cuckoo” Christensen, while the Senators were anchored by a pair of former pros in Herman Pillette and Bert Whaling.
At the onset, the league’s most fearsome hitters were on display against the circuit’s prime pitchers. Hawks led the WCL in batting average (.359), hits and stolen bases while Christensen was third in average. On the other side, Regina’s Joe Dailey posted 15 wins while Pillette and Al Zweifel had 14 apiece.
This was setting up to be a final series for the ages, but no one could have guessed what they were in for.
QUEEN CITY OPENING
Things couldn’t have gone better for the Senators when the series began on September 7, 1920. Coming off a six-game winning streak to end the regular season (including a no-hitter by Pillette against Moose Jaw), Regina picked up right where they left off by beating Calgary 5-1 to open the series.
“The Bronks proved as soft as a half-minute egg for the Senators,” wrote the Regina Leader-Post. “The Devinites were expected to provide formidable opposition, but they curled up like lettuce leaves bitten by the frost and proved easy victims.”
Following a 7-6 Senators win in game two, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix featured the headline: “Senators look like West Canada League Champs.”
And their winning ways continued in game three, although it was another close contest with the Bronchos falling 9-8.
All the Senators needed to do was win two of their next six games to claim their first championship.
The first chink in the Senators armour showed as the teams came to Calgary for the remainder of the series. In game four, the Bronchos’ offense came to life in an 8-3 win at the Victoria Park ballpark.
Regina was able to bounce back in game five with another close 5-3 win, meaning they just needed to claim one more game out of the next four.
“Now that the series stands four games to one, there seems no doubt that the series will be over tomorrow night,” described the Leader-Post, also claiming the win was proof the Sens were the best road team in the league.
“The Regina players were booed continually, but this made no appreciable difference in their play. In fact, they seemed to thrive in a strange park.”
The Bronchos faced their first elimination challenge in game six and held on for an 8-4 victory.
Home field advantage continued in game seven as the Bronks’ bats were bashing in an 11-3 win.
“Calgary administered the most crushing defeat of the entire series to the would-be champion Regina ball team here last night,” wrote the Calgary Herald. “The Bronks unleashed some of the finest baseball seen this season.”
“Two days ago, the cause of Calgary’s team looked hopeless.”
And with their playoff lives still hanging in the balance, the Bronchos somehow tied the series up in game eight with a blowout 15-5 triumph.
“After standing on the very portal of victory since last Monday evening when they notched their fourth victory over the Calgary Bronks, defeat now stares the Regina Senators in the face, for they were swept under a frightful avalanche of hits and their fielding strength drained of its effectiveness by costly errors last night,” wrote the Herald.
The Leader-Post headline was much more to the point: “Senators Play Like a Bunch of Bushers.”
Losing three-straight games like that had many begging for answers. While the newspaper wrote there were “no excuses” for the meltdown in game eight, the writer still pointed towards over-confidence, some bad bounces because of a poor infield and a missed strike three call against Hawks that led to a walk, keeping one inning alive and rattling the Senators.
Even the Herald reporter noticed the tide shift on that one play.
“Burke at third took the greatest offense at the ump’s verdict and he paid for his uneasy conduct by allowing four errors to go to his credit and they were all costly breaks,” the story read. “Time after time, the ball punctured the Regina infield defence when it should have been played and the local boys traveled the paths with dashing speed and hammered ’em out in bunches so that the runners crossing the plate reminded one of a crowd flocking to a bargain sale.”
MAKING THE IMPOSSIBLE, POSSIBLE
Eleven days after the final series started, it would all come down to this. A winner-take-all game nine, which seemed all but impossible just a few days earlier.
Momentum was clearly on the Bronchos’ side as they took the field on September 18, 1920.
The two teams had a day off between games eight and nine, which allowed for the buzz to grow for fans.
“Never in the annals of sport in Calgary has there been such excitement aroused as that attending the final game of the championship baseball series,” wrote the Herald. “Fans from all over the province reached the city this morning to see the great struggle for the pennant and the sale of tickets has been even greater than estimated by local directors and the management is exerting every effort to provide accommodation for the crowd at the park.”
A record 5,711 fans were in attendance for the deciding game.
“So large was the crowd that fans had to be accommodated around the outfield and along the front of the bleacher fence,” the Herald article said. “They squatted down in close formation and jammed every available section of the ground from where they could catch a glimpse of the game.”
What they witnessed was something no one could have ever predicted: utter domination by the home team.
Milt Steengrafe turned in a masterful performance on the mound, allowing just two runners past first base, while the offense dismantled the pitching of Senators’ ace Herman Pillette for a second-straight game as the Bronchos blanked the Senators 17-0.
“The high tension to which the Regina players had been strained during the last few games of the final series made itself evident in Saturday’s final, for the very backbone of team organization snapped and ten costly errors were registered marking the complete disruption of morale of the club,” the Herald reported.
“Coming from behind and nosing out their rivals in the race, the local boys established history for themselves as a fighting club and their spirit of determination proved the deciding factor in the uphill struggle for the gonfalon.”
Reiterating what the Leader-Post had written following the eighth game, the Herald didn’t write too kindly about the Senators.
“The Regina boys looked like a bunch of bushers and not a team that had qualified for the playoff with Joe Devine’s colts,” the article stated. “They fumbled grounders, threw wild to the bases, bungled fly balls and did everything else that could be charged up to a novice club.”
“Fans had either underestimated the strength of the Bronks or overestimated the ability of the Senators, for the final game was decisive proof of the complete supremacy of the locals.”
Either way, Calgary fans were treated to celebrations after the game, including a parade through the streets of the city.
Meanwhile, absolute shock overtook fans in Regina, with many wondering how their team could have let victory slip through their fingers.
Following the game, Senators manager Bill Speas put on a brave face, acknowledging the crushing blow his team had been dealt.
“We were beaten decisively and I have absolutely no alibi to offer,” the player-coach told the Herald. “The punch of our team failed at the critical time and although we tried to rally and offset the defeat, the Calgary club had gained wonderful confidence and beat us out.”
In Regina though, rumours started to swirl about how a team in control of a series like that could fall apart to the point that they “looked like boobs” in the eyes of the Leader-Post.
“These charges included statements that certain members of the Regina club laid down,” the Leader-Post stated. “If it is so, then the players implicated should be run out of baseball just as they are doing in the Coast League.”
The Pacific Coast League had been embroiled in a gambling scandal involving the Vernon Tigers over the previous couple of years. And the infamous Black Sox scandal was still front and centre for many fans, who believed there was something amiss with the Western Canada League’s final result as well.
“If no outside influence entered into the following games, well and good,” wrote the Leader-Post. “If, however, men were bought, and many reports in that effect are prevalent here, it is time a complete investigation was made.”
Speas was also quoted in that story, saying he had “no proof of collusion.”
The integrity of the Senators’ lineup was actually first questioned in a Calgary Herald article the day before the final game.
“It has been questioned whether at all times the Regina Senators have played with equal vigour and determination,” the editorial asked. “If they have not and if they lose the championship because of a departure from the spirit of good sportsmanship, then the penalty that falls on them will be sweet, poetic justice and will be a lesson that will never be forgotten.”
So many questions were quickly being left behind as players returned home following the final game.
Did anyone throw the series? How many players “laid down”? Who did it? And why?
In its quest to get to the bottom of the rumours, the Regina Leader-Post continued to follow up with questions for team authorities.
In the September 21st edition of the paper, several quotes were attributed to high-ranking officials, including team president E.L.H. Smith.
“We have no proof as yet of anything wrong,” Smith said. “But we are striving to get it, and if successful, will hold an investigation to prove the integrity of baseball.”
Other directors echoed those sentiments, citing a lack of evidence being brought forward. They were, however, open to the possibility of an investigation should they learn something different.
Over the next several days and weeks, things in Regina calmed down dramatically. A reason for that might be found in the Calgary Herald a day after the Leader-Post questioned Senators’ brass.
“Regina bemoans the loss of the Western Canada League baseball championship simply because the Senators failed to finish the playoff at the same successful clip opened,” the article stated. “And a worthy juggler of the wily quill in the eastern town has taken upon himself to stir up feeling by declaring that some of the Senators were ‘laying down.'”
Could it be? Could it all have been manufactured by a newspaper writer in Regina?
“President E.L.H. Smith, of the Regina club, wired a message of congratulation to Dr. J.H. Birch, as president of the Calgary club, and stated that the series was ‘absolutely above any suspicion,'” the writer continued. “Had there been any hint of scandal in connection with the series, surely the directors would be the first to demand an investigation, for upon them rested the responsibility of the club’s reputation and not upon the newspaper that criticizes them unfairly.”
The Calgary scribe went on to cite other sound victories the Bronks had at home against Regina and how home field advantage was something even Speas admitted was a major factor all year for the Bronks. He then took his Regina counterpart to task once more.
“It is most unfair for any critic to try and minimize the complete force of the triumph achieved by the Calgary boys when such a limp weapon as ‘laying down’ is charged against a home club.”
While nothing more was said about the accusations, an announcement late in the year might make one scratch their head.
In November, the Senators announced that Speas would return as the team’s manager in 1921. However, it came with a caveat.
“On his acceptance of terms, Bill said that he intended to trade catcher Whaling to some Western League club and he also intended trading some other members of the 1920 aggregation,” the Leader-Post reported.
Was Speas ashamed of his team’s loss and wanted to get rid of many of the players who lost in the final? Or was there something more at play?
Nothing more was ever said, however Speas’ plan didn’t pay off, as Senators folded in early-August citing poor fan support.
As for the Bronchos, they went on to repeat as Western Canada League champions when they downed Winnipeg in eight games.
And without controversy.