The Buckin’ Bronks

By JOE McFARLAND

Mother Nature didn’t seem to care that the Calgary Bronchos were trying to repeat as Western Canada League champions. 

Like the best of pitchers, weather on the prairies can deliver wicked curveballs, changeups and screwballs at any time of year, and 1921 was no different. 

Little did the Bronchos and the Winnipeg Maroons know heading into their best-of-nine final series, they were about to face plenty of delays and challenging conditions to crown a victor. 

Interestingly, the weather would prove to be an apt metaphor for how the season went in the league and the turbulence coming in the offseason. 

MESS IN MOOSE JAW 

The challenges facing league president Robert Pearson began in early August when Moose Jaw Millers players went on strike. 

“Elmer Leifer and his tribe have so much back salary coming to them that they decided yesterday that it was time to quit,” read the Star-Phoenix on August 4th. “They wired to President Pearson, who replied that he would proceed to the Saskatchewan city at once to see if he could settle all differences.” 

The next day, the team’s vice president said there was no truth to the report that the players were on strike for wages, although another league meeting was in the cards. 

READ MORE: A Bronks Tale

The Millers were stuck in the league’s basement, putting together a 13-40 record in the first half and were 9-25 in the second half. 

With the enthusiasm of the players and the fans dwindling, the league took drastic action. 

“At a meeting of the Western Canada Baseball League, it was decided that as the Moose Jaw fans were unable to support a tail-end team, the aggregation will be made a road outfit and will play in the other five cities in the league in rotation,” read the Star-Phoenix on August 6th. “While arrangements have not been completed, it is probable that the league will guarantee the salaries of the players.” 

REGINA’S UNREST 

Just a few days later, the situation in Saskatchewan became even more murky. 

Despite finishing the 1920 season by making an appearance in the league final, all was not well with the Regina Senators either. 

Fan support was also on the decline and the long-term weather forecast was pointing to more heavy rains. 

With money tight, the team’s board of directors met on August 9th and decided to disband the team.  

“(League president Robert) Pearson said he was greatly surprised that Regina had quit,” said the next day’s Calgary Herald. “At the meeting held last week in Moose Jaw, the president of the Regina club stated that the team would be able to finish the season and steps were taken to hold several booster days and improve the interest of the game.” 

With the challenges already surrounding the schedule, the league decided to fold the Millers as well, leaving four of the six-team circuit to finish the season. 

STORM BEFORE THE CALM 

Even with the uncertainty around Moose Jaw and Regina in the rearview mirror, it wasn’t exactly full-steam-ahead for the four remaining teams. 

“How things are going to pan out in the Western Canada League is extremely doubtful,” stated the Calgary Herald on August 11th. “Squabbling over the readjustment of the schedule has endangered the life of the group.” 

The Herald claimed Saskatoon and Winnipeg had sent in home-heavy schedules, leading to some harsh words from Bronchos president Dr. J.H. Birch. 

“If we do not get a fair allotment of remaining games, the team will withdraw from the league,” he said. “We want to do what is fair by the other three clubs, but this game has cost the Calgary directors a considerable amount of money already and we would look foolish letting Saskatoon and Winnipeg get the bulk of home games to close out the schedule.” 

For the players on the folded teams, things weren’t any easier. 

“Things have been going mighty bad for the Moose Jaw Millers and their personal exchequers have dropped to a very low ebb,” said the August 13th edition of the Calgary Herald. “Several of the defunct club players are in Calgary now looking for places on any of the independent teams in the province, wishing to strengthen up for the closing series.” 

That weekend, the league met to finalize the schedule with each team playing a home and away game against each other during the final month of the season. 

Team photo of the 1921 Winnipeg Maroons (September 10, 1921 edition of Winnipeg Tribune)

Despite objections from the Maroons, the former Senators players were allowed to sign with other teams.  

The future of the league also took another hit thanks to the Winnipeg club. 

“According to an opinion expressed after the meeting, it is probably that Winnipeg will not be in the Western Canada League next year,” the Calgary Herald declared on August 15th. “The Maroon management stated that they are losing money on every trip west and what support they are receiving in Winnipeg does not warrant the keeping of a team on the road where such long and expensive jumps are in vogue.” 

BATTER UP 

With everything settled off the field, fans were able to turn their attention to the on-field product. 

The remaining teams wound their way through the prairie provinces with the Maroons capturing the best record in the second half with 37 wins and 22 losses. 

That set up a matchup with the Bronchos, who led the league in the first half with a 37-17 record.

Team photo of the 1921 Calgary Bronchos (September 10, 1921 edition of Winnipeg Tribune)

On September 7th, the two teams met at River Park in Winnipeg to open the series. 

Thanks to a stellar pitching performance from Tony Kaufman, the Maroons came away with a 4-1 victory. 

“Outside of an occasional blowup by the Calgary inner works, it was baseball fitting to a championship series,” read the Calgary Herald. “The teams were on their toes all the time, the pitching could hardly be excelled any place, while the spectacular fielding stunts pulled off by several players provided enough thrills to satisfy the most exacting.” 

Game 1 box score (Calgary Herald)

While the players did their part to entertain, it seemed the fans left something to be desired. 

“The crowd was hardly up to expectation though some fifteen hundred enthusiasts enjoyed the splendid exhibition of baseball provided by both sides,” continued the Herald

THE STORM’S BACK 

Rain slickers would have been the uniform of the day for game two of the Western Canada League championship. 

The two teams were able to get a few innings in, but with the Bronchos leading 2-1, umpire Tom Arundel was forced to call the game when the drizzle turned into an all-out deluge. 

They started anew the following afternoon, with the Bronchos evening out the series with a 3-0 victory. 

“Johnny Gillespie and his ‘smoke’ ball was the deciding factor in Calgary’s favour,” observed the Herald. “Johnny was working a fastball in the dark to much good effect that locals looked helpless against it, particularly in the pinch.” 

Gillespie and future Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers infielder Bernie DeViveiros led the way offensively for the Bronchos with three hits in the contest. 

Game 2 box score (Calgary Herald)

The big news after the game was that the series would shift back to Calgary early. 

“Bad weather at Winnipeg has resulted in the switching of the remaining games of the Western Canada championship baseball series to Calgary,” the Herald reported. “Rain at Winnipeg today put the clamps on chances for a doubleheader and rather than remain over and run chances of a playoff next week, the clubs decided to jump back to Calgary right away and finish the championship.” 

COWTOWN BOUND 

Had the players known what they were getting into when they headed west, they might have decided to stay in Winnipeg. 

They arrived in Alberta’s foothills to find snow and cold winds, postponing game three of the series until September 13th. 

“Snow or no snow; frost, hurricane or blizzard, the miniature world series will get underway this evening at five o’clock,” proclaimed the Calgary Herald in previewing the game. “Delay may be fatal and the Calgary ball club directors decided last evening that play would go ahead today regardless of conditions as the expense account of idle players is rapidly mounting up and the series must be cleaned off this week.” 

Game 3 box score (Calgary Herald)

They did manage to get the game in, but it ended in a 2-2 tie on account of darkness. With a mere 812 fans in attendance braving the cold, Calgary’s Charlie “Moose” Swaney and Winnipeg’s Ed Lane cooled opposition bats by combining for 16 strikeouts. 

WARMING UP 

After three games where sports writers were clamouring over the quality of the on-field product, the Wednesday double-header provided the opposite. 

“The class of ball dished up in the double-header yesterday was far from championship calibre,” said the Calgary Herald. “In fact, the evening game degenerated into a comedy affair more than anything else, and it was just as well the attendance was slack enough to leave plenty of gaps for elbow room in the grand stand and bleachers.” 

Calgary ace Karl Schnell, who went on to pitch in 11 major league games with the Cincinnati Reds in 1922-1923, was shelled in the afternoon matinee as Winnipeg claimed an 8-3 victory. 

Game 4 box score (Calgary Herald)

The Bronchos exacted revenge in the nightcap with a 12-7 victory. Carl Manda, who had played in nine games for the Chicago White Sox in 1914, went 3-for-5 with three runs scored to lead the offense. 

Game 5 box score (Calgary Herald)

Despite better weather and claims that record-setting attendance could be hit, fewer than 1,400 fans showed up for both contests. 

BRONKS TAKE LEAD 

The two teams were back in the writer’s good graces in what was dubbed a “big league exhibition” as the Bronchos secured a 6-2 victory in game six. 

Swaney, who was referred to as “Sweeney” in the newspapers, was back on the mound and he allowed just seven hits while striking out seven. 

Game 6 box score (Calgary Herald)

“Fielding and base running were smarter and the whole nine innings were carried with plenty of zip and snappy work in every department,” observed the Calgary Herald. “Both teams were fighting hard for the decision and they kept the crowd on edge throughout.” 

However, few fans could be bothered to see the championship series again, as the attendance was pegged at just 912. 

KEEPING IT CLOSE 

“No ball game is decided until the last man is out.” 

The first line of the Calgary Herald article was obviously foreshadowing what came to be in game seven of the championship series. 

Up 4-0 and holding the Maroons off the scoreboard through eight innings, the Bronchos almost let it all slip away in the ninth inning. 

“The fans were drifting towards the exits when swat after swat from the healthy willows of the easterners, safe drives found their way to the garden and the Maroons galivanteered around the lime lines at a clip that unnerved the crowd and appeared to sweep the locals off their feet,” the Herald stated.  

Despite the late inning rally, the Bronchos held on for the 4-3 victory. 

Game 7 box score (Calgary Herald)

They also received an extra boost afterwards when it was announced manager Joe Devine would return as manager for the 1922 season. 

After musing about not coming back, Birch managed to convince the skipper to return. 

“Apparently the club president’s offer was so good that Manager Joe could not refuse, so he is coming back,” reported the Herald. “He is a popular leader in this city and in view of the fact that he has already provided the city with two championship clubs, it is really an honor to have the same old boss in charge again.” 

CHAMPS AGAIN 

With the Bronchos leading the series 4-2, they needed just one win during a Saturday doubleheader to claim their second championship in as many years. 

They were aided by the challenges facing the Maroons pitching staff, which had been decimated by injuries. Winnipeg had also lost the services of Kaufman, who had signed on with the Chicago Cubs for what became an 11-year MLB career. 

“Both teams took the field with a true fighting spirit and it was evident they were out to win,” the Calgary Herald said. “Although Calgary required but the single victory to complete the championship, the boys played as if their backs were to the wall and defeat meant elimination from the series.” 

Schnell redeemed himself in a big way, leading the way with his “masterly hurling” in a 9-2 victory. He helped his own cause as well by going 3-for-3 with two doubles and three runs scored. Manda and John Mooney also picked up a trio of hits. 

Game 8 box score (Calgary Herald)

And for the first time in the series, the crowd was a factor with over 2,000 in attendance. 

SOMETHING MISSING 

Despite having more fans, the Herald’s sports writer still felt like something was missing. 

“Calgary fans did not have the same enthusiasm over Saturday’s championship fight as they did on that memorable day in the fall of 1920 when the Bronks fleeced Bill Speas’ Senators from Regina,” the article read. “Pandemonium broke loose after that 17-0 victory for Calgary, but on Saturday, there was nothing in the nature of a demonstration.” 

While the pennant would remain in Calgary, the writer lamented about the atmosphere around Victoria Park. 

“Truly there was not the same enthusiasm evinced over the game in the second half of this year’s schedule and to account for this apathy, it might be well to give cognizance to the fact that suspicion crept in among a portion of the baseball students that Calgary was not trying for the last half,” the Herald continued. “The street parade and general demonstration that followed the penant winning in 1920 was entirely lacking on Saturday.” 

SHOW ME THE MONEY 

After the final out was declared, the financial picture for the championship series and the league as a whole came into clear view. 

It wasn’t pretty. 

“The championship series in the Western Canada League was a financial failure this year,” proclaimed the Calgary Herald. “Each club suffered a deficit of approximately $670 as the expenses of the players and umpires in traveling and board and lodging ran up a big account, and the receipts at games were disappointing.” 

According to the attendance figures, more fans showed up for the final game in 1920 than the entire 1921 series. 

A breakdown of the attendance and money figures from the 1921 Western Canada League championship series. (Calgary Herald)

Fortunately for the players, they had made an arrangement to guarantee their salaries, with the teams splitting the pot 50-50 despite Calgary playing host to most of the games. The downside is that because of the low attendance, each player received just $73. 

Birch told the Herald that even with the financial reality now known, the club wasn’t discouraged by the results and “will carry on next season with the hope that fans will appreciate the effort they have been putting forth and grant better support.” 

GOING INTERNATIONAL 

With new president Deacon White at the helm, the Western Canada League’s teams met again in January 1922 to talk about the coming season. 

Regina returned to the fold but Winnipeg bowed out, anf the four-team circuit became six by adding Vancouver and Tacoma.  

The move also came with a new league name: the Western International Baseball League. 

However, just two months later, the league was down to four teams again after Regina refused to enter a team.  

“Saskatoon was anxious to have a team in the league, but with Regina out it was impossible to grant Saskatoon a franchise,” the Herald said. 

The troubles continued for the new look league, and just a few weeks into the season, it folded. 

But not before a playoff between the top two teams, the Bronchos and Edmonton Eskimos, with Calgary winning the best-of-seven in five games. 

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