April 26, 2018

The Milwaukee Tigers-Like the Sound of it?

May 12, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

As citizens of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we can look back and say what if. What if the Detroit Tigers had been transferred to Milwaukee. We would have rooted for Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich and Prince Fielder. (Well, we did cheer for him longer than Detroit fans had a chance to.) How close are these dreams to reality?

In November and December 1903 there was a story going in the press that Milwaukee might be back in the major leagues, having lost its American League franchise to St. Louis after the 1901 season. American League president Ban Johnson was in Detroit looking for someone to purchase the Tigers from S.F. Angus. There was a story about that Clark Griffith, manager of the New York Highlanders, would purchase the Tigers, but most thought this unlikely. However, there must have been something to it, as Johnson stated “I understand the persons he was depending on to help him out with the financial part of the transaction have dropped out.”

As early as November 11 it had been reported in the press that Milwaukee businessman August Koch was in Detroit trying to buy the American League ball club and move it to Milwaukee. Nothing definite had been done, but it was known that Charles Somers, owner of the Cleveland American League club, was also in the Michigan city working with Ban Johnson in disposing of the club, with the aim to keep it in Detroit. It was thought that even if Koch would be successful in getting the franchise it would remain in Detroit. Johnson insisted that the club stay in Detroit, even if the American League had to carry it for a time.

Few believed the Tigers would be moved to Milwaukee. The Sporting Life correspondent from Detroit wrote this:

Despite what may be said or printed, the ownership of the club will not go outside of the town. Steps have already been taken toward having the League assume the club’s obligations if necessary. This matter was discussed by Messrs. Johnson and Somers yesterday and it was practically decided that if local purchasers were not found within a fortnight the League should step in…Should the League take the club it would carry it along until it had decided to whose hands it should be placed.

The outside offer that is most discussed is that that followed the one made by Griffith. Milwaukee parties being the would-be purchasers. Koch, who made one unsuccessful effort to break into Detroit baseball, is at the head of this syndicate. In Milwaukee it is possible to play Sunday baseball. That is the one advantage that that town possesses. The parties there are willing to pay a liberal price for the club, but they will not be considered. Milwaukee has once been abandoned by the American League, and that organization has never yet retraced its steps. Going into Milwaukee would simply be paying the American Association $2500 to put a team into Detroit, for the moment that this city was abandoned the Association, which already covets the territory, would step in here. It costs the sum named for a major league to take territory from a minor league. Milwaukee, under the terms of the Cincinnati Peace Agreement, could not be invaded by the American without the National League’s consent.

Ban Johnson was talking with Phillip H. McMillan, in hopes of the latter purchasing the club, but McMillan dropped out. As the Milwaukee Daily News put it: “He [Johnson] sought purchasers and the latter responded, but when they found that real money was asked, the situation looked different to them. There was no buyer. One of the bidders was Gus Koch of this city.” The Evening Wisconsin reported it a bit different, writing: “Gus Koch of Milwaukee was approached to go into the deal, but he has taken to the horses at Latonia [the race track in Covington, Kentucky] and will follow them.” This left Ban Johnson where he started, so far as getting a local owner for the club was concerned. It was now thought an outside offer would be accepted and Ed Barrow would be retained as manager, keeping the team in Detroit.

Again in December the story made the newspapers. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported a Milwaukee man made an offer to purchase the Detroit team and transfer the team to Milwaukee. It had been reported the club lost money and its future was not bright, partially because Sunday ball was not permitted in Detroit. None other than Henry Killilea, the Milwaukee lawyer who owned the Boston American League club, confirmed the story. No name of the prospective purchaser was given out, but Killilea said he heard a number of board of trade men had pooled together money for the purpose. However, Killilea added: “The Detroit people are a little more reluctant to sell at present than they were, but if the deal goes through it looks as if Milwaukee would again be back in the American League.” Killilea also said the new team would play at the old Western League grounds at North 16th and West Lloyd Streets. The Boston owner emphasized he had no personal or financial interests in the proposition.

The Evening Wisconsin reported American League magnates felt that Milwaukee, with a very reduced salary limit and with Sunday ball, would be just as strong as Detroit without Sunday ball. The newspaper also said the offer of the unnamed Milwaukee men was “no bluff.”

The Milwaukee Sentinel thought the fact that the bona fide offer was being seriously considered, along with “the strategic features of Milwaukee, and the reasonableness of the thing, all combine to make it possible that Milwaukee will next year be an American League city.” The Milwaukee Journal was not of this opinion, writing the next day:

Cold weather is said to have driven some people to desperation and it must have been in an effort to keep warm that some joker started a hot baseball story to the effect that there was a chance of Milwaukee getting back into the American League next season. According to the way the story goes the Detroit franchise is to be handed back to Milwaukee. On paper the story looks real nice but don’t try to examine it too closely.

In Detroit they say ‘Nit’ with a great big ‘N’ to the story and claim that the only foundation on which to base it was the fact the Gus Koch happened to make a bid for the club, with the idea of keeping it just where it was. The lease on the old American League grounds [i.e. the Lloyd Street grounds] runs out this spring and it has been rumored that they will be cut up into building lots. There are also a hundred other reasons why the change will not be made and but very few in its favor, so despite the cold weather, we will have to pass it by.

In Detroit it was reported the rumor was indeed false. A special dispatch to the Sentinel reported that Gus Koch had indeed made an offer to purchase the franchise some time back, but was turned down. The week before other men from the Cream City tried to purchase the Tigers. The owners gave the offer considerable thought, but decided to keep the franchise in Detroit. No one was giving out the names of the men offering to purchase the club.

Koch denied his involvement in this story altogether. He said under no circumstances would he invest in any American League franchise as long as Ban Johnson was head of the organization. He said he had made no offer for the Detroit club, and had not been in Detroit in three years. His only knowledge of the affair was his receiving messages while in Cincinnati in November that the Detroit club was for sale and inviting him to bid. He said he declined to do so.

Ban Johnson then came out with a statement that the American League circuit would remain unchanged the next year. In December the Detroit club became owned by a “Triumvirate” of Samuel F. Angus, Frank J. Navin and William H. Yawkey. In February 1904 Angus sold out his entire interests to Yawkey, who was now majority owner of the franchise.

A final note here on the aforementioned Gus Koch. Koch was a Milwaukee businessman. For a long time he owned a saloon on East Water Street (now North Water Street) but retired when Milwaukee became a “tight town”. His obituary said: “for years he was proprietor of a gaming house on East Water Street, and that business is said to have netted him a large fortune.” In the 1890s he also conducted vaudeville shows in the Exposition Building, with future American Association president Joseph O’Brien, but the venture sustained heavy losses that resulted in a lawsuit against O’Brien. At the time of his death in 1907 Koch was a wealthy man with considerable property interest on the west side of Milwaukee, in addition to property in other cities.

August "Gus" Koch

August “Gus” Koch

Koch loved horses, but his hobby was baseball. He was involved in 1900 with the formation of a proposed major league, called the National Association, being the holder of the Philadelphia franchise. However, when the American League took over cities that the National Association intended to set teams up in—including Philadelphia–, the National Association idea died. In early 1901, supposedly with National League backing, a new American Association was to be formed to fight against the newly independent American League. Koch and Joseph O’Brien, were to head the Detroit franchise However, the financial backing of the National League never materialized and by February this American Association was also dead. It was reported Koch lost $6,000 in the venture. Koch, obviously bitter, told the Detroit Journal: “Faro, poker, roulette and the horses are gentlemen’s games compared to the game of the magnates. In the former a player has a chance; in the latter, you have no chance on earth. Now, a good, decent-looking porch-climber has my admiration. He will take a chance to get the coin, but when you deal with National League baseball magnates you are given the dope in a glass of sparkling champagne, and when you wake up you find the magnates have changed from Dr. Jekyls to Mr. Hydes. Oh, yes, I woke up all right.”

In the late summer of 1902 there had been talk of Detroit and Baltimore being jettisoned from the American League and Pittsburgh and New York taking their place in 1903. Part of this report was that Boston American owner Henry J. Killilea (also a Milwaukee man) would take over the new New York franchise, and Koch would purchase the Boston club from Killilea. There was even a report Killilea wanted to purchase the Detroit club and move it to Milwaukee. These stories were empathically denied by Killilea, who kept the Boston Americans, winning the 1903 pennant and World Series. In 1906 Koch finally realized his dream and purchased the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Koch only owned the Minneapolis club for two months, selling it to Michael and Joseph Cantillon. [Another story for another day.]


2 Responses to “The Milwaukee Tigers-Like the Sound of it?”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    So instead, Detroit became the only AL club to stay in its original city from the league’s founding in 1894 as the Western League until it merged with the NL after the 1999 season.

    Dennis, according to the Sporting Life (http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/SportingLife/1908/VOL_50_NO_21/SL5021009.pdf), Yawkey owned 50% of the stock, not quite a majority. Or maybe he gave up some shares when he resigned as president?

  2. Dennis Pajot says:


    My source was Sporting Life of February 13, 1904. The article stated “Mr. Yawkey…bought a half interest in the team about two months ago, and last week acquired the balance of Mr. Angus’ stock. The other stockholders are Frank Navin, the club’s secretary, and E.G. Barrow, the manager.”

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