Was this the best pro team in Iowa history?
Al Piechota. Otto Denning. Como Cotelle. They scan more “Moonlight Graham” than “Shoeless Joe Jackson,” but the 1933 Davenport Blue Sox were one of the greatest teams in Minor League history. They also may well be the best team to ever play pro ball in Iowa. When the Quad Cities
Al Piechota. Otto Denning. Como Cotelle.
They scan more “Moonlight Graham” than “Shoeless Joe Jackson,” but the 1933 Davenport Blue Sox were one of the greatest teams in Minor League history. They also may well be the best team to ever play pro ball in Iowa.
When the Quad Cities River Bandits suit up as the Blue Sox to take on the Cedar Rapids Kernels (playing as the Bunnies) in the MiLB at Field of Dreams game on Tuesday in Dyersville, both will draw on the legacy of historic teams. But if either is to have an edge from ghosts, the River Bandits will get a boost from the Blue Sox of ’33.
After all, if any team is capable of sending victorious vibes through an Iowa cornfield and across decades for the benefit of a descendent, it’s the 1933 Mississippi Valley League champions. This was a Class B club so potent it earned mention in national publications as “the rampaging” and “hard-hitting Davenport Blue Sox.”
At 82-32, they posted the highest winning percentage (.719, a league record) of any team in the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the American League or the National League that year, and better than that of the famed 1927 New York Yankees. They won both halves of their split-season circuit, set multiple records and brought the joy of baseball to weary people living through hard times.
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Playing in the same park where the River Bandits play their home games today, that Davenport team was helmed by Cletus Dixon, the first baseman/manager who’d led the previous year’s Blue Sox to a first-place finish before losing the title series to the Rock Island Islanders.
Dixon, aka “Dirty Neck,” was seen as a schemer by his peers, but always a very smart one. There may have been something to that. The skipper spent his winters teaching chemistry at the University of Chicago and later earned a PhD there.
“He would squawk at anything and everything if he thought it might do his cause a particle of good,” the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted in 1937, reporting that Dixon had received his doctorate. “… Though his status as a troublemaker was known to one and all, he usually got by with his bulldozing tactics.”
In ’33, he got by so well he wound up with the league’s manager of the year honors and was credited in the local press with crafting a lineup the likes of which the league had never seen. Both the Blue Sox and the Islanders started strong, but over the course of the summer Davenport separated itself definitively, burning through a 15-game winning streak from the end of July to mid-August.
By year’s end, the Blue Sox had beat the second-place Islanders in 15 out of 23 meetings and had wrapped up the season 19.5 games ahead of them. They trounced them, 4-1, in the best-of-7 championship series, too.
Clearly, this was a well-rounded ballclub. The rotation, led by future Boston Braves mop-up man ‘Pie’ Piechota, was steady from start to finish, and the defense was second on the circuit with a collective .949 fielding percentage.
But Davenport’s bats were so productive there rarely was pressure on any other aspect of its game. The Blue Sox scored more runs (887, almost eight per game) on more hits (1,213) with more home runs (830) and more doubles (242) than any other team in the league.
Ermal "Eddie" Hall, a left-handed-hitting outfielder, had a lot to do with that, setting league records with 28 roundtrippers and 151 RBIs.
Hall may have entertained thoughts of the Triple Crown if not for teammate Anthony Como "Cosmo" Cotelle, who at 5-foot-5 was once described in the press as “a mighty mite with a bat and a glove.” Despite being hospitalized with an apparent gastrointestinal issue early in the season, Cotelle set his own league record with a .407 batting average.
Sharing the outfield with Hall and Cotelle was Nick Etten, a 19-year-old who batted .357 and hit 14 homers for the Blue Sox to start a career that would make him a World Series winner with the Yankees in 1943 and an American League All-Star in 1945. Denning, a catcher, amassed 36 extra-base hits in 96 games. George Meyer, who played 24 games with the White Sox five years later, was considered the league’s best shortstop.
But beyond managerial craftiness, beyond the astonishing offensive output, even beyond the win-loss record, the Blue Sox of the 1933 Mississippi Valley League were noteworthy for bringing fans out to the ballpark in droves at the height (or nadir) of the Great Depression. This was a time when American families had little to spend on entertainment, and baseball wasn’t exempt from financial hardship. In fact, every other team in the Valley League reportedly lost money that season. The Blue Sox, meanwhile, set an attendance record.
Tallies on numbers through the gates vary by source, but that December the Sporting News listed Davenport’s season attendance as 113,398 while noting it as an outlier and correctly predicting that the Valley League’s teams would be “absorbed” elsewhere the following year.
Indeed, Davenport moved on to the Western League for ’34. Those Blue Sox came within one victory of another championship, but they couldn’t match the magic of the previous season’s club.
Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.