With laughs, a few tears, some fireworks and one last slightly daft promotion (the Monster Food Truck Rally), the curtain fell last week on baseball at Midway Stadium, marking yet another transition in the long and colorful history of the St. Paul Saints, who next year move to new digs in downtown’s Lowertown neighborhood.
In the batting cage a couple of hours before the game, Saints manager George Tsamis pitched to Dave Stevens, the former star athlete from Augsburg College born with no legs who created a national stir when he played with the Saints in 1996. Stevens was among a slew of former players honored later during the game.
Ila Borders, another barrier-crashing pioneer who pitched for the Saints in 1997, was also there. Both made history.
The latest incarnation of the Saints, launched in 1993 by co-owners who include Mike Veeck and Bill Murray, have made fun a central part of their identity. The return of Stevens and Borders was a reminder of a time when the Saints’ tradition of inclusion had even deeper meaning.
Roy Campanella was more than ready for the major leagues when the 1948 baseball season was about to begin. But Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who had made history the year before by introducing Jackie Robinson to major league baseball, had other ideas for the rookie catcher.
Robinson had nearly taken his first earthshaking step to the majors with the Saints. But the hostile reception he received in Southern cities in the American Association, the Saints’ league, had convinced Rickey to place Robinson with his team’s minor league affiliate in Montreal.
Instead, he tapped “Campy” to take on the role of racial pioneer in the American Association. The future Hall of Famer reluctantly agreed. But his stellar play made him a hit with fans, who were deeply disappointed when he joined Robinson on the Dodgers after just six weeks. Mission accomplished.
A Saints-connected footnote to that history: Bill Veeck, Mike’s dad, signed Larry Doby to the Cleveland Indians just 11 weeks after Robinson — making Doby the first African-American in the American League.