He was a little-known architect of the deal that moved the Washington Senators baseball team to Minnesota in 1961. He discovered slugger Harmon Killebrew on a rainy night in Idaho in 1954.
Ossie Bluege might just be the most influential person in Twins history you’ve never heard of.
With the Chicago White Sox coming to Target Field this week, it’s a good time to remember the hardscrabble third baseman from Chicago who endured the sharp spikes of a sliding Ty Cobb, won a World Series in the 1920s, was manager of the year in 1945 — but also picked up an accounting degree in case his iffy knee gave out.
Born in 1900, Oswald Louis Bluege was the eldest of three brothers. Their German-born dad, Adam, worked as a nailer at a Chicago box company but then grew ill when Ossie was in grade school.
So Ossie dropped out and went to work — squeezing in time to play semipro baseball. The 1920 census lists Bluege as a clerk at a Chicago plumbing company. Then a $200 offer popped up to play minor league baseball in Peoria, Ill.
“Dad didn’t like it, but I told him if I could not make the majors in three years I’d quit and go back to pushing a pencil,” he said in 1960. “But I made the majors.”
He anchored Washington’s big-league team from 1922 to 1939, sucking up ground balls like a vacuum cleaner at third base.
“He had that smoothness that stood out,” recalled baseball’s fifth commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, who earned $1 a game as scoreboard operator as a kid in Washington. “He never seemed to strain at the position. ... I think Bluege was so quick, you never saw the rough edges. He was a natural.”
Never a drinker or smoker, the mild-mannered Bluege won three pennants and one World Series in Washington before becoming a manager. His responsibilities grew to include comptroller and scout.
When talks heated up in 1960 to relocate the Senators to Minnesota, Bluege was at the table.
“It is not generally known … that he had a major part, perhaps a determining part, in influencing the Senators to become the Twins,” Minneapolis Tribune sports columnist Dick Cullum wrote in 1971. “He favored the move, with persuasive arguments, while others in the organization were hesitant or even reluctant.”
One possible factor fueling his push to relocate: Bluege’s three daughters all attended St. Olaf College.
As the Senators’ comptroller, Bluege drew up the relocation contract terms. Seven years before the team moved, Bluege discovered Killebrew.
An Idaho senator, with an office in Killebrew’s hometown, gushed about the teenager whacking home runs in tiny Payette, Idaho. Calvin Griffith was team owner.
“I think more than anything else, just to keep Senator [Herman] Welker quiet, Mr. [Calvin] Griffith sent Ossie Bluege out to see me,” Killebrew said at his 1984 Hall of Fame ceremony. Bluege, 83, was in that crowd a year before his death.
Thirty years earlier, Bluege rented a car and drove through 60 miles of rain to get to Payette. During the long rain delay, young Killebrew sat in Bluege’s car and they talked about the team’s desire to get him to Washington. When skies suddenly cleared, Killebrew said townspeople poured gasoline on the field and lit it to dry off the moisture so the game could go on.
Killebrew promptly thumped a deep home run to left field — a rarity in a ballpark where the fence was more than 400 feet from home plate.
The next morning, Bluege paced off 435 feet, finding the ball in a beet field. He drew up a three-year contract — $6,000 a year with $4,000 annual bonuses.
Killebrew, a high school junior whose father had died, took the deal and went on to hit 573 home runs — mostly with the Twins.
Not all Bluege stories carry the aw-shucks sweetness of the Killebrew discovery.
In 1953, six years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Washington was one of the last teams without a black player.
Baseball researchers have unearthed a letter Bluege sent to the franchise’s minor league team in Chattanooga about a Cuban prospect. In it, Bluege said Raul Lago’s race would determine the team’s interest. “If he’s white all go and well, if not, he stays home. …” Bluege said, adding: “If any colored blood want to know now.”
Judging 1950s racial sensitivity through a modern lens can be tricky, but the letter lives on at tinyurl.com/Bluege-letter.
“I’ve seen the letter and I was shocked,” said Lynn Bluege-Rust, his daughter, from Grand Rapids, Minn. “All I can say is he never spoke ill of Cuban or black players and they were often guests in our home.”
Bluege died in 1985, 10 days shy of his 85th birthday, in his Edina home. He’d just returned from Washington, where he was enshrined in the city’s Hall of Stars. He’s buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Two of his daughters recently compiled his biography at tinyurl.com/BluegeBook.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.