The appetite for baseball in this area goes much further back than the day Calvin Griffith brought the Washington Senators here in 1961 and turned them into the Twins.
Those who loved the sport were able to follow local teams such as the Minneapolis Millers and see the future greats of the game. They filled Nicollet Park and watched Ted Williams take aim at the short porch in right. They watched Willie Mays go on an incredible 35-game tear before leaving for the New York Giants and a Hall of Fame career. They lined up for rivalry games against the St. Paul Saints, as the Millers enjoyed a long run before Major League Baseball arrived.
"As I talked to people who went to games at Nicollet Park and were fans, they didn't feel like they were missing out on anything by not having major league baseball here," local baseball historian Stew Thornley said. "I really think it's people of my generation who know nothing but the Twins, which is great. We're the ones who missed out on the Millers and the Saints and that great minor league heritage."
The Twins will tip a cap to the Millers on Saturday when they wear replicas of their 1951 uniforms during the second game of a day-night doubleheader against Kansas City. The Royals, in turn, will wear replicas of the Kansas City Blues, one of the teams the Millers faced while playing in the American Association. The first 20,000 fans to arrive at Target Field for the game will receive a Millers pennant.
The Millers uniforms are white with orange and black stripes and lettering, matching the color scheme of the New York Giants, which were their affiliate at the time. Twins catcher Drew Butera, who modeled one of the uniforms Monday, noted that the uniforms even came with stirrups.
"We really don't wear those anymore," he said, "but it's pretty cool to pay tribute to Minnesota baseball, old-time baseball."
The Millers, named for the city's flour milling heritage, played here starting in 1884, then from 1886-1891 and from 1894-1960. From 1886-1955, they played their games at Nicollet Park, located off Nicollet Avenue between Lake and 31st streets. They moved to Metropolitan Stadium in 1956 and were there through 1960 before the Twins moved in before the 1961 season.
During the Millers' time, 17 future Hall of Famers suited up for the team including Williams, Mays, Monte Irvin, Orlando Cepeda and Carl Yastrzemski.
That doesn't include many other noteworthy players. Moe Berg, who later served as a spy for the U.S. government, played with the Millers in 1924. Pumpsie Green played with the Millers in 1958-59 before joining the Red Sox, the last major league team to have a black player on their roster. Future major league managers Gene Mauch and Chuck Tanner were teammates on the 1959 Millers.
"While generations of residents may not even be aware of the Minneapolis Millers, or that a [10,000]-seat ballpark once stood at 31st and Nicollet, we're proud to celebrate and remember this important time in Minnesota baseball history," Twins curator Clyde Doepner said.
Local fan Jerry Wallner had another reason to follow the Millers. His father, Fred, was a part-time catcher for them.
Wallner, 71, remembers the mornings when he would eat breakfast, then hop in the car with his father for the drive from north Minneapolis to Nicollet Park for games.
"It was a traditional thing," Wallner said, "Mom would make eggs on toast and ketchup on eggs, which Dad liked. Tasted just like shrimp."
Jerry Wallner was sometimes the batboy, giving him a great view of the game.
"It was like a bandbox," Wallner said. "The fans were right up close to home plate and people were on you and everybody was kind of dressed up with white shirts and ties and hats. It was a unique experience."
The park's right-field foul pole was only 279 feet away, making lefthanded hitters drool. Joe Hauser hit 202 home runs from 1932-36, including 69 in 1933, then a professional record. Thornley refers to Hauser as "the greatest Miller of them all." A 40-foot fence in right field protected businesses across from the park.
The Millers' rivals, of course, were the St. Paul Saints, who were a Brooklyn Dodgers affiliate at the time. The teams would play as many as 22 games a season. On holidays, the teams would play a doubleheader during which a day game would be played at one park and a night game at the other. Many fans rode a trolley line connecting Nicollet Park and Midway Stadium in St. Paul to watch both games.
"The catcalls were ongoing," Wallner said of those games.
Wallner's father was only a part-time player because he had another job. Fred Wallner was a Minneapolis cop who was on the force from 1939-77. Jerry figures his father, who died in 2005, was reluctant to give up the paycheck to pursue baseball full-time, or he would have.
"I cherished those times," Jerry Wallner said.
The Wallner family will be on hand Saturday. They have donated Fred Wallner's uniform to the Twins.
"If Dad would have been able to, he would have been so grateful," Jerry Wallner said, "because he loved baseball and was good at it."