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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 31 2012

Eriksmoen: North Dakota car salesman organized great sports teams

A Bismarck car salesman assembled the best baseball team in the history of North Dakota and arguably also put together the greatest basketball team in the state.

The 1935 Bismarck baseball team, owned and managed by Neil Churchill, won the first-ever National Semi-pro Baseball Championship. In 1927, Churchill organized the Bismarck Phantoms, an independent basketball team. Each year from 1938 to 1941, the Phantoms were finalists in the Amateur National Tournament. In 1939 they routed the Harlem Globetrotters by a score of 70-30. From 1939 to 1946, Churchill also served as Bismarck’s mayor.

Churchill was born Feb. 13, 1891, in St. Croix Falls, Wis., 40 miles northeast of St. Paul. Churchill’s big love while growing up was sports. By 1906, he was playing baseball for a semi-pro team in Osceola, Wis. One summer, he reportedly played for 16 teams.

In 1912 and 1913, Churchill was the catcher for a powerful team in an interstate league in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The star player was Burleigh Grimes, who later was inducted into the major league Hall of Fame. In 1917, Churchill ran his own lunch room and confectionary shop in Shakopee, a Minneapolis suburb.

In 1918, Churchill started working for Lahr Motor Sales Co. in Bismarck. Churchill continued playing baseball, playing outfield for the Bismarck Grays. In 1923, he got a job in Minneapolis with the Maxwell-Chrysler Automobile Agency as an assistant supervisor. Meanwhile, Wickham Corwin, who owned a dealership in Bismarck selling Buick, Saxon and Mitchell automobiles, believed he needed to gear up for a new automobile introduced in 1924 – Chrysler. In 1925, Churchill invested in Wickham Corwin’s auto dealership in Bismarck and it was named Corwin-Churchill Motors.

With the dealership doing a brisk business, Churchill decided to pursue additional interests in 1926. He agreed to become manager of the Bismarck Grays. In 1927, he purchased the Van Horn Hotel from Edmond Hughes and renamed it the Prince Hotel. Later that year, Churchill organized the Bismarck Phantoms.

As pilot of both the Grays and Phantoms, Churchill successfully produced winning records with both teams. He purchased the Grays in 1933 and began stocking the team with the best available players he could find. A bitter rivalry existed between the Grays and the Jamestown Red Sox. Both teams had African-American players. Churchill signed pitcher Roosevelt Davis, catcher Quincy Trouppe and infielder Red Haley, but they could not win when Barney Brown was on the mound for Jamestown.

With the season winding down, Churchill called Abe Saperstein, owner/coach of the Harlem Globetrotters. Churchill told him, “Get me someone who can beat Barney Brown.” Saperstein suggested that he could get Satchel Paige, “If the money’s right.” On Aug. 10, 1933, Paige signed a contract and went 7-0, as Bismarck beat out Jamestown for the state championship.

Churchill had a verbal agreement with Paige for the next season and built a new 3,000-seat ballpark to accommodate the expected fan turnout. Paige did not return to Bismarck in 1934, but Churchill still had a good team with a 61-18 record, finishing behind Jamestown.

Churchill secured the services of Paige in 1935, pried Double-Duty Radcliffe away from Jamestown, and added Negro League all-star pitcher Hilton Smith. Bismarck cruised to the state title and went on to win the National Semi-pro Baseball Championship.

The Bismarck Phantoms team was a Churchill creation. In 1933 and 1934, they were called the Prowlers. The heydays for the Phantoms were from 1938 to 1941, when they dominated most of their opponents. The four-star players on those teams were college all-conference players. Bob Finnegan from Bismarck and Emmet Birk from Park River played for a dominant University of North Dakota team. Russ Anderson from Litchville and Charles “Acey” Olson from Fargo were stars for the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University).

At the conclusion of the 1938-39 season, the Phantoms went to the Amateur National Tournament in Atlanta. In the third quarter of the semi-final game, the team was down to only four players because of fouls. Still, they lost by only two points. During the 1939-40 season, the Phantoms shocked the sports world by clobbering the fabled Globetrotters.

Churchill was a master salesman, turning the Corwin-Churchill Motor Co. to one of the largest dealerships in the state. In 1935, he opened the Corwin-Churchill appliance dealership in Bismarck. In 1937, the company purchased Murphy Motor in Fargo, and Corwin moved there to head up that operation.

In 1939, Churchill was elected mayor of Bismarck and held that office until 1946. In 1952, Churchill retired from his company and sold his share of the business to the Corwin family. He moved to California, where he died on Sept. 30, 1969.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.