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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published February 09 2013

Eriksmoen: Record-setting pitcher played baseball in North Dakota

The man who threw the first official pitch in the American League was also the first pitcher to win an American League game. This record-setting hurler spent three years playing baseball in North Dakota. Roy Patterson was a pitcher with the Northern League pennant-winning Fargo Grain Growers in 1915 and the pitcher/manager of the Wahpeton-Breckenridge Twins of the Dakota League in 1921 and 1922.

The eight-team American League became a rival of the National League in 1901. The season began on April 24, 1901, and Clark Griffith, the manager of the Chicago White Stockings, selected Patterson to start the home opener against the Cleveland Blues (now the Indians). Patterson went the distance as Chicago won 8-2. Patterson and Griffith were the two star pitchers, both winning 20 or more games as Chicago won the first American League pennant.

Roy Lewis Patterson was born Dec. 17, 1876, in Stoddard, Wis., to Riley and Martha Patterson. When Roy was 5, his family moved to St. Croix Falls, Wis., located on the Minnesota border, 50 miles northeast of Minneapolis. In his late teens, Patterson played amateur and semi-pro ball with teams in the St. Croix Falls and New Richmond area. In 1898, he was the star pitcher for a team in Duluth that agreed to play an exhibition game against the St. Paul Saints, one of the best teams in minor league baseball. Patterson pitched for Duluth, and the team pulled off an upset, beating the Saints. The owner of the Saints, Charles Comiskey, was so impressed with Patterson’s performance that he signed him to a contract for the next season.

Comiskey had played major league ball from 1882 to 1894 and had managed teams in 12 of the 13 years he was in the majors. In 1895, he purchased the Sioux City Cornhuskers of the Western League and moved the franchise to St. Paul. Comiskey soon built the Saints into one of the strongest teams in minor league baseball. Patterson started the 1899 season with Duluth. Comiskey called him up later that year, and he pitched 51 innings with the Saints.

In 1900, Ban Johnson, president of the Western League, along with team owners like Comiskey, began pushing to start a new major league. That year, they formed the American League, and Comiskey moved his franchise to Chicago. Despite the fact that Patterson was the youngest player on his team, Comiskey, who was also the manager, put the young man in his starting rotation, and he responded by going 17-8. The White Stockings became the dominant team in the league, with every player eventually making it to the major leagues.

In 1901, the American League was formally recognized as a major league. Comiskey brought eight players from his 1900 team with him and signed a number of other established major leaguers. A key acquisition was Clark Griffith, who had strung together six straight 20-win seasons for the Chicago Cubs. In turn, “Griffith persuaded 39 players to sign on with the new league for the 1901 season.” He was named manager of the White Stockings, and Chicago won the first American League pennant, finishing four games ahead of the second-place Boston Americans (now Red Sox).

The season began on April 24, and all eight American League teams were scheduled to take part with games at Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago. The Chicago game was scheduled last, but when the other three games were rained out, the distinction of tossing the first American League pitch went to Patterson. More than 100,000 fans jammed the park to watch him go the distance in an 8-2 victory over the Cleveland Blues.

In 1902, Patterson was the ace of the staff, going 20-12, but Chicago fell to fourth place. Griffith left after that season, and the White Stockings, under Nixey Callahan as manager, dropped to seventh in 1903. Despite the fact that Chicago finished 17 games under .500, Patterson had a respectable 14-15 record and an earned run average of 2.70.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Chicago was the worst hitting team and was referred to as “the hitless wonders.” That meant the heavy lifting was left to the pitchers to keep the team in the games. As the primary workhorse during the first three years, Patterson’s arm began to tire, and in 1904, he appeared in only 22 games. In 1905, he started out great but hurt his elbow and was out most of the season. Patterson was used in only 13 games but had an outstanding 1.80 ERA.

In 1906, Chicago became involved in a “dogfight for the American League flag.” In early August, they were in fourth place behind Philadelphia, New York and Cleveland. Manager Fielder Jones employed Patterson in a hectic pace to try to make up ground, and Chicago won 19 games in a row, overtaking the other teams and winning the pennant. However, the overuse on Patterson’s arm took its toll, and he was unable to pitch in the World Series. After the 1907 season, he had enough and signed to play with the Minneapolis Millers, 50 miles from his home.

Manager and co-owner of the Millers in 1908 was Mike Cantillon. He saw Patterson as his best pitcher and employed him in more than 300 innings, going 21-13. After a so-so year in 1909, Mike brought in Joe Cantillon, his brother, to manage the team. Joe had been manager of the Washington Senators, so Patterson was familiar with him. Joe had also been an umpire in the Western League when Patterson played in 1899. From 1910 through 1912, the “Millers were the best minor league team of the Deadball Era.” During those seasons, Patterson went 21-12, 24-10, and 21-9.

Patterson also had good seasons in 1913 and 1914 with the Millers. Meanwhile, the Cantillon brothers had reorganized the Northern League in 1913 as a feeder system to supply good players for the Millers. The Winnipeg Maroons needed a new manager in 1915, and the brothers urged Patterson to take the position as manager/pitcher. John Burmeister was owner of the Maroons, and Patterson was not able to get along with him.

On July 8, the owner fired his manager, and the Fargo Grain Growers, who were in second place, 12 games behind Ft. William, quickly snatched him up. Bob Unglaub was Fargo’s manager and had played with Patterson in 1912 when they were both with the Millers. Fargo went 42-25 the rest of the season, overtaking Ft. William for the league championship. On the season, Patterson was 21-5.

In 1916, Patterson returned to the Western League, playing with St. Joseph. With the shortage of good baseball players because of World War I, the Cantillons brought Patterson back to play for the Millers in 1917, 1918, and 1919. In 1920, Patterson returned to St. Croix Falls to help his father run his freight hauling business.

Meanwhile, the Cantillons formed another league that, in 1921, was called the Dakota League. Seven teams were from South Dakota and the other one, the Wahpeton-Breckenridge Twins, was from North Dakota. Newspaper publisher Robert J. Hughes owned the Twins, and when he asked the Cantillons who would be a good manager, they recommended Patterson, despite the fact that he had not pitched for a year and was 44 years old. Patterson stayed in shape by swimming and playing tennis every day during the summer and playing hockey during the winter. In 1921, the Twins finished third, going 55-43, but after his team was decimated by new teams from Fargo, Jamestown and Valley City raiding his team, the Twins dropped to seventh in 1922 going 42-55. As a pitcher, Patterson was 8-5 and 3-6 for the two seasons.

Patterson returned to St. Croix Falls, where he eventually took over his father’s enterprise. In April 1949, he was brought back to Minneapolis to throw out the ceremonial first pitch as the Millers celebrated their 50th anniversary. He loved following baseball, but there was no major league team nearby. Patterson was excited to hear that the Boston Braves franchise was moving to Milwaukee, in his home state, in 1953. The first game was to be played on April 14, and with anticipation, he was on his way home to listen to the game when he suffered a heart attack and died. Eight years later, Calvin Griffith, the son of his former manager, would bring a team even closer when he moved the Washington Senators franchise to Minneapolis.

On April 16, 1963, Patterson was remembered by the Chicago White Sox when his widow tossed out the ceremonial first pitch.

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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.