San Antonio Bears took on Detroit Tigers in historic exhibition game – San Antonio Express-News

My dad was born and raised in San Antonio. He used to tell me about a minor-league baseball team called the San Antonio Bears. As a child, he recalled seeing them play an exhibition game with a major-league team on its way to spring training. This occurred at San Pedro Springs Park in the mid-to-late 1920s. Is there any record of this? And any information on the Bears baseball team?

Before there were Houston Astros or Texas Rangers, there were minor-league baseball teams in San Antonio. From 1888 through 1894, they were just called “the San Antonio ball club.” The age of nicknames started the next year with the short-lived Missionaries, after which the Bronchos had a good run from 1885 through 1918, followed by one year of Aces.

The San Antonio Bears, as such, held their ground from 1920 through 1928. Their home diamond, refurbished in 1925 with new wooden grandstands, was in League Park on Josephine Street south of the Brackenridge Park Golf Course. Named for Bexar (pronounced “Bear”) County, our Texas League team also was known (by sportswriters, at least) as the Bruins, and their stomping grounds as Bear Park or Bruins Field, Josephine Park or “the Den,” maybe because “League Park” was such a common name for stadiums state- and nationwide.

It was “a perfectly good playing field,” according to the San Antonio Express, June 23, 1925, “and (as) the largest park in the Texas League, pitchers (should) be amply protected against untimely home-run drives.” For the fans, concessionaires provided “a distinctive Mexican atmosphere given by three brands of tamales offered” – Smith’s, Charlie’s and Duran’s – that ran “from hot, hotter to hottest.”

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The Bears’ uniforms were white with blue pinstripes, blue caps and blue-and-white stockings. The players who wore them were the typical minor-league mix of those on their way up and those on their way down, either released by a major-league team or striving to be scouted by one. Others were utility players who spent anywhere from a season to a decade or more in the minors.

Before the late 1920s, minor-league clubs “were not officially affiliated with any one big-league team, which meant there was no ready supply of up-and-coming talent sent down to the minors every spring (and) no real national scouting below the major-league level,” says David King in “San Antonio at Bat: Professional Baseball in the Alamo City.”

Some of the Bears’ standout players had big-league experience before or after their time in San Antonio. Ike Boone, a former college star, had done a brief stint with the New York Giants before their manager John McGraw sent him to Bears’ owner Harry Benson as a potential hitting powerhouse. Boone lived up to the hype and led the Texas League with a batting average of.402 … and left at the end of the 1923 season for the Boston Red Sox. During his single season here, however, the Bears finished with a middling record.

Pitcher Frank “Kilo” Watt was described as “big” or “huge” at 6 feet 1 inches and 200 pounds. Known for his stamina on the mound, he alternated between starting for the Bears and stepping in to save the day as relief pitcher, holding down rival runs during the 1925, 1926 and 1928 seasons. Voted the most popular local athlete in a 1926 San Antonio Light poll, Watt went from here to the Detroit Tigers, came back once to “rest” a sore arm by keeping it warm in the minors and later played for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Perhaps the most memorable of all Bears was the player said to be nicknamed for a rabbit. This was Leonardo (sometimes given as Leandro) “Leo Najo” Alaniz (also spelled Alanis), the first Mexican American to play in the Texas League. In San Antonio from 1924 to 1932, the center fielder was known for outstanding quickness in defensive play and as a league-leading base stealer — thus “El Conejo” (Spanish for “The Rabbit”), which melded with his first name to become his playing name. Najo/Alaniz was drafted in 1926 by the Chicago White Sox, soon returned to the Bears and lost his chance for further major-league glory after a collision in the field with teammate Frank “Ping” Bodie left him with a badly broken leg.

While once and future major leaguers often were to be seen at League Park, there were also opportunities to see whole teams of current big-time players here. The Detroit Tigers, for instance, came here for spring training in Brackenridge Park (covered here Oct. 16, 2011), and other teams came for preseason contests with the San Antonio team.

While “exhibition games” in the 1920s could mean early, out-of-league play with other minor-league teams such as the Minneapolis Millers or a friendly contest against amateurs such as a Fort Sam Houston team or the St. Mary’s College Rattlers. A second team might be sent on the road to play elsewhere in Texas or even the Midwest, for coaching staff to see what new recruits could do. What your father remembered, though, probably was one of the games against major-leaguers who might have found San Antonio more of a challenge than they expected.

The Detroit Tigers reported for training camp here March 1, 1927, and started drilling for their preseason series at Block Stadium, south of downtown at Garden (later St. Mary’s) and Presa streets. The Bears trained at home in League Park, with new arrivals in motley gear as they awaited their uniforms. Workouts went on rain or shine, as players arrived from all over the country. Both teams were trying out some newcomers, and one on the Tigers’ side was the Bears’ former teammate Watt. The popular Najo would be starting for the Bears throughout the preseason, but both sides prepared to make frequent substitutions to check out their new prospects.

The first actual game took place March 12, 1927, when the Bears met the Tigers with 3,000 fans on hand, including the Knothole Gang, the home team’s youth cheering section (covered here April 6, 2015), who had a new yell for the Bears’ at-bats: “Hit that ball!” The Bears must have been listening, because they won 4-1, with the help of four double plays.

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As the series progressed, Bears fans had more nail-biting action to enjoy. On March 15, 1927, the home team outhit the big-leaguers 9 to 7 but lost on errors, 7-6. San Antonio came back to win again the next day, 11-5, with Detroit held to a single run until scoring four in the seventh inning, to which the Bears responded with another five runs in their half and two more in the eighth. In the fourth game of the series, March 17, 1929, the Bears won by a whopping 12-6, thanks to a disappointing performance by a new Tigers’ pitcher.

Of nine games over three weeks, the Bears won three and lost six. Meanwhile, the Tigers made cuts and trades to strengthen their lineup to cool the home team’s hot streak. The Bears then made way for two games, March 30-31, 1927, between the Tigers and our visitors’ visitors, the Pittsburgh Pirates in League Park, with baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis watching the first from a box. Both were close, well-fought games, with Detroit and Pittsburgh each taking one.

That was probably the best-remembered exhibition season in San Antonio baseball history until the New York Yankees brought George Herman “Babe” Ruth here in 1930, by which time the local team was known as the San Antonio Indians. League Park was destroyed by fire June 18, 1932, and the last major-league teams came here for spring training in 1941.

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