Long before the Kalamazoo Growlers, before the Kalamazoo Kings or the Kalamazoo Kodiaks, even before the infamous Kalamazoo Lassies, or crack local teams sponsored by Checker Motors, Gibson, Shakespeare, and the Sutherland Paper Company, a thriving batch of nineteenth century independent and semi-pro teams helped put Kalamazoo in the forefront of organized baseball across the state and beyond.
From the 1850s, teams composed of local and regional millworkers, factory workers, cigar makers, printers, bankers and store clerks formed intense rivalries among themselves and with teams from surrounding communities. Three decades later, Kalamazoo was a state league contender, topping the Ohio State League in 1887 with a 73-34 record. When league owners revived the Michigan State League in 1895, Kalamazoo managed to capture a third place finish against such rivals as the Battle Creek Adventists, the Jackson Jaxons, and the Lansing Senators.
The Folz Nine
Among Kalamazoo’s finest local independent teams during the 1890s were those sponsored by town merchant and future mayor, Samuel Folz. Under the management of Ed Mayo, the “Folz nine” would consistently take on many of the local and regional contenders with a roster made up of the area’s leading players. Among them were the notorious Ganzel brothers.
Charles Ganzel, Sr. (1837-1916) and his wife, Elizabeth (Lassman) Ganzel (1840-1911), brought their family to Kalamazoo from Wisconsin in 1887, and remained residents for nearly three decades. Charles worked as a carpenter for Ihling Brothers & Everard, a prominent local printing and office supply firm, while Elizabeth cared for the couple’s ten children; five girls and five boys.
The Ganzel Brothers
On Thanksgiving Day in 1906, members of the Ganzel family gathered in Kalamazoo to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Ganzel, Sr. The 1906 anniversary brought together more than fifty family members from all corners of the globe—ten children, 38 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, including all five of the Ganzel sons; Fred, Charlie, George, Joe, and John. These five sons (plus at least one grandson) would come to be known as Michigan’s “First Family” of baseball, indeed some of the most well known and highly respected sports heroes of their day.
The eldest of the Ganzel brothers was Fred Ganzel, born in Ohio about 1859. Fred was a farmer by trade, and is said to have played a great deal of independent ball for many years before joining the majors. But during his first season with the Philadelphia Nationals in 1880, Fred sprained his ankle and was forced into retirement before ever becoming a major league contender.
At the time of the 1906 family reunion, Fred had been living in Hawaii and later New Guinea, and had not been home for twenty years. But soon thereafter, Fred moved to Kalamazoo where he lived and worked with his father as a carpenter for Ihling Brothers & Everard. Fred Ganzel remained a local resident until at least 1922.
Born 18 June 1862 in Waterford, Wisconsin, Charlie Ganzel, like his older brother, played several years of independent ball throughout the Midwest.
Charlie made his major league debut on 27 September 1884, at the age of 22, as first baseman and change catcher for the St. Paul Apostles (White Caps) (Union Association). The following year, Charlie signed with the Philadelphia Quakers (Phillies) (National League), where he became a full-time catcher until 1886.
Charlie was purchased by the Detroit Wolverines (National League) after the start of the 1886 season, and soon gained a favorable reputation as a solid catcher with a good arm. Charlie remained with the Wolverines for three seasons (1886-1888), earning 113 runs and a .260 batting average.
“In 1887 we did not know in Detroit what a sacrifice hit meant. It was a case of smash, bang, fire away at the first thing that came along.”
—Charlie Ganzel, Detroit Free Press, 31 January 1898
With Charlie Ganzel catching*, the Detroit team took the 1887 National League championship, and then went on to win its first ever World Championship the same year, beating the St. Louis Browns ten games to five. “I think that the Detroit champion team of 1887 was the best team ever got together,” said Charlie in a 1904 interview. He was given a commemorative watch to mark the 1887 championship, something he treasured as a family heirloom for the rest of his life.
At the end of the 1888 season, Charlie and three others were sold to the Boston Beaneaters (today’s Atlanta Braves) for $25,000, reportedly the highest amount ever paid at the time for four players. Charlie remained Boston’s catcher for nine consecutive seasons, including the famous 1889 pennant race against the world champion New York Giants (said to be one of the most exciting seasons in baseball history).
His career also included four National League championships (1891, 1892, 1893 and 1897) and one World Series championship (1892).
Charlie and his wife, Alice, had a daughter and five sons, four of which were said to be remarkable ball players. Charlie’s son, Foster (“Babe”), went on to become a career ballplayer and a daunting major league contender. On occasion, Charlie would return to Kalamazoo to visit with family and friends, and happily lend a glove at local fraternal and independent games.
“The ball teams from the K. of P. lodges Nos. 170 and 25 met at Lake View park yesterday afternoon for the third and last game of the season for a supper. Mr. Charles Ganzel of the Boston’s, who is a member of 25 appeared in a Boston uniform and did some fine ball playing.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 October 1894
Charlie retired from the major leagues in 1897 to manage a shirt factory in Boston, but continued coaching and playing in the minor leagues around New England until his death in 1914 in Quincy, Massachusetts, at the age of 51.
Born about 1865, catcher and third baseman George Ganzel began his professional career in 1887 with two seasons of independent play in Minneapolis, followed by six seasons with the majors, including teams in Winnipeg, Washington, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Hoping to retire and start a family, George rejoined his family in Kalamazoo in 1894, where he played third base for the local Folz “nine.”
Michigan State League
George’s hiatus from professional play, however, would be rather short-lived. In 1895, George joined the Port Huron Marines (Michigan State (minor)(B) League), then shifted to the Roanoke Magicians (Virginia State (minor)(B) League). The following year, he joined the New Castle Salamanders (Interstate (minor)(C) League) along side his brother, John, then briefly returned to the Saginaw Lumbermen (Michigan State (D) League) in 1897 (along with his brother Joe), before finishing out the season with the Minneapolis Millers (Western (A) League). At the time of the 1906 family reunion, George was managing and playing first base for a team in Flint.
George married Miss Etta Huehne of Chicato in 1897 and remained a Kalamazoo resident, where he worked as a machinist for William E. Hill & Company until his death in January 1928 at the age of 62.
Born in Racine, Wisconsin, on 28 December 1868, Joseph Ganzel (like his brothers) played many years of independent league ball locally and around the region. Though never with the majors, Joe spent his formative years playing independent ball in Kalamazoo. In 1893, he organized a Kalamazoo Y.M.C.A. team (Joe played first base, his brother John played shortstop), and he played first base for the 1894 Folz team.
In 1895, Joe made the move to Waterbury, Conneticut, then returned to Michigan for a few weeks of resort league play in Petoskey before ultimately becoming captain of the Port Huron team. Joe joined the Saginaw Lumbermen (Interstate (C) League) as a first baseman the following year, and remained through the club’s switch to Michigan State (D) League in 1897. Saginaw fans affectionately called him “Pop.” For the 1898 season, Joe moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania, and joined the Quakers (Interstate (B) League), then returned to Michigan to join the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers (Springfield Wanderers/Columbus Senators) in 1899.
Joe Ganzel’s team at Petoskey is the hardest hitting club in northern Michigan.
—Kalamazoo Telegraph, 21 May 1895
In 1900, he captained an independent team in Ionia, then moved to the Northern-Copper Country (independent)(C)League in 1901. In 1902, Joe re-joining the Michigan State (D) League, playing for the Lansing Senators and Grand Rapids Colts (with his brother, John). During the 1903 season, Joe played for an independent team in Petoskey, then back to Grand Rapids in 1904.
During the 1905-07 seasons, Joe returned to the minors, both as a first baseman and manager for the Battle Creek Crickets (Southern Michigan (D) League), the Flint Vehicles (Interstate (C) Association), Mt. Clemens Bathers (Southern Michigan (D) League) and the Grand Rapids Wolverines.
Joe later became a pastor in Milford, Michigan, where he lived with his wife until his death in 1960.
In 1894, Sam Folz hired Joe Ganzel to play first base and George Ganzel to catch for the independent Kalamazoo team during the upcoming season. At times, Folz also enlisted the elder Ganzels’ twenty-year-old kid brother John to play shortstop. According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, “the general fine playing” of the Ganzel brothers “was particularly noticeable” as the Folz team took on La Grange (IN) for the season opener at Lake View Park before a crowd of more than one thousand. Little did the locals realize that during the years ahead, John would go on to become a formidable first baseman for several major league teams and arguably one of Kalamazoo’s most famous athletes.
Born in 1874, “Big Jawn” Ganzel began his professional career in 1895 with the Newcastle, Pennsylvania, Iron and Oil League. His first big break came on 21 April 1898, when John made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates (National League). His first stint with the majors would be short lived, however. After logging fifteen games with just five runs and a less-than-stellar .113 average, John was sold to the Detroit franchise (Western (later American) League) a month later.
New York Giants
In 1900, after spending a year with Kansas City (American League), John was traded (in exchange for three other players) to the (National League) Chicago Orphans (Cubs), where he racked up 78 games and a far better .275 average.
In January 1901, John was again traded (along with Ned Garvin and Sammy Strang) to the (National League) New York Giants in exchange for Jack Doyle. John finished the 138 game season with 42 runs and a .215 average.
“Ganzel’s batting was a feature, his home run being a long drive.”
—Chicago Daily Tribune,
12 May 1903
New York Highlanders
In 1903, John’s major league career finally took off when he inked a three year contract with the New York Highlanders (Yankees).
In fact, John was responsible for the Highlanders’ first ever triple play on 5 May 1903, and is also credited with hitting the Highlanders’ first ever home run just a week later on May 11 in Detroit before a crowd of five thousand, just 17 games into the inaugural season.
John finished the 1903 season with 62 runs, 3 home runs, 71 RBIs and a .277 average.
Grand Rapids Wolverines
In 1905, John assumed ownership of the Grand Rapids Orphans (Central League) while still playing for New York. In the spring of 1906, John purchased his own release from New York for $3,000, returned to West Michigan, and continued to manage the Grand Rapids Wolverines.
Cincinnati and “The Unforgettable Season”
In 1907, John returned to the majors for two years with the Cincinnati Reds, initially as a first-baseman (chalking up 135 hits and 61 runs for the 1907 season), then as manager of the club in 1908, the National League’s Unforgettable Season...
“Tales of great feats of old-time ball players, who were always performing marvelous stunts in the last half of the ninth inning, were blotted from the memories of several thousand enthusiasts at League Park yesterday, when big John Ganzel, with the bases clogged and the contest nearly over, leaned heavily on one of George Wiltse’s offerings and laced a lovely homer to the left-field corner. The tender footsies of Kane, Lobert and Mitchell pressed the pan in rapid succession, followed by the Captain's generous hoof, hot from its fast trip around the sacks. Ganzel's great drive cinched a victory... A man who can crack out such a hit, with the bases full, is entitled to all the candy, cigars, booze, household goods and other paraphernalia that comes to the four-base hitter on the home lot.”
—Jack Ryder, Cincinnati Enquirer, 18 May 1908
After retiring from the majors, John continued to play for and manage several minor league ball clubs. In 1909, John made the switch to Rochester, New York, where he played first base and managed the Rochester Bronchos (Eastern League) for three seasons (1909-11), then continued for four more years as the Rochester club moved to the International League. John also managed the Federal League’s Brooklyn Tip-Tops in 1915, then spent three years (1917-19) with the Kansas City Blues (American AA Association). At one point, John was the highest paid minor league manager in the nation, earning $7,000 per season and a share of the profits. In 1938, he headed the Florida State League Orlando Senators, where he remained until his retirement in 1952.
John Ganzel passed away in Orlando in 1959 at the age of 84. Family and friends staged at Ganzel family reunion during a Yankees game in May 2003 to honor John’s legacy and commemorate the 100th anniversary of John Ganzel’s first ever home run for the New York team.
For the Ganzel family, the baseball “gene” it seems was certainly not limited to a single generation. Born 22 May 1901, Foster Pirie “Babe” Ganzel was Charlie Ganzel’s son. Babe followed closely in his famous father’s footsteps, although his debut in the majors came more than a dozen years after his father’s death. In fact, the Ganzels still hold the record for the longest gap between major league debuts by a father and son—Babe’s debut came 43 years after his father’s. Babe was named after his dad’s best friend, Elmer Foster, another early great and fellow teammate of Charlie’s in St. Paul during the 1884 season.
A well respected outfielder, Babe began his career in 1922 with the Evansville Evas (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (minor)(B) League), then spent four seasons (1924-1927) with the Birmingham Barons (Southern Association)(A league).
Babe Ganzel made his major league debut in 1927 with the Washington Senators, where he remained for two seasons, earning a .311 batting average and one home run. Babe returned to the minor leagues in 1928 and went on to play four seasons for the Louisville Colonels (American Association) (AA league), followed by four seasons with the Minneapolis Millers, where he hit 23 home runs and led the American Association with 143 runs batted in during the pennant-winning 1932 season. Between 1937 and 1941, Babe managed in Selma and Gadsden, Alabama, and finally Jacksonville, Florida. Ganzel spent his retirement years in Jacksonville until his death in 1978 at the age of 76.
“While piloting Selma, fans heckled [Babe] because his players seldom bunted. Ganzel figured he’d show the fans, so he ordered the first nine batters in a game to bunt. All nine reached base.”
—The Sporting News, February 1978
The Other “Babe”
A career highlight for Babe Ganzel was documented in a letter written to some family members during his later years. Ganzel fondly recalled playing in center field at Yankee Stadium on 30 September 1927 when Babe Ruth swatted his record 60th home run over the “other” Babe’s head. (Babe Ruth was the first player ever to hit 60 home runs in a single season.) Seems that even a Ganzel couldn’t stop the “great one.”
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it may be viewed as a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
“My great uncle Jim Vizard played with Joe Ganzel on the 1903 Ionia Independents team. They played and beat the Detroit Tigers in an exhibition game on August 10, 1903. The game was played in Ionia and the great Sam Crawford was in center field across from my great uncle who also played the same position for Ionia.”
—Kevin Vizard, Portage, MI, August 2012