The game of Base Ball (then two words) originated in the 1840s, and was (and still is) a uniquely American sport. In its infancy, Base Ball was very much a gentleman’s game. Umpires (then “referees”) enforced strict rules of conduct, and players (“ballists”) could be fined for such “ungentlemanly” conduct as swearing, spitting, disputing a referee’s decision, or failing to tip one’s hat to a spectator of the femine variety. Admission prices were inflated to keep out the “undesirables,” and the use of alcohol and tobacco was strictly prohibited. In fact, the Cincinnati Reds were expelled by the National League owners in 1880 for playing on Sundays and selling alcohol at their games.
By the late 1800s, baseball had become America’s favorite pastime—perhaps the most widely played sport in the country—and it had changed considerably. No longer a casual game for the country club elite, baseball had become a rough and rowdy sport of the common man, where beer and cigars were seemingly required equipment. In fact, the American League earned the nickname “Beer and Whiskey League” for scheduling Sunday games, selling beer (four of the league’s owners were brewmasters) and opening the sport to working-class spectators.
Ardent team rivalries became commonplace. Stories were told of competition between rival teams becoming so intense at times that umpires were compelled to bear arms in self-defense, and the ultimate outcome of a hotly contested battle might well be decided with fists after the game at the local watering hole.
Long before the Kalamazoo Kings, the Kalamazoo Lassies, and crack local teams sponsored by Checker Motors, Gibson and Shakespeare, Kalamazoo boasted a thriving batch of late nineteenth century independent and semi-pro baseball teams.
Michigan State League
The semi-pro Kazoos (also known as the Celery Eaters and the Zooloos) first joined state league ball in 1887, topping the Ohio State League that year with a 73-34 record. In 1888, the Tri-State League (Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan) was formed, but this time the Kalamazoo team didn’t hold up so well and disbanded before season’s end. In 1889, the first Michigan State League was formed, but Kalamazoo again saw very little success and was replaced by Flint in mid-season. Kalamazoo returned to independent play for the next five years (the league itself also disbanded).
When league owners attempted to revive the state league in 1895, the Celery Eaters redeemed themselves somewhat with a 3rd place finish in a 91 game season against such rivals as the Battle Creek Adventists, the Jackson Jaxons, and the Lansing Senators.
But in 1896, the Zooloos returned once again to independent play, taking on teams from Otsego, Saginaw, Battle Creek, and even Adrian’s mighty Page Fence Giants. By the following July, the entire state league had once again collapsed, leaving Kalamazoo out of state league ball for nearly a decade.
Local Independent Teams
Aside from the state league contenders and local semi-pro teams, early independent teams composed of local and regional millworkers, factory workers, printers and store clerks formed intense rivalries among themselves and with teams from surrounding communities. The “Greenstockings” took on the “Paw Paws,” the “Wheel Works” team fought the “Printers.” The “Blues” took on the “Browns,” the “South Streets” met the “Daisies,” the “Gazette” waged war against the “News,” and the “Old Timers” battled the “Folz nine.”
The Folz Nine
One of Kalamazoo’s finest local independent teams during the 1890s was sponsored by town merchant and future mayor, Samuel Folz. Under the management of Ed Mayo, the “Folz nine” consistently featured several of the area’s leading players and took on many local and regional contenders. Among those early Folz team members were the notorious Ganzel brothers.
Michigan’s “First Family” of Baseball
On Thanksgiving Day, 1906, members of the Ganzel family gathered in Kalamazoo to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Ganzel, Sr. Charles (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: Fred, Charlie, George, Joe, and John
The 1906 anniversary brought together more than fifty family members from all corners of the globe, including all five of the Ganzel sons; Fred, Charles, Jr. (“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, Fred Ganzel (born in Ohio about 1859), 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.
“I think the game is easier today than it used to be twenty years ago. In those days the insufficient protection of the gloves caused the hands to swell to double their usual size. I used to get a piece of beefsteak and put it inside of the glove. This served to moisten my hands and served also as a protection.”
—Charlie Ganzel, Detroit Free Press, 3 April 1904
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 remained a Kalamazoo resident, and 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, including first base duties for the 1894 Folz team. Joe joined the Saginaw Lumbermen (Interstate (C) League) as a first baseman in 1896, and remaining with the team through their switch to Michigan State (D) League the following year. Joe then moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania, and joined the Quakers (Interstate (B) League) in 1898, then on to the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers (Springfield Wanderers/Columbus Senators) in 1899.
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, and resided with his wife in Milford, MI, 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 John” 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 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