September 8, 2020 — In response to a number of baseball teams being cut from the major leagues, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba formed the Northern League in 1902. Also included were a team from Iowa City and one from Ontario.
The league’s opening day was on May 22, 1902, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Crookston toppled Fargo, Winnipeg shut out Cavalier, and Devils Lake dominated Grand Forks.
The league’s early years were a bit rocky, and it folded following the 1908 season. Then, it was brought back in 1913. The Fargo-Moorhead Graingrowers won the pennants in 1915, ’16 and ’17, and then the league once again folded due to World War I.
At the height of the depression, baseball was one of America’s favorite obsessions, and in 1933, the Northern League was once again revived, with some reporters dubbing it the “Polar League.” Except for a three-year shutdown during the Second World War, it continued to operate until 1971, with early championships going to Jamestown in ‘36 and Grand Forks in ’40 and ’48.
That brings us to the time period for today’s story on the Fargo-Moorhead Twins, which at that time served as a minor league team for the Cleveland Indians. The FM Twins hadn’t won the Northern League pennant since 1934, but in 1953 and ‘54, they made up for it, big time. In fact, it was on this date in 1953 that the Twins set a league record for winning margin when they finished the season 13 games ahead of runner-up Duluth. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Eugene Fitzgerald, a sports columnist for The Fargo Forum, wrote, “...the Fargo Moorhead Twins dominated the field like no other team before it had. Barring injuries to Don Wolf, John Morse and Ken Braeseke, the Twins might have won the pennant by as many as 30 games. The Twins now have won the pennant, the All-Star game, topped the attendance for the season, broken the All-Star game and opening day attendance records, had the 1-2 hitters, the 1-2 pitchers, the only two 20-game winners on the same club, the No. 1 rookie and now the 1-2-3 men in the balloting for most valuable player.”
It was the first time two members of the same club won both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards during the same year. The MVP was Frank Gravino, who officially hit 52 home runs that season. Earlier in the season, a sportswriter in Superior, Wisconsin, questioned the Twins’ ability to contend for the league title, but he ate his words on June 19th, when the touring Twins hammered Superior 18-1. The legendary Gravino enjoyed one of his most productive days; he hit for the cycle, including his 22nd and 23rd home runs, and drove in nine runs during the 23-hit onslaught.
The Rookie of the Year award went to one of Gravino’s 19-year-old teammates, who most people had thought would go into football, not baseball. His name was Roger Maras – which, at the time, he spelled m-a-r-a-s. KVOX sportscaster Rod Lucier later said, “When Roger joined the Twins he was a kid at the time, and Frank Gravino was the big hero, but I think we knew at the time that Roger had a career as a professional player.”
Gravino later lamented the fact that his performance didn’t send him up to the show. Picking up on Roger Maris’s feat of 61 in ’61, Gravino often talked about his stint in Fargo as hitting 53 in ’53 and 54 in ’54. One thing is for sure – both men made their mark that year.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.