The San Antonio Bears faced the Detroit Tigers in a historic exhibition game

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My father 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 remembers watching them play an exhibition game with a major league team on their way to spring training. This happened at San Pedro Springs Park in the mid to late 1920s. Is there any record of this? What about the Bears baseball team?

Before there were Houston Astros or Texas Rangers, there were minor league baseball teams in San Antonio. From 1888 to 1894 they were called simply “the San Antonio ball club”. The age of nicknames began the following year with the ephemeral missionaries, after which the The Bronchos have had a good run from 1885 to 1918, followed by a year of ace.

The San Antonio Bears, as such, held on from 1920 to 1928. Their playing field, renovated in 1925 with new wooden grandstands, was at League Park on Josephine Street, south of the Brackenridge Park golf course. Named after Bexar County (pronounced “Bear”), our Texas League team was also known (at least to sportswriters) as the Bruins, and their home grounds were Bear Park or Bruins Field, Josephine Park or “the Den”, perhaps because “League Park” was such a common name for stadiums statewide and nationwide.

It was “a perfectly good playground”, according to the San Antonio Express of June 23, 1925, “and (as) the largest park in the Texas League, pitchers (should) be amply protected against blows from untimely circuits”. For fans, the dealers provided “a distinctive Mexican vibe given by three brands of tamales on offer” – Smith’s, Charlie’s and Duran’s – which ranged “from hot to hot”.

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Bears uniforms were white with blue stripes, blue caps, and blue and white socks. The players who wore them were the typical minor league mix of ups and downs, either being released by a major league team or striving to be scouted by a team. Others were utility players who spent between a season and a decade or more in the minors.

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

Some of the Bears’ most notable players had major league experience before or after their time in San Antonio. Ike Boone, a former college star, had a brief stint with the New York Giants before their manager John McGraw sent him to Bears owner Harry Benson as potential punching power. Boone lived up to the hype and led the Texas League with a .402 batting average… and left at the end of the 1923 season for the Boston Red Sox. In his only season here, however, the Bears finished with a mediocre record.

Pitcher Frank “Kilo” Watt was described as “big” or “huge” at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. Known for his endurance on the mound, he alternated between starting for the Bears and stepping in to save the day as a relief pitcher, holding rival runs during the 1925, 1926 and 1928 seasons. Popular in a 1926 San Antonio Light poll, Watt moved from here to the Detroit Tigers, returned once to “rest” a sore arm by keeping it warm in the minors, and then played for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Perhaps the most memorable of all the bears was the player who was supposedly nicknamed for a rabbit. It was Leonardo (sometimes called 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 his exceptional speed in defensive play and as a league-leading base stealer – as well “The Conejo” (Spanish for “The Rabbit”), which merged with his first name to become his player name. Najo/Alaniz was drafted in 1926 by the Chicago White Sox, soon returned to the Bears and lost his shot at major league glory after a collision on the field with teammate Frank “Ping” Bodie left him with a badly broken leg.

While once and future major leaguers were often to be seen at League Park, there were also opportunities to see entire squads of current greats here. The Detroit Tigers, for example, came here for spring training at Brackenridge Park (covered here October 16, 2011), and other teams came for preseason competitions with the San Antonio squad. .

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

The Detroit Tigers reported for training camp here on March 1, 1927, and began drilling for their preseason series at Block Stadium, south of downtown, at Garden Streets (later St. Mary’s) and Presa. The Bears practiced at home at League Park, with newcomers in motley attire as they waited for their uniforms. Practices took place rain or shine, as players arrived from all over the country. Both teams were trying newcomers, and one of the Tigers was former Bears teammate Watt. The popular Najo would leave for the Bears throughout the preseason, but both teams prepared to make frequent substitutions to check out their new prospects.

The first real game was on 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), which had a new shoutout for the Bears at bat: “Hit that ball!” The Bears had to listen as they won 4-1 with four double plays.

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As the series progressed, Bears fans had more biting action to enjoy. On March 15, 1927, the home team beat the major leaguers 9–7 but lost on errors, 7–6. San Antonio came back to win again the next day, 11-5, with Detroit held to just one run until scoring four in the seventh inning, to which the Bears responded with five more runs in their half and two more in the eighth. In Game 4 of the series on March 17, 1929, the Bears won by a whopping 12-6, thanks to a disappointing performance by a new Tigers pitcher.

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

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

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Raymond I. Langston