Long before they were an unaffiliated team preaching the motto that “Fun is Good,” the St. Paul Saints were a minor league team in the American Association and were affiliated with the Dodgers from 1944-60. Roy Campanella, a three-time National League MVP and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, starred with the Class AAA Saints in 1948 and broke the color barrier as the first black player in the American Association. The current incarnation of the Saints will honor Campanella at their game next Sunday (5:05 p.m. at CHS Field), and in advance of that Saints co-owner and President Mike Veeck chatted with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand.
Q: What is the occasion now to honor Campanella and his time with the Saints?
A: When I first came here, the pressure to make it the Minnesota Saints was enormous, but that wasn’t the right answer. Historically they were the St. Paul Saints. This is such a traditional town in a lot of really interesting ways. There’s a subtlety to St. Paul with its architecture and literature. We want to build on that bedrock and celebrate forgotten history.
Q: He had tons of success in St. Paul, hitting 13 homers during his 35 games here. He was every bit the star catcher here that he was in the majors. What did you learn about his impact in preparing for this celebration?
A: We learned that St. Paul was much more accepting [of integration in baseball] than other markets. … On the field, I compare it to the 18 home runs Darryl Strawberry hit for the Saints in those 29 games [in 1996]. But here’s a guy in Campanella who had a dominant performance, but if you ask people about it — even people who are natives of St. Paul — you might get a blank stare when it comes to that history. … He also was a pivotal figure because of the move from Brooklyn to the Los Angeles.
Q: What will the celebration next Sunday entail?
A: There will be snippets from history up on the big video board, and we’re giving away commemorative posters. Generally, it will be a celebration of Campanella’s life.
Q: This was nearly 70 years ago. What else sticks out to you about that era of Saints baseball?
A: The Saints and Minneapolis Millers were kind of cornerstones of baseball. What we’ve learned is that the number of people who went through here, this was a hotbed for talent and people saw great baseball. … St. Paul had kind of a chip on its shoulder. Having a great squad with a Triple-A team, that was the great ascension. We’re thinking of putting in a museum here now about that era, so we’re asking people for photographs and memories. The amount of stuff is amazing. I have a stack right now in my office. It’s a treasure trove. … You can do the fun and games and the silliness, but historically if you’re building on a tradition that goes back more than 100 years, that’s an advantage very few markets have. As an outsider, when I first came here 25 years ago, there were a number of people who came up to me and said, ‘I remember the doubleheaders, taking the streetcar back and forth between the Saints and the Millers.’ The Saints have this ongoing history. The fans followed it from Lexington to Energy Park and now where we are.