The Rocky Mountain League was a Class D baseball league that fielded four semi-professional teams in southern Colorado in 1912. Founded in the wake of the departure of a previous team from Pueblo, the league fell into immediate financial trouble and folded before it completed its first season. Despite its failure, the league is one example of the many attempts by Coloradans to field professional baseball teams in the century before the start of the Colorado Rockies in 1993. The league’s two months of action also marked the only time professional baseball teams were fielded in La Junta and Cañon City.
Early Baseball in Colorado
Professional baseball began in Colorado in the 1880s. By the early twentieth century, the Western League’s Denver Grizzlies (later Bears) were the state’s most successful and stable franchise. Pueblo was also home to Western League teams at times. Although the city began 1911 without baseball, it became host to the former Wichita Indians that May, in part because Wichita laws forbidding Sunday baseball conflicted with the Western League’s newly expanded schedule.
Denver won the Western League title that year, with Pueblo finishing in third place. To the shock of Pueblo’s fans, however, manager Frank Isbell sold the team after the season. Pueblo sued Isbell, claiming that he had accepted a signing bonus on the condition that the team remained in Pueblo for at least five years. Isbell disputed the claim, and Western League authorities approved the team’s sale. Nevertheless, Isbell himself had to stay out of Colorado or risk a $20,000 legal judgment.
Into Pueblo’s baseball void stepped Ira Bidwell, a twenty-two-year-old promoter who had begun to organize baseball tours when he was still a high schooler in Kansas City. (His team featured his classmate Casey Stengel, later a Hall of Fame manager for the New York Yankees.) Bidwell had a talent for public relations, which he used to great effect after proposing a dedicated Rocky Mountain League.
Bidwell’s initial proposal for the league called for six teams across Colorado and New Mexico. In February 1912, he arrived in Colorado Springs and began forming committees to raise $2,500 franchise fees. Newspapers called him “the king of the boy baseball managers” and reported on his movements as he traveled across Colorado drumming up financial support and local enthusiasm. Yet fundraising fell short and only four teams took shape by April, all from Colorado: the Cañon City Swastikas, the Colorado Springs Millionaires, the Pueblo Indians, and the La Junta Railroaders.
Initial Enthusiasm and Rapid Collapse
La Junta Railroaders was the last team to join the league, and some town boosters immediately embraced the status that even a semi-professional team provided. As the season opened on May 24, the La Junta Tribune proclaimed that the “publicity secured will be of untold value and will mark the place on the map so it cannot possibly be missed.” The paper praised Bidwell as “a young man with remarkable business ability and integrity, a good ballplayer himself and an exceptionally good judge of baseball talent.”
This enthusiasm did not last. The season was barely two weeks old when three of the league’s four teams were forced to move. One of these was the Pueblo Indians, where, according to Bidwell, the controversial departure of Frank Isbell and the previous year’s team “killed baseball deader than a doornail.” The La Junta Tribune added, “baseball is so dead in Pueblo that no one could be induced to go to a game—not even if they played ball as well as they do here in La Junta.”
The Colorado Springs Millionaires also faced attendance problems. Combined with the difficulties in Pueblo, this spelled disaster for the league, which had counted on these larger cities to offset expenses in the smaller towns of La Junta and Cañon City. Even the La Junta Railroaders, for all its success on the field, was attracting only small crowds. One Wednesday game had an audience of seventy-four, barely enough to pay for the teams’ meals. “The ball team and the umpire have to eat every day, whether they play ball or not,” the Tribune reminded its readers.
With expenses of $1,500 and an income of only $500, the league needed an immediate shakeup. The Pueblo Indians departed for Trinidad; Colorado Springs Millionaires for Dawson, New Mexico; and Cañon City Swastikas for Raton, New Mexico. There were also personnel difficulties, perhaps no surprise in a league struggling to pay for meals. Bidwell, already president of the league and owner of the team now based in Trinidad, also had to step in as manager of his squad, while the owner of the Cañon City/Raton team did double-duty as an umpire.
By July, the league was finished. La Junta’s team disbanded on July 5 because its players had received only $10 a month. Bidwell, who had already lost more than $3,000 of his own money on the league, still owed the La Junta players $800. The other teams were in similar holes. By this time, Bidwell’s team had moved yet again, to Cheyenne. Former players filed lawsuits against him later in the year.
The short-lived Rocky Mountain League marked the only time La Junta and Cañon City have ever fielded professional baseball teams. Trinidad, briefly home of Bidwell’s Indians between stints in Pueblo and Cheyenne, would not host another team until 2012. Colorado Springs would see the first return of baseball when the Wichita Witches moved to town in 1916, but the team returned to Wichita the following season, and Colorado Springs would not receive another team until 1950. Baseball in Pueblo was resurrected in 1928, and the city played host to a succession of three different teams until 1958. Major league baseball would not arrive in Colorado until the start of the Colorado Rockies expansion team in 1993.
Ira Bidwell continued to manage minor league baseball teams for another two years, including an Emporia, Kansas, team that was named after him. He became a pilot in World War I, serving as a lieutenant, and died in an accident at an air show in Oklahoma in 1919, at the age of twenty-nine.