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Superior's only baseball Hall of Famer headlines new exhibit

Memorabilia from Dave Bancroft’s life and career will be on display starting Saturday, July 23, at the Douglas County Historical Society.

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Dave Bancroft pictured in 1918 when he played for the Philadelphia Phillies. Bancroft is the subject of a new exhibit that opens Saturday, July 23, at the Douglas County Historical Society.
Contributed / Baseball Hall of Fame
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SUPERIOR — Tom Alesia of Madison was vacationing in Brule in 2011 when he learned a baseball Hall of Famer and longtime Superior resident, Dave Bancroft, was buried in Greenwood Cemetery just south of the city.

That discovery launched a decade-long journey to uncover facts about the life of the unlikely major league Hall of Famer who started his career on the diamond as a shortstop without batting skills.

The 'Beauty' of baseball: 50 years ago, Superior resident Dave Bancroft became a Hall of Famer

Bancroft’s life and career will be on display starting Saturday, July 23, at the Douglas County Historical Society, 1101 John Ave. The exhibit runs through Oct. 8 and culminates with Alesia sharing what he’s learned over the last decade about Bancroft and his unlikely induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Where the story begins

“It all started here,” Alesia said, pointing to a photograph of the simple footstone in Greenwood Cemetery. At the time, Alesia said he’d never heard of Bancroft, and it made more sense that a hockey player, a football player or a curling superstar from the area would make it to their respective halls of fame than a baseball player.

So, he visited Greenwood Cemetery and found the hard-to-find grave.

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The footstone in Greenwood Cemetery makes no mention of Bancroft’s 1971 induction in Cooperstown, New York. It simply notes his name, dates of birth and death, and the fact that he was a husband. He is buried beside his wife, Edna, who died about 12 years after Bancroft.

Alesia said he would love to talk to anyone who knew Edna Bancroft in the years after her husband’s death, because she was a big part of the story of her husband’s career. Bancroft died on Oct. 9, 1972.

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Some of artifacts that will be displayed at the Douglas County Historical Society include a photograph of Dave Bancroft's footstone at Greenwood Cemetery and photographs of Bancroft and his wife, Edna.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram

“She pops up so much in this story,” said Alesia, who turned his research into a book, “Beauty at Short.”

“… To help support the team, she puts on the clown’s glove to promote a game that was upcoming. That made it into hundreds of newspapers nationwide,” he said pointing to a framed photo of Edna Bancroft sporting an oversized baseball mitt.

Edna was said to have attended every game her husband played in.

'Keep trying'

After playing for teams in Sioux City, Iowa, where he was born, and short-lived stints in the Western and Central associations, Bancroft came to the Twin Ports where he played for the Duluth White Sox and Superior Blues in the Minnesota-Wisconsin League in 1909. From there, he moved to the Superior Red Sox from 1910 to 1911 before playing for other minor league teams in the Pacific Coast and Northwestern leagues.

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Douglas County Historical Society business manager Jon Winter looks over some of the memorabilia of baseball great Dave Bancroft's career to decide how to best display it.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram

“His story — there’s no way he should have gotten out of Superior and become a baseball Hall of Famer,” Alesia said. “He was undersized. He couldn’t hit — great fielder. He’d already been cut by two teams. He’s married to Edna. She was 18. He was just 19. Portland gave him a chance. He has a so-so season, great fielding, they lower him to a lower level of minor leagues. He starts to walk to the train station … two guys pull him around and tell him to keep trying.”

And he did just that. Bancroft moved to the National League and a five-year stint with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1915 before joining the New York Giants in 1920.

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Bancroft has one of the top 10 plays of the 1921 World Series. He hit a single to left field in game six that allowed teammates Frank Snyder and Jesse Barnes to score, and George Burns to advance to third base. The Giants took game six with an 8-5 score over Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees, and took the series by winning five of eight games played.

“He was a great fielder,” said Bill Gedde, a retired art teacher and volunteer who helped set up the exhibit. “In his prime, he was maybe the best fielding shortstop in the major leagues.”

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Tom Alesia of Madison looks over the collection of memorabilia he's gathered since learning Superior had a baseball hall-of-famer buried in Greenwood Cemetery. The collection will be on display at the Douglas County Historical Society through Oct. 8.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram

Gedde said Bancroft knew he was a deficient hitter, so he worked at it and got better.

During his career, Bancroft changed how the position of shortstop was played, became a groundbreaking switch hitter, earned the nickname “Beauty, and played in every inning in four World Series, including three matchups against the New York Yankees in the early 1920s and hold the longest-standing season recording for fielding chances by a short-stop," Alesia wrote of Bancroft’s career.

“He was a star in New York City,” Alesia said.

With countless New York newspapers sharing Bancroft’s story nationally, a frenzy took over Superior in 1921 that closed schools and factories. Thousands turned out to welcome him home at the train station.

“The elite wanted to hang with Dave Bancroft,” Gedde said. Among his friends was 1921 World Series rival Babe Ruth.

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Some of the memorabilia collected by Tom Alesia of Madison will be on display at the Douglas County Historical Society starting Saturday, July 23.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram

In fact, the collection includes some photos of Babe Ruth, including one with Ruth’s wife and Edna Bancroft, shot by Dave Bancroft, Alesia said.

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During his career, Bancroft was a player and manager with the Boston Braves and later an assistant coach with the New York Giants before he returned to the minor leagues and women’s professional league as a manager.

Alesia said Bancroft was at home on Tower Avenue on a Sunday, having chicken dinner with his wife of 60 years in January 1971, when he got a call from a Milwaukee reporter about his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Alesia amassed a collection of photographs and memorabilia from Bancroft’s career that will be on display at DCHS.

“Every single one has an unbelievable story to it,” Alesia said of the collection.

Jon Winter, the historical society's business manager, said he hopes to have most of the exhibit ready by Saturday, but anticipates adding to it after that.

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Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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