Grave Story: George Belden (1870-1953)

Here lies George Kimball Belden, a great Minnesota sportsman and businessman who went on to become the president of the minor-league Minneapolis Millers.

George Belden was born in Lynden, Vt. on March 25, 1870. His family moved to Minnesota in 1884, and Belden, though he traveled frequently, would call Minnesota his home for the rest of his life. His business and sporting acumen would manifest themselves early in his life. He was part of the Central High School baseball team, which won the state championship in 1888 by defeating Macalaster College. The team wasn’t particularly well-funded, but Belden and teammate W.W. Heffelfinger went on a fundraising campaign among Minneapolis business leaders and made enough money to get the team proper equipment. Heffelfinger went to college at Yale and became considered as the first ever professional football player for the Chicago Athletic Association in 1892.

Belden graduated high school in 1888 and attended the University of Minnesota. He played pretty much any sport that was available, including track and tennis. He spent three years on the varsity baseball team and also starred on the varsity football team for five years — four as an undergrad and one year when he returned to law school. Belden would stay deeply involved in University athletics and attended football games whenever possible.

Source: Star Tribune, December 2, 1913.

At one point in his youth, Belden was ranked as one of the Top 10 lawn tennis players in the nation, even while tending to his business career. He worked for wholesaler Wyman Partridge & Co. while in college and practiced law briefly. As he aged, he stayed active in athletics as a tennis player and curler, even being named president of the Northwestern Curling Association in 1922. But we’re here to talk about baseball.

The Minneapolis Miller management/ownership structure had some horribly complicated periods in the early part of the 20th century. From what I could discover, Belden was the head of a group of Minnesota businessmen who purchased the Millers on May 28, 1918. They paid approximately $60,000 for the privilege of running it for less than 60 days before the American Association shut down their season early. This was during World War I, after all, and there was much uncertainty about how professional baseball would be affected by the War, or even if there would be professional baseball. Even Major League Baseball ran an abbreviated schedule in 1918, with most teams playing fewer than 130 games.

There were questions about whether the AA would continue in 1919, considering so many of the players had been drafted into the war effort. One report from November 1918 stated that almost half of the Millers were presently in the armed forces. Belden was one of the executives who pushed for the game to resume.

“I see no reason why the game should not be resumed next season, and other baseball men agree with me,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Of course, there is much to be done in baseball, and it will all take time, but I believe spring will find the larger leagues, to say nothing of a host of amateur clubs, in action once more.”

The game did go on in 1919, and Belden became one of the most important Minneapolis sports figures. Not only did he oversee the Millers, but he was also the president of the Minneapolis Athletic Club. Those two positions gave him oversight of Minneapolis’ baseball club and many of its amateur athletic activities. The lifelong sports enthusiast made it his goal to spread that love of athletics far and wide.

“To have a winning baseball club a credit to the city, made up of men who are a credit to the city, is the aim of the Minneapolis Baseball club. And for a city of amateur athletics, to encourage curling, tennis, golf, swimming, amateur competition of every kind with the aim of sports for all, is the purpose and policy of the Minneapolis Athletic club,” he said in 1919.

Belden did invest in the team. He kept manager Joe Cantillon, a legend in the Minneapolis sports scene, around and bought a team in St. Joseph, Mo. in 1921 to serve as a Millers farm team. He renovated Nicollet Field, making it one of the best AA ballparks. Unfortunately, he had a couple of problems. One, the Millers weren’t very good during this era. The majority of the team’s best players at this time, like Sherry Magee, Bill McKechnie and Grover Loudermilk, were in their mid to late 30s.

Source: Hennepin County Library

Two, Belden was the head of an ownership that consisted of about 29 other Minnesota businessmen. If you’ve ever worked with a group of people, you know how difficult it is to get a group that size to agree on where to have lunch, to say nothing of how to properly manage a professional baseball team.

The Millers’ ownership changed hands in December 1923, as management was re-organized to have Mike Kelley and Fay Murray as the principal owners of the club. Kelley is one of the primary reasons why the Millers’ ownership is so convoluted, but we’ll get to that later. Belden retained his position as president, with Cantillon as vice president and Murray as secretary/treasurer.

Belden was keen on preserving the strength of the American Association, and the whole of the minor leagues, compared to the National and American Leagues. This was the era before the minor leagues were owned and operated by MLB teams as farm clubs, and the minors were in a weird position of competing against the MLB but also restocking their rosters with good players, in exchange for operating funds. Belden sought to establish agreements with the other minor leagues (Pacific Coast, International, Three-Eye, etc.) and railed against American Association president Thomas Hickey for negotiating operating agreements with the major leagues by himself. There was strength in numbers, Belden argued.

Mike Kelley, who served as owner/manager after replacing Cantillon in 1924, hired Donie Bush as his successor in January 1932. Kelley named himself president and moved Belden to vice president. Belden, who had spent the last couple of years angling to replace Hickey as AA president, found himself accused by a former umpire of attempted bribery. Belden said the change, related to a pre-game conversation from 1927, was “so utterly ridiculous that I decline to make any comment whatsoever.” Nothing came of those allegations, and I couldn’t find much tying Belden to the Millers after 1932.

Apart from his baseball activities, Belden and his wife Edith were active in the social and civic scenes of Minneapolis for decades. He was involved in the leadership of Asbury Methodist Hospital for 40 years, as a board member, president and chairman. His mother-in-law, Sarah Harrison Knight, founded the hospital in 1892. He also was associated with various University of Minnesota athletic clubs, automobile clubs, the Red Cross, the Shriners and other civic groups.

Belden’s grave in Lakewood Cemetery is behind a giant monument for the Brown Family.

Belden helped form Citizens Alliance, which gave way to the Associated Industries of Minneapolis. He was its president for 12 years, resigning in 1948. It was described in the papers as a “research agency and bargaining representative for its member firms in labor negotiations.” Other descriptions found online call it an “anti-union union.” Belden was accused by a Minneapolis rabbi in 1938 of attending a meeting of the Silver Shirts, a fascist, anti-Semitic group modeled after Hitler’s Brownshirts. Belden acknowledged he attended as a matter of curiosity but strongly denied being anti-Semitic himself.

When I found the following comments from Belden about ballplayers in 1923, I attributed them to a man who believed that baseball was better in his era, and the players less greedy. Typical, cranky older man stuff. In light of his anti-labor stance, they take on a little different tone to me. You can judge for yourself.

“Things are done in baseball that are against all orthodox ways of conducting business. The idea of paying large sums of money for ball players in the fall who might die or become so badly injured that they could not play ball the following summer was a procedure that bothered me for a long time after I became interested in baseball. Also, it was difficult for me to get the idea of advancing ball players money on their salaries several months before the season started. The average business man would throw up his hands in disgust if such methods were suggested to him. All of these things, however, are part of baseball.”

(Star Tribune, March 18, 1923)

Belden’s health declined in the 1950s. He had a leg amputated in 1952 and suffered a fatal heart attack on May 20, 1953. He was 83 years old. He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

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