Retrospect: The saga of the 1914 Montgomery Billikens

Montgomery's history with baseball dates back to 1860s but it hasn't always been successful

The Cramton Bowl, a multipurpose stadium in Montgomery. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Baseball came early to Alabama’s capital city. Teams organized in Montgomery in the late 1860s, inaugurating there a long history of the American pastime. Throughout all the storied teams in Montgomery, there may be no sadder tale than the 1914 season, the year a plucky but cash-strapped baseball franchise came to an end.

In 1903, Montgomery returned to play baseball as one of the eight teams in the Southern Association. Over the next 11 seasons, the franchise ranked in the league’s bottom half, with six losing seasons. Second-place finishes in 1905 and 1911 kept alive a glimmering hope among the faithful. But as one of the smallest cities in the league, Montgomery struggled with adequate ticket sales from the beginning. This, in turn, affected revenue. The team lost money nearly every season. 

Local businessman Mit Wilcox served as team president and was among several stakeholders in the franchise. For the 1914 season he hired Bob Gilks as team manager. Though new to Montgomery, Gilks was seasoned in the business of baseball. The Ohio native’s impressive career as a player, manager and scout spanned four decades.

The team adopted several names over the years in the league, including the Lambs, Grays, Rebels and Black Sox — a name given over to baseball infamy after the 1919 World Series. For the 1914 season, the franchise returned to a most unusual name: The Billikens.

A 1914 score book for the Montgomery Billikens and Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History.

A portly, mythical-looking creature with oversized feet, the Billiken was a kind of forebear to the Troll dolls made popular in the 1980s. Billiken coins were sold as good luck charms. One from the era read “I am the god of luckiness, so always keep me nigh, misfortune’s frown will disappear, at one flash from mine eye.”

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The 1911 Montgomery Billikens finished second in the league with a record of 77-58. Going into the 1914 season, perhaps Wilcox hoped a return to the name might bring about a similar result.  

But it was money, not charms, the team needed.

Flagging tickets sales in previous years left them hamstrung for the cash necessary to field a winning team. The monthly budget for the Billikens was a scant $3,600 for the salaries of nearly two dozen players and staff. The funds depleted quickly. When it came to purchasing players, Montgomery could not often compete. A month before the first game, Chattanooga snatched an infielder from their roster.

But Gilks showed business acumen of his own as well. In late February, pitcher Jack Lively sent letters to several teams announcing his free agency. One manager replied with an invitation to try out. Sly Bob Gilks sent Lively a signed contract. The pitcher won nine games for Montgomery that year. With the resources he had, Gilks assembled his team, a mixture of greenhorns and players near the end of their careers.    

The Billikens played their home games in a 5,000-person facility in the Capitol Heights neighborhood that was far from ideal. This was especially true when compared to the team’s upstate rival, the Birmingham Barons, who played at Rickwood Field, a state-of-the-art 7,000-seat baseball stadium — today the nation’s oldest operating ballpark. By the 1914 season there were lights and electric fans to keep spectators comfortable at Rickwood. No such amenities existed at the Montgomery ballpark, which local sports writers backhandedly referred to as a “pastime pasture.”

Ticket sales and community support went hand in hand. Boosters encouraged local establishments to close their doors to aid opening day attendance. Many of the stores that complied also purchased advertisements in the team’s official 1914 “Score Book.” Within the 20-page program were 71 advertisements, including those for well-known local concerns like Montgomery Light & Water, the Orpheum Theatre and Tatum’s Hat Store. Nearly 25% of the ads were for businesses selling alcoholic beverages, no doubt a cause for concern among the teetotaling set. 

Although not a sellout crowd, nearly 3,500 people made the trip out to the ballpark for opening day. They paid 25 cents for a general admission ticket and 50 cents for a grandstand seat. The Billikens lost 3-0 to the Pensacola Pelicans. The next month, a brief winning streak put the Billikens momentarily atop league standings. But it did not last. Losses mounted and attendance fell. “Come out today and boost,” pleaded one editorial.

Two unidentified ballplayers in Alabama around the turn of the 20th century. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History.

What went unwritten in such appeals was that Montgomery was in danger of losing its baseball franchise. The villain of the piece was league president William Marmaduke Kavanaugh. Born in Eutaw, Alabama, he had made his name in Arkansas as a newspaper editor and elected official. Many felt that Kavanaugh coveted the Montgomery franchise for Little Rock, his adopted hometown. In late August, Kavanaugh came to Montgomery, where he watched the “listless” Billikens lose 8-2 to the Atlanta Crackers. When pressed by local reporters on the fate of the franchise, Kavanaugh offered a lawyerly dodge: Nothing would change “this season.” 

Hope slipped away for the beleaguered Billikens. The team finished dead last with an ignominious 54-99 record, the worst in league history. Only one player finished with a batting average over .300. No pitcher recorded more than 10 wins. Adding to the grief, their instate rival Barons took home yet another pennant. 

In November, Kavanaugh orchestrated a buyout of the Montgomery Billikens by an Arkansas businessman. The price was a low, non-negotiable $15,000. If Wilcox refused the offer, Kavanaugh threatened to have the other team owners vote to relocate the franchise anyway. With his stakeholders in mind, Wilcox acquiesced. It was a “business decision.”

And so, the Montgomery Billikens became the Little Rock Travelers. The following season the transplanted team again finished at the bottom of the league. But that was cold comfort to Montgomery baseball fans, indeed. In time, a baseball team in Alabama’s capital city would compete for a championship once again. In the 1920s, some of those games were played in a new multipurpose stadium known as Cramton Bowl, built not far from the “pastime pasture” where the Billikens played their ill-fated final season.

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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