Go Botts: Bottineau Athletic Club dominated Minneapolis park board sports for a decade
The young men on the east side of the Mississippi River in northern Minneapolis didn’t need much incentive to become a powerhouse in Minneapolis sports. They just needed a field, and the name it gave them.
Bottineau Field in Northeast Minneapolis was purchased by the park board in 1915 to be a recreation park. Fields and a temporary shelter were laid out the next year. Although a more substantial recreation center or field house was recommended for the neighborhood, it wouldn’t get more than the wood frame warming house for 40 years. But that didn’t matter to a talented group of young athletes and their persistent manager, Charlie Cells. From the time the park was open for business in 1917 through 1926 a core group of athletes grew up together — and won a few trophies along the way. The Bottineau Athletic Club, popularly called the “Botts,” won eight park board football championships and ten more citywide titles in baseball, basketball, volleyball and diamondball. The same group of kids, then young men, played everything.
In addition to their Minneapolis championships, the Botts travelled the state to play the best basketball teams they could find and made it as far as the semi-finals of the Minnesota amateur baseball tournament in 1925.
This information is preserved in a scrapbook, “Bottineau ‘Cuts’ in Sports, Chas. A. Cells,” which comprises mostly newspaper clippings from 1925 and 1926. Most of the clippings are undated and appear to come from the Minneapolis Daily Star and Minneapolis Journal, although it is clear that some coverage of games played outside of Minneapolis, such as in Dawson and Ortonville, Minn., came from papers in those localities.
The highlight of the scrapbook and clippings is newspaper coverage of the battle for football supremacy in Minneapolis between the Botts and their nemesis from 1924-1926. Their rivals were also their neighbors, the Marshall Terrace team just up river. The Bottineaus and the Terraces, as newspapers called them, battled for the city title in all three of those years. The photo in City of Parks of a football game at Bottineau Field was of the city championship game between Bottineau and Marshall Terrace in 1926. The Minneapolis Journal estimated the crowd at 5,000.
A similar crowd had witnessed the championship at The Parade a year earlier when special bleachers had to be erected for the big crowd.
The Botts began in the junior division, but the players grew into the senior division winning consistently along the way. During the mid-1920s the Botts played a series of games against Gustavus Adolphus college from St. Peter. In 1924 the Botts prevailed 6-0 thanks to a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown. The scrap book contains one imposing image of a “giant” that played for Gustavus: Henry Goecken from South Dakota stood an amazing 6′ 4″ and weighed 198 pounds.
One reason for the Botts success over the years appears to be that they had at least one elite athlete: George Besnah.
Newspaper clippings tell of Botts’ games in Mora, Sauk Center, Howard Lake, Dawson, Ortonville, Madison and Benson, and include requests for teams from Duluth, Redwood Falls and other towns to call Charles Cells to schedule games. One of those road games, presumably in Ortonville, prompted a reporter to write that the Botts had put on a “great exhibition of the court game.” The reporter went on to write:
But there was one player — George Besnah — who was the “cream of the lot” and his playing of the floor and his ability to dribble was well worth the price of admission. His play was a revelation, even more because he was not “out there” trying to make all the points himself, but to the contrary made fine use of his ability to pass to a teammate when such a play put his mate at better advantage.
Toward the back of Charlie Cells scrapbook, were a couple undated clips about George Besnah. The first one reported that Besnah, who had been playing for the Hopkins Independents, was in Chicago for a tryout with the Chicago Bruins in the American Professional League. The report continued that Besnah would be replaced on the Hopkins team by Joe Hutton and Fat Nordly, former Carleton College stars. (If you know Minnesota basketball, you know where this is going.)
Another clip delivered the news that Besnah had signed a contract to play with the Chicago Maroons of the National professional league. He was reported to have signed for $50 a game, a handsome sum, and would get into a Maroon uniform immediately. (There were two teams named the Chicago Maroons that I can find: one, was the University of Chicago, of Jay Berwanger and Amos Alonzo Stagg fame in football and the university team didn’t likely pay players (at least not that much!) ; and two, a team named the Chicago Maroons did play professionally, but it was a team of black players from Chicago. So I’m not sure exactly who Besnah signed with.)
Back to Besnah’s replacements on the Hopkins Independents. Joe Hutton went on to become the most successful basketball coach in Minnesota history in 35 years coaching at Hamline University. He won three national championships in the smaller college division, but Hamline played a high-level national schedule including games against NCAA champion City College of New York in Madison Square Garden and George Mikan’s DePaul team at Chicago Stadium. At one time seven of Hutton’s Hamline players were in the NBA, including Vern Mikkelsen, an NBA Hall of Fame player. Hutton was offered the job of coaching the Minneapolis Lakers, but chose to remain at Hamline.
(As a sophomore at Hamline I was looking for part-time work and was sent by the financial aid office to a house across Snelling Avenue from the university that needed painting. I was surprised to find that it was the home of Joe Hutton, who had retired as Hamline’s coach six years earlier. He still wanted to hire a student to do the job. While I painted, he told me basketball stories. I wish I had written them down.)
When the Botts finally decided to disband after the 1926 football season, Cells put a clip in the scrapbook that must have given him great pleasure. “Charles Cells, manager of the Bottineau Athletic Club,” the newspaper reported, “has been with the aggregation for many years and much of the credit for the splendid record of this group can be laid to Mr. Cells active interest and unselfish effort in bringing the organization to the highest point of perfection.”
Cells’ management of the club must have included fundraising, because in a clip about an appreciation dinner after one championship season, Cells thanked the businessmen of the East side for their support. Among the businesses he acknowledged were R. F. Bertch Furniture, Kozlak Bros. furniture dealers, Northeast Bakery, Bottineau Billiard Parlor, Hygienic Artificial Ice Co., Joe Schmidt Meat Co., Super Bros. drugs, Mergen’s Department store, East Side Bakery and Webster McDonald of McDonald Bros. (Another clip mentioned that one of the Botts trophies was on display at Mergen’s.)
Cells’ contribution to the Botts has now extended well beyond managing their varied teams: he left behind a scrapbook which gives us a glimpse of the exceptional group of athletes that grew up together on the east side of the river and dominated Minneapolis amateur sports for a decade.
David C. Smith, minneapolisparkhistory[at]q.com
© David C. Smith