Minors a major success in Appleton

Originally published: Sept. 7, 2005

Mar. 24, 2006 5:24 PM

There was a time when America’s Dairyland was a hotbed for minor league baseball.

A time when Appleton would take on Wausau; Wisconsin Rapids would travel down to Madison; Sheboygan would square off against Janesville; and Racine would hook up with Fond du Lac.

A time when roadtrips were quick and state bragging rights always seemed to be on the line.

According to Minor League Baseball, 17 Wisconsin cities have served as minor league sites throughout the years.

Now, it’s down to just Appleton and Beloit, both of whom currently have franchises in the Class A Midwest League and will meet today at 6:30 p.m. at Beloit in the first game of a best-of-three quarterfinal playoff series.

The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers reside in neighboring Grand Chute, while Beloit is home to the Snappers.

Although both towns have forged their share of baseball memories, there’s little debating which of the two cities is chest-deep in baseball lore.

“You just have to go into the archives and see the people who have gone through the old ballpark,” Midwest League president and Snappers co-founder George Spelius said of Appleton’s rich past. “History? That’s for darn sure.”

Appleton’s story begins like so many others. A group of local businessmen shelled out some money, secured a field and then enjoyed success.

But it’s also very different when you consider chapter one of this particular tale begins in 1891, when Appleton would beat Green Bay 4-0 in its first-ever professional game.

While a bevy of Wisconsin cities have failed in their attempts to field viable minor league franchises over the years, Appleton’s involvement continues to flourish. And its history within the state is unrivaled.

Hall of Famer Earl Weaver once managed here and future Hall of Famer and current New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez got his start at old Goodland Field.

An impressive list of names also dot the local minor league honor roll, including, among others, Harold Baines, Rich “Goose” Gossage, Ron Kittle, John “Boog” Powell, Cal Ripken Sr. and David Ortiz, the Boston Red Sox slugger who last year was named MVP of the American League Championship Series.

“The tradition is tremendous,” said Roland Hemond, executive advisor to the general manager of the Chicago White Sox and one of just 25 members of the Appleton Baseball Hall of Fame. “There are a lot of historic names of people who went on to great achievements in major league baseball.”

Midwest League movement

From 1982 to 1990, the Midwest League had five Wisconsin teams playing at the same time.

The recent disappearance of state teams goes hand in hand with the 1991 agreement between the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues and Major League Baseball in which old minor league parks had to meet minimum facility standards in terms of dugout sizes, locker rooms and lightning.

With league foes Wausau (Athletic Park), Wisconsin Rapids (Witter Field), Madison (Warner Park) and Kenosha (Simmons Field) offering older parks and no plans to either renovate or build new stadiums, each eventually lost its team.

“Facilities were under scrutiny at that point in time,” said Cedar Rapids general manager Jack Roeder, who served in that same capacity at Wausau from 1982-90. “But the handwriting was on the wall. If we could have worked out a major renovation or built a new facility, I think we would have continued to stay there.

“There was a little frustration with the owners because they all weren’t from Wausau. And that was sort of the time when minor league franchises started selling for a lot of money.”

The Wausau Timbers franchise moved to Geneva, Ill., after the 1990 season and is now known as Kane County. The Wisconsin Rapids Twins became the Kenosha Twins after the ’83 season. Kenosha then departed for Fort Wayne, Ind., in time for the 1993 campaign.

The Madison Muskies watched their franchise depart for Grand Rapids, Mich., following the ’93 season. A franchise that had been in Springfield, Ill., spent the 1994 season in Madison before heading to Battle Creek, Mich., in 1995.

“Those were some good communities,” Spelius said. “And they supported baseball for many years. But baseball has changed so much. Newer stadiums were coming into place, and these were the things that they couldn’t come up with. So they had to sell and get out of the baseball business.”

As for Beloit, Spelius said a deal is nearing for a new stadium to be built along the Interstate 90 corridor in Rock County between Beloit and Janesville.

The Snappers currently play at 3,501-seat Pohlman Field, which opened in 1982. Spelius wouldn’t comment on how the stadium, which he estimated could be ready in time for the 2007 season, would be financed.

“Beloit wants to catch up with the top shelf teams,” he said.

Glory years

Appleton joined the Midwest League in 1962 as the Foxes and has had a continuous minor league team since 1958.

No decade brought more championships than the 1960s, when Appleton won five titles. Three of those came in a four-year span late in the decade as the Foxes and White Sox kicked off a 21-year relationship on a high note.

Little Chute’s Rob Rahn, former president of the community-owned Appleton Baseball Club, Inc., credited Kaukauna native Glen Miller for playing a key role in both the championships and the White Sox’s involvement with Appleton.

Chicago’s farm director at the time, the late Miller helped steer the White Sox to the area after the Baltimore Orioles cut ties with the Foxes following the 1965 season. He also wasn’t shy when it came to loading Appleton’s roster.

“I think he went out of his way,” Rahn said with a laugh. “Players came to Appleton when they could have gone on to a higher level. He treated us real good.”

The last time Appleton won a league championship was in 1984, capping off a string of three straight crowns in which it also won a combined 255 regular-season games.

“We had so many players who did well and developed well in Appleton,” said Hemond, former general manager of both the White Sox and Orioles. “The White Sox organization is deeply indebted to Appleton and all that was done for players to develop. A lot of stars have played there.”

Playoff appearances have become a regular occurrence since the franchise switched over to the Timber Rattlers in 1995. Wisconsin, which captured first- and second-half Western Division crowns this season, also earned postseason berths from 1996-2001 and again in 2003.

Building relationships

In all, nine big league clubs have placed minor league affiliates in Appleton.

Its first affiliate was the Cleveland Indians in 1940, the same season Appleton moved into old Goodland Field along W. Spencer Street.

Other affiliates included the Philadelphia Phillies, the St. Louis Browns, the Boston Braves, the Washington Senators, the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Mariners, who have had a player development contract with Appleton Baseball Club, Inc. since 1993.

Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi and vice president, player development and scouting Benny Looper both mentioned in earlier visits this season how much the Mariners have enjoyed their stay in the Appleton area, a sentiment echoed by current Rattlers manager Scott Steinmann.

“Among all of our affiliates, everybody in the organization thinks this is the best environment for baseball,” Steinmann said. “It’s a great sense of community, and it’s a great sports town. The fans will do anything for you. They’ll give you the shirt off their back if you ever ask for it.”

Just ask Lamar Johnson, who in July was inducted into the Appleton Baseball Hall of Fame.

The former big leaguer played in Appleton from 1970-72, belting 44 career homers for the Foxes.

Now a minor league hitting coordinator for the New York Mets, Johnson gushed about the days he spent here.

“I had a lot of good times there, and the people were outstanding,” said Johnson, who chuckled as he remembered the Little Chute trailer park along the Fox River he and his wife Valory lived in back then as young newlyweds. “For a place like that for young players, that was one of the cities most of the guys really had a fun time playing at.”

That’s because Hemond said the fans have always been passionate about the team, the players and the game.

“I love that area and the people in it,” Hemond said. “They’re such loyal baseball fans. They appreciated the ability of the ballplayers who were sent there. They treated the players so well through the years.”

Modest beginnings

Whether they’ve been known as the Papermakers, the Foxes or the Timber Rattlers, minor league ball has been an area staple off and on since that May 23, 1891 victory against Green Bay.

Between 400 and 500 fans attended the game, which took place on a field near City Park. According to an article published by the Appleton Post Weekly at that time, excitement over professional baseball coming to town was so high that players from both teams were saluted with carriage rides through city streets in a pre-game parade.

Two players from Appleton’s first-ever lineup — center fielder Joseph Wright and right fielder Chauncey Fisher — eventually wore big leagues uniforms.

Fisher played for the Cleveland Spiders (1893-84), Cincinnati Reds (1894 and ’96), Brooklyn Bridegrooms (1897), New York Giants (1901) and St. Louis Cardinals (1901). Wright spent time with the Louisville Colonels (1895-96) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1896).

Appleton’s first team was formed through the efforts of local businessmen P.M. Conkey, M.K. Gochnauer, J.A. Hawes, C.L. Marston and Dr. H.E. Ellsworth. It competed in the independent six-team Wisconsin State League, which along with Green Bay featured clubs from Marinette, Oconto, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac.

A guarantee fund of $200 was required per club. Appleton went on to finish 48-41 under manager Charley Faatz before the league disbanded.

Professional baseball returned in 1909 after local investors purchased a franchise that had been in Wausau. That team, dubbed the Papermakers, competed in the independent Wisconsin-Illinois League through 1914, when that league also folded.

“I think it is difficult to put that history in perspective,” Wisconsin Timber Rattlers president and general manager Rob Zerjav said. “It’s hard to even fathom baseball back here 100 years ago. It has stood the test of time and the team is still here over 100 years later. And it will still be here in another 100 years.”

A bright future

Appleton very well could have met the same fate as cities like Wausau and Madison.

The 1995 debut of the privately financed $5.5 million Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute certainly paved the way for the area to remain a minor league affiliate for years to come.

Since that time, the Timber Rattlers have drawn over 2.1 million regular-season fans, including 211,927 this past year. It’s the second straight season in which attendance has reached the 200,000 mark and is up 5,440 from last year’s total of 206,487.

“The minor leagues are looked at favorably,” Zerjav said. “You look at our success, and attendance has risen once again. We’re building baseball fans, and hopefully, Timber Rattlers fans for a lifetime.”

Zerjav added that the franchise is currently in strong financial shape and expects it to be in the black this season. He also said new amenities are being planned for Fox Cities Stadium, but wouldn’t elaborate until plans are finalized.

“With attendance being up, that means more concessions sales and more people spending money out here,” he said. “Corporate sponsorships are doing well, and I think people see the value of advertising here. All that provides for a healthy bottom line.”

And it also provides the franchise the chance to continue adding more chapters to its impressive baseball saga, which could include a championship run this season.

“There’s definitely a lot of history here in Appleton with professional baseball,” Rattlers catcher Jeff Clement said. “And we’ve got a chance to bring a championship back. We’ve got a chance to do something pretty special, and I think we’ve got the team to do it.”

Brett Christopherson can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 7115, or by e-mail at bchristopherson@postcrescent.com

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