From Butte to Duluth, Ninth District communities answer call to 'Play Ball'

David Fettig | Editor

Published January 1, 1994  | January 1994 issue

Call it nostalgia; call it inexpensive family entertainment; call it a resurgence of civic pride; but don't call it just a game.

Not since the 1950s, when minor league baseball was played in over 350 towns and cities, has the sport been as popular as today. In 1993, 153 communities in the United States and Canada hosted minor league ball, and record numbers have attended the games since 1987.

However, don't expect minor league ball to return to the halcyon days of the '50s, says Arthur Johnson, professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "It's still unclear whether the minor leagues are a current fad. The minor leagues have a history of uncertainty."

In the Ninth District, the current reacquaintance with the "bush leagues" inspired the creation of the six-team Northern League last summer, and the success of that league has led two Minnesotans to begin working on two new leagues for 1994 that would add 14 more teams in the Upper Midwest. The three new leagues play short seasons, 72 games from mid-June to early September, with half those at home.

The Northern League and the proposed Great Central and North Central leagues are not strictly minor league—in the sense that they are not affiliated with Major League Baseball—but they are professional: Owners pay franchise fees (between $40,000 and $50,000), players receive salaries (about $1,000 per month) and teams live or die by their fan support.

In the Northern League, that support ranged from the fanatical for the Saints of St. Paul, where attendance topped the league and plans call for expanded seating in 1994, to the dismal in Rochester, where the town lost its franchise after just one summer.

Winnipeg, Manitoba, will replace Rochester in 1994, joining Thunder Bay, Ontario, Duluth-Superior, Minn. and Wis., Sioux Falls, S.D., Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Paul. The Northern League hopes to add two teams in 1995, with Madison, Wis., Fargo, N.D., and Lincoln, Neb., reportedly the main contenders. "And we have a lot of other cities interested, too," says Tom Leip, the Northern League's executive director.

That's not surprising, considering the number of communities on the proposed lists for the two new leagues. Both leagues would like a franchise in Minneapolis, with the North Central hoping for Hibbing, Rochester, Moorhead and Austin in Minnesota, Huron and Aberdeen in South Dakota, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Great Central League would include towns like Madison and La Crosse, Wis., Mankato, Minn., and Bismarck, N.D.

Rocky Mountain baseball

Those three upstart leagues join the approximately 80-year-old Pioneer League in the Ninth District, a major league-affiliated Rookie Classification League, with teams in Great Falls, Billings, Butte and Helena in Montana, as well as in neighboring states and provinces along the Rocky Mountains. The Pioneer League also plays a short season, from mid- June to about Labor Day.

In Missoula, Mont., voters rejected a referendum to build a baseball stadium for a Pioneer League franchise about two years ago, but the issue was complicated by potential extra costs for site cleanup, as well as other referenda calling for public spending. As a referendum on baseball, "It was not a very clear issue-definer because of all the other problems," says Ron Klaphake, executive director of the Missoula Economic Development Corp.

Currently, some Pioneer League teams and cities—like all minor league towns—are working to meet the requirements of the 1990 Professional Baseball Agreement, which set new standards for minor league parks that must be met by this year. According to Ralph Nelles, president of the Pioneer League, Billings has spent up to $100,000 to upgrade its facility in recent years. He says no Pioneer League city is in danger of losing its team because of the new standards, but some cities in other leagues have decided to forego their team rather than make the necessary upgrades. "They're driving these minor league parks crazy," Nelles says of the standards. "They're a hammer on the clubs. It's gotten out of hand."

Jimmy Lee Solomon, director of minor league operations for Major League Baseball in New York, bristles when asked about the hardships imposed by the new standards. Some communities have had some difficulty, he says, "but everybody's got a misconception. There's a perception that we [Major League Baseball] reap all these benefits and leave." Major League Baseball sends $125 million annually to the minor leagues, much of that in payroll that is returned to the community, Solomon says. And the facility standards are a means to ensure a "safe, clean and proper environment" for player development and fan appreciation.

And then there were three ...

As for the proposed new leagues, the president of the Great Central League, Richard Jacobson of Cannon Falls, Minn., lost his bid to establish a Minneapolis franchise at Parade Stadium, an attractive site adjacent to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on the edge of the city's downtown, and has now pinned his Minneapolis hopes on leasing Seibert Field from the University of Minnesota. Without a Minneapolis franchise, Jacobson—who says the key to the Northern League's success was the attention it received from the Twin Cities media—says his league may not be ready for 1994.

The North Central League, however, is reportedly moving ahead—with or without Minneapolis. Efforts to reach the president of the North Central League, George Vedder of Mora, Minn., were unsuccessful, but Vedder has a franchise agreement with Brainerd, Minn., and he has begun negotiations with other communities, according to city officials. Vedder would own the Brainerd franchise and establish league headquarters in that northern Minnesota city.

In Brainerd, the team would play at the city-owned Mills Field, paying $6,000 to Brainerd for the season-long lease, along with 5 percent of the net revenue from outfield signboard advertising, according to Bruce Erickson, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. The field is in good playing condition since it is used by local teams, he says, but additional seating to hold at least 1,500 spectators must be built. Currently, the field has bleacher seating for 1,000. Erickson says he has received bids on the project ranging from $110,000 to $160,000.

"This is not something we're building for the team only," Erickson says of the municipally funded project. Brainerd hopes to attract state amateur tournaments in future years, he says, but the city needs increased capacity to qualify. He also says that many in the Brainerd community are excited about the prospect of professional baseball in the community, mainly because it's "affordable, family entertainment."

In Hibbing, another proposed North Central League location, discussion has begun on how to finance an expansion of seating at Al Nyberg Field, which now has grandstand seating for about 1,100, according to Dale Gaasland, parks and recreation director. Hibbing has just spent a $100,000 grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to improve Nyberg Field, Gaasland says, so the field is in good shape.

"At this point, I want to see a franchise come in, but I don't want to go out and buy more seats and not have any use for them. Actually, it's a pretty easy fit," Gaasland says of the possibility of a Hibbing franchise, "The only snake in the deal is the grandstand seating."