The “Other” Baseball

By - Apr 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By John Hughes

There you sit, at Miller Park again. The new leaders – Payne, Melvin and Yost – have made a good impression on you, and so, as an act of faith, you have trekked out to the ballyard and paid dearly for parking, tickets, peanuts and Cracker Jack. You are seated in this vaulted structure, which, despite the leaky creaky roof, impresses you. The losing doesn’t torment you like it once did, because by now it’s as familiar as a March blizzard in Milwaukee. But even amidst all the splendor Brewers baseball has to offer, you’re still feeling bad.

If you are any sort of baseball fan, this is a scenario not unlikely to play itself out in your life soon. The 2003 season begins while this edition of Vital Source is on newsstands. The Brewers will resume play and you will find yourself watching them, thinking “what is wrong with this picture”? And if you give it a moment’s thought, the answer will come.

For all the talk about the market offering the price it’s willing to bear, about these players just getting what they can as anyone else would, it troubles you that they are paid so much. True, it is just one symptom of a greater illness – the mass profiteering of professional sporting organizations on every front, from palatial stadiums to insane merchandising – and salaries are just another side effect. But the magnitude of their income, compared to the rest of us, seems a dishonorable allocation in a sport to which the majority of Americans, most working class, once felt a deep connection.

The Brewers’ payroll this year will be roughly $50 million. Their opponents, on any given day, will have a payroll varying from $50 million to over $100 million. So, with 25 on each team, that’s 50 athletes out on the ballfield you’re observing, making $100 million to $150 million, or higher, for laboring from mid-February, with the beginning of spring training, until October 1st, or, if they’re quite good, until around November 1st when the World Series ends (and they are awarded an enormous bonus).

That is a stupendous sum of money. In a world in which school teachers and nurses and social workers and construction workers and waitresses do heroic feats daily, and face budgetary pain nightly, to see young men making that sort of money, without even passion to offer fans, makes you feel like an accomplice to a crime each time you pay for your ticket, each time you pay $5 for a macro-beer.

The yearning for passionate baseball

If you’ve been a fan awhile you can remember Clemente, Yount, Yastrzemski, Aaron, Munson and Seaver, can remember the passion they poured into their treasured craft, and what it felt like to revel in their joy. Now, you feel nausea, or worse, echoes of the ennui that permeates the field below as you watch now. In comparison, players today mostly seem like poseurs, who would rather be at the mall than sweating on the field of endeavor.

But you cannot let go of baseball. You remember the first time you ever observed a man (Warren Spahn? Steve Carlton? Dwight Gooden?) wheeling back, kicking his leg high, sweeping forward and flinging that sphere. It arrived with a loud pop in the catcher’s mitt half a second later, and something archetypal clicked inside you. You love the green grass, the perfect geometry of the bases set in a diamond, the beauty of home runs, the drama of pennant races.

As a long-time fan of this sport, no longer America’s Pastime, but still its’ gem, you know that baseball is not exciting, like football, basketball and soccer are, except at rare moments. You know that baseball is, however, intriguing and beautiful, and you will be forever intrigued and arrested. You cannot let go of baseball, but things are not good. What to do?

Like any great love affair gone bad, if it can’t be fixed you can find someone new. It’s easier than you think, and you’ll rebound after the initial shock.

Indepent Leagues: the “other” baseball

Guess what? Major League Baseball is not the only Show. They’d like you to think so, just as the music industry would, or a grocery store or newspaper chain would, but the monopoly requires your ignorance. You have an option when it comes to these institutions, including baseball. There is a growing movement of discontent within the sport, which is spilling over into an alternative world. This might be the preferable place for you to feed your craving for baseball with heart and soul, if you’re willing to drive a little way.

Since 1993, there has been a rebel baseball movement in North America, reviving the old spirit, gathering steam and attracting more and more fans disenchanted with the majors. You can still watch this beautiful sport without feeling that you’re compromising your soul. There are now several Independent Leagues, as they are called, with several teams each, and they are as colorful and renegade as some of the names: there are or have been teams called the Moose Jaw Diamond Dogs, Feather River Fury, Valley Vipers, Bayou Bullfrogs, Johnstown Johnnies, River City Rascals, Saskatoon Riot, Kalamazoo Kodiaks, and Tennessee Tomahawks, to name a few. These leagues are not in any manner affiliated with the minor leagues system, which feeds upcoming young players into the majors.

The Independent Leagues stand alone and thus are free to conduct business as they see fit. There have been trades such as a player for cash and a Muddy Waters CD, and a player for cash, an unnamed future player and 10 pounds of catfish. Several teams have jumped leagues mid-season, causing rancor. Players have left teams when their checks started bouncing. One league, the Golden State League, lasted only a week. One league president ordered all teams under his purview to return broken bats to the stores where they were purchased, claiming defective merchandise. Still, despite or because of such oddities and instabilities, attendance around the USA and Canada continues to grow. Independent Leagues are catching on. Until last year, when the Minnesota Twins got good, the St. Paul Saints, going head to head with them on many game days, often outdrew them. Attendance for some teams has nearly reached a half-million within a season.

Wisconsin’s Independents

There are three Independent League teams in Wisconsin: the Madison Mallards, LaCrosse Loggers, and, in Wausau, the Wisconsin Woodchucks, all members of the Northwoods League. If you are a baseball fan looking to restore the passion you remember, and the economic scale of Miller Park puts you off, consider a weekend trip into the interior. The Mallards play at Warner Park in Madison, and their season at The Duck Pond begins June 11th. Pre-game fun can be had at The Duck Blind, staged by a nearby brewery, offering live music, beer and food. The Loggers, an expansion team with a 10-year lease, will begin their existence at Copeland Park in LaCrosse on June 3rd. The Woodchucks play at Athletic Park in Wausau, beginning June 3rd, and their roster will feature Ned Yost, Jr., son of the Brewers’ manager. Look for Eau Claire to have an Independent League team in 2004.

You may also follow developments in the Independent Leagues in general, by subscribing to the e-mail newsletter, Rebel Baseball Review, available from May 1st through mid-September each year. You may contact them at rebelbaseballreview.com.

The (relatively) new women’s leagues

A new women’s league, the American Women’s Baseball Association, was founded in 1988. With the upsurge in Independent Leagues, and the popularity of the movie “A League of Their Own,” women’s professional baseball has been able to survive, but not thrive yet.

The closest team to Milwaukee is the Chicago Storm, of the four-team Great Lakes Women’s Baseball League. The Chicago Storm placed 2nd in the 2002 AAU Roy Hobbs National Amateur Championship, coming up short by one run in a 12-inning championship game to last year’s national champions, the Ocala Lightning. Their games are played at North Park, in Lincolnshire, Illinois, and begin on June 21st.

mallard spotting, anyone?

The LaCrosse Loggers, Madison Mallards, Wisconsin Woodchucks and Chicago Storm are admittedly a far cry from the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. But they might be more fun, and truer to the original spirit of baseball. For instance, the Yankees would never trade a player for cash and Muddy Waters, never have a masseuse-nun operating at their games, never have a “Baseball Pig” (a literal pig) out on the base paths between innings (as one Independent Leagues team did last year). The talent is, probably, a little more polished in New York than it is in Wausau.

Whether or not an Independent Leagues team is for you depends on what baseball means to you, your expectations from a day (or evening) at the ballpark. Myself, I’m heading west for a little Mallard-spotting. Or maybe south to check out the Storm. It’s tough to decide, but isn’t it great to have choices?

MILWAUKEE’S BASEBALL HISTORY: THE REST OF THE STORY

Non-Major League baseball has a long and storied history in America, and has even touched Milwaukee twice. On April 12, 1861, six months before the Civil War began, two teams composed entirely of black athletes played a baseball game in Brooklyn, New York. The exclusively white Major Leagues had not yet fully formed, but there was a color barrier in the sport, as there was in the entire society. This Brooklyn game was a precursor to what would become, by 1900, the so-called “Negro Leagues.”

The Negro Leagues flourished throughout the first half of the 20th century, showcasing such stars as Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Satchel Paige. Originally, the teams of these leagues would travel with wandering minstrel shows, and, amid the musicians, comedians, magic acts and snake dancers, you could watch a baseball game. As baseball became more popular and teams like the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs, and Baltimore Elite Giants became established with fans across the nation, the minstrel shows were outgrown. Over 4,000 black athletes played in these leagues, necessitated by the exclusion of black athletes from the Major Leagues.

The Bears:Milwaukee’s greatest sports mystery

The Milwaukee Bears were an entrant in the Negro National League in 1923, and disbanded in September, after posting a record of 18 wins and 37 losses. They played most of their games at Athletic Park, but some at Borchert Field. Furthermore, they played most of their games under the nickname Bears, but sometimes took the field as The Milwaukee Giants. The Bears uniforms on display in a memorial at Miller Park do not match those available in a Negro Leagues memorabilia store on-line. Perhaps this is because the extant photos are in black and white, and it is difficult to ascertain the true colors.

The Bears lineup consisted of Bobby Roth and Hooks Foreman at catcher, Sandy Thompson at first base, Percy Wilson at second, Anderson Pryor at shortstop, and Fred Hill at the hot corner. George Boggs was in left, Andrew Wilson in centerfield, and George Collins was in right, and pitched in relief as well. Fulton Strong, Percy Hall, Bill Gatewood and “A.” Walker (first name never mentioned in newspaper accounts or boxscores) were the starting pitchers, and LeRoy Stratton was a reserve middle infielder. Manager Pete Hill, who’d been an active player since 1899, was available when needed to play in the outfield or at first base.

We have the names, and several boxscores from which to reconstruct the history of this team. Still, the scant newspaper accounts (“Local Darkies Defeat Cubans” as a typical appalling headline, with a three-paragraph summary and no quotes, was the uniform coverage afforded them) and absence of surviving members, makes the Bears the all-time mystery sports team of Milwaukee history.

It is not to be presumed that all the players in the Negro Leagues pined for entrance into the Major Leagues throughout the existence of the former. They may have taken a fierce pride in their own league, and felt content for a while. But the larger stage of exposure and attention was granted to the Majors. After Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, a flood of black players arrived at various other teams in the following few years, and the Negro Leagues death nell was sounded. The last Negro Leagues game was played in 1961, a century after that first pre-Civil War game in Brooklyn.

The Chicks:America’s 1944 champions

A second variant of “alternative” baseball flourished in the United States, based not on ethnicity but gender. The All American Girls Professional Baseball League was founded in 1943 by Phillip K. Wrigley, to compensate for the dearth of talent among the men, as athletes went off to war. The league survived until 1951. The four inaugural teams to the league were all from parts near here: the Kenosha Comets (1943-51), the Racine Belles (1943-50), the Rockford Peaches (1943-54) and the South Bend Blue Sox (1943-54).

In 1944, Milwaukee was home to a championship team, the Milwaukee Chicks, who won 71 games and lost 46, and won the playoffs in their six-team league. Then, like the Milwaukee Braves would do, they pulled up stakes and moved to another town.

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