Wisconsin's Minor Mistake
The Rise and Fall of Minor League Baseball in Wisconsin
A Long History of Baseball
Appleton, Beloit, Kenosha, Madison, Wausau: today these Wisconsin cities have nothing more in common than the state they share. But more than 20 years ago these places had a common bond: baseball. They were cities where some prospects would begin to realize a dream while some watched it fizzle away.
Before Chuck Knoblauch won four World Series rings. Before Tommy John had his surgery. Before Jose Conseco played in six Major League All-Star Games. Before Alex Rodriguez was caught using steroids, and caught again. Before any player could realize his aspirations of hitting a walk off home run in game 7 of the World Series, their road started in the minor leagues. And for a while, that road went through Wisconsin and the Midwest League.
Wisconsin holds a long history of baseball that begins in 1905 with the formation of the Class D Wisconsin State League. From there the state would hold a strong presence in the game, garnering as many as 10 teams at its high point. But, after the league folded in 1953, minor league baseball in Wisconsin would sit on the fringe for nearly 10 years as only Appleton would keep a professional team active, playing the Class B Three-I league from 1958 to 1961.
In 1962, Appleton — known as the Fox Cities Foxes — would begin Wisconsin's journey back to baseball prevalence as it joined the Midwest league.
“Fox Valley fans, who two weeks ago were concerned over the future of professional baseball in Appleton, are once again able to sit back and relax at least temporarily as the stockholders of the Fox Cities Foxes have assured the fans that there will be pro baseball in Appleton next spring,” the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote on Dec. 12, 1961.
Wisconsin Rapids would soon join the Foxes as the city from Central Wisconsin would join the Midwest league in 1963. From there the seed was planted that would later grow into something the entire state could be proud of.
Fast-forward to 1975 — through five Midwest League Championships between Appleton and Wisconsin Rapids — when Wisconsin gained its next Midwest League team as the Wausau Mets became the newest addition to the Class A league. Wausau would change Major League affiliations from the New York Mets to the Seattle Mariners in 1979, prompting a name change to the Wausau Timbers: a name it would keep for the rest of its time in Wisconsin.
In 1982, Wisconsin’s ascension in the Midwest League was complete as the Beloit Brewers (a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate) and the Madison Muskies (an Oakland Athletics affiliate) became the newest additions to the 27-year-old league. Five of the Midwest League’s 13 teams now called Wisconsin home, matching Iowa as the state with the most teams in the league. But, perhaps more importantly, Wisconsin’s capital city had its professional baseball team. And Madisonians were ready to go wild.
Not having a professional baseball franchise since 1942, when the Madison Blues left town, Wisconsin’s second largest city was starved for high-level baseball. In 1981, a court reporter for the state of Wisconsin, Ed Janus, decided it was about time Madison got itself a minor league baseball team again.
“We were sitting around after a game having a few beers when someone mentioned what a shame it was that Madison didn’t have its own minor league team,” Janus told the Capital Times in 1982.
“It seemed so absolutely wrong. I couldn’t think of one good reason why Madison shouldn’t have a team.”
Janus took it upon himself to bring a franchise to Madison. He got in touch with the Class A Midwest League team that already had three teams from Wisconsin in its league a season ago. It turned out the league loved the idea of moving a team to Madison.
After going through the process of getting the team approved by the city, Madison had its baseball team — something Janus, named the general manager of the team, believed was a necessity for the state capital.
“I’d call the team a much needed public utility. You can point to any number of reasons why it will be a success here — the demographics, the financial status of the community, the sports interest. And it’s just my gut feeling that people in this area want something to cheer for besides the Badgers,” Janus told the Capital Times.
The Medford A's, a Class A affilite of the Oakland Athletics based in Medford, Ore., were chosen to make the move to Madison, fresh off of a Northwest League championship in 1981.
After the team’s approval came the process of coming up with a name. A contest was held to get the people of Madison to send in their ideas. Over 4,000 entries were submitted. In the end, a “Blue Ribbon committee comprised of the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department, the Capital Times newspaper and WIBU Radio” (according to the Capital Times) chose the Muskies. And so the team would be known for its 12-year existence, even if its general manager didn’t like the name initially. It was still better than popular entries like the “Pig Dogs” and the “Wieners.”
Whether they liked the team’s nickname or not, Muskies fans came out in full force in their team’s inaugural season in Madison. The Muskies were forced to begin their season at the quaint Breese Stevens Field on East Washington Avenue as their fulltime home, Warner Park, was still undergoing renovations.
On April 27, 1982, the Muskies made their first appearance in Madison and the hometown fans proved they were ready to welcome a team to their city.
“I love Madison fans,” Muskies manager Brad Fischer told the Wisconsin State Journal after his team’s home opener. “They were great. They were unlike any other baseball fan I’ve seen, that’s for sure. It almost seemed like a football crowd out here, or a hockey crowd, or whatever. It was good to see.”
After playing its home games at Breese Stevens Field for nearly a month, the Muskies finally got to move home to the baseball field at Warner Park dubbed the “Fish Tank.”
May 9, 1982, Mothers Day. For the first time, the Muskies would play at the Fish Tank. Madison was ready. A marching band was on hand and free flowers were handed out to all of the mothers in attendance.
Down 2-1 through seven innings of play, the Muskies needed support, and the fans obliged.
“The Fans were enthusiastic as the game progressed, with their usual “Go, fish, go” chant, among others, but they really came to life when the Muskies staged their rally in the eighth inning,” John Hughes, a sports reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, wrote of the fans in the Muskies Warner Park opener in 1982.
Riding the wave of momentum the home crowd, Madison mounted a comeback scoring two runs in the bottom of the eighth to pull out a 4-3 win in its first game at Warner Park.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mike Ashman, Madison’s designated hitter, told the Wisconsin State Journal after the game. “We wanted to win for them.”
Madison continued to show its support throughout the Muskies’ inaugural season in 1982 as the Midwest League’s newest franchise produced a total attendance of 127,639, second only to the Quad City Cubs of Iowa. The Muskies boasted impressive attendance totals early on in the team’s tenure, totaling the highest attendance of any Wisconsin team in the Midwest League from 1982 to 1986.
The Muskies gave its home city plenty to cheer about finishing with the best record (87-52) in the league in 1982. Muskies’ outfielder Tom Romano was named the 1982 Midwest League Most Valuable Player. Even with its regular season momentum and the league MVP, Madison would fall in the championship series to Appleton. Just three years after moving to Madison, the club brought the city its first championship as the Muskies beat Springfield three games to two in the 1984 Midwest League Championship. It would be the Muskies only championship season.
The Summer Without Beer, Almost
Many Wisconsin residents would say the ideal baseball experience is with a brat in one hand and a beer in the other. In 1985, one of those hands was empty for Madison Muskies fans. At least it was for two weeks.
1985 brought the Muskies franchise a perfect storm that almost meant the demise of Madison’s team only four years into its tenure. Upon moving to Madison in 1982, the Muskies franchise signed a three-year lease. The lease included an insurance agreement that allowed the team to sell beer at its home games at Warner Park. As a part of the lease, the Muskies were required to pay $1 million each year for liquor liability insurance. Without it Madison’s minor league franchise would not be allowed to sell beer at its home games.
The Muskies original lease ran out after the 1984 season. Not long after that, the State Supreme Court ruled that selling alcohol to a minor holds the seller accountable for the minors’ actions. This ruling made it almost impossible for the Muskies to find a company willing to sign them on to a new insurance agreement, as ballparks are susceptible to selling alcohol to minors. Without any liquor liability insurance, the Muskies were forced to cease beer sales at home games. A prospect the front office knew would be a dagger in attendance.
“This could be a franchise killer,” Muskies president Bob Drew told the Madison Capital Times in May, 1985.
“We would definitely have to move. There’s no question about that. There isn’t a ball club in the country that could operate without beer sales.”
The Madison club would be forced to go two weeks without selling beer at home games. In late May, the Muskies were finally able to reach a temporary agreement with Sentry Insurance that allowed the team to sell beer for the rest of the summer, but the search was still on to find a long-term solution.
In early November 1985, 18 of the Muskies' 24 investors voted in favor of moving the franchise to a different city if the city of Madison didn’t remove the $1 million liquor-liability clause or greatly reduce it.
In mid-November, the Muskies franchise finally got their way as the city agreed to decrease the amount of coverage the team would be required to have. The decision allowed the team to sign a new four-year lease that would extend until 1989. In the new lease, the Muskies would be required to pay a total of $500,000 in liquor liability insurance per year instead of the $1 Million in previous seasons.
“We’re able to say, finally, like the Muskies’ fight song says, ‘the Muskies are here to stay’,” team president Drew told the Wisconsin State Journal after the team agreed to terms with the city on a new lease.
Stability was finally restored. At least for a while.
Wisconsin's Baseball Presence Fades
The late 1980’s and early 1990’s, was a tumultuous time for the Wisconsin teams in the Midwest League. Attendance at Madison Muskies games was much lower in the latter part of the decade than when the team first came to Madison in 1982. On top of that, an agreement by professional baseball in 1990 put pressure on minor league teams to greatly improve their facilities. Several teams were not able to get the funding required to renovate or rebuild facilities, which led to one fatal option: sell.
To prove the economic benifit minor league teams can have on a city, the Beloit and Appleton franchises hired William A. Raabe, then a business professor then at UW-Milwaukee, to compile an economic-impact report to present to state legislators. Raabe’s findings reported that the Appleton and Beloit franchises produced more than $7 million for Wisconsin’s economy.
Raabe believed that nearly every minor league franchise’s value doubles every eight years. With that assumption in mind, suddenly there was a glut of ownership groups looking to buy a team.
“There was sort of an arms race that started 20 years ago for redoing, relocating or building new stadiums and so as a result of that one group of owners would go and raid another group of owners’ team,” Raabe, now a professor at UW-Whitewater, said in a phone interview.
“People had money because of the rise in the stock market and they were looking to sort of become sports moguls and they found that minor league baseball teams at the time were a really good investment and so you had celebrities getting in, you had manufacturing groups of owners, all of a sudden people with discretionary money were buying up those assets. That bid up the price, sort of as a spike. All of a sudden these teams became much more expensive.”
The Madison Muskies were in a dire situation. The team had completed a city-sponsored $160,000 renovation to Warner Park in 1990, but it wasn’t enough to bring the stadium to the standards the league was looking for. The city of Madison wasn’t ready to undergo another investment in the park and the team’s front office, that claimed to be losing $50,000 a year on the team, couldn’t afford to help.
Following the 1993 season, the Madison Muskies moved to Grand Rapids, Mich. after being bought by an investor who privately funded a $6 million stadium in the Muskies new home.
“I’m personally embarrassed the state capital will not retain professional baseball,” Midwest League Commissioner George Spelius told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1993. “I still believe deep in my heart Madison can support minor league baseball. Madison isn’t so sophisticated that it can’t support minor-league baseball.”
Madison wasn’t the only city to let go of its minor league team. Wausau let the Timbers move to Geneva, Ill. after the 1990 season and Kenosha moved the Twins to Fort Wayne, Ind. after the 1992 season. Only Appleton (now the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers) and Beloit (now the Snappers affiliated with the Oakland Athletics) remain as Wisconsin’s minor-league baseball teams.
“[Every city] had sort of an excuse (why it couldn’t fund a minor-league team), but I’m sure they wish their teams were still there,” raabe said.