During the post-World War II economic boom, Americans sought an avenue to spend their new found money - they sought entertainment. Professional Baseball became a top entertainment draw in the 1940's. The Illinois State League began operation in 1947 under President Howard V. Millard. Six cities in Southern Illinois formed teams and banded together as a Class D League, the lowest among the ranks of organized Minor League Baseball. The League was forced to change its name to the Mississippi-Ohio Valley (MOV) League in 1949 under the leadership of new President C.C. "Dutch" Hoffman when the membership moved beyond the Illinois state lines to Paducah, Kentucky. During the combined nine year history of the leagues, membership was unstable, wavering back and forth from six to eight teams.
In 1956, the Midwest League (MWL) name became official as teams moved out of Southern Illinois to larger markets in Iowa. Among many of the cities to join and leave the Midwest League in these years were Clinton (1954), Keokuk (1958), Waterloo (1958), and the Quad Cities (Davenport, 1960). Many of the teams and cities during these years lasted no more than five years on the circuit. Clinton and Quad Cities, however, continue to operate Midwest League franchises today.
By 1962, the league began to resemble today's MWL. The league expanded to ten teams, taking three teams from the Class B Three I-League that disbanded on January 7 of that year. Appleton (WI), Cedar Rapids (IA), and Burlington (IA) brought their rich baseball traditions to the Midwest League, and all three continue to do so today. On August 7, 1962, the MWL gained control of the Keokuk (IA) Dodgers when the franchise was forced to surrender its operations. The team played its remaining home games in Dubuque, IA as the MWL Dodgers. In 1963, Wisconsin Rapids (WI) picked up the franchise to allow the league to continue with ten teams.
Walter C. Wagner succeeded Hoffman as League President in 1963. A new player-development structure was formed that year, combining Class B, C, and D into one classification, Class A. While the membership continued to stabilize from 1963 to 1973, the league experienced two more Presidents, Jim Gruenwald (1965) and James Doster (1966-73). The MWL struggled, but in a time when survival in Minor League Baseball was the only success, only Dubuque failed to hold its franchise. The league operated with nine teams from 1968 to 1970, when Danville (IL) was awarded a franchise.
Bill Walters took over as President in 1974 as the MWL experienced some major changes. Dubuque regained a franchise when it replaced Quincy (IL), only to lose the team again two years later. Decatur (IL) relocated to Wausau (WI) in 1975, and Danville closed its doors after the 1976 season. The league operated with eight teams until 1982, when it expanded to twelve. Beloit (WI) and Madison (WI) were awarded new franchises, Danville was reintroduced to MWL baseball, and Springfield (IL) switched classification from the American Association (Class AAA) where it had been from 1978-1981. With the addition of these four teams, the MWL topped the one million mark (1,005,530) for a single season's attendance for the first time.
During the eighties, Major League Baseball began selling off their farm clubs to a new breed of minor league owners. This new breed turned Minor League Baseball into more than a bat, a ball, and a game. New owners added prizes, give-aways and on-field contests for fans to take part in throughout the season. Cities saw potential for community based family entertainment (as well as tax income) and began vying for the multi-million dollar valued franchises.
This trend was felt in the MWL. Before the 1983 season, Danville relocated to Peoria (IL) when it was bought be Peoria business magnate, Pete Vonachen. After the 1983 season, 20 year veteran to the MWL, Wisconsin Rapids (WI) relocated to Kenosha (WI). Kenosha had been without a professional minor league baseball team since 1954 when the Comets of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL as made popular by the 1992 film A League of Their Own) called Kenosha home.
On February 10, 1986, Bill Walters, who had been League President for 13 years, died of a heart attack. Ed Larson replaced him as interim president for the duration of the 1986 season when current president, George H. Spelius was elected. Under Spelius in 1988, the league expanded to 14 teams, awarding franchises to Rockford (IL) and South Bend (IN). (Both cities had also supported teams in the AAGPBL). The South Bend franchise was awarded to Edward "Jay" Acton and Eric Margenau who held the team for less than a year before they sold it to Alan Levin, a Hollywood television and film producer. The Rockford franchise was also owned by the original investors for a very short time; the Tribune Company of Chicago bought out the original ownership group in 1992.
The turn of the decade continued the relocation trend in the MWL. The Major Leagues, deciding to reduce funding for Minor League teams who were now able to finance their own operations, placed new standards on the MWL and it's Minor League counterparts. The operational costs of owning and operating a Minor League franchise increased dramatically as new ticket assessments took away as much as five percent of ticket revenues, and increased stadium standards forced franchises to review current leases. Many stadiums were not compliant with the new Facility Standards Agreement and teams began to move.
The first such relocation in the MWL occurred after the 1990 season when the Wausau franchise was bought by the Wisconsin Baseball Partnership and moved to Geneva, IL (Kane County). In Geneva, a $5.0 million stadium was built, helping the Kane County Cougars to draw 240,290 fans in its first year; Wausau had drawn only 56,434 fans in its final season.
In 1992, nine years after gaining a team, Kenosha was bought by the same Eric Margenau that had started the South Bend franchise only four years earlier. Margenau moved the team to Fort Wayne for the 1993 season where the Wizards opened play in the new $5.6 million Memorial Stadium. Fort Wayne had been without a professional baseball team since the AAGPBL located a team there during the 1940's and 1950's. As in Wausau's move to Kane County, the larger market provided a great attendance advantage. In Kenosha's final season, the attendance topped out at 45,349. Fort Wayne drew 318,506 in its inaugural season.
Before the 1993 season, Lew Chamberlin and Dennis Baxter purchased the Madison (WI) franchise that had been failing in the aging Warner Park. They relocated the team to Grand Rapids, MI, that had been without professional baseball since the Grand Rapids Chicks of the AAGPBL folded in 1954. In 1994, the West Michigan Whitecaps opened play in the privately funded $6 million Old Kent Park. Attendance surpassed expectations so far that stadium capacity had to be increased three times during the 1994 season. In the team's inaugural season it broke the Class A attendance record by entertaining an unbelievable 475,212 fans.
Madison was not to be without a team for long. Before the 1994 season, the St. Louis Cardinals were unhappy with Springfield's Lamphier Stadium. The team moved to Madison and the St. Louis Cardinals sold the franchise to American Baseball Capital (ABC). After the 1994 season, ABC began to look for a new stadium because Warner Park was not compliant. ABC moved the team to Battle Creek, MI where the Michigan Battle Cats opened at C.O. Brown Stadium in 1995.
However, Springfield would also not be without a team for long. Tom Dickson purchased the Waterloo (IA) franchise after the 1993 season. Shortly after the sale, the City of Waterloo raised the stadium rent, forcing Dickson to move the team to Springfield just two weeks before the 1994 season began. Dickson would then relocate to Lansing, MI for the 1996 season. The opening of $12.7 million Oldsmobile Park in Lansing again proved the attendance advantage of a larger market and a new stadium. The Lansing Lugnuts drew 538,325 fans in its first season.
The Appleton Foxes move before the 1995 season was a short one. The franchise would remain in Appleton, but would play in the newly constructed $5 million, 5,500 seat Fox Cities Stadium. Showing the impact of a new stadium was never more obvious as attendance at a new stadium in the same market rose from 76,281 in 1994 to 209,159 in 1995.
The Quad City franchise was sold during the 1998 season and the Fort Wayne club during 1999. Both teams remain in their current stadiums in their current markets, but the face of ownership within the League continues to change. The Rockford franchise was bought by baseball and entertainment conglomerate Mandalay Sports Entertainment prior to the 1999 season. The team opened play in multi-million dollar Fifth Third Field in downtown Dayton, Ohio for the 2000 season. The move to Dayton certainly drove Midwest League attendance up as Dayton's population base is the largest in the league.
The teams of the Midwest League not only changed their locations throughout the 1990's, but also changed their look. All but the Peoria Chiefs changed their name and/or logo sometime between 1993 and 1997. With a new Major League parent club every two years, the MWL clubs were able to maintain their own identity throughout the oft occurring affiliation changes. The new, catchier logos also provided a new revenue source in troubling times as Minor League Baseball merchandise became as much of a hot selling item as the game tickets.
The rise in attendance for the Midwest League continued into the new millennium by surpassing all four League attendance records. In 2000, the League had their largest season attendance to date with 3,268,473. Dayton's inaugural season passed all other clubs for club season attendance with 581,853. In 2001, the Kane County Cougars witnessed 14,304 fans pass through their gates to set the new team single game high record. Later in that season, seven of the Midwest League teams and their fans contributed to the setting of the League single game high record at 53,322.
The 2001 MWL Championship Series came to an abrupt end with only a one game series instead of five. The Championship is played during the second week of September, with the second game of the series scheduled for September 11. However on that day, terrorist attacks on America were launched, canceling the majority of sporting events.
The opening of two new state-of-the-art, multi-use stadiums kicked-off the start of the 2002 season. O'Brien Field became the new home of the Peoria Chiefs with 5,500 permanent box seats, 1,000 lawn seats, and 20 luxury boxes. Cedar Rapids Kernels' new home, Veterans Memorial Stadium, includes 3,000 permanent box seats, 1,000 bleacher seats and 400 lawn seats. New attendance records were realized in 2002 for both the Midwest League and franchises. The League Single Season High record of 3,366,779 was set in 933 openings and the Kane County Cougars, beating a record they set earlier in the same season, set the Club Single Game High record of 14,392. Franchise records for largest regular season attendance were set by Cedar Rapids at 196,066 and Peoria at 254,407. The '02 season came to an exciting close with the Peoria Chiefs staging a comeback in the ninth inning to win the Championship Series 3-1.
Attendance at Minor League Baseball games in 2003 increased by 430,565 fans over 2002 and went over the 39-million mark for the regular season. The total was 39,069,707, the second largest in the 102-year history of the industry. The Midwest League contributed by breaking their 2002 season record, coming in with 3,375,898 in 909 openings. The Dayton Dragons led the league with 590,382, an all-time record for a single-A team, beating their own mark set in 2000. The Kane County Cougars broke the single game high attendance record with 14,452 fans on August 16, 2003. This broke the record of 14,392 they set in 2002. August 2003 brought additional excitement when the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers took on their intra-state rival, the Beloit Snappers at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Midwest League's 2004 regular season attendance of 3,505,556 was a new record. The league's single-season attendance record for a club was broken by the Dayton Dragons with 593,663, which they previously held in 2003 with 590,382. Minor League Baseball's record attendance this season (39,887,755) is even more impressive than originally believed. Research has revealed that the l949 attendance figure of 39,782,717, which has been recognized for years as the best regular season attendance total in Minor League baseball's history until 2004, included crowds that attended 36 league all-star games. Minor League Baseball attendance is calculated using only regular season openings.
According to the 1950 Official Baseball Guide compiled by J.G. Taylor Spink and published by Charles C. Spink & Son, the total attendance for those 36 all-star games was 142,274. That means the true regular season attendance for the 59 leagues and 448 clubs in 1949 is 39,640,443. This new figure results in this season's 176 clubs in 15 leagues eclipsing the 1949 mark by nearly a quarter of a million fans (247,312), not by 105,038 as originally thought.
In 2010, the Midwest League welcomes two new clubs -- the Lake County Captains and the Bowling Green Hot Rods -- who previously played in the South Atlantic League. The Midwest League now plays in 16 cities.
The League still contains teams that have been fixtures in the league since as early as 1956, and franchises that began play in 2009. Although the teams are as diverse as the cities they play in, one thing remains constant: Tomorrow's Major League stars get their start in the Midwest League today.