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Story of Baseball in Peoria

Peoria, Illinois has a rich history of sports and athletic teams. One of the most prominent sports has been baseball, more precisely Peoria Chiefs baseball. Most people, when asked about the Chiefs, would say the team started in the early 1980's as a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs before joining the St. Louis Cardinals farm system. A small group of people may remember that there was a Chiefs baseball team that played in the 1950's at Woodruff Field. These facts are just a small part of the rich history of baseball in Peoria, which started over 120 years ago.

Professional baseball in Peoria can be traced back to 1878, with the formation of an independent team named the Peoria Reds. William Morgan, an early minor league operator, put together a team that took and frequently beat National League clubs. A few of the Reds players went on to play for championship teams in Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. One notable player, who started his career with the Peoria Reds in 1878 was Bloomington, IL native Charles Radbourn. Radbourn has been named the "Daddy of all pitchers" after numerous accomplishments, including going 60-12 in 1884 for Providence. He was also among the first group inducted in to the Hall of Fame by the Old Timers Committee in 1939.

The early games in Peoria's history were played at Sylvan Park, the current location of Proctor Home. The 1882 season saw Johnny Clarkson reportedly throw the first curveball in baseball history. Clarkson was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1963 by the Old Timers Committee. In the 1880s, Peoria joined one of the first organized leagues in the Midwest, the Northwestern League, along with Saginaw, Bay City, Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Fort Wayne. In 1884, the team moved its games to Lake View Park and left the non-profitable Northwestern League. Another pioneer in baseball history played in Peoria in the 1880s. Catcher Spike Twineham was the first in the Midwest to throw out base runners attempting to steal second base.

Operating as a semi-pro club, the Peoria team, now known as the Peoria Distillers, were involved in the most famous game of the era. A 21-inning victory over St. Joseph, MO was the longest game recorded at the time and pitcher Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity pitched the entire game. McGinnity earned his nickname because of outings such as this one and the fact that he pitched 5 double headers in one season and holds the record for most innings pitched in a season with 434. These accomplishments landed him in the Hall of Fame in 1945.

The next step in Peoria baseball was joining the Western Association in 1902, which eventually led to them becoming part of one of the most highly regarded leagues in baseball history. In 1905, Peoria joined the Three - I League and experienced a successful history over the next 30 years. They remained in the Three-I League except for a couple of years when the team was part of the Central and Mississippi Leagues. The Distillers enjoyed success in the early years of the Three - I League, including 1911 when the team won the league championship.

In 1917, the United States entered World War I and baseball left Peoria as the Three-I League ceased operations. After the war baseball returned to Peoria and by 1923 there was a new stadium built to keep professional baseball in Peoria. Woodruff Field cost $50,000 and became the home for baseball for years to come. Lights were added in 1930 for $8,000 and expanded the reach of professional baseball in the area.

In the 1930s the team was called the Peoria Tractors and though they played well, attendance figures were disturbingly low. However, the 1934 season was memorable because of a high school student who played for the Tractors. Phil Covaratta broke into professional baseball collecting a home run, triple, double, and single in 5 plate appearances. Covaratta went on to manage the Chicago Cubs during the 1950's. In 1937, Peoria attempted to again play in the Three- I League with Cincinnati as their parent club. But, with the season attendance under 13,000 and the withdrawn support from Cincinnati, baseball in Peoria was finished.

During the time baseball was not present in Peoria, the United States entered World War II, which led to a shortage of professional baseball throughout the entire country. Ball players were joining the war effort but people still wanted to watch baseball. This scenario led to the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943. Peoria joined the league in 1946 and were nicknamed the Peoria Redwings. The team played at Peoria Stadium, which had been known for its use as a football facility. After the addition of large bleacher sections and maneuvering the stadium was turned into a 10,000 capacity baseball park. In 1946, the league consisted of Peoria and Rockford in Illinois, South Bend and Ft. Wayne in Indiana, Grand Rapids and Muskegon in Michigan, and Kenosha and Racine in Wisconsin.

On May 26, 1946, professional baseball for women debuted in Peoria as the Redwings defeated Kenosha 7-0. The manager for the team was a former Peoria player named Bill "Rawmeat" Rodgers. There were a number of standout players for the Redwings, such as the "Ty Cobb" of women's baseball, Thelma Eisen, who hit .256, played good defense, stole 128 bases, and hit the only two home runs in their first season. Other players in the league included two Peoria girls, Irene Applegren and Irene "Pep" Kerwin. Applegren played for the 1944 championship Rockford team before she even graduated from Manual High School. The ladies in the league were not highly paid; the top players made around $300 a month. In their first three seasons, Peoria experienced an attendance growth, from 68,000 in 1946 to 94,000 in 1947 and topping out at 130,000 in 1948. The success of the league grew as time went on, but eventually the war was over and the men came back ready to play ball. The A.A.G.B.L. ended in 1951, but made its mark not only in Peoria, but in baseball history as evidenced by the motion picture A League of Their Own.

In 1953, the Three-I League was re-established and Peoria had men's professional baseball once again. The Cleveland Indians stocked Peoria with talent and the team became known as the Peoria Chiefs. This time period in Peoria baseball saw numerous eventual major-league talent. Hank Aguirre was a 6-foot-4 left-handed pitcher who went 8-11 with a 4.72 ERA for the 1953 team. During a fifteen year Major League career, Aguirre went 75-72 with a 3.25 earned run average. The 1954 season saw the Chiefs change affiliation to the St. Louis Cardinals farm system. Bob Dubila and Gene Green were two of the more prominent players to play for the Chiefs in the Cardinals system. The team changed affiliation again in 1957, this time the team joining the New York Yankees organization. Players such as Rod Kanehl, Wally Shannon, Tom Patton, Don Choate, Joe McClain, and Billy Short all played for the Chiefs and saw time in the Major Leagues. These players may not be well known, but Peoria did see future Hall of Famers on the opposition. Louis Aparicio and Johnny Vander Meer played against the Chiefs in the 1950s as did eventual home run king Roger Maris. The 1957 season saw the end of the Three-I League, this time for good. The Peoria Chiefs were finished and professional baseball would be gone for over 25 years.

A lot of time passed without baseball in Peoria and when the opportunity to join the Midwest League came around in 1983, Peoria was eager to re-invent its strong baseball legacy. The new team was moved from Danville and began play at Meinen Field, which was built in 1968. The Peoria Suns, affiliate of the California Angels, finished the season 54-85, but had a few future big leaguers on the team. Devon White and Mark McLemore were two of the most impressive players to play with the Peoria Suns. The best player of the early 1980s from the Angels system also spent time in Peoria. First baseman Wally Joyner hit .328 with 33 RBI during the 1983 season.

In the fall of 1983, the team was bought by a local businessman and renamed the Chiefs, after the old Three-I League team from the 1950s. Pete Vonachen and his son Rocky bought the team and thus began a new era of professional baseball in Peoria. In 1985, the Chiefs changed affiliation, becoming a member of the Chicago Cubs farm system. The team experienced great success while the club was affiliated with the Cubs. Attendance records fell thanks to both a successful team and exciting promotions every night. This combination led to national recognition for the organization and in 1988, when they set a franchise attendance record of 207,294, the Chiefs were ranked in the top 10 of all minor league operations by Baseball America.

Some of the Chiefs success in the 1980s was due to the level of talent on the playing field. The Chiefs were blessed in 1985 and 1986 with a number of future major league all-stars on their roster. In 1985, a pair of possible Hall of Famers. Pitcher Greg Maddux and outfielder Rafael Palmeiro entertained Peoria crowds. Maddux (13-9, 3.19 ERA) has been one of the best pitchers in the Majors since 1990 and will be in Cooperstown at the end of his career. Palmeiro (.297 avg., 55 RBI) has enjoyed a successful career finding his best years in the American League as a first baseman and designated hitter. In 1986, Mark Grace joined the Chiefs and quickly became a fan favorite. Grace led the Midwest League in hitting and his efforts led the Chiefs to the finals. His future Cubs teammate, Joe Girardi also played on the '86 team, leading all Midwest League catchers with a .309 average.

Pete Vonachen and his staff had turned the Chiefs into a classy organization that was well respected around the baseball circuit. However, all the hard work and long hours forced Pete to sell the team due to some health issues. The team was sold to a Chicago group headed by Clar Krusinski in September of 1988. The ownership group gained the support of the town and continued the legacy of Peoria baseball. In 1992, Meinen Field was given a facelift, with over $2 million of renovations. New seats were installed around the seating bowl with a second level of bleachers put in above the first base line. A new office building and restroom facilities added a more professional feel to the field and updated picnic areas all added to the baseball experience. The biggest change came when the team announced that the stadium was being dedicated to honor one of baseball's supporters in Peoria, Pete Vonachen. On June 6, 1992 the Chiefs held "Pete Vonachen Stadium" dedication day.

Over the next couple of years the attendance started sliding down and it seemed like people were drifting away from the Peoria Chiefs. Then came something that had not been in the plans. A number of local people went to Pete Vonachen and asked him to look into buying the team back, in which they would become investors. Pete really had no intention of getting back into baseball, but with all of the support he seemed to have in the community, he made the decision to re-purchase the Chiefs, this time as part of a community driven group of investors. So in 1994, the new Peoria-minded group of investors started to rebuild the image and energy of Peoria Chiefs Baseball, led by Peoria's Mr. Baseball, Pete Vonachen.

The Chiefs enjoyed a wealth of talent and a great working relationship with the Cubs, but after the 1994 season the Chiefs would need a new big league affiliate. The Cubs moved their operations to Rockford, leaving Peoria without a team. Originally the club signed a new player development contract with the Boston Red Sox, but then discussions with the St. Louis Cardinals became a reality. After months of dealing and negotiating the St. Louis Cardinals became the affiliate for the Peoria Chiefs.

Since being a part of the Cardinal organization, Peoria has had numerous top players come through town. Pitching prospects Rick Ankiel and Bud Smith spent time here and both of these players have shown signs of brilliance at the major league level. Ankiel was dominant as a rookie in 2000 and Smith pitched a no-hitter during the 2001 season. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, position players Placido Polanco, Kerry Robinson, and the 2001 National League Rookie of the Year Albert Pujols also got their start in Peoria. In 2001, Pujols had one of the best rookie seasons in baseball's history after spending one year in the minor league system for the Cardinals. While in Peoria, Pujols was an all-star and the Midwest League MVP while hitting .324 with 17 HR, and 84 RBI in just 109 games during the 2000 season. At the end of the season, Pujols moved up to Triple A Memphis for the championship run. During that stretch, he was named MVP of the Pacific Coast League Playoffs. In 2001, the Chiefs had a few highlights to mention as well: First round pick second-baseman Shawn Boyd played well until he was hit in the face by a pitch late in the season, and OF Chris Morris set the Midwest League record with 109 stolen bases.

The 2002 Season started with a bang for the Peoria Chiefs on Thursday April 4. Cardinals #1 draft pick Justin Pope was the opening day starter and he threw a gem in front of 2,047 fans at Pete Vonachen Stadium as Peoria beat Clinton 3-1. The Chiefs went 18-6 in April as they raced out to the early lead in the Midwest League's Western Division and also posting one of the best record in all of professional baseball in the first month.

With Pope and closer Joel Barreto on the DL to start May, the Chiefs got a rehab start from St. Louis Cardinal Garrett Stephenson. Stephenson and Tyler Johnson combined on a 1-hit shutout of Fort Wayne on May 8, the next to last game ever played at Vonachen. While May would start out as a tough month for the Chiefs, all of Central Illinois was focused on downtown Peoria as the month drew to a close. On Friday, May 24, the Chiefs opened brand new O'Brien Field with a 3-0 win over the Kane County Cougars. Mike Wodnicki got the win for the Chiefs with seven shutout innings. His opponent in the opener was Kane County phenom Dontrelle Willis who suffered one of his two losses on the season. Willis would lead the Marlins to the World Series Championship while winning NL Rookie of the Year just one season later.The two dueled in front of a franchise record 8,824 fans. That franchise record would be broken two days later when 8,854 fans packed into O'Brien to watch the Chiefs and Cougars. Another Cardinal pitcher, Steve Kline, started that Sunday game on a rehab assignment.

The Chiefs finished the season on a 24-5 run, including a 15-1 mark at home. On August 29, Tyler Johnson won his 15th game of the season and the 2002 Chiefs established a franchise record with their 81st win of the season. The next night, at home, the Chiefs would become the first Peoria team to win 40 games in each half.

Once the playoffs started September 4 in Burlington, the Chiefs were locked in. Having won the last six regular season games, Peoria made quick work of the Bees with a 2-0 sweep. That earned the Chiefs a shot at Cedar Rapids who won the second half title. The two were on a collision course all season long, but Wodnicki and Narveson were stellar on the mound as Peoria swept the Kernels with wins of 5-3 and 8-1. Next up was the MWL finals against the Lansing Lugnuts. Game one was at O'Brien and Tyler Johnson and the Chiefs destroyed Lansing 9-2. The next night, Pope was just as impressive as the Chiefs took a 2-0 lead with a 4-2 win. After a day off in remembrance of Sep. 11, the series shifted to Lansing where the Lugnuts bested Wodnicki for a 5-2 win. On Sep 13, Lansing raced out to a 10-2 lead after 7 and it looked like game 5 would be necessary. But the Chiefs scratched out a run in the 8th and started a memorable rally in the 9th. When all was said and done, Peoria scored 8 times in the top of the 9th for a 11-10 lead. Closer Jared Blasdell slammed the door on Lansing in the bottom of the inning and Danny Sheaffer and his Peoria Chiefs were crowned 2002 Midwest League Champions.

The Chiefs were led by Joe Cunningham in 2003 and 2004. The Chiefs failed to make the playoffs in 2003 though Travis Hanson set a franchise record with six hits in a game in Dayton in early April. Hanson finished the season as the MWL's Post Season All-Star at third base. In 2004 the Chiefs rallied late in the season to get into playoff position. Stuart Pomeranz pitched the Chiefs to the postseason with a Sunday afternoon win at Beloit on the next to last day of the season. Anthony Monegan's 12th inning walk-off homer beat Kane County in Game 1 of the playoffs at O'Brien Field. But the Cougars shut down the leagues best offense over the next two nights to take the first round series and end the Chiefs season.

In mid September 2004 the Chiefs announced an affiliation switch back to the Chicago Cubs. This change was accompanied with a new logo in November and new jerseys for the 2005 season.