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History

West Michigan Whitecaps History

When the West Michigan Whitecaps began play in the Grand Rapids area in 1994, it was the culmination of a 10-year labor of love for local businessmen Lew Chamberlin and Dennis Baxter. The two took on the challenge of bringing a minor league team to the area in 1984 (see chronology below), and in February of 1993, finally reached the proverbial pot of gold when they announced the purchase of the Midwest League's Madison Muskies franchise with the intent to move the team the following year to Comstock Park, Michigan.

In addition to the purchase of the team, Chamberlin and Baxter, along with 26 limited partners, were able to secure private financing for the construction of Fifth Third Ballpark. The financing is significant in that Fifth Third Ballpark is one of the only professional baseball stadiums in the country to be constructed strictly with private funds - and without taxpayer dollars.

 

How The Whitecaps Were Named

West Michigan Baseball, Inc. (as the fledgling team was then called) ran a lengthy Name The Team Contest to allow the West Michigan public to cast their vote on a name for the team. The contest, in which 1,800 fans entered, concluded on September 26, 1993, when Chamberlin and Baxter selected the name Whitecaps.

Twenty-two fans chose the name Whitecaps, and Brian Glass of Rockford was chosen the winner based on how well the name ties the team to the area, the originality of the name and the creativity of the explanation.

His winning entry read: "...Historically, there have been major league teams nicknamed after their attire (i.e. White Sox, Red Sox, Redlegs). So, the West Michigan Whitecaps has some connection with baseball tradition.

"The moniker is also relevant in geographic sense since Grand Rapids is situated next to the Grand River and east of Lake Michigan. 'Whitecapping' is a common occurrence on the river and lake due to turbulent or rough wind and water conditions...Besides, giving the team the moniker gives fans performing the 'Wave' more meaning."

More than 100 names were suggested for the team during the contest. Some of the most popular were the Waves, Robins, Grand Slammers, Lumbermen, River Rats, Mitts, Mittens, Muskies, Lakers and Diamonds.

Some of the more unusual entries included: Apple Knockers, Beach fleas, Chicken Hawks, Fruit Flies, ET's, Aardvarks, Hunks, Mud Sox, Mug-wumps, Office Workers, Nimrods, Sand Burrs, Steelheaders and Wet Sox.

Glass received two season tickets for the inaugural 1994 season, a team jacket and free luxury suite for a night as grand prize winner.

 

The History of Baseball in Grand Rapids

Until the West Michigan Whitecaps began their inaugural season in 1994, Grand Rapids had been without a professional baseball team for 40 years, since the Grand Rapids Chicks disbanded in 1954. But Grand Rapids has a strong history of baseball as more than 30 professional teams, both men's and women's, and dozens of amateur leagues have called this area home since 1883.

Playing in a variety of leagues, the teams went by such nicknames as Furnituremakers, Rustlers, Gold Bugs, Ganzeloids, Braves, Black Sox, Bissell Sweepers, Bill-Eds, Billberts, Billbobs, Dodger Colts, Chicks, Orphans, Jets and Joshers.

The original professional team in Grand Rapids was organized in late 1882 and played as a charter franchise in the Northwestern League in 1883. The team had no nickname and played home games at Recreation Park on weekdays and at Alger Park on Reeds Lake on weekends.

Many teams came and went in the early 1900's, but with the onset of the Great Depression in the late '20's, professional baseball all but ended in Grand Rapids.

Fans were still able to enjoy semi-pro baseball in the area during the Depression. When the Brooklyn Dodgers barnstormed through Grand Rapids in 1939, they discovered more than 50 teams playing in six city leagues. Because enthusiasm for the game was so high, the Dodgers decided to place a farm team in Grand Rapids for the 1940 season. The Dodger Colts, as the team was called, played at Bigelow Field on South Division until the outbreak of World War II ended their stay.

Toward the end of the war, the Chicks of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (immortalized in the movie "A League of Their Own") came to Grand Rapids from Milwaukee. The Chicks were popular and played excellent baseball, winning the AAGPBL playoff pennant in 1947 and again in 1953, but were forced to disband when the league folded in 1954.

For a time, the Chicks had competition from a men's team, the Grand Rapids Jets, who played minor league baseball in the Central League from 1948 through 1951.

Locally-sponsored professional baseball all but disappeared in this country during the 1950's as television brought major league baseball into the home. But local baseball legend Bob Sullivan successfully bucked this trend. His team, the Sullivans, were noted for their success in amateur baseball play and in sending players to the majors for almost four decades.

Another local hero, Ted Rasberry, owned the Grand Rapids Black Sox and later the Detroit Stars and the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Rasberry fought to keep black baseball alive until 1960, when the league, which at one point consisted of 16 teams, shrunk to only four (two of them being Rasberry's Stars and Monarchs) due to the falling of the racial barrier.

The West Michigan Whitecaps are keeping the century-old baseball tradition alive. The Whitecaps recognized the rich history of baseball in Grand Rapids with six "Turn Back The Clock" tribute games in 1996. Players dressed in old-time uniforms and played one game each as the 1899 Furnituremakers, the 1903 Orphans, the 1921 Joshers, the 1922 Billbobs, the 1948 Black Sox and the 1950 Jets. The Whitecaps have also represented the Holland Flying Dutchmen and the Ludington Mariners in special "Turn Back The Clock" games.

Despite the number of teams that have called Grand Rapids home, the Whitecaps became Grand Rapids' first professional sports team to win a championship in 1996. They won the Midwest League championship again in 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2007.

 

Whitecaps Chronology

1980 Columnist Corky Meinecke poses question in Grand Rapids Press of why can't Grand Rapids support minor league baseball like Evansville, Indiana (the AAA Detroit Tigers affiliate at that time). Lew Chamberlin likes the idea, and it sticks in his mind.
1984 Lew Chamberlin and Denny Baxter begin independently pursuing a baseball franchise to bring to West Michigan.
1986 News reports link Baxter to efforts to bring a team to Lamar Park in Wyoming. Initially discouraged, Chamberlin gives Baxter a call and they hit it off well after two phone calls and a meeting.
1987 West Michigan Baseball Development, Inc. is formed.
1988-89 Negotiations with the city of Wyoming on a $5 million, 12,000 seat stadium adjacent to Lamar Park begin.
Nov. '89 Chamberlin and Baxter purchase Wasau Timbers of the Midwest League as part of Wisconsin Baseball Partnership with about 5 people from Chicago. Lew leaves his job at Alro Steel and devotes himself full-time to West Michigan Baseball.
1991 Timbers move to Geneva, Illinois to become the Kane County Cougars. Cougars begin play in a new 3,600 seat stadium that had been built to attract a franchise.
1991-93 Cougars become one of the top organizations in baseball.
Fall - '92 West Michigan Baseball Development, Inc. begins negotiations with the Madison Muskies of the Midwest League.
February '93 Announcement made that Muskies will move to West Michigan in 1994. Construction begins on a privately financed, 5,700 seat stadium in Comstock Park, MI. Naming rights were sold to Old Kent Bank and the ballpark was named Old Kent Park.
April 12, 1994 West Michigan Whitecaps play their first home game, defeating the Burlington Bees, 5-2.
September 1, 1994 Whitecaps break the all-time Class A attendance record of 463,039 set in 1949 by the Denver Bears. West Michigan fans total 475,212 by the regular season's end the following day.
September 2, 1994 Whitecaps qualify for Midwest League playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
September 1995 Whitecaps again break Class A attendance record, drawing 507,989 fans to Old Kent Park.
September 1996 For the third straight season, the Whitecaps break the Class A attendance record, drawing 547,401 fans to Old Kent Park.
September 1996 The Whitecaps win the Midwest League Championship, defeating the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers 3-1 in the best of 5 league finals.
April 20, 1997 Whitecaps pitcher Dave Borkowski throws the first no-hitter in team history, a 6-0 victory at Kane County.
September 1997 The Whitecaps finish the 1997 season with a 92-39 record, the best winning percentage in all of professional baseball, but are eliminated in the first round of the Midwest League playoffs. The Whitecaps are named Baseball America's Minor League Team of the Year.
September 18, 1998 The Whitecaps win their second Midwest League Championship, defeating the Rockford Cubbies 5-3 in Game 4 of the best-of-5 league finals.
April 17, 1999 Sean Buller and Luis Pineda combine to throw a 7-inning no-hitter, the second no-no in Whitecaps history, in the second game of a doubleheader at South Bend. The Whitecaps won the game 2-0.
May 17, 1999 The Detroit Tigers make their first appearance in West Michigan in 53 years, playing an exhibition game against the Class A affiliate West Michigan Whitecaps at Old Kent Park. The Tigers won, 5-2, in front of the largest Whitecaps crowd ever (11,006 fans).
September 1999 The Whitecaps fail to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
December 1999 Baseball America bestows some of its highest honors on the Whitecaps, naming it the Class A Organization of the Decade. In addition, the 1997 Whitecaps were named the Third-Best Minor League Team of the Decade, and General Manager Scott Lane was named General Manager of the Decade.
June 10, 2000 Whitecaps pitcher Tommy Marx throws the third no-hitter in team history (and first at Old Kent Park), an 8-0 victory vs. Kane County.
June 13, 2000 Whitecaps pitcher Calvin Chipperfield throws the fourth no-hitter in team history (and second in a four-day span!), a 2-0 seven-inning victory vs. Kane County.
November 15, 2000 Detroit names local major league star Brent Gates as the Whitecaps' next manager, replacing Bruce Fields. Gates is the fourth manager in franchise history.
October 11, 2001 Detroit names Phil Regan, former major league player and manager and 2000 Olympic baseball coach, as the Whitecaps' fifth manager. Regan is the second straight local star to be named Whitecaps manager.
October 18, 2001 Fifth Third Bank acquires naming rights to Old Kent Park as part of their purchase of Old Kent Bank. The stadium's name is changed to Fifth Third Ballpark.
September 2002 Regan leads the Whitecaps to a strong 83-57 finish before being upset in the second round of the playoffs.
November 20, 2002 The Whitecaps gear up for their 10th anniversary by introducing a new collection of logos and new team uniforms.
April 2003 More stadium expansion as the Whitecaps added a second private party deck - the Batteries Plus PowerZone behind the left field wall.
June 17, 2003 The Whitecaps hosted the Midwest League All-Star Game for the second time in franchise history. The Eastern Division defeated the Western Division by a 5-4 score, on a bottom-of-the-ninth RBI by Lansing's Keith Butler in front of 10,037 fans.
September 1, 2003 Team Manager Phil Regan managed the final game of his stellar baseball career, which spanned college ball, the major and minor leagues as a player, coach and manager.
September 19, 2004 The Whitecaps win their third Midwest League Championship, defeating the Kane County Cougars 4-2 at home in Game 5 of an exciting best-of-five league finals under first-year manager Matt Walbeck.
June 19 , 2005 Josh Lee hits for the cycle against the South Bend Silver Hawks. He becomes the first Whitecap in team history to hit for the cycle.
October 2005 The Whitecaps break ground on the Pepsi Stadium Club and Miller Lite House Deck, which replaced the bleachers in right-centerfield. The project also included adding outdoor seating to the suites and the project cost was approximately $1.4 million.
June 22, 2006 Whitecaps centerfielder and Detroit Tigers number one draft pick from 2005 Cameron Maybin is selected to play in the Futures Game as part of the Major League Baseball All -Star weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
July 25, 2006 Mike Hernandez hits his second cycle of the season, breaking the team record set in 2005. Hernandez accomplished the feat in a 10-0 win over the Peoria Chiefs and hit his first cycle June 8 at Fort Wayne.
August 24, 2006 Four Whitecaps named to the Midwest League Post-Season All Star Team: Cameron Maybin, Mike Hollimon, Orlando Perdomo and Matt Walbeck. Maybin was also named Prospect of the Year for the league.
September 15, 2006 The Whitecaps capture their fourth Midwest League Championship in the team's 13-year history. The 'Caps downed the Kane County Cougars 8-4 in the final game and took the best-of-five series 3-1 to win the title. The 'Caps ended the season with 96 wins counting the playoffs, which is the most in team history.
September 19, 2006 Whitecaps centerfielder Cameron Maybin was named the Tigers Minor League Player of the Year and pitcher Burke Badenhop was named the Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
September 27, 2006 Whitecaps Manager Matt Walbeck named Low Class A Manager of the Year by Baseball America. Cameron Maybin named to Baseball America's Low Class A All Star Team.
October 5, 2006 Vice President of Whitecaps Professional Baseball Jim Jarecki named the Midwest League Executive of the Year.
November 6, 2006 Former Detroit Tigers third baseman Tom Brookens is named Whitecaps Manager. Brookens becomes the seventh manager in Whitecaps history, taking over for Matt Walbeck who was promoted to Double-A Erie. Walbeck finishes his three-year stint as Whitecaps manager with 231 wins, currently second in franchise history.
June 5, 2007 A franchise record eight Whitecaps are selected to the Midwest League All-Star game in Geneva, Illinois, on June 19, 2007. The players selected are catcher James Skelton, outfielders Gorkys Hernandez and Deik Scram, first baseman Ryan Strieby and pitchers Chris Cody, Duane Below, Brett Jensen and Jeff Gerbe. Scram is named the game's "Star of Stars" Award with a hit, stolen base and two runs scored.
June 15, 2007 Detroit Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers makes a Major League Rehab Assignment with the Whitecaps as he pitches against Dayton at Fifth Third Ballpark. The sellout crowd of 10,537 watches Rogers throw five innings with three runs (one earned) allowed.
June 21, 2007 Whitecaps center fielder Gorkys Hernandez is selected to play in the Futures Game as part of the Major League Baseball All-Star weekend in San Francisco, California.
July 17, 2007 The Whitecaps reach a franchise milestone by ushering in their sixth millionth fan. Dorothy Metzler of Grand Haven enters Fifth Third Ballpark and is quickly escorted to the field for a pre-game ceremony where she is showered with gifts for being the Whitecaps milestone fan.
August 28, 2007

Three Whitecaps receive post-season honors from the Midwest League as Tom Brookens wins Manager of the Year, Gorkys Hernandez is named MVP of the Midwest League and James Skelton is selected to the post-season All-Star roster as a catcher.

September 15, 2007 With an 11-5 victory over the Beloit Snappers at Pohlman Field in a decisive game five, the Whitecaps claim back-to-back Midwest League Championships. After sweeping Lansing and South Bend in the first two rounds, the Whitecaps defeat the Snappers in the best-of-five MWL finals 3-2 for their fifth Championshp in team history.
September 16, 2007 Whitecaps LHP Duane Below wins the Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year award. Below posted a 13-5 record with 2.97 ERA in 26 starts and also won two playoff starts for West Michigan.
November 16, 2007 Joe DePastino is named Whitecaps Manager following Tom Brookens' promotion to Double-A Erie. DePastino is the eighth manager in Whitecaps history.
April 18, 2008 Detroit Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson leads off for the Whitecaps against the Burlington Bees in front of 10,056 fans at Fifth Third Ballpark. Granderson hits an infield single in his first at-bat and finishes 2-for-4 with a triple. Granderson ends up playing two more games with the 'Caps on April 21 and 22, hitting .364 (4-for-11) with two triples in the three games.
July 14, 2008 West Michigan fans welcome their second Major League rehab of the year to Fifth Third Ballpark as Tigers slugger Magglio Ordonez dons a Whitecaps jersey. Ordonez goes 1-for-4 with a run scored in front of a sellout crowd of 10,592 as the Whitecaps roll over Peoria 10-2.
September 3, 2008 The Whitecaps and the Detroit Tigers announce a four-year extension to their Player Development Contract, continuing their partnership through the 2014 season.
September 12, 2008 Whitecaps LHP Jon Kibler is named the Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Kibler is the third straight Whitecaps pitcher to capture the award after posting a 14-5 record and 1.75 ERA (second-best ERA in all Minor Leagues). Kibler along with RHP Alfredo Figaro are also named to the Midwest League Post-Season All-Star team.
October 21, 2008 Fifth Third Ballpark receives a facelift as renovation plans are announced for the offseason. All of the box seats were replaced and padded seats were added to the sections behind home plate. New backstop netting was added for better visibility. The field was also renovated with a new playing surface and drainage system other upgrades included new cash registers, a new roof and repaving of the parking lot.
March 23, 2009 The Fifth Third Burger became an overnight sensation when it was featured on CNBC personality Darren Rovell's blog. The blog post caught the attention of ESPN SportsCenter anchors Steve Levy and John Andersen. They mentioned the burger on the show and the burger's popularity soared. It was featured in hundreds of newspapers, magazines and TV shows around the world.
May 16, 2009 Whitecaps fans were treated to their fourth major league rehab start in three years as Jeremy Bonderman came to town while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. A crowd of 10,023 saw Bonderman and the Whitecaps take on the Great Lakes Loons. Bonderman gave up six hits and two earned runs while striking out four over seven innings as the Whitecaps won 13-6.
June 5, 2009 Six Whitecaps are named to the Midwest League Eastern Division All-Star team. First baseman Ronnie Bourquin was elected to start in the game. He was joined on the team by second baseman Brandon Douglas and pitchers Casey Crosby, Jared Gayhart, Mauricio Robles and Tyler Stohr.
July 5, 2009 The Whitecaps defeated the Dayton Dragons 20-11 in a record setting game. The Whitecaps tied the team record for runs in a game and broke the records for runs in an inning (13) and combined runs (31). The Dragons hit four home runs which tied a record for home runs by a West Michigan opponent. Three of those home runs were hit by Byron Wiley who became the first player to hit three home runs at Fifth Third Ballpark. Also, Whitecaps outfielder Ben Guez tied the record for doubles in a game (3) and Alden Carrithers tied the mark for runs scored (4).
July 15, 2009 The host of the Travel Channel's Man V. Food, Adam Richman, visited the ballpark to tape an episode of this show. He mingled with fans and took on the world-famous Fifth Third Burger.
June 16, 2010 Fifth Third Ballpark welcomed it's 7,000,000 fan Lauren! Lauren received numerous prizes and a presentation on the field.
August 11, 2011 Extended Player Development Contract with the Detroit Tigers another 4 years through 2018.
2011-2012 Off Season New 54.5'x27' videoboard and manual scoreboard installed.
June 19, 2012 Dean Green, Steven Moya, Eugenio Suarez, Tommy Collier and Michael Torrealba appear in the Midwest League All-Star Game in Kane County
August 31, 2012 Avisail Garcia is called up to the Tigers and becomes the 100th Whitecap to make it to the Major Leagues.
October 2, 2012 Former Tiger and Major League Manager Larry Parrish is named manager of the Whitecaps for the 2013 season.
October 4, 2012 Shortstop Eugenio Suarez wins Rawlings Gold Glove Award. He beat out all other Minor League shortstops with a .971 fielding percentage. He is the first Whitecap to win the award.
Winter 2013 Fifth Third Ballpark is once again updated to add 4Topps premium tables, a Super Suite and more premium padded box seats.
April 4, 2013 The Whitecaps began their 20th season of baseball.
May 3, 2013 The Whitecaps welcomed their 8 millionth fan through the gates.
January 3, 2014 A devastating fire destroys the entire first base side of Fifth Third Ballpark. With only 3 months to opening day, the rebuild process begins!
January 14, 2014 Andrew Graham is named 11th manager in Whitecaps history, becoming the first former Whitecap to be manager.
April 8, 2014 Home Opener only 95 days after the fire.
May 5, 2014 The Whitecaps beat the Lake County Captains 4-3 in 18 innings, marking the longest game in terms of innings played in franchise history.
June 15, 2014 The Whitecaps clinch the first-half Eastern Division title with a thrilling 4-1 victory in South Bend, becoming the first Whitecaps team to make the playoffs since 2009.
June 17, 2014 Whitecaps host the 50th Midwest League All-Star Game at Fifth Third Ballpark, 164 days after the fire. Seven players are chosen to represent the Whitecaps, including pitchers Jonathon Crawford, Buck Farmer, Chad Green, Austin Kubitza and Joe Mantiply, infielder Javier Betancourt, and outfielder Wynton Bernard. 
August 13, 2014 Pitcher Buck Farmer makes his Major League debut with the Tigers less than three weeks after his final game with the Whitecaps, becoming the fastest player to go from West Michigan to the Majors.
August 24, 2014 Outfielder Wynton Bernard records his 159th hit, breaking the franchise record for hits in a single season, formally held by Robert Fink and Nick Castellanos. He would finish the season with a total of 164 hits.
August 2014 RHP Buck Farmer, LHP Kevin Ziomek, and outfielder Wynton Bernard are selected as Post Season All-Stars. Bernard is named League MVP, leading the Midwest League in batting average and hits, and finishing in the top three in runs scored and stolen bases.