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By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Some great teams win with offensive firepower, while others win with overpowering pitching. Some teams have the benefit of a superstar’s presence in the lineup, individually lifting his team to the top. The Appleton Foxes of 1978 had none of these factors on their side. What they did rely on was quickness and speed - running their way onto the list of the top 100 great minor league teams behind one of the smallest players to play the game.
A team from Appleton, Wisconsin, joined the Class D Wisconsin - Illinois League in 1909 in the circuit’s second year of operation. During the Papermakers six years of existence, the team finished in the first division five years, winning the pennant once in 1910. When the league was renamed the Bi - State League in 1915, Appleton’s Papermakers dropped out.
In 1940, a new league was formed in the Badger State. Calling itself the Wisconsin State League, the Class D loop fielded eight teams including a revised version of the Appleton Papermakers. During the next three years, the team finished last once and fourth twice - the latter two as a farm team of the Cleveland Indians. Following the 1942 season, the league disbanded for the duration of WWII.
Before joining the National Association, the Wisconsin State League had been a successful semi-pro league for many years, featuring the talents of many minor league stars. For instance, following his retirement from pro ball after the 1936 season, minor league immortal Joe Hauser (69 home runs for the ’33 Minneapolis Millers) took over as player-manager of the Sheboyagan Indians and remained in that capacity when the league entered Organized Baseball. He was a playing manager from 1940-42 and a non-playing pilot when the league resumed after the war in 1946 until its demise following the 1953 campaign.
There were two future major league players of prominence on the Appleton teams in the 1941-42 seasons - Pat Seerey and Mike Garcia. Garcia had a 142-97, 3.27 ERA career for Cleveland, winning 79 games in four seasons (1951-54) and was a star on the 1954 American League pennant winners. Seerey, an outfielder sometimes called “Fat Pat”, played for Cleveland and the White Sox from 1943-49. He hit four homers in one game for Chicago on July 12, 1948.
When the Wisconsin State League resumed in 1946, the Papermakers continued as a farm team of the Indians before changing affiliations to the Phillies, Browns and Braves. However, none of the relationships panned out as the team finished in the first division only once from 1946 to 1953. After the Wisconsin State League’s demise following the latter season, Appleton’s participation in baseball was put on hold for five years.
Over the next several years, the team, dubbed alternately the Appleton or Fox Cities Foxes, won a quartet of pennants in 1964, 1966, 1967 and 1969. During this time, the Foxes remained an offshoot of the Orioles until joining the White Sox family in 1966. It was as a White Sox affiliate that Appleton would field its strongest entry in the late 1970s.
After finishing last in 1977, the Foxes pushed their way to the forefront in 1978. Behind manager Gordon Lund, who had played for Seattle and Montreal, the club won the first half of the split-season with an astonishing 51-17, .750 record. They cooled off a bit in the second half , finishing second with a 46-23, .667 record - 3.5 games behind Waterloo. In the playoffs, the team defeated Waterloo two games to none in the first round before dispatching Burlington two games to one in the finals. The team drew 94,730 fans in 1978, the highest attendance for an Appleton franchise prior to the opening of the new Fox Cities Stadium in 1995.
Individually, no stars graced the Foxes roster. As a matter of fact, the team only boasted one .300 hitter (Harry Chappas, .302). In the power department, as well, the team was lacking - only Curtis Etchandy (17) hit more than 15 home runs. From the hill, the Appleton nine did possess a genuine prospect as LaMarr Hoyt won a league high 18 games. What did lead the the team out of the pack was their running game. Led by Chappas (60) and Leo Sutherland (51), the club pilfered a circuit-topping 241 bases - almost 70 more than the next best team. The proliferation of thefts led to 731 runs, also a league high.
Three Foxes made the Midwest League All-Star team, shortstop Harry Chappas and relief pitchers Dewey Robinson and Mark Esser. In addition, Lund was named the league’s co-manager of the year.
Three of the Foxes - Chappas, Ross Baumgarten and Britt Burns - finished the year with the fifth-place parent Chicago White Sox, an unusual number of players going directly from Class A to the majors. All of the three enjoyed modest success in the years to come. In 1979, Baumgarten had a 13-8, 3.54 ERA record for Chicago, one of the leading rookie pitchers in the American League that year. Burns was the the American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year in 1980 (15-13, 2.84 ERA) and was a member of the American League team for the 1981 Major League All-Star Game, but did not pitch. After an 18-11, 3.96 ERA year in 1985, Burns was traded to the Yankees, but never pitched an inning for them, his career abruptly ended by an injury.
Appleton’s most intriguing player of 1978 was the third member of the called-up trio - their 5’3” shortstop, Harry Chappas. In his September call-up, he batted .267 for Chicago and handled 92 chances without an error. Appropriately, his first big league hit was “short”, a perfect bunt which traveled 30 feet before rolling dead. During the winter, Chappas made the cover of Sports Illustrated as the “Littlest Rookie.” Although his major league career was brief (he batted .245 in 72 games from 1978-80) Chappas drew praise from current Montreal manager Felipe Alou, for whom he played at Denver in the Class AAA American Association. “He stole some big bases for me…He has a great pair of hands and a great arm. He tries to hit the ball out of the park too much, but he has the tools.” Chappas also had some off-the-field idiosyncracies. For instance, he raised and bred Australian and African finches, leaving most of them at his Florida home during the season, but keeping some with him. On the road, he also drove roommates to distraction by building model airplanes in his motel room half the night.
Other ’78 Foxes making it to the majors included LaMarr Hoyt who won 98 games in an eight-year career, including a Cy Young in 1983 for the White Sox (24-10), Rod Allen who batted .220 in 31 American League games from 1983 to 1988, Lorenzo Gray who hit .208 in 58 games for the Sox in 1982 and 1983, Dewey Robinson who went 2-2 in 30 relief appearances from 1979-1981 and Leo Sutherland who batted .248 in 1980 and 1981 for Chicago.
During the past 20 years, the city Appleton has continued as a stalwart member of the Midwest League. Now playing under the moniker Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the team won three straight flags from 1982-1984.
Although out-hit and out-pitched by their Midwest League brethren, the ’78 Foxes prevailed because of their prowess on the base paths. The team’s expertise in the art of the stolen base - led by the diminutive Harry Chappas - lifted the team into the top 100 with a record of 97-40, garnering the most wins in Midwest League history.
|1978 Midwest League Standings|
|1978 Appleton Foxes batting statistics|
|1978 Appleton Foxes pitching statistics|