MWL history encompasses other leagues

In 1955, league officially took on Class A status

(Bowie Baysox)

March 2, 2006 3:00 AM

1947 was a year of growth for baseball, and for the United States as a whole. After the trying years of World War II, the nation entered into an unprecedented era of prosperity. Disposable income was at an all-time high, and many people were willing to spend it on our national pastime. Additionally, the return of soldiers to American shores meant that professional baseball teams at all levels could once again stock their clubs with the best available talent. In this setting, the seeds for the Midwest League were planted, seeds that have since grown into one of organized baseball's most successful circuits.

It was in 1947 that six franchises began operation as the Class D Illinois State League. The league didn't stay exclusive to Illinois for long, however. When the Marion Indians relocated to Paducah, Ky., in 1949, the league's name changed to the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, in recognition of its expanding boundaries. Mississippi-Ohio Valley League standouts included former Negro Leaguers Butch McCord and Jim Zapp of the Paris Lakers, as well as future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, who suited up for the Kokomo Giants in 1955.

The Mississippi-Ohio Valley League expanded to include two teams from Iowa in 1954, resulting in the circuit's present-day moniker -- the Midwest League. The league's membership and quality of play increased significantly in 1961, after the collapse of the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-I) League. The following season, the defunct organization's Appleton, Burlington, and Cedar Rapids franchises joined the Midwest League. One year later, after a reorganization of the Minor League categorization system, the Midwest League was classified as a Class A league, a designation that remains to this day.

Heading into 2006, the Midwest League is stronger than it has ever been. Presently, the league includes 14 teams (organized into two divisions) from six different states. The oldest of these teams, the Clinton LumberKings, has been in operation since 1954. The youngest, the Dayton Dragons, played their inaugural season in 2000. Attendance has grown steadily throughout the decades and has exploded in recent years. After expanding to 12 teams in 1982, the Midwest League drew over one million fans for the first time. The two million mark was surpassed in 1994, and since 2000 the league has drawn over three million spectators each season. These gaudy numbers, attained through aggressive marketing strategies and the construction of beautiful new stadiums throughout the league, routinely outpace those of several Double-A circuits.

Traditionally, Midwest League franchises bore the name of their Major League affiliate. This trend changed in the mid-90s, as teams sought to establish an identity above and beyond that of their parent club. Today, the Midwest League is home to some of the most creatively named teams in professional baseball, as fans of the Lansing Lugnuts, West Michigan Whitecaps and Cedar Rapids Kernels will attest. In fact, only the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays still carry the name of their Major League affiliate.

But regardless of the name of the team, Midwest League players have fit the same basic profile for quite some time. They are generally very young, ranging in age from 18-24. Many are in their first season of professional baseball or have advanced from short-season leagues, and are therefore experiencing the rigors of a 140-game schedule for the first time. Since the Midwest League is situated on a lower rung of Minor League Baseball's professional ladder, many of the players never make it to the Major Leagues. Only about one out of every seven Midwest League competitors will ever arrive in The Show.

Nonetheless, many Midwest League alumni have gone on to distinguished Major League careers. Current stars such as Jake Peavy, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon and Albert Pujols all spent time in the league. The Philadelphia Phillies recently replaced one veteran of the Midwest League with another when Tom Gordon stepped into the closer's role vacated by Billy Wagner. Reggie Sanders was named the league's "Prospect of the Year" in 1990, one year before making his debut with the Cincinnati Reds. Contrary to popular belief, however, Julio Franco was not a member of the 1947 Mattoon Indians.

All-Time Midwest League greats include Juan Marichal, Dave Stewart, Goose Gossage, Vida Blue, Paul Molitor and Graig Nettles, as well as future managerial standouts such as Jim Leyland and Cal Ripken Sr. The Midwest League has been able to leave a big impression on the Majors, providing an up-close-and-personal view of tomorrow's future stars.

Perhaps the best player in Midwest League history, however, was the enigmatic Moe Hill. Currently a coach in the Baltimore Orioles system, Hill was never able to establish himself beyond Class A baseball. Regardless, the numbers he put up as a member of the Wisconsin Rapids probably will never be duplicated. Hill captured the league's Triple Crown in 1974, which marked the first of four consecutive seasons in which he won the home run title. He led the league in RBIs three times and runs scored once. Over his nine-year Midwest League career, he collected 984 hits, 201 home runs, and 720 RBIs, making him the most formidable slugger in the history of the league.

Two other memorable Midwest League figures are umpires Christine Wren and Ria Cortesio, two of just six women to ever officiate a professional baseball game. Wren came to the circuit in 1977, after two summers in the Northwest League. Her 1977 season was deemed a success by league president Bill Walters, and she was even selected to umpire the 1977 All-Star Game that year. However, she neglected to return for 1978, convinced that organized baseball would never truly give her a chance to succeed. Cortesio, meanwhile, spent 2001 in the Midwest League. She is currently working in the Double-A Southern League, advancing toward her goal of becoming the Major Leagues' first female umpire. If and when she achieves that goal, the Midwest League will have played a significant part.

Female umpires would have been inconceivable in 1947, when what is now the Midwest League got its start. So would have attendance figures of over three million (the league drew 197,249 fans that year), regular night games, and players from the Caribbean and Asia in addition to homegrown Americans. That the Midwest League is still thriving despite having its origins in such a different period of our country's history is a testament to its ability to adapt, innovate, and above all, help develop the Major Leagues' future stars.

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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