When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the ninth installment in a 14-part series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird, poignant or otherwise memorable fact about each team or city in each of Minor League Baseball's admission-charging leagues. Remember -- it's about the journey, not the destination. To share your own favorite team or city facts, please reach out via email ([email protected]) or Twitter (@bensbiz). Previous installments: International League, Pacific Coast League, Eastern League, Southern League, Texas League, California League, Carolina League, Florida State League.
The Illinois State League was founded in 1947. This Class D circuit became the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League in 1949, which, in turn, became the Midwest League in 1956. Over the ensuing 64 years, this Class A entity has become one of the most sprawling and vibrant leagues in all of Minor League Baseball. The Midwest League currently contains 16 teams in seven states. Iowa, that quintessentially Midwestern locale, leads the way with four. What follows forthwith is a deep dive into the heartland of the Minors.
Right-hander Dakota Bacus, veteran of eight Minor League seasons, spent the bulk of 2013 as a member of the Beloit Snappers. He pitched well over the course of his 26 appearances, but his Beloit legacy extends far beyond the box score. Throughout the season, Bacus occasionally morphed into a daring "Whitewall Ninja" alter-ego. Dressed head to toe in white, the Whitewall Ninja liked to sneak onto the playing field from the Snappers' right field-area bullpen. He then camouflaged himself against the outfield signage, remaining as still and silent as possible. Why was this memorable? Because the Whitewall Ninja's stealth maneuvers occurred while the game was going on.
Bowling Green Hot Rods
As mentioned in the introduction, the Midwest League currently fields teams in seven states. Six of them have at least two current teams. The outlier is Bowling Green. The Hot Rods became the circuit's first Kentucky-based team in 2010 after playing their inaugural 2009 campaign in the South Atlantic League. Bowling Green made the move to the Midwest League alongside the Lake County Captains, who had played in the Sally League from 2003-09. Interestingly, both franchises were established in their current locations after moving from Columbus, Georgia. The Captains were formerly the Columbus RedStixx, while the Hot Rods were known as the Columbus Catfish.
The Bees play in the smallest market in the Midwest League, and actually the smallest market in all of full-season baseball. But this Iowa-based entity has had an outsized presence in the league and in Minor League Baseball as a whole. Burlington first fielded a Midwest League team in 1962, but the Bees' moniker dates all the way back to 1924 and, as such, stands as the 10th oldest currently used team name in all of the Minors. But even in 1924, Burlington was a veteran of the professional baseball scene. The city's first-ever team, the Babies, were born in 1889.
Cedar Rapids Kernels
The Kernels, a Minnesota Twins affiliate since 2013, haven't won a league championship since 1994. But it hasn't been for lack of trying. In a recent tweet, Kernels broadcaster Chris Kleinhans-Schulz pointed out that the team's recent string of postseason appearances has no precedent in Midwest League history:
Clinton has hosted a Minor League team in every season since 1954, dating back to the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, the Midwest League's predecessor. In that time, the club has been known as the Pirates, White Sox, C-Sox, Pilots, Dodgers, Giants, and since 1994, LumberKings. The LumberKings' name was one of several hundred suggestions the team received. Others included Boats N' Mates, Crappies, Road Kill and Three Dollar Bills. For the full list of fan-recommended monikers, check out the tweet below:
The most well-known fact about the Dayton Dragons is that they've sold out every game they've ever played. This streak, the longest in professional sports history, began at the start of their inaugural 2000 season and currently stands at 1,385 games. But despite their success at the gate, the Dragons have never won a championship nor appeared in the league's Championship Series. Prior to arriving in Dayton, the franchise spent 21 seasons operating out of Rockford, Illinois. It didn't a win a championship there, either, although the 1994 Rockford Royals did make it to the league Finals.
Fort Wayne TinCaps
The most recent ballpark to debut in the Midwest League was Parkview Field, which opened in 2009 as the home of the Fort Wayne TinCaps. This facility hosts the league's oldest franchise, which played in four locations before settling in Fort Wayne. It all began with the 1947 Mattoon Indians, who went on to become the Keokuk Cardinals (1958-62), Wisconsin Rapids Twins (1963-83) and Kenosha Twins (1984-92) before moving to Fort Wayne in 1993. The team was known as the Fort Wayne Wizards through the 2008 season, when it changed its name to the TinCaps in conjunction with the move to Parkview Field.
Great Lakes Loons
Midwest League games can be heard on the radio throughout the Midwest, from WNAM in Appleton to WSBT in South Bend to WONE in Dayton. The Great Lakes Loons enjoy a special distinction, however, as the radio station that carries their games -- ESPN 100.9 -- operates out of the team's Dow Diamond home. The Michigan Baseball Foundation, the non-profit entity that owns the Loons, bought the station in 2008 and a studio was constructed in the Dow Diamond press box the following season. The station's call letters, WLUN, are a reference to the Loons' team name.
Kane County Cougars
The Cougars, formerly the Wausau Timbers, played their debut season in 1991. The first Kane County player to make it to the Major Leagues was Brad Pennington, a '91 Cougar-turned-'93 Baltimore Oriole. Brad hasn't been the only Kane County Pennington to make it to the Major Leagues, however. Cliff Pennington played for the 2005 Cougars, three years before making his debut with the Oakland A's. The only Major League player named Pennington who did not previously play for the Cougars was a man whose career long predated the existence of the franchise. That man was Kewpie Pennington, who pitched one inning for the St. Louis Browns in 1917.
Lake County Captains
The Captains, the Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, are one of four Midwest League teams that currently play in the same state as their parent club. The others are the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Milwaukee Brewers), Dayton Dragons (Cincinnati Reds) and West Michigan Whitecaps (Detroit Tigers). But the Captains have these three teams -- and all full-season Minor League teams -- beat when it comes to parent club proximity. The Captains operate out of Eastlake, Ohio, located a mere 19 miles northeast of Cleveland.
One of the Lugnuts' most creative -- some would say insane -- promotions of 2019 was April 18's "Purge Night." The premise, inspired by the dystopian horror franchise, was simple: A "Purge siren" went off prior to one half inning, and during that half inning, all food and (non-alcoholic) beverages were free. The Purge siren was sounded prior to the bottom of the sixth inning, and as it turned out, fans had plenty of time to gorge themselves. The Lugnuts sent eight men to the plate in an inning highlighted by Ryan Gold's grand slam. Gold went on to hit for the cycle in the ballgame, during which he purged himself of an early-season slump.
The Chicago Cubs and St, Louis Cardinals enjoy one of Major League Baseball's most storied rivalries, and the Peoria Chiefs find themselves right in the middle of it. This is true in a geographical sense, but also in regards to Peoria's affiliation status. The Chiefs were affiliated with the Cubs from 1985 through 1994, the Cardinals from 1995 through 2004, the Cubs again from 2005 through 2012 and the Cardinals again from 2013 through the present. For those keeping score at home, that's 18 seasons as a Cubs affiliate, and counting 2020, 18 seasons as a Cardinals affiliate.
Quad Cities River Bandits
The River Bandits are based in Davenport, Iowa, a Mississippi River city with professional baseball roots that date back to the 19th century. The first Davenport-based team to utilize "Quad Cities" as a geographical signifier was the 1962 Quad Cities Angels, although by this point, the Quad Cities were actually the Quint Cities. In addition to Davenport, the locales comprising the so-called Quad Cities are Moline, Illinois; East Moline, Illinois, Rock Island, Illinois and Bettendorf, Iowa. Bettendorf, the fifth and presumably final Quad City, experienced a population boom in the late 1940s due to the construction of a massive Alcoa aluminum plant in the adjacent town of Riverdale.
South Bend Cubs
The South Bend Silver Hawks changed their name to the Cubs prior to the 2015 season, commemorating their new affiliation with Chicago's National League franchise. This ended an eight-season stretch in which no Midwest League club employed the name of its parent club. Prior to the 2015 establishment of the South Bend Cubs, the previous circuit team to be named after its Major League affiliate was the 2006 Southwest Michigan Devil Rays. Following that season, the Battle Creek-based Devil Rays moved to Midland, Michigan, and became the Great Lakes Loons.
West Michigan Whitecaps
The name of the Whitecaps' stadium, originally Old Kent Park, was changed to Fifth Third Ballpark prior to the 2002 season. This was the result of a still-extant naming rights deal with Ohio-based Fifth Third Bank. The Whitecaps' Fifth Third was the Midwest League's second Fifth Third facility. The first was Dayton's Fifth Third Field, which opened in 2000 and became Day Air Ballpark following the 2019 season. A third Midwest League Fifth Third existed in Kane County from 2012 through 2016, but that facility is now known as Northwestern Medicine Field. West Michigan is thus the Midwest League's lone remaining Fifth Third, and one of two current Fifth Thirds in Minor League Baseball. The other is Fifth Third Field in Toledo, which, like West Michigan, has carried the Fifth Third name since 2002.
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
According to Midwest League expert (and recommended Twitter follow) Craig Wieczorkiewicz, 12 players on the circuit went on to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame as players. The first team in the league to have two alumni? That would be the Timber Rattlers, who were previously known as the Appleton Foxes. Goose Goosage (inducted in 2008) appeared for the Foxes in 1970, while 2019 inductee Harold Baines was a member of the 1977 squad. Wieczorkiewicz reports that in 2020, two more league teams became members of the the two Hall of Famers club. Larry Walker joined Paul Molitor in Burlington, while Ted Simmons joined Trevor Hoffman in Cedar Rapids. The Timber Rattlers will likely see two more alumni enshrined in the near future, however. A-Rod played for the team in 1994, while David Ortiz was a member of the 1996 squad.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.