By Kyle Betts
Here lies Frank X. Pfeffer. Born March 31, 1881. Died Dec. 19, 1954.
A headstone can tell a story. It contains important information. It tells you something about a person’s life and death. But this particular grave sitting in St. Mary’s Cemetery on the south side of Champaign, Ill., is leaving out a few details.
For instance, it doesn’t say that Mr. Pfeffer’s full name is Francis Xavier Pfeffer, although everyone called him “Big Jeff.” It doesn’t elude to the fact that Big Jeff was born, raised and schooled in Champaign. It forgets to hint that Big Jeff was an student-athlete at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It doesn’t even mention these important numbers:
695.2 innings pitched, 31 wins, 39 losses, 3.30 ERA, 317 strikeouts
Those are some of Big Jeff’s career statistics as a major league pitcher from 1905 to 1911. However, there’s one more important fact also missing from his story: Big Jeff pitched a no-hitter.
Among the 262 no-hitters thrown throughout the history of Major League Baseball, Big Jeff’s came on May 8, 1907, while he was a member of the Boston Doves. The Doves won the game 6-0 over the Cincinnati Reds that day. It was the highlight of Big Jeff’s career.
In the 98 years since Big Jeff last pitched, only a handful of baseball players from Champaign-Urbana have reached the Majors. The most recent and notable is former Champaign resident Matt Herges, who has been a relief pitcher in the Majors for the last 11 seasons. Herges has played for eight different MLB teams throughout his career. He was recently designated for assignment by the Cleveland Indians before being signed by the Colorado Rockies on July 17.
Although Herges has had a respectable pitching career, no player from the Champaign-Urbana area has accomplished something even comparable to Big Jeff’s no-hitter.
His grave might as well read: Here lies Champaign-Urbana’s greatest contribution to baseball.
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There are currently 28 affiliated and independent minor leagues along with several other collegiate summer leagues across North America. There are more than 330 teams in those leagues (246 are affiliated with MLB clubs). None of them play in Champaign-Urbana.
In September 2007, a group of independent investors, the University of Illinois and local municipalities sought to bring an independent minor league franchise to the community. But after little more than a year, the talks ended. There would be no baseball for Champaign-Urbana in the immediate future.
“What we tried to do initially when we met with the athletic department and (University of Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb) was try to plan a way to build a new ballpark,” said primary financier of the Champaign-Urbana minor league team Steve Edelson. Among his other positions, Edelson is currently working as the managing director of International Facilities Group, L.L.C. in Chicago.
“One of our alternatives was to renovate the existing baseball facility so it would be a facility that could house both of us,” he said regarding the university’s baseball stadium, Illinois Field. “There were several other opportunities, one of which was to go to the west side of Champaign, which is an expanding area. That piece of real estate kept getting dragged out and we never came up with the proper funding scenario to renovate (Illinois Field) so that it could accommodate a Frontier League team.”
Starting in 1993, the independent Frontier League began expanding across the Midwest and has been adding new franchises nearly every season. For the 2009 season, the Frontier League once again wanted to add a new team. Champaign-Urbana was one of their first choices. A team within the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area would make professional baseball available to more than 200,000 residents who are without a local club during the summer months.
“Champaign, in addition to being a college town, is a great community and we felt this type of baseball would be great for the summer months,” Edelson said. “Champaign was very appealing to my family and from a market standpoint it was very appealing as well.”
The university also expressed interest in helping establish a minor league franchise. University officials said they believed the school could coordinate with the team so that both could benefit from a mutual baseball relationship.
“I think our entertainment dollar in Champaign-Urbana walks out the door every summer. There’s so many things during the school year, but during the primetime when our kids are out of school and when you’re looking to do things with the family, we have nothing in Champaign-Urbana. Nothing at all,” said University of Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb, who was directly involved with Edelson in exploring the possibility of establishing a team. “We don’t have anything for them to support in the summer. I really believe baseball could take off here.”
With two major supporters striking a mutual interest, the conditions seemed all but perfect for the sprouting of a new baseball franchise. But like the seeds planted in the patches of dead grass spread out randomly across the Zahnd Park Little League outfield in Champaign, it refused to grow.
Throughout the country, baseball has proven to be more than just a sport played for our entertainment. It has the ability to create a deep and lasting impact within its community. Baseball’s influence reaches out much further than the boundaries of the outfield wall.
Lerna Hyatt sits comfortably in her lawn chair, satisfied with the baseball she is watching at Zahnd Park. Her grandson is one of a few dozen children playing under the setting summer sun on a muggy June night as a member of a local Champaign Little League team.
Off to the west a dark cloud is inching across the flat prairie land seemingly destined to strike the park. Hyatt just hopes the game can finish in time.
As a resident of Champaign for the last 68 years and a self-described baseball fanatic, Hyatt has seen almost everything the sport has had to offer the community. Almost.
Although organized baseball can be traced back to 1889 with the Illinois-Indiana League, a true professional franchise did not develop until 1911 with the Champaign-Urbana Velvets. The Velvets played until 1914 as member of the Illinois-Missouri League before disbanding. Over the next few decades, several Negro League franchises would play in the area. The most notable was the Champaign Eagles, which played mostly in 1950s and 1960s. Some players from the Eagles still reside in Champaign-Urbana to this day.
After a few decades without baseball, the sport finally returned to the community with the creation of the Champaign County Colts in 1990. The Colts would compete until 1996 with Illinois Field as their home stadium in the Central Illinois Collegiate League (CICL), which is now known as the Prospect League. While not a professional league, the CICL was a place for college students from across the nation to play baseball during the summer months before returning to their respective schools. The CICL used wooden bats like all current professional leagues.
Professional minor league baseball finally arrived in 1994 with the Champaign-Urbana Bandits. The Bandits hosted their games at Illinois Field as a member of the now defunct independent Great Central League. As quickly as they came though, the Bandits were gone after only one season of play.
“It was kind of like this,” Hyatt said of the baseball experience provided by the Colts and Bandits as she and roughly 30 other spectators looked out across the Little League field. “It wasn’t very enthusiastic.”
The general consensus is that the Colts and Bandits had a difficult time drawing fans. Since Illinois Field did not have lights until 1999, many Champaign-Urbana’s residents were working while games were being played. Beat writers for The News-Gazette said they were often worried the games wouldn’t be finished before the sun set. Because of NCAA restrictions and university regulations, alcohol was not allowed to be sold at the stadium. One former reporter who covered the Colts said the absence of beer at a baseball game was “unnatural.” Perhaps most damning was the lack of marketing. Some people didn’t even know a team was playing in their city. On a good day, roughly 40 people might be in attendance.
“We had a good solid core of six to 10 mentally deranged fans that followed us intensely,” Urbana lawyer and owner of the Champaign County Colts Bob Auler said jokingly of his former fan base. “They must have opened the loony bin when we played.”
University of Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb thought the conditions in the past were ripe for failure.
“You didn’t have the right venue where it was an entertainment event,” he said. “The only reason people would go to that event was because they strictly liked baseball. As much as we would want people just to love baseball, you still go to those events for the entertainment. You didn’t have the right situation and the right marketing to get that thing going.”
Drive any direction from Champaign-Urbana and you’ll likely find some level of professional baseball within a few hours. With teams of different skills levels in Chicago to the north, St. Louis to the south, Danville to east and Peoria to the west, the sport surrounds the community. Yet Champaign-Urbana lies barren.
“You really just don’t hear much about baseball in the community,” said 27-year Champaign resident Mark Jewell, whose son plays park district Little League. “There’s not nearly as much participation in baseball as there is in football or in basketball. This year (Little League) almost didn’t happen. It’s almost like the kids and the parents don’t take it seriously. When you go and watch the parents at other sports, they’re so much more into it. They’re pressing their children to do better and yelling at the officials. You don’t really get that out here. Everyone is just waiting for it to get over with.”
Champaign mayor Gerry Schweighart, who coached Little League baseball for 14 years in the community, said he can’t understand why people in the area don’t respond positively to baseball.
“I would think you would have a pretty big turnout for baseball, but I think you have a bigger turnout for hockey,” he said. “We have a pretty good Little League circuit here, although it’s down. Soccer has taken a lot away from the little leaguers. It’s just something I can’t explain.”
Laurel Prussing, mayor of Urbana, said she believes the role of the University of Illinois plays a significant part in determining the sports landscape of Champaign-Urbana.
“We have a lot of sports already. People don’t see a lack of sports because if you’re interested in it, then there is the University of Illinois’ teams,” she said. “For a city this size, I think we have a lot of sports. I think people here have a lot in terms of the arts and sports because the university is here.”
From late August (the beginning of football season) until early April (the end of basketball season), Champaign-Urbana is dominated by the Fighting Illini. Orange and blue consumes the area and its residents. Illini pride engulfs the attention of sports fans throughout the region. The university has no major competitor in the area. There are no professional sports teams of any kind that call Champaign-Urbana home. The university has a monopoly.
“You really just don’t hear much about baseball in the community,” Jewell said as he wore his gray University of Illinois football T-shirt. “Everyone is waiting for football to start and basketball to start. Once basketball is over, the place is kind of disperse and empty until football starts up again.”
Auler, who was known for his tenacity when dealing with the university while running the Colts, puts the blame on the school more directly for baseball’s repeated failure in the community.
“There was a constant set of clamps set by the U of I that restricted us,” he said about the Colts’ tenure at Illinois Field. “We had a couple times when over a thousand people would have shown up to one of our games but the university said no because there was too much water on the field to play. We couldn’t save our franchise.”
Some also believe the problem is perpetuated from the bottom up with a lack of interest and commitment to Little League baseball.
“I think it has gone downhill for the last two years. I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in park district baseball, which is sad to me,” said Champaign resident Terri Hamilton. “The fundamentals that come with coaching and volunteer coaches just isn’t happening any more. The fundamentals aren’t being taught and the kids are getting lost. It’s just not the same.”
Hamilton, who has lived in Champaign-Urbana for eight years, is a mother of two. Her only son plays Little League through the Champaign Park District.
“I think it’s all about parents,” she said. “The parents need to get involved with the team and with the kids. That builds the excitement in the community.”
Until then, Champaign-Urbana remains a graveyard of failed baseball franchises and lost summer nights at an empty ballpark.
Jim Smith knows about economic recession. In fact, he said his hometown of Avon, Ohio, has been in one for much longer than the current downturn the United States is suffering from today.
“Our county has been devastated economically for the last few years. (Avon) has been in a recession for at least 20 years,” said Smith, who is not only a fourth-generation resident of Avon but also entering his 16th year as mayor of the city.
Located just west of Cleveland, Lorain County had an 11.4 percent unemployment rate in May 2009 according to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. Smith said he knew he needed to do something. He turned to sports - specifically baseball.
“Minor league baseball has become quite a big thing,” Smith said. “Over the last 10 years there was no way we could do it. It just couldn’t make financial sense. Then I thought to myself, ‘We have 120 some acres. If we could combine the governmental sector and the private sector, there’s not going to be anything like it Ohio.’ “
In 2007, Smith began planning to build a baseball stadium. Then Steve Edelson became interested.
“In the city of Avon, the mayor had decided that he was going to build a sports facility and a baseball park. He originally was just going to build a baseball park for our business but he saw an opportunity,” said Edelson, the managing director of International Facilities Group, L.L.C. in Chicago. ”We have a perfect situation with the Cleveland market. Cleveland is one of the best cities in the United States from a sports standpoint.”
With an investor expressing interest in Smith’s project, the plan to bring sports to Avon began to grow. What started simply as a baseball park transformed into a sports Mecca. Smith planned to add a recreation center, swimming pool, indoor soccer and hockey facilities, youth soccer and baseball fields, and an extensive walking trail. The final product would sit on 122 acres of land and cost an estimate of more than $28 million. Smith not only wanted Avon to become the center of sports in the county, he wanted to dominate the state.
To finance this undertaking, Smith would combine governmental and private funds to build and sustain the facilities. According to The Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio, Smith planned to increase the income tax on Avon residents who worked in the city by 0.25 percent. Along with the new tax, the YMCA would also pay for a significant amount of the construction as well as most of the sustainability costs for the complex. Smith said he would also continue to search for future funding from local businesses.
Roughly $9 million would be used to finance the new baseball park. Although most of the project has yet to be completed, stadium construction was finished first and the 5,000-seat All Pro Freight Stadium opened its doors to the public June 2, 2009, in front of 5,058 fans.
The team all those fans came to see was the Lake Erie Crushers, the newest member of the Frontier League and the team that Champaign-Urbana was supposed to have in 2009.
“I don’t think going to a Crushers game takes away the desire from going to an Indians game. That’s actually not our intent. We’re basically family entertainment based around baseball,” said Edelson, who is the primary financier and owner of the Crushers. “When (children) can be around professional baseball players and be up close and run on the field and have a catch, then we’re kind of part of their community.”
The Crushers, a nonaffiliated ballclub, adhere to the typical methods of any other minor league franchise. They have a family friendly atmosphere, they hold between-inning gimmicks and, most importantly, they are affordable.
While single-game tickets can range from $13 to $6, Edelson said one of the most popular events is the family night special. For $44, a family of four can get four tickets, hot dogs, sodas and bags of popcorn.
“You can’t have dinner and see a movie with four family members for less than that,” Edelson said. “It’s four hours of fun and once you get in there, it’s total entertainment. We have something for everybody in our ballpark. We’re family entertainment centered around baseball.
“We’re more affordable entertainment than almost anything else in this economy and I would hope people would go to us instead of or in addition to Major League Baseball.”
While Edelson is commitmented to family friendly entertainment through baseball, Smith envisioned the Crushers as a means to a significantly different end.
“You don’t get money from baseball. You upgrade the quality of life,” he said. “We’re going to get more businesses in the area because of the team. People want to be closer to this.”
Although the actual economic impact of the Crushers will be difficult to gauge after only a few months, local businesses are already starting to see a noticeable difference.
The Fairfield Inn of Avon has a fairly decent view of All Pro Freight Stadium according to the 20-year-old front desk receptionist Kaci Davila.
“You can see their stadium from the front of our hotel,” she said. “People leave the game and they see us first.”
Situated nearly across the street from the ballpark, Davila said she has seen a significant increase over the last month in the number of people staying at the Fairfield Inn despite the Crushers having a deal with another hotel in town where fans can receive discounts.
“Practically every weekend we’re sold out because of the Crushers,” said Davila, who is a resident of nearby Elyria, Ohio. “Having them here has definitely brought something new to the area.”
Bill Jameson hasn’t seen as dramatic of an increase in his business as the Fairfield Inn, but the 10-year manager of the local Perkins Restaurant and Bakery in Avon said the presence of the team has increased their ability to advertise to the community.
“Between innings we host a pie-eating contest with them. Each person in the winning section gets a free stack of pancakes. It’s been a successful promotion for us,” Jameson said, “but I can’t really say if it has increased business yet.”
It might take years for Avon to reap the benefits of the massive sports complex project once completed, but with an average attendance of 2,939 in the relatively young 2009 season, it appears that baseball is bringing something different to an area that has been in desperate need of change.
“If you don’t have a good quality of life in the area then your economy will also take a hit,” Smith said. “Baseball is part of it, but it’s not the total answer. It’s part of the building blocks to create a new quality of life.”
The best seats in the house at Wrigley Field in Chicago or Busch Stadium in St. Louis can easily cost more than a few hundred dollars. But nearly equidistant from these two cathedrals of baseball lies O’Brien Field - home to the Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs. For $10 you can practically sit in the dugout with the players. And on this particular night, all tickets are half priced.
“Right now a lot of people in this economic time frame aren’t going to Chicago or St. Louis on the weekends,” said Peoria resident and Chiefs general manager Ralph Converse. “They’re looking for more local entertainment.”
On a cool and breezeless night in early July 2009, any seat could have been considered top-notch as the Peoria Chiefs took on the Beloit Snappers.
The 7,500-seat park was only half full, but nearly every spectator was into the game. Although a mixture of Cubs and Cardinals hats littered the crowd, almost all in attendance were chanting “Let’s go Chiefs!” in unison. Kids played in the batting cages while their parents enjoyed a refreshing beer at the relatively low price of $3.50. The seats were comfortable and concessions stands were easily accessible throughout the main concourse of the stadium. The music blasted loudly over the speakers while the fans hollered for the free T-shirts being thrown into the crowd by Chiefs employees.
Not to mention there was a baseball game going on. One in which the Chiefs easily won 7-3.
This was minor league baseball at its best.
“Like most Chicagoans, I’d never been south of I-80. Everyone thinks Peoria is a factory town but people come here and are pleasantly surprised,” said Converse, who grew up in Chicago but has lived in Peoria for the last 30 years. “Clearly about 30 percent of the people who come to our games are from outside the Peoria area. They are coming to Peoria to watch the game and eat and go to a tavern later. So we’re kind of a mini-draw.”
While the Chiefs, currently a Class A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs playing in the Midwest League, are the most current version of baseball in Peoria, they are a symbol of sustainability and success on the minor league level.
In 1878, an independent franchise known as the Peoria Reds began playing at a baseball field that no longer stands within the city. Although the Reds didn’t last long, baseball remained a part of the community. For the next few decades, independent baseball was played out of Peoria by a few teams. Eventually the Peoria ballclub joined the highly regarded Three-I League.
During World War I, baseball was shut down in Peoria and did not return until 1923 when the city built Woodruff Field for $50,000. The new stadium’s lone purpose was to keep professional baseball in the city. Lights were even added in 1930 for $8,000 so night games could be played (Wrigley Field did not have lights until 1988).
After a few seasons of low attendance and a shortage of players during World War II, professional baseball was shut down in Peoria until the late 1940s.
In 1946, the Peoria Redwings joined the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the film “A League of Their Own” was based on the AAGPBL). They played until 1951.
Men’s professional baseball returned in 1953 as the Cleveland Indians invested in a team that would become known as the Peoria Chiefs. This version of the Chiefs would play for only four years before disbanding. It would be another 25 years before baseball returned to Peoria in the form of the Chiefs once again. From 1983 onward, baseball was here to stay.
Today’s Chiefs represent a passion for baseball in a town that has historically had a desire for it.
“I think it’s good, affordable family entertainment,” said Chiefs owner Rocky Vonachen, who bought the team with his father, Pete, in 1983. “That’s what people are looking for. People come out and enjoy us year after year.”
Pete Vonachen and his son quickly brought success to Peoria via the Chiefs. In a game of word association, “Caterpillar” might have been the typical response when talking about Peoria before the Vonachens brought baseball back. Peoria is known for being the home of the manufacturing and construction equipment giant. However, the Chiefs rapidly tried to change that.
After affiliating the club with the Chicago Cubs in 1985, the Chiefs quickly broke their outstanding attendance records. By 1988, Peoria had one of the top 10 best minor league franchises as ranked by Baseball America.
“A good affiliation is key,” Vonachen said about the success of the Chiefs over the years. The Chiefs have been affiliated with the California Angels, the Chicago Cubs (on two separate occasions) and the St. Louis Cardinals. “There are a lot of Cubs and Cardinals fans in the area and that’s been great for us.”
According to Vonachen, one of the unquestionable advantages to affiliation with a major league club is the amount of talent that was able to suit up for Peoria. Future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and current superstar Albert Pujols are just a few of the many big-time players who wore a Chiefs cap during their professional careers.
Besides affiliation, Vonachen points to the importance of having a quality venue to host games.
“You need a good facility to play in. That has changed so much over the years from playing in a college facility to playing now in $20 to $30 million facilities,” he said of O’Brien Field, which was built in 2002 and cost $23 million to construct. “It gives the fans a major league atmosphere on a minor scale.”
Unlike the Lake Erie Crushers and their new stadium though, the Chiefs share their park with another local baseball team: the Bradley University Braves.
Founded in 1897, the school is almost as old as baseball in Peoria. After becoming a fully accredited university in 1946, Bradley has continued to grow and now has a total student body of roughly 6,100.
According to Vonachen, the school and the team have had a long-standing relationship going back to the early 1980s. Although parks have come and gone over the years, the Chiefs and Braves have always shared the facilities in which they play by taking turns while one team is out of town.
“It hasn’t been too bad for the most part,” Vonachen said about his interaction with the university team. “There are some days when we play the same day, so we both pray it doesn’t rain.”
Unlike the Champaign County Colts and the Champaign-Urbana Bandits, the Chiefs own their park. While Illinois Field was built and operated by the University of Illinois, O’Brien Field does not fall under the control of Bradley University. The stadium is operated completely off campus.
As such, beer sales are allowed at Chiefs and Braves games with the blessing of the university for the latter.
“They’ve been open to it,” Vonachen said regarding Bradley University’s openness to having alcohol sold during their team’s games, “but I think if the facility was on campus then they wouldn’t allow it.”
Although Rocky Vonachen is happy with the cooperation between Bradley University and the Chiefs, former Champaign County Colts owner Bob Auler said he believes only a completely independent baseball franchise can succeed in Champaign-Urbana.
“We had a superior Big Ten team at the time and the university’s name attached to our team. We still couldn’t even fill the park at $2 a head,” Auler said about the University of Illinois’ involvement with his baseball team. “That’s originally why we called it the Champaign County Colts. We wanted to get support from all corners of the county before we turned to the school. Lots of people heard the name University of Illinois and they didn’t want to be attached to it.”
As the fireworks blasted off into the night sky after the Chiefs closed out a series-clinching win against their opponent on July 8, everyone looked up to watch the show. The children left with big smiles, the parents left with heavy wallets and the players left knowing they had a job waiting for them tomorrow. Every bright flash above shook the frame of O’Brien Field just a little bit, but never has a foundation felt so solid.
The pings of metal bats ring out sharply at Zahnd Park, but there are no thundering, humidity-cutting cracks of wood blasting through the summer air of Champaign-Urbana. Professional baseball lies in silence.
“I think the economy here is hugely based on education and health care,” said Urbana mayor Laruel Prussing. “I don’t think that professional sports has been a huge part of the economy.”
The impact that the University of Illinois and local hospitals like Carle Foundation Hospital and Provena Covenant Hospital have had on the Champaign-Urbana community is undeniable. These major employers are the reason why Champaign County’s unemployment rate remains steady at 6.7 percent, which is below the national average of 9.5 percent.
However, Steve Edelson, primary financier and owner of the Lake Erie Crushers in Avon, Ohio, thinks professional minor league baseball has its place in these trying economic times and can create its own impact within a community.
“For 51 nights a year, we’re bringing in other teams from other parts of the Midwest that are spending money in Avon,” he said. “People are coming from all over the west side of Cleveland and hopefully the east side of Cleveland. We reach as far as Sandusky. We’re bringing all these people to Avon and they’re spending money in Avon. I would assume the same thing would happen in Champaign-Urbana.”
Although starting a baseball franchise is much easier said than done, University of Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb said there is a formula that almost all minor league teams need to follow in order to be successful.
According to Hartleb, who strongly supports a relationship between an independent team and the university, similar to what the Peoria Chiefs have with Bradley University, there are two components to success. The first is building a ballpark that caters to the families of the community.
“You have to create a venue that is very fan-friendly,” said Hartleb, a father of two children. “If you look at all the places across the country that have been successful, the team and the product on the field is important but it’s almost secondary. You have to have a venue where you can take a family and it’s fairly inexpensive for a night at the ballpark.”
Regardless of where the team would play, Hartleb said comfortable seating, large concourses and accessibility to concessions are essential.
“You can either go build a new, independent stadium or you can take everything from the dugouts back at (Illinois Field) and renovate or expand,” he said. “From that standpoint, the club would save money on the surface and you have a great lighting system in place and you have parking. So I don’t think you have to build a new facility. You can do it here.”
The other component Hartleb said he believes is necessary for success is the ability for the team to sell alcohol at its games.
“This is something they’ve never been able to do with the teams in the past. You have to be able to serve alcohol,” Hartleb said. “I think that can happen here. I think if you get an independent league team or a professionally affiliated team then the precedent has been set. You have football tailgating and you have alcohol in the seats and you do have things at Krannert. I think if the city and community are involved with the team, then alcohol works.”
It has long been rumored around Champaign-Urbana that the inability to sell alcohol at Illinois Field was a major contributing factor to the demise of professional baseball in the community. Those rumors may have been confirmed when Matt Perry, a representative working for Edelson and his investors during the negotiations to bring a team to Champaign-Urbana, told the Associated Press in 2007 that alcohol sales at Illinois Field were a critical piece of the plan.
“It could be a deal breaker if we can’t,” he said in the article.
Champaign mayor Jerry Schweighart agreed. Although he said he barely remembers professional games being played at Illinois Field, he said that not being able to sell alcohol would put any professional team trying to play in Champaign-Urbana at a significantly higher risk of failure.
“It helps the team economically if they can sell alcohol, but I think the university and the park district are opposed to the alcohol sales on their property,” he said.
Although the university has prohibited the sale of alcohol at school athletic events and regulates the sale of alcohol on campus, many in Champaign-Urbana remember when the Chicago Bears played the 2002 season at Memorial Stadium while Soldier Field underwent renovations. During that season, the university permitted the sale of beer inside the stadium. Auler described the 2002 season as the “world’s largest saloon in central Illinois.”
According to Hartleb, such a decision is left to the discretion of the chancellor, who has the power to grant the sale of alcohol during special events taking place at a university facility.
Former Champaign County Colts owner Bob Auler agreed with Hartleb and Schweighart in principle, but said that a team will only succeed if it can operate independently from the University of Illinois and its stringent controls.
“If baseball is going to succeed, then it is going to have to divorce itself from the university,” Auler said. “What they really need is an independent field away from the U of I. We tried to give them lights when (the Colts) played at Illinois Field, but the chancellor refused because they were afraid night games would support binge drinking.
“The number one answer is beer. The standard response is ‘Oh beer! We can’t have that here.’ But is the university going to shut down the saloons around the stadium? Are they going to stop giving away free beer at Krannert events? Are they going to stop underage students from working at the campus saloons? Are they going to stop playing night games at Memorial Stadium?”
While the alcohol issue remains unresolved, cities like Avon and Peoria are testaments to how a professional baseball franchise can be conceived.
Drawing from both public and private funds, the Lake Erie Crushers are a cohesive co-op between government, business and community. With a price tag too high for any group to front alone, three parties with a mutual interest in changing the state of their city were able to come together. Surely the cities of Champaign and Urbana in conjunction with the University of Illinois and local business could foot the bill for a similar endeavor. Each could benefit from the presence of a professional team in their own way.
O’Brien Field in Peoria is yet another example of how two teams can share one park. Both parties benefit from the shared space and their mutual financial investments in the stadium. The Chiefs are able to provide a fan-friendly atmosphere on a nightly basis and Bradley University is able to use the field as a recruiting tool.
Yet despite Champaign-Urbana having all the sufficient qualities needed for minor league baseball to thrive, there are those like Mayor Schweighart who just know that it will not and cannot exist.
“I particularly don’t think you’ll get a big enough response to sustain a team,” Schweighart said without much proof aside from the feeling in his gut. “You don’t get that big of draw for the university baseball games anyways.”
Crouched forward on the hard metal bleachers as he watched his son’s Little League team get blown out, Champaign resident Mark Jewell could only agree.
“We’ve got a Big Ten college here,” he said. “If they can’t bring in the crowds, then I don’t think a minor league team could.”
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Just about one mile away from Big Jeff’s grave at St. Mary’s Cemetery is Illinois Field - home of Fighting Illini baseball and nothing else.
The lights remain off not because the summer sun hangs high in the Champaign-Urbana sky like a curveball that refuses to drop through the strike zone, but rather because there is no reason to turn them on. No baseball is being played during, of all times, baseball season. The place is as still as a graveyard.
When Minor League Baseball began in 1901, there were 14 leagues and 96 teams spread across the United States in mostly smaller towns. The trend caught on quickly though, and there were 35 leagues and 246 teams by 1909.
Over the years Minor League Baseball would see its share of struggles. Wars often created a shortage of players and many teams were disbanded during these eras. However, the game survived and returned to the small towns in which they enjoyed so much of their original success.
Minor League Baseball saw its Golden Age during the 1949 season when leagues, teams and attendance reached an all-time high.
Not long after, the leagues saw a significant drop in their numbers as the popularity of Major League Baseball grew through television. Attendance figures waxed and waned during the coming decades, but as usual, Minor League Baseball rebounded.
After a gradual increase in interest and demand throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the total single-season attendance record set in 1949 was finally broken in 2003, and has been broken every season since. Fans wanted to see live Minor League Baseball again.
It has been quite some time since the Champaign County Colts and Champaign-Urbana Bandits folded. People haven’t seen that kind of baseball in decades. Some have said they want baseball back. Others said they don’t think it’s possible.
It’s unclear as to what effect a professional baseball franchise would have on the status quo in the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area and its population of more than 200,000 individuals.
Some, like Lake Erie Crushers owner Steve Edelson, see an entertainment value. Some, like University of Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb, see a mutual athletic benefit. Some, like former Champaign County Colts owner Bob Auler, see a private financial benefit. Some, like Avon mayor Jim Smith, see social change.
Perhaps a minor league team in the area would provide all of these things, or none. No one can really say for sure. There is, however, one undeniable fact about baseball in Champaign-Urbana:
Without it, there will certainly be plenty of no-hitters.