Beating the Bushes
This article was published in the Spring 2011 Baseball Research Journal.
by Dave Hoekstra
Can't Miss Press (2009)
$24.95 (hardcover); 289 pages
Jeremy Justus became a ballpark beer vendor because “I wanted to give something back to the fans ... be part of the team.” But although he liked vending, he missed being able to watch the game. So Justus decided to pack it in and continue his travels that have taken him to ballparks in 45 of the lower 48 states. Jeremy’s story is one of 66 short chapters about Midwest League baseball in this fascinating and readable book.
Dave Hoekstra, who has written about travel, music, culture, and sports for the Chicago Sun-Times for a quarter-century, has traveled to all the cities of the Midwest League. In this “field guide,” Hoekstra collects MWL-themed articles he wrote for the paper over the last 15 years and adds a few brand-new essays about the league. Along the way, the author touches on topics as varied as the House of David baseball team, families who host minor league players, and baseball in Japan. Another chapter discusses a Midwestern microbrewery which helps to acquire headstones for unmarked graves of Negro Leagues players. Want to find a good, varied beer list and a vegetarian food menu? Try Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva, Illinois, home of the Kane County Cougars. What is the best place in America to understand minor league baseball? Hoekstra believes that it’s Clinton, Iowa.
In Geneva, Hoekstra interviews Ria Cortesio, an umpire with aspirations of getting to the big time. (Updates are included at the end of many chapters; Ms. Cortesio was released after the 2007 season.) Peoria owner Pete Vonachen lists the requirements of being a friend of Harry Caray, one of which is to “keep your divorce lawyer on retainer.” Some of Hoekstra’s chapters discuss the economic realities of the league. He discusses baseball marketing strategy with Mike Veeck (Bill’s son) and reveals what the West Michigan Whitecaps do to try to increase attendance in the Grand Rapids area.
What is the smallest town in the U.S. with a full-season non-independent league team? It’s Burlington, Iowa, which now is even smaller than when the book went to press. 2011 projections estimate Burlington’s population at 38,500. Hoekstra devotes several chapters to the ways that the locals keep professional baseball alive in this shrinking town.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Burlington is Dayton, Ohio, home of season-long consecutive sellouts at a $22.7 million ballpark. Dayton has sold out 774 straight games and typically draws over 500,000 fans per season, a total almost unheard of for a low Class A league.
Some of the book’s most poignant chapters concern Midwest League alumni. The late Dan Quisenberry is described as “more poet than baseball player” by his former teammate Paul Splittorff, while Moe Hill, who led the Midwest League in home runs four times and was a four-time All-Star, is profiled; he remains a league legend but never advanced above Double-A. There are also chapters about Midwest League players who achieved success, including Adrian Gonzalez, Earl Weaver, and Edgar Renteria.
The book’s concluding chapter concerns former Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek and his divorce from baseball. Kubek’s story is included due to his residence in Appleton, Wisconsin, which for years was a Midwest League mainstay. In places, Cougars and Snappers and Loons is dated, but that is part of the game when reading collected essays. It is a pleasure to read a book by a writer of Mr. Hoekstra’s caliber, and the foreword by 283-game winner Jim Kaat is a nice touch, even though he never actually pitched in the Midwest League after initially being assigned to Appleton in 1957.
Books on the Midwest League are difficult to come by and this is an excellent addition to any library of minor league baseball.