April 15, 1977: After 64 years, Holyoke gets a rough welcome back to the minors

This article was written by Kurt Blumenau

Ed Romero (TRADING CARD DB)The Western Massachusetts city of Holyoke went 64 years between professional baseball teams. As pro baseball returned to Seattle and Toronto in the form of the major-league Mariners and Blue Jays in 1977, the minors also re-emerged in Holyoke in the form of the Holyoke Millers of the Double-A Eastern League.

Going into the 1977 season, the Milwaukee Brewers had shuttled through four Double-A farm cities in five years – San Antonio, Texas; Shreveport, Louisiana; Thetford Mines, Quebec; and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A $500,000 renovation project closed Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park after the 1976 season, forcing the team to move yet again.1

This time it traveled roughly 50 miles east to Holyoke, a sagging city of about 46,000 people in the Connecticut River Valley, most recently the home of the 1913 Holyoke Papermakers of the Class B Eastern Association.2 The city had a strong high-school baseball tradition in the 1940s and 1950s, reaching the Division 1 state high-school baseball finals four times between 1944 and 1953 and winning twice.3 Holyoke’s Frank Leja and Roger Marquis signed bonus contracts with the Yankees and Orioles, but enjoyed only brief big-league careers.

The city had been hit hard by the loss of mills and other major employers. Municipal leaders saw the ballclub as a boost for Holyoke’s sagging spirits, even as residents debated whether Holyoke should spend the $85,000 needed to upgrade the city’s Mackenzie Stadium.4 “We needed a focal point for the community to rally around, to get off its negative kick and onto a positive kick,” Mayor Ernest Proulx told the Boston Globe in the summer of 1977.5

Ten members of manager Matt Galante’s 1977 Millers appeared in the big leagues at some point. (Galante himself was also a future big-league manager and coach.) Four of them were in the starting lineup on April 15 as Holyoke’s new favorite sons made their Eastern League debut on the road against the Reading (Pennsylvania) Phillies.6

Ike Blessitt, his only big-league cup of coffee five seasons behind him, hit third as designated hitter. First baseman Gary Holle hit cleanup. (The pair made a powerful one-two punch: Holle led the league in home runs with 30, while Blessitt was the loop’s top RBI man with 104.) Jeff Yurak hit fifth and played left field. And Ed Romero, one of two 19-year-olds on the team, hit ninth and played shortstop. The starting pitcher, Ron Wrona, was a 24-year-old righty who split his time between Classes A, Double A and Triple A the previous season, his first in pro baseball. Working mostly out of the bullpen, he’d compiled a 7-7 record and strong 2.52 ERA in 37 appearances.7

The Reading squad was looking to improve on a dismal 54-82 record the prior season. Eleven members of the 1977 team appeared in the big leagues at some point, and new manager Lee Elia wrote six of them onto his first lineup card. Jose Moreno led off and played second base, while center fielder Bobby Brown hit third and first baseman John Poff hit cleanup. Keith Moreland caught and hit fifth. John Vukovich, a 29-year-old veteran of more than 200 big-league games, hit seventh and played third base, while Todd Cruz hit ninth and played shortstop. The start went to Dan Greenhalgh, a righty from Folsom, California, beginning his third straight season at Reading. Greenhalgh had posted a record of 5-14 and a 3.21 ERA in Reading in 1976.

The day began poorly for the home club, as the pregame ceremonies started about 30 minutes late and the field microphone refused to work. Matters improved only slightly for Reading once the game began. The brand-new Millers put runners on first and third with none out in the first inning, but Greenhalgh worked out of the jam.8 His good fortune ran out two innings later. Center fielder Billy Severns, a former Brewers first-round draft pick who went 3-for-4 in the game, singled, and Holle followed with an RBI triple. A single by Yurak drove in Holle to give Holyoke a 2-0 lead.9

While Wrona held the Phillies off the board, Holyoke continued its onslaught in the fourth. Right fielder Dennis Holmberg reached on a two-base error,10 and Romero doubled him home for the first of 38 RBIs he collected for the Millers. One batter later, Severns, a first-round draft pick of the Brewers in 1975, singled home Romero for a 4-0 Millers lead.11 Elia yanked Greenhalgh in favor of 32-year-old reliever Jesus Hernaiz, who had pitched 41 innings for the parent Philadelphia Phillies in 1974. Hernaiz got the last out of the inning, then pitched shutout ball in the fifth and sixth, despite Holyoke loading the bases in the latter inning.12

Four innings away from bringing home a win, the Millers came apart in the bottom of the sixth. Wrona’s first seven pitches yielded back-to-back doubles by Poff and Moreland, followed by consecutive singles by right fielder John Guarnacchia and Vukovich. Wrona left with a 4-2 lead, replaced by Dale Hrovat, a former Arizona State University right-hander beginning his fourth pro season.13

Left fielder Phil Convertino dropped a bunt single between Hrovat and third baseman Neil Rasmussen, loading the bases. Cruz grounded a single into left field to score Guarnacchia and Vukovich, tying the game at 4-4. Two outs later, first baseman Holle made a crucial mistake, failing to tag first on what would have been an inning-ending groundball to shortstop by Brown. This loaded the bases for Poff, who capped the rally by driving a high fastball into right-center field for a bases-clearing triple. The Phillies, who hadn’t scored more than six runs in any inning in 1976, had burst loose for a 7-4 lead.14

Reliever Nardi Contreras, who later spent seven years as a big-league coach, held Holyoke scoreless on two hits over the final three innings. Reading notched one more run against Hrovat in the seventh, as Guarnaccia walked and Convertino doubled him home.

The game ended 8-4 after 2 hours and 37 minutes, with Hernaiz the winner, Hrovat the loser, and Contreras earning a save. Only 470 fans attended. After the game, Millers manager Galante bemoaned Holle’s misplay during the sixth inning: “That really killed us. And we missed too many chances to get more runs. We’re not going to win if we do things like that.”15

The Millers played reasonably well in 1977, posting a 73-67 record and finishing 13½ games behind the New England Division champion West Haven (Connecticut) Yankees. Young infielder Romero made the greatest impression, leaping all the way to the parent Brewers for a 10-game stint in July.16 Reading improved from 1976 but only slightly, ending the year at 63-75, third place in the Can-Am Division, 13 games behind the division champion Trois-Rivieres (Quebec) Aigles, a Cincinnati farm team. The Millers won the league championship in 1980, but after 1982 they were gone from the ever-shuffling league.



In addition to the specific sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for general player, team, and season data.

Neither Baseball-Reference nor Retrosheet provides box scores of minor-league games. The April 16, 1977, edition of the Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle published a box score.

Image of card from 1977 TCMA Holyoke Millers card set downloaded from the Trading Card Database.



1 “Sweet Dreams for Double-A Execs,” The Sporting News, December 25, 1976: 39.

2 Holyoke is also the birthplace of Hall of Fame announcer Jack Buck, catcher-turned-announcer Fran Healy, and former Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Mark Wohlers.

3 Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Association website at http://massbca.com/awards/state-champions/division-1/state-finals/, accessed June 17, 2021.

4 Holyoke’s ballpark is alternately called Mackenzie Stadium and Mackenzie Field. Citations in news stories can be found for both, and even the city of Holyoke’s website, accessed January 23, 2021, uses both names. Mackenzie Stadium seems to be more frequently used, and is also the name shown on Google Maps, so this story opts for Stadium over Field.

5 Stephen Smith, “The Boys of Summer Go to Bat for Nostalgia and an Ailing Holyoke,” Boston Globe, July 3, 1977: 1.

6 Starting right fielder Dennis Holmberg never made the bigs as a player but served as the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen coach in 1994 and 1995. Holmberg played only 16 games in 1977, then retired at age 25 to become manager of the Newark Co-Pilots of the New York-Penn League.

7 Wrona never made the majors, but his younger brother, Rick, later played parts of six major-league seasons as a catcher. See John A. Ferguson, “Wrona Hopes Drillers Step in Right Direction – Majors,Tulsa (Oklahoma) World, June 9, 1991. Accessed online January 22, 2021.

8 John W. Smith, “Poff Blasts Off in Wild Sixth,” Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, April 16, 1977: 6.

9 “How They Scored,” Reading Eagle, April 16, 1977: 8. The box score and game story say Holle’s only hit of the day was a triple, while the “How They Scored” breakdown calls it a double. This story sides with the game story and box score.

10 Reading made two errors in the game – one by second baseman Jose Moreno and one by left fielder Phil Convertino. Game stories do not specify which error allowed Holmberg to reach.

11 United Press International, “Poff Sparks Reading Win,” Daily News (Lebanon, Pennsylvania), April 16, 1977: 12. The Reading paper’s “How They Scored” breakdown credits Romero with a single, but this story sides with the box score and UPI game story, which called it a double.

12 “Poff Blasts Off in Wild Sixth.”

13 “Poff Blasts Off in Wild Sixth.”

14 “Poff Blasts Off in Wild Sixth.”

15 “Poff Blasts Off in Wild Sixth.”

16 Pitcher Greg Erardi, who made 26 appearances with the 1977 Millers, also landed in the majors later that year, pitching in five games with the Seattle Mariners. They were the only appearances of Erardi’s big-league career.

Additional Stats

Reading Phillies 8
Holyoke Millers 4

Municipal Stadium
Reading, PA

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