September 5, 1980: Holyoke raises its first and only Eastern League championship title

This article was written by Eric T. Poulin

Nick Esasky (TRADING CARD DB)The summer of 1980 was undoubtedly the high-water mark in the brief history of the Double-A Eastern League’s Holyoke Millers franchise. Affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers, the organization moved from Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park in 1977 because of drainage issues that temporarily condemned the historic ballpark.1 During the six years the team was based in Holyoke, three separate ownership groups headed up the organization, with the beleaguered team moving to Nashua, New Hampshire, after the 1982 season.

Twenty-seven-year-old Tom Kayser, who had served as the team’s general manager during its first three seasons, purchased the team for a modest $30,000, with the deal announced on Opening Day of the 1980 season.2 Kayser was an up-and-comer in the minor leagues;3 he later embarked on a 25-year career as president of the Texas League.

Kayser’s leadership – coupled with Harry Dalton taking over as Brewers general manager in November of 1977 – led to more young talent taking the field in Holyoke than in past seasons. Manager Lee Sigman had the privilege of piloting a team loaded with future major-league mainstays, including Doug Jones, Frank DiPino, Chuck Porter, Steve Lake, Kevin Bass, and David Green, whose 19 triples led the Eastern League.

The Millers posted an overall regular-season record of 78-61 in 1980, but their story was drastically different in each half of the season. The Eastern League divided its season into two halves in 1980, with Holyoke finishing in last place in the Richardson Division during the initial round. The second half was a different scenario altogether, as the Millers ran away with the division by a whopping 12 games.

Holyoke edged past the Buffalo Bisons, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, in the semifinal playoff round, prevailing by scores of 3-2 and 5-4. In Game One, light-hitting second baseman Franklin Thomas rose to the occasion, driving home Bass with the game-winning run off Steve Farr with two out in the ninth inning. Thomas followed that up in Game Two with the first home run of his professional career, a three-run shot off Dave Dravecky in the fourth inning. Jones was the winning pitcher, giving up two runs in five innings.4

The Millers’ opponent in the Championship Series was the Waterbury Reds. Waterbury was the home of an EL franchise since the Elmira Pioneers moved there after the flood-disrupted 1972 season. The Reds finished with the third best full-season record in the O’Malley Division, even though they finished on top of the division in the first half, while the Reading Phillies were winners of the second half, leaving the team with the league’s best overall record – the Bristol Red Sox – on the outside looking in.5

Waterbury sported a roster of a number of future major leaguers, as well, led by Nick Esasky’s 30 home runs and Tom Lawless’s 63 stolen bases. The Reds took the O’Malley Division crown with two wins over Reading in the semifinal round, pulling off a triple play in the ninth inning to close out Game One.6

The Eastern League Championship was a best-of-three series that began on September 2 at Municipal Stadium in Waterbury. The elements were not favorable that evening; the game was called with the Millers leading 1-0 with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the fifth. The thunderstorm that stopped the game was so severe that the stadium lights blew out, to be rapidly fixed before the game was restarted from the beginning the following evening.7 In the replay, Waterbury starting pitcher Randy Town outdueled Weldon “Tucker” Swift, with Jeff Lahti closing the door in a 3-2 Reds victory. Center fielder Mark Gilbert, who had just a .203 season batting average, drove in all three runs on a bases-loaded groundout and a two-run double.

The teams traveled to Holyoke for Game Two, where a battle of aces on the mound was expected. Jose Brito took the ball for Waterbury after leading the team with 12 victories during the regular season. Holyoke countered with its ace, Rick Kranitz, who sported a 13-7 mark.

Any hopes of a pitchers’ duel in Game Two were short-lived, as the Millers jumped all over Brito for four runs in the bottom of the first, sending the Reds starter to the showers before the frame was over. Mark Schuster, Bass, and Tom Soto hit RBI singles to stake Holyoke to the early lead, plenty for Kranitz (who struck out nine and walked one in seven innings) to combine with reliever Kuni Ogawa8 for a six-hit shutout. The Millers prevailed 4-0, setting the stage for Friday night’s winner-take-all deciding game.9

It was a perfect 72-degree evening at Mackenzie Field in Holyoke when the Reds and Millers took the field to decide the 58th EL championship. Porter, who had won 20 games at two minor-league levels in 1977 but was released by the California Angels earlier in 1980 after falling to Class A, brought his eight regular-season wins to the mound for Holyoke, opposed by Waterbury’s Keefe Cato.

Waterbury mounted the first threat in the opening inning, as Lawless led off the game with a single and stole second base. After Porter retired Tom Foley, Skeeter Barnes lined a hard one-hopper to Millers third baseman Soto, who fired across the diamond to retire the batter. First baseman Bob Schuster returned the toss to Soto, who tagged out Lawless trying to advance to third base.10

Holyoke scratched out a run in the home half of the first to take a 1-0 lead, aided by a combination of a misplay by Waterbury’s Bob Hamilton in right field with the tremendous speed of Green. Schuster singled to right with Green on first base, and a bobble by Hamilton enabled the young Nicaraguan to score all the way from first.

Waterbury threatened again in the second, with Paul Herring and Steve Christmas both reaching base with nobody out. Esasky followed with a hard grounder to Soto, who stepped on third base and fired to Thomas for a force out at second. Esasky beat the subsequent relay throw by a whisker, barely avoiding a triple play.

Porter settled down after the rocky start, scattering eight hits over the course of nine innings. Holyoke extended its lead in the third. Doug Loman tripled down the right-field line with one out. Green followed with a walk and a steal of second. Schuster scored Loman from third on a single, and Ed Brunson’s sacrifice fly brought Green home. The lead rose to 4-0 on Bass’s long triple that plated Schuster from first. While there was still plenty of ball left to play, the missed opportunities seemed to deflate the Reds while energizing the Millers.11

Shortly after 9:30 P.M., Porter retired Esasky on a groundball to Soto for the final out of the game, and the Holyoke Millers were champions of the Eastern League for their first and only time. It was the first professional championship for the city since the Holyoke Papermakers won the Connecticut League crown in 1907. Milwaukee ended its affiliation with Holyoke shortly after the season, moving its Double-A team to El Paso, Texas.

The California Angels replaced the Brewers and served as the parent club in the final two seasons of the Millers’ existence. Kayser sold the team after the 1981 season to a new group of investors. The final Millers game was played on August 31, 1982, bringing an end to affiliated baseball in Holyoke.12



This article was fact-checked by Larry DeFillippo and copy-edited by Len Levin.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted and for pertinent information.



1 Bill Doyle, “Eastern League President Favors Holyoke for Franchise,” Holyoke (Massachusetts) Transcript-Telegram, December 3, 1976: 19.

2 Garry Brown, “Want to Buy a Ball Club?” Waterbury (Connecticut) Sunday Republican, May 11, 1980: C-1.

3 Brown, “Want to Buy a Ball Club?”

4 “Millers, Reds open EL Finals Tonight,” Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, September 2, 1980: 25.

5 Coincidentally, Waterbury’s parent club in Cincinnati suffered the same plight as Bristol the next season, when the players strike led the majors to divide the seasons into halves, with the Reds posting the best record in baseball, yet missing out on the postseason because they did not win the National League West in the season’s first half or second half.

6 Bill Doyle, “Eastern Title To Holyoke,” The Sporting News, September 20, 1980: 41.

7 Bill Doyle, “Millers’ Title Hopes Put on Hold,” Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, September 3, 1980: 24.

8 Ogawa, a native of Furuyama, Japan, joined Holyoke in 1980 at age 33 after several years with the Yomiuri Giants. “Study Abroad Program – Kuni Ogawa,”, June 25, 2017,

9 Mike Bogen, “Millers Win to Square Series,” Springfield (Massachusetts) Morning Union, September 5, 1980: 33.

10 Mike Bogen, “Millers Cop EL Crown,” Springfield Morning Union, September 6, 1980: 17.

11 Bogen, “Millers Cop EL Crown.”

12 Barry Schatz, “Millers, Now Angels, Find Heavenly Home,” Holyoke Transcript-Telegram, April 8, 1983: 1.

Additional Stats

Holyoke Millers 4
Waterbury Reds 0

Mackenzie Field
Holyoke, MA


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