Northwoods League Has Succeeded “Beyond Dreams”

Donny Henn,

Eighteen teams, two divisions and over 1 million fans

Dick Radatz Jr. admits he never saw this success coming for the Northwoods League when it began humbly in 1994 with five teams and a new concept: A for-profit (for the owners) summer league for high-level college baseball players.
"Its probably gone beyond our wildest dreams, truthfully," said Radatz Jr., a co-founder and president of the what is now the largest organized baseball league in the world.

The Northwoods League opens its 22nd season on Tuesday with a motivating act to follow, after breaking the 1 million mark in season attendance for the first time in 2014.

The addition of two new franchises in 2014 which both drew well, the Kalamazoo, Mich., Growlers (2,243 average attendance) and the Kenosha, Wis., Kingfish (2,207), increased the size of the league and pushed attendance to an all-time high.

It's a long ways from 1994 when the first five teams — Rochester, Wausau, Wis., Manitowoc, Wis., Kenosha, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa — combined to draw 70,000.

"The early days were a bit of a struggle, but we made it, and the rest is history," Radatz Jr. said.

'Who are you?'

Radatz Jr., who grew up in Michigan, said he came to Rochester and made the league office here because he thought the market size would work "from a corporate standpoint."

"And truthfully, Mayo Field was a nice little ballpark in a downtown setting," he explained.

Radatz Jr. and his league co-founders had some convincing to do in a city that had been recently abandoned by two Continental Basketball Association teams, as well as the Rochester Aces baseball team which played in the independent Northern League and left after one season.

"I remember our first press conference here in Rochester, and a lot of people were rolling their eyes at this new concept," Radatz Jr. recalled. "This was the first for-profit college league, nobody had ever done this before, and there was a lot of skepticism."

Radatz Jr. not only had to convince Rochester's leaders, but his co-investors in the league that it could work here. With his minor-league administrative experience with the Boston Red Sox, he knew a thing or two about running a team professionally.

"I said I will go up (to Rochester) and run it, if I can have a three-year option to buy the team," he explained. "That's what happened; that's why my half-season home is here, and the league office is still here." He sold the Honkers in 2003 to current co-owners Dan Litzinger and Kim Archer.

There was one other important group to sell the league to: College players.

In the early years the rosters were filled players from small college from throughout the Upper Midwest. Now they come from literally all 50 states, and from the best Division I college programs.

Now there are more than 100 Northwoods League alums active in the majors, and 13 played in the MLB postseason last year.

"We've literally gone from 'Who the hell are you guys?' to literally turning away thousands of players each year now," Radatz Jr. noted.

Still room to grow

The Northwoods League has expanded by 10 teams in the last 10 years and the new franchises seem to flourish out of the gate.

Kenosha is a success story that was once a failure. The Kenosha Kroakers were one of the original teams in the league and they never averaged more than 420 fans in their five-year (1994-'98) existence.

Last year the expansion Kingfish drew nearly 73,000 over 33 home games. Radatz said there are several reasons the league is working here the second time around.

"Kenosha at one time was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country; it's kind of become a northern suburb of Chicago now," he said. "It's kind of become a boom town."

Two other key factors are ownership with a proven track record — the Kingfish are owned by the same group who own the wildly successful Madison Mallards — and investment in stadium.

The Kingfish and the city of Kenosha partnered to invest $1.5 million in 84-year-old Simmons Field, and selected the restoration as their 2014 Best Ballpark Renovation Under $2 Million.

"One of the things I never saw coming is that cities would actually build venues for this level of baseball, and it has happened in a couple of occasions now," Radatz Jr. said.

Radatz Jr.said the Northwoods League isn't done growing, although he isn't quite ready to announce the next teams.

"There is no real top number (of teams)," he said. "It's all sort of dictated by available markets and geography. We're not going to put a team in Denver, because that would be out of our footprint.

"But there are still markets in this region that could support this brand of baseball. It's hard to say where this league is going."