A League of His Own

A League of His Own

Twin Cities Business
There was a time when summer meant minor league baseball across dozens of communities in the northern Midwest. But over the decades Major League Baseball consolidated its minor leagues in parts of the U.S. with denser populations and better spring weather. Ballparks went empty, save for fleeting independent leagues or occasional town ball games.

Cities as big as Rochester, Duluth and Madison, Wis., proved inhospitable to the charms of the Northern League (now American Association), where the St. Paul Saints play. By the 1990s, the future of baseball in small- and medium-sized cities seemed bleak. Parks fell into disrepair, and the teams that once played there were memorialized in glass cases at the public library.

In 1989, a guy named Dick Radatz Jr., son of a legendary Boston Red Sox relief pitcher, was dismissed as the general manager of the minor league Winter Haven (Fla.) Red Sox. He tried a few other things, but baseball was in his blood.

Driving north in 1992 with his eventual business partner, George MacDonald Jr., he was in search of opportunity.

“I knew that the Lansing [Mich.] minor league club had done $1 million in [merchandise] sales before they even played their first game,” Radatz recalls. “We looked around and asked ourselves, ‘How can we get some of that?’ ”

Two years later, the Northwoods League (NWL) was born; it turns 25 this summer. It is the largest organized baseball league in North America. It operates in more Upper Midwest markets each summer than the MLB-affiliate Midwest League or the independent American Association (AA). It captures the imaginations of communities as disparate as Willmar in southern Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario, and has crafted a business model that has allowed baseball to operate sustainably in the Upper Midwest again.

“We went in where they failed. April and May [weather] killed baseball in the Upper Midwest. We’ve brought it back,” says Radatz. “We’ve built a better mousetrap.”

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