Baseball in Kalamazoo
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, 2013
For those who might believe that Kalamazoo is relatively new to the sport of baseball, think again. Kalamazoo’s love affair with America’s national pastime began years before the Civil War when the town itself was little more than a frontier village, and the passion of local fans for the sport of baseball has seldom wavered.
“Hip, Hip … Huzzah!”
The game of Base Ball (then two words) originated in the 1840s, and was (and still is) a uniquely American sport. In its infancy, baseball was very much a gentleman’s game. No gloves were worn, pitches were thrown underhand, and the batter (“striker”) had the right to say how the ball should be pitched. Umpires (then “referees”) enforced strict rules of conduct, and players (“base ballists”) could be fined for such ungentlemanly conduct as swearing, spitting, disputing a referee’s decision, or failing to tip one’s hat to a feminine spectator. Admission prices were inflated to keep out the “undesirables,” and the use of alcohol and tobacco was strictly prohibited.
Kalamazoo’s Earliest Teams (1850s)
Locals recalled that the game was first introduced in Kalamazoo by John McCord, who after seeing it played while away at school in New York was finally able to persuade his friends back home in Kalamazoo to try it. By the spring of 1859, at least one baseball team had been organized in Kalamazoo, and according to the local newspapers, there was “plenty of material for a dozen more.” The Kalamazoo Boys met their opponents from Galesburg and Schoolcraft in the field just west of Dodge’s Foundry on North Rose Street, where large crowds of curious onlookers gathered to watch this new game.
A short year later, the twenty five member Kalamazoo team, by then known as the Champion Base Ball Club, was holding its matches on new grounds just north of the Michigan Central depot on North Burdick Street. Five hundred or more enthusiastic spectators gathered on warm summer afternoons to watch the three-plus-hour matches against the regional rival Prairie Club from Schoolcraft. These games typically ended with the losing team buying supper for all back downtown at the Burdick House.
Kalamazoo’s Postbellum Teams (1860s-1870s)
By the end of the Civil War, baseball had already earned its title as “the National Game.” Mid-1860s teams in Kalamazoo included the Burr Oaks and the Excelsior Base Ball Club, both named for the local fire departments, plus John McCord’s Continental Base Ball Club, considered “the champions of Western Michigan.” The Continentals went undefeated in 1866 with an astonishing 355 runs in 7 matches. The Burr Oaks, led by team captain George Scales, went 5 games for a total of 232 runs the same year.
Soon, baseball “goods” could be had locally for those who wished to attempt the sport for themselves. Hall & Scales were local dealers in bats, bases, spikes, shoes, caps, balls, belts, flags, score books, instruction books, and “uniforms made to order.” “New National” and “the famous New York Regulation” balls were $2 each at Roberts & Hillhouse’s store on Main Street, while Shakespeare & Sleeper’s Bookstore advertised several brands of balls, as well, including “Atlantics,” “Red Stockings,” “Star,” “White Dead,” and “Red Dead.” Hardwood bats were packaged and sold by the dozen.
Una Base Ball Club
In May 1868, McCord reorganized the Continentals and named it the Una Base Ball Club. The Unas first took on local “junior nines” such as the Unions, the Olympics, the Wickeds, the Tinners, and the White Stockings in the open lots at the west end of Cedar Street. Before long, they were playing weekly games and attracting large crowds at the National Fair Grounds (National Driving Park) off Portage Street in today’s Edison Neighborhood.
Kalamazoo vs. Detroit
By 1872, the Una Base Ball Club of Kalamazoo had become a force to be reckoned with. Still led by catcher and team captain Johnny McCord, the team’s sights were set far beyond southwestern Michigan. In June, the Unas (with McCord at shortstop, Judge “Old Ez” White at third base, Tremaine at second, Lee Waterbury at first, William Sergeant in left field, George Wheelock in center field, Hart in right field, Demyer as catcher, and pitcher Thomas “Tommy” Dorgan) boldly challenged Detroit’s leading team to a match “for the championship of the State.” While the Detroit Empires were able to successfully defend the team’s championship title, the Detroit Tribune described the Unas as “the crack club of Kalamazoo… an athletic body of men [that] possess good capacity as catchers and batters.”
Kalamazoo vs. Chicago
Undaunted by the defeat in Detroit, the Unas reaffirmed their worth by beating the Chicago Liberties by a score of 30 to 18 in an exciting match during Kalamazoo’s Fourth of July celebration at the National Driving Park. (The game was called after just six innings at Chicago’s request; seems the Liberties had had enough.) According to the Kalamazoo Gazette, “‘the boys’ played well, and they showed themselves to be good ball-tossers.” The Kalamazoo community could not have been more proud.
Kalamazoo vs. Boston & Toronto
Three years later, the stakes grew even greater when Manager Harry Wright’s “world champion” Boston Red Caps came to town to play. The Bostons beat Kalamazoo 11-6, but called the Kalamazoo team “the best amateur club they [had] met, and better than some who style themselves professionals.” A few weeks later, the Kalamazoo team was able to repair its slightly tarnished reputation by claiming total victory over the Toronto Tecumsehs in front of hundreds of cheering local fans.
By the time America’s centennial rolled around, the sport of baseball had become immensely popular. New game rules took effect in 1876 that mandated balls should be of a specific size and weight (and must be marked as such), bats were to be round, and umpires were to have full control of the game and the players. During the 1876 season, the Kalamazoo Monitors, captained by Oliver “Ollie” Hungerford, cleaned up against rival clubs from Augusta, Vicksburg, and Sturgis.
Dead Ball Era
By the late 1800s, baseball had become America’s favorite pastime—perhaps the most widely played sport in the country—and it had changed considerably. No longer was it a casual game for the country club elite. Baseball had grown to become a rough and rowdy sport of the working class, where beer and cigars were seemingly required equipment, and ardent rivalries among local and regional teams were commonplace. Stories were told of competition between teams becoming so intense that umpires were compelled to bear arms, and the ultimate outcome of a hotly contested battle might well be decided with fists at the local watering hole after the game.
State League (1887-1889)
Kalamazoo’s earliest baseball teams fought their battles on whatever grounds they could find, from cornfields to cow pastures, sandlots to schoolyards, hayfields to horse tracks. Still, Kalamazoo fans had yet to enjoy the spectacle of seeing the home team play on a proper local baseball field. That all changed, however, during the spring of 1886, when leading regional players William “Bill” Doyle and Ollie Hungerford spearheaded an effort to build a new ball park on vacant land along the north side of Wheaton Avenue near Davis Street, in what is now known as the Vine Neighborhood. Complete with grandstand seating for 450, the new field became a community showplace for the would-be local pennant contenders.
With a brand new field to their credit and enthusiasm for the sport running higher than ever, Doyle and Hungerford put together a tough new team called the Kalamazoos, featuring many of the best local and regional players, including a formidable pair of pitchers from Baltimore and Chicago. With the new grandstand and bleacher boards typically filled to capacity, carriages full of spectators often lined up along the high ground above Davis Street, while youngsters climbed the nearby trees and peered through knotholes in the fences, just to catch a glimpse of the Kalamazoos at work. The team enjoyed a successful opening season, with attendance at most games reaching nearly a thousand or more.
1887 State Championship
1887 would be a banner year for the Kalamazoo team. With the success of the opening season, a stock company was formed and Kalamazoo’s semi-pro team, now simply called the Kazoos, joined the Ohio State League. In fact, the Kazoos topped the league that year with a 73-34 record, and defeated the championship Indianapolis team on the Wheaton Avenue grounds by a score of 5-3 for Kalamazoo’s first ever league championship.
A year later, the Tri-State League (Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan) was formed, but this time the Kalamazoo team didn’t hold up so well and was forced to disband before the end of the season. In 1889, the first Michigan State League was organized, but Kalamazoo again saw very little success and was replaced by Flint in mid-season. Kalamazoo returned to independent play for the next five years as the league itself collapsed completely. Oliver Hungerford went on to become the proprietor of a series of well-respected billiard rooms in Kalamazoo, which he operated well into the nineteen teens.
Michigan State League (1895, 1897)
When league owners attempted to revive the Michigan State League in 1895, the Kazoos rejoined the action and fought their way back with a 3rd place finish in a 91 game season against such rivals as the Battle Creek Adventists, the Jackson Jaxons, and the Lansing Senators.
Kalamazoo dropped out of the state league the following year, and returned once again to independent play. Plenty of excitement remained for the local fans however, as the 1896 Kalamazoo Zooloos took on teams from Otsego, Saginaw, Battle Creek, and even Adrian’s mighty Page Fence Giants. Kalamazoo rejoined the Michigan State League in 1897, but the season was a short one. By July, the entire league had again collapsed, leaving Kalamazoo out of state league ball for nearly a decade.
20th Century Baseball in Kalamazoo
Aside from its state league contenders and local semi-pro teams, Kalamazoo boasted a host of early independent teams during the years around the dawn of the 20th century. Local and regional millworkers, factory workers, printers, machinists, cigar makers, and store clerks formed intense rivalries among themselves and with teams from surrounding communities. The Greenstockings took on the Paw Paws and the Wheel Works team fought the Printers. The Blues took on the Browns, the South Streets met the Daisies, the Gazette waged war against the News, and the Old Timers battled the Folz nine.
The Ganzel Brothers
While the local teams gained notoriety during the late 19th century, Kalamazoo sports fans took great pride in following the success of Fred, Charlie, George, Joe, and John Ganzel, the notorious Ganzel brothers. These five kids from Kalamazoo would ultimately become known as Michigan’s “First Family” of baseball, indeed some of the most well-known and highly respected sports heroes of their day. While Fred, George and Joe all played many years of independent ball locally and throughout Michigan, Charlie and John went on to become nationally known major league contenders.
Charlie Ganzel enjoyed several winning seasons with the 1887 National League champion Detroit Wolverines before joining the Boston Beaneaters. Charlie remained Boston’s catcher for nine consecutive seasons, including the famous 1889 pennant race against the world champion New York Giants (said to be one of the most exciting seasons in baseball history). His career included four National League championships (1891, 1892, 1893 and 1897) and one World Championship (1892). Years later, Charlie’s son, Babe Ganzel, would play ball for the Washington Senators, and become a respected outfielder and team manager during the ‘30s and ‘40s.
John “Big Jawn” Ganzel launched his professional career in the Newcastle (PA) Iron and Oil League before making his major league debut in 1898 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After signing a three year contract with the New York Highlanders (now the Yankees) in 1903, John was credited with making the Highlanders’ first ever triple play on 5 May 1903, and hitting the Highlanders’ first ever home run a week later in front of a crowd of five thousand in Detroit, just 17 games into the Highlanders’ inaugural season. John enjoyed a remarkable career, playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds, the Rochester (NY) Broncos, and the Orlando Senators.
Southern Michigan League (1906-1914)
Back in Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Base Ball Association (KBA) was formed in 1905, which gave fans of the sport “a chance to show whether it [would] support an independent team or not” (Telegraph). A new Kalamazoo team called the Kalamazoo White Sox was organized, with a former boxing promoter from Chicago named E. J. Ryan as manager. KBA secretary and treasurer C. W. Pickell soon replaced Ryan and led the team to a moderately successful season. The White Sox won three out the four games against Charlotte, tied one and won another against Petoskey, won one and lost one against Jackson, and ultimately defeated Battle Creek to close the season.
In December, it was announced that Kalamazoo would be joining a new Michigan State League for 1906, along with teams from Grand Rapids, Lansing, Muskegon, Jackson, Ionia, Saginaw, and Flint, but that plan never exactly materialized. Instead, the (Class D) Southern Michigan League was formed the following spring with six regional teams, including the Kalamazoo White Sox.
1910 State Championship
After three years of intense play, though still without a pennant, the Kalamazoo White Sox needed a change. In a contest organized by the Kalamazoo Gazette, locals were asked to submit nicknames for Kalamazoo’s 1909 Southern Michigan League team. The fan’s choice this time around was once again, the Kazoos.
New uniforms and a new team name apparently did the trick. The Kazoos topped the league in 1910, and beat the Lansing Senators in a seven game championship series. This would be Kalamazoo’s second state league title.
The Kazoos enjoyed a nine year run with the Southern Michigan League, but by the end of the 1914 season, their steam had seemingly run out. After a dismal year, Kalamazoo finished 8th of 10 in the league with a 23-45 record. By mid-September, the season was over, the team members had scattered, and so it seems had the fans. “Not one fan,” lamented the Kalamazoo Gazette, “has raised his voice in demand for a club in 1915.”
Central League (1920-22)
After the First World War, Kalamazoo quickly rekindled its enthusiasm for baseball. Dick Stoher’s Goodale Eagles were a leading independent local contender during the late teens, and Kalamazoo was back with a fresh new team for the 1920 season called the Celery Pickers. (Kalamazoo was, of course, famous at the time for growing celery.) Managed by Rube Vickers, the Celery Pickers joined Michigan’s newly formed Central League, along with teams from Grand Rapids, Ludington and Muskegon. After a slow start under manager Vickers, George Tomer took over and guided the team to a 64-60 record for the season
The league added two more teams for the 1921 season; Jackson/Ionia and Lansing. Kalamazoo finished the season with a respectable 69-58 record, and placed 2nd in the league. Manager Grover Prough led the team through the bulk of the 1922 season, which resulted in a 4th place finish for the Kalamazoo team.
Michigan-Ontario League (1923-24)
Martin H. “Marty” Becker, “a player with a long and glorious career in the minors” (Springfield (MA) Republican), signed on to play third base and manage the Kalamazoo team during the 1922 season. To cap the season, Becker organized an exhibition game in September against the National League Chicago Cubs, the first time that a major league team had come to play the locals since 1875 when Boston came to town. Some 2,500 fans “jammed their way into Stationery Park” (Gazette) to watch the Kalamazoo team take on the Cubs. Although Chicago beat the Kazoos 2-0, it was a hard fought battle and an exciting game. “All in all,” said the Kalamazoo Gazette, “the day was a big success.” The following spring, the Kalamazoo team joined the Michigan-Ontario League, where they remained through the 1924 season.
Michigan State League (1926)
After a year out of league play, Kalamazoo returned in 1926 as a member of the Michigan State League, joining teams from Saginaw, Bay City, Port Huron, Flint, Grand Rapids, Ludington and Muskegon. The league was created in mid-June out of a merger between the (Class C) Central League and the (Class B) Michigan-Ontario League. But the season was disappointing all the way around. The Celery Pickers finished second from the bottom of the league with a 39-59 record, while the league itself only lasted the one season. This would be the end of professional men’s league play in Kalamazoo for some seventy years.
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League: The Kalamazoo Lassies (1950-54)
Even after a twenty-plus-year break from league play and another World War, Kalamazoo fans were still wild about the sport of baseball. During the late 1940s, local, regional, and academic teams created great excitement around town during the warm weather months, yet one local team took over the spotlight as few had ever done – the Kalamazoo Lassies.
The Lassies were part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (later called simply the American Girls’ Baseball League), an idea first conceived by Chicago’s Phillip K. Wrigley in 1942 as a plan to keep the sport of baseball alive during the war. Originally formed in Muskegon in 1946, the Lassies moved to Kalamazoo in 1950, and played their first game in June in front of a crowd of 1,400.
The Lassies were one of the more popular teams in the league, and they enjoyed a five-season run in Kalamazoo. But the American Girls’ Baseball League had already peaked by the time the Lassies came to town, and by 1954 the league was in its final season. In September of that year, the Kalamazoo Lassies defeated the Fort Wayne Daisies by a score of 8-5 to win the league championship in what would be the final game of the American Girls’ Baseball League. The 1992 film, A League of Their Own, was a fictionalized account based on the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
In 1996, the Frontier League’s Mid-Missouri Mavericks moved to Michigan to become the Kalamazoo Kodiaks, marking the local community’s much anticipated return to professional baseball. Despite a lackluster 25-49 opening season and a 4th place finish in the Western Division, the Kodiaks still managed to draw more than 62,000 fans, a strong testament indeed to the popularity of baseball in Kalamazoo.
Two more tough seasons followed for the Kodiaks. 1997 saw them finish with a 33-47 record (4th place in the league) and a dismal 25-54 record in 1998 to finish dead last. The team moved again and became the London (Ontario) Werewolves. Still, the overall popularity of the Kalamazoo Kodiaks was enough to inspire local investors to make significant improvements to the field at Sutherland Park. Renovations during this time included the addition of new aluminum seating, additional bleacher sections, and a press box above the old grandstand. The field would later be known as Homer Stryker Field, with more renovations to follow.
In 2001, Kalamazoo returned to the Frontier League with a new team, the Kalamazoo Kings. The Kings were part of the league’s Eastern Division, and unlike many others, they were not affiliated with a major league team.
The opening season got off to a rough start for the Kings with a 25-50 record, but things slowly began to improve. Despite its lackluster record, the Kings were named Frontier League Organization of the Year for being the third Frontier League franchise to exceed 100,000 fans in a single season. In fact, the Kings topped 100,000 in attendance every year they were in the league, one of only a handful of teams to do so. With more than 135,000 fans in attendance during the 2004 season, the Kings shared the league’s Organization of the Year award, then took the Frontier League Championship Series in 2005 and the Division Series in 2008.
After a ten-season run with two division titles, three playoff appearances, and one league championship, the Kings closed up shop at the end of the 2010 season.
2014 marks the exciting return of professional baseball to Kalamazoo. Since the days long ago when Kalamazoo was but a small frontier village, local fans have enthusiastically supported their local teams. In Kalamazoo, baseball is still very much America’s game; our game.
An expanded version of this article appears on the Kalamazoo Public Library website, kpl.gov