By Ron Pesch
Logically located cities, skilled and cost-conscious management, and solid financials are all key ingredients for success and survival. There are countless other requirements. Many of the same conditions are needed by league members. Well-thought-out sites for stadiums combined with steadfast fan support, in good times and bad, are obviously important.
More than 100 years ago, several of those issues came to light for one Midwest baseball league.
“It is doubtful whether a single team owner or manager of the Central League can tell at the present time what cities will compose the 1916 circuit,” wrote E.W. Dickerson sporting editor of the Grand Rapids Press in August 1915. “There are going to be changes made and the mileage reduced so that there may be some chance of someone besides the players and the railroads profiting by the league’s existence.” Dickerson was certainly knowledgeable on the subject. He had previously served as president of baseball’s Michigan State League.
In 1915, the eight-team Central League had teams in Erie, PA, Wheeling, WV, Youngstown and Dayton, OH, Evansville, Terre Haute, and Fort Wayne, IN, but the circuit included only Grand Rapids in Michigan. Travel expenses were one of the root issues at play within the league.
“Dayton lost money with a pennant winning team last year and Evansville did little better than break even with one this year.”
As newspaper writers often do, Dickerson pitched radical changes in membership to consider to avoid falling by the wayside.
“There is only one way to shorten the mileage of a circuit and that is to drop those cities which are farthest from the center of the circuit.” The writer suggested that Terre Haute and Evansville should quit the league and, in their place, the Central allow South Bend, Indiana and Muskegon, Michigan to take their place. If that happened, “it would reduce the league mileage by about one-half.”
South Bend had once been part of the league, and reports were that they were interested in rejoining. Geographically, the two cities were a beautiful fit.
“If the Sawdust City (a nickname that pointed to Muskegon’s storied lumbering past) can have its new downtown park in readiness for the opening of the 1916 championship season and the business men of the town are willing to go behind the team as they should, the town has a chance.”
Dickerson recognized the benefits of adding a nearby rival for Grand Rapids to the circuit. He was also well aware of the pre-existing rivalry between Muskegon and the “Furniture City” – as Grand Rapids was known. It existed in both sports fields and business communities. He also recognized the strong support that athletics received in Muskegon.
Logically, it made perfect sense. But the writer failed to consider one fact. Muskegon, in the eyes of the Central League, simply wasn’t big enough to support a team.
The Grand Old Game
Baseball “was alive and well in the Muskegon of the 1860s,” stated Marc Okkonen in his illustrated chronology, Baseball in Muskegon, originally published in 1993. A lumbering boomtown, “the increasing popularity of baseball encouraged some local entrepreneurs” to sponsor a professional team in 1884. That squad played 50 games. Muskegon, Grand Rapids, and Saginaw became members of the 12-team Northwestern League that included 2 clubs from Minnesota, 3 from Indiana, 2 from Illinois, and 2 from Wisconsin.
Battles with Grand Rapids “provided the most heated rivalry,” acknowledged Okkonen.
The arrangement lasted just 1 year. Muskegon was a member of three separate incarnations of the Michigan State League between 1890 and 1902. In each instance, the professional league disbanded within the year. In between, Muskegon fielded various independent baseball teams, of which the Muskegon ‘Reds’ emerged as the best. With no set schedules or affiliations, local nines played a variety of opponents.
The ‘Sawdust City’ was again ready for pro ball in 1910 at the rebirth of another version of the Michigan State League. This time the circuit survived beyond a single year.
The 1914 Muskegon squad – nicknamed the ’Speed Boys’ – won the city’s first pro-league pennant. Unfortunately, the six-member league again faltered. In fact, only four teams played out a full season,” noted Okkonen.
Missing League Play
Forced to return to independent ball for the 1915 season, city leaders quickly went to work, hoping to land a spot in another professional league and the pride and prestige that came with it. One recognizable shortcoming was finding a better location for a ballpark. To improve the likelihood of success, a site near the center of town was chased so “Muskegon merchants and professional men will be able to attend the games without a long car trip” to the city’s current primary site for games – Recreation Park, located south of the city, at the northeast shore of Mona Lake.
Population growth in Muskegon had led to the dismantling of old Castenholz Park beginning in 1914. The site, located on the east side of town between Irwin and Dale, just west of Getty Street was now being platted into lots. First used in 1894, it had served as the city’s home for independent baseball for years.
By February 1915, locals had set eyes on a nearly 13-acre site located at Ottawa Street and Bayou at the north end of town and talks had commenced about joining the Class C Southern Michigan Baseball Association. However, by the end of March, possible entry into that league had faltered.
Still, the property was acquired in April. Referred to as First Ward Park, the site was cleaned up, and by August, a diamond at the park was ready for baseball. Signs, pointing the way to the grounds were up, reported the Muskegon Chronicle. “Grading of the infield” had required the largest expenditure in preparing the site. “A fine backstop has been also installed.”
“Benches, tennis courts, volleyball courts, swings and other paraphernalia necessary for a playground are now being planned,” Numerous requests for use of the ground were flowing in.
Dickerson’s article had stirred thoughts both within the Central League, and among businessmen along the Lake Michigan shoreline city. With the existence of the new diamond, rumors were that if Muskegon could sell 500 season tickets at $15 apiece, they would be guaranteed entry into the league for the 1916 season.
However, affiliation wouldn’t come quite that easy.
In November 1915, Muskegon baseball enthusiasts filed for membership to be considered at the league’s annual meeting held in Evansville.
“Many of the magnates opposed the letting in of any city under 40,000 when Muskegon was mentioned.” Up to that point in time, the town had never had any higher class of baseball than Class D.”
“Although no decision was reached as to the cities which would be represented” in 1916, the gathering did include a surprising turn of events. When the league’s current president resigned his post, and Dickerson was chosen to fill the role.
Suddenly, Muskegon had an ally to support their cause.
In December, Dickerson sent a league official to Muskegon to investigate the city’s prospects of supporting a franchise. Impressed with the possibilities, a formal offer to join the league was offered. However, the requirements for membership were made clear. Muskegon needed a true ballpark with permanent seating, and a group of businessmen to form a corporation to finance and support a team.
The city’s Chamber of Commerce helped organize a group. And in a late January 1916 meeting of supporters, Henry Campbell, president of the First Ward Board of Trade, assured those assembled that the new park was available as a site for play. However, when Philip Schnorbach, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, was asked what he thought about the proposal, he was blunt with his appraisal.
“Baseball in Muskegon is worth nothing unless a downtown park is to be had. The First Ward Park is no good unless the Muskegon Traction and Lighting company (the owner of the streetcar line) will consent to build a spur out to the park.”
“In other words,” reported the Chronicle, “the baseball situation here is left with the businessmen who would receive the benefit of having Muskegon placed on the same footing with towns of much greater population. The placing of Central League ball here would bring Muskegon into more prominence perhaps than any other one project offered in some time.”
But within five days, a group rallied to the cause. Charles W. Marsh, a local business owner, emerged as the primary leader to secure funds to finance operations. To ensure participation in the league, he forwarded a non-refundable personal check for $2,000 to the Central League to guarantee that Muskegon would field a team and play through the season. When the “Muskegon Baseball Company” filed corporation papers, Marsh was named president of the organization.
The league lineup was now established. Teams in Erie, PA, Youngstown, OH, and Fort Wayne, IN departed membership, while Muskegon, South Bend, and Springfield, OH were in.
Soon, at least three other sites besides Recreation Park and First Ward Park were being considered for a new ballpark.
Immediately, a ‘Name the Team’ contest was announced. Sponsored by The Chronicle, it ran until noon on February 22. The person who first suggested the winning nickname would receive a Central League President’s Pass, allowing the individual free entry into any Central League game in any city for the upcoming year.
Debate on the merits of possible sites for the park continued, but remained unresolved until February 16. That’s when Marsh announced that the C.W. Marsh Company had purchased a pair of large split parcels of property at Laketon Avenue and Peck Boulevard at a cost of $18,000 for the purpose of building a suitable baseball diamond for the city. The land would be leased to Muskegon Baseball.
“Not only is it planned to have a baseball park on the property, but the plans which have already been drawn leave two large tracts, one on Laketon Avenue and the other on Peck Street … which will be used as play and picnic grounds,” stated The Chronicle. “The Peck Street side will be used as a public play ground and Mr. Marsh has left the equipping of the property with swings, see-saws, and other equipment for such a place to some of the enterprising clubs or boosters’ associations which have been looking for sites for a playground. The Laketon Avenue side is filled with large oak trees and will make an excellent picnic grounds.
Bleachers were planned on each side of a grand stand that was expected to seat 2,500. “Regular boxes will be placed in front of the grand stand for the use of baseball box parties.”
“Two large spaces, 300 by 40 feet, will be left on either side of the bleachers for the accommodation of automobile drivers who wish to bring their cars into the game and sit in them. A high screen fence will be erected around this space to protect the machines and drivers.
“Under the grandstand, the players will have every accommodation possible for a baseball team. Shower baths and excellent dressing rooms will be placed here for the use of the teams.
“Mr. Marsh who has been instrumental in making baseball go here believes that this park site, which he now has, is the only one in Muskegon… (that) is within walking distance of 10,000 persons.
“’The walk from Western Avenue to the park site is only about 18 minutes,’ said Mr. Marsh this morning, ‘and I believe that the park will serve both Muskegon and Muskegon Heights people.’”
Within days, the site was dubbed, ‘Marsh Field’ in honor of ‘Charley,’ who had landed the city membership in the Class B league.
Rushing to Complete
The process needed to vacate a section of Clinton, the street that ran through the parcels between Holbrook and Laketon, began immediately, as did the tree chopping and stump-pulling. One parcel contained a home and a greenhouse, so plans were made to move them to another site. The race to have the field ready for the upcoming 140-game season was on. Preseason training was planned for April 4, while the schedule would begin with Muskegon on the road on April 26.
In early March, Harry E. Boyle & Company of Evansville, IN was hired to design the park. By early April only a small patch of trees on the Laketon side remained. Grading and leveling of the field had started, but 10 days later, stumps were still being hauled away and old tree roots were being pulled.
Many people visiting the park site felt it would be impossible to play the season’s first home game at the site, but the team’s directors believed it would be ready. Still, as a precaution, Recreation Park was leased for preseason conditioning, and possibly beyond, should plans go awry.
In early April, Edward F. Luhman received the contract to prepare the diamond. An additional line of trees was left standing along Jiroch and Holbrook in order that the high board outfield fence might be partially hidden to “present to the residents along these streets a pleasing view. A small army of men hit the site during the week of April 17, working on the fence, and preparing cement pillars for the bleachers from plans in hand. Boyle continued work on the drawings and requirements for the grandstand.
“(President Marsh) believes that the bleachers can be put up and the diamond put into shape in time for the first game,” noted The Chronicle. “His idea would be to have the women attending the game sit in the bleachers and the men stand up along the edge of the field. This the directors believe would be better than staging the first game of the season at Recreation Park.
“The bleachers and the grandstand are so situated that none of the fans will have to stare into the sinking sun. The grand stand will be built on the northwest corner of the field and will be rounding in a quarter circle about home plate. The bleachers will be on either side of this making a bleacher on the west side of the lot and one on the north side.”
Construction remained on schedule, with all grading work complete, three-quarters of the field fenced in and large portions of the bleachers in place according to a Wednesday, April 26 article.
“About 25 men were working at the park yesterday and it is certain that the first contest which is to be staged next Thursday in this city with the Terre Haute club will be played at the new park.”
George Phillips, the team’s concession man, had sold almost all fence advertising space as well as nearly all ads for the team’s score cards.
“Phillips will liven up his scorecards with pictures of some of the players and the managers and presidents of the league,” added The Chronicle.
Work on the grandstand had begun, but they would be unusable for the game. The uncovered bleachers, however, were ready, so seating capacity for the contest was expected to be around 1,100.
Enthusiasm ran rampant for opening day. In celebration, a big parade to the park was scheduled for 1:30 p.m.. Muskegon mayor Arnt Ellifson had declared May 4 as a municipal holiday. In response, both Muskegon and Muskegon Heights closed all branches of their schools, allowing students to attend the parade and opening game.
“Almost every store on Western Avenue and in the downtown district will be closed Thursday afternoon,” wrote The Chronicle.
Numerous local manufactures, including Continental Motors, Brunswick-Balke-Collender, C.W. Marsh, Browne-Morse, and Shaw-Walker, joined in with plans to close at or before 1 p.m. for the day, freeing 4,000 workers the chance to attend.
On cue, beautiful weather greeted residents that afternoon.
The parade began promptly at city hall, where dignitaries from both Muskegon and Muskegon Heights climbed into automobiles. They proceeded down Jefferson and then turned west onto Western Avenue headed to Union Depot. Across the street at the Muskegon Hotel, players from both squads, already dressed for the game, were picked up. Led by the Muskegon Police Department and David J. Parson’s band (who traditionally played at Muskegon’s season-opening games), the contingent headed back down Western – beautifully “decked out in patriotic bunting” – to Terrace, then to Peck Street. From there, the delegation of 100 automobiles and “nattily costumed men,” headed straight up Peck to the ballpark.
“The John Albers Sons, meat wholesalers were out dressed in full uniform in a horse-drawn vehicle … The Muskegon brewing company was also represented with its large truck loaded with employees. Castenholz Brothers, wholesale meat dealers, had five cars in the parade decorated with signs boosting the baseball team… Then Continental Motors company had five trucks and (some) automobiles in line … All of the autos were decorated with flags and the occupants had horns and other noise making instruments with which to keep things livened up.”
At the park, women and children rapidly filled the available seating. Marsh was presented a huge bouquet of flowers by the Chamber of Commerce in recognition of his efforts, then Dickerson tossed the ceremonial first pitch to Mayor Ellifson and “the season here was formally opened. Andrew Green of Owosso brushed off the newly laid plate shortly after 3 o’clock and after announcing the batteries, unburdened himself of the well-known words, ‘Play ball.’”
“Just 4,276 fans paid admission … a new record for a baseball game in the city” wrote The Chronicle in the following day’s paper, but actual attendance was far greater, as hundreds slipped through the gates free of charge.
Over 400 letters had been received by The Chronicle in their nickname contest.
“There is only one proper name for our team. Muskegon Tigers. wrote William Van Domelen in an early entry.
“Minute Boys” recommended Paul Coutchie. “They will be ready on the minute to whip the visiting team.”
“Please enter the name Regents … in honor of the new opera which Muskegon has,” stated C.C. Plant.
Miss Alma Merrick of Muskegon Heights suggested “Red Men”. “Also,” she added, “Muskegon Caps would be good.”
“I would like to suggest the name of Harpers for the Muskegon baseball team,” wrote Mrs. Robert C. Harper, the wife of one of the individuals who had sold site property to Marsh. “The (players) could have harps in gold with purple strings on their shirt front.”
“I would submit the name of Divides for our team after the location of the park. Call the park Divide Park as it is between the two cities (Muskegon and Muskegon Heights)”, stated John Bolthouse.
“I suggest the name Twin City,” stated another entry, also noting the park’s position.
“I would like to suggest the name of Great Lakes for our baseball team as we are the only city on the Great Lakes.
Pillhitters, Wonders, Bush-Wackers, Red Sock Rippers, Whiffle-Gee, Jewels, Battlers, Magnets, Vims, Formidables, and Local Operators were found among the nearly 1,000 suggestions. Progressives, Rivals, Trojans, Bear Cats, Bleachers, Tutors, Ensigns, Homers, Speedwells, Mohawks, Boomer Boys, Local Patriots, Badgers, Cobras, Sparks, Admirals, Wahoos, Resorters, Sea Gulls, Oaks, Niftys, and Marvels were also pitched.
“I would like to suggest the name of Hackleys for the Muskegon baseball team in honor of the late Charles M. Hackley, who did so much for Muskegon,” said P. Mulder in his entry, as did others.
“I would suggest Marshes … in honor of Mr. Marsh,” stated another.
“The judges named Willard G. Turner, Jr., a former city editor at The Chronicle, now working with his two brothers as a clerk in the law offices of Turner and Turner, as winner of the contest.
“I respectfully submit the name Reds or Muskegon Reds for the baseball team in the Central League,” wrote Turner in his entry, noting the nickname offered familiarity, dating back to “the pioneer baseball days in Muskegon.”
Fans at the opener were treated to a scoreless pitching duel through six innings of play. Michigan, being Michigan, saw rain start to fall in the fourth inning as the Reds came to bat, but, thankfully, the threat passed. Terre Haute broke the game open with a pair of runs in the seventh, adding another in both the eighth and ninth, spoiling the festivities with a 4-0 victory. Despite the setback, the city of Muskegon rejoiced.
The park’s grand stand, with the exception of the roof, was finished at the end of May.
“The entire grandstand will be covered and the steel supports for the roof are arriving on the field at the present time.”
On July 26, another automobile parade from downtown’s Western Avenue to the ballpark was hosted, as a formal dedication of the ballpark – completed at a cost of an additional $25,000 – took place.
Approximately 2,000 attended the “Booster Day” game with the Springfield Reapers. With every ticket purchased for the game, the buyer was given “a small red and white button in the shape of a baseball with the words ‘Booster For The Reds’” on it. Nearly every fan present at the game wore their pin.
Dickerson had been correct in his assessment when pitching the town to directors of the league.
“Never mind what Muskegon’s population is now. It will be 100,000 inside of 10 years and right now baseballically speaking, is equal to any city in the country of less than 75,000 population.”
At season’s end, Muskegon had finished fifth in the standings, but third in attendance, behind only Springfield and Dayton and ahead of rival Grand Rapids. Professional baseball was back in town.
A State of Michigan historic landmark, 106 years later, Marsh Field still is the “Home of Muskegon Baseball.”