The Northern League: Proud Tradition
by David Kemp
The first Northern League began as an independent league in 1902. The Fargo, North Dakota, club was one of the founding franchises of the first Northern League. The League joined the newly formed National Association in 1903, and continued operation through the 1905 season.
The first Northern League enacted a salary limit very similar to the existing salary limit used by the fourth or modern day Northern League. The populations of Duluth and Winnipeg weremuch larger than any of the other teams in the League, and, as a result, drew much larger crowds than the smaller towns in the League. The salary limit was enacted in order to create a competitive balance among the League’s teams.
The first Northern League featured many players “farmed out” from the American Association teams, the St. Paul Saints and the Minneapolis Millers. The short schedule allowed for many prominent collegiate athletes to come out to the Northern Plains to play summer baseball. They arrived after spring classes and left before the football season began in early September.
In 1906 and 1907, Duluth, Fargo, Grand Forks and Winnipeg were part of the Northern Copper Country League. The CCL included the resort towns of Calumet, Hancock, Houghton and Lake Linden, Michigan.
The Fargo Nines would travel by train to Duluth. They would then board a steamer and travel to the resort towns of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The teams would play for two weeks in the various towns, all within a few miles of each other. In 1908, Duluth Fargo and Winnipeg were members of the Northern League. This first Northern League disbanded in August of 1908. Richard Brookins, an infielder and outfielder for the 1908 Fargo team, was of special importance. Brookins was the first African-American player to perform in organized baseball in the twentieth century. He is the only documented African-American player to have had a career (outside of the Negro Leagues) lasting more than a couple months prior to Jackie Robinson’s signing with Montreal in 1946.
In 1912, Duluth, Grand Forks and Winnipeg were members of the Central International League. This became the Northern League in 1913. The second version of the Northern League lasted until July of 1917, when it disbanded due to World War I restrictions.
The third Northern League was organized in 1933. Several of the franchises were housed in the newly constructed, WPA athletic facilities; these were ballparks created by the federal government as work projects at the height of the depression.
The Fargo-Moorhead team adopted the Twins moniker, originally used in the area by the Whapeton-Breckinridge Twins of the 1922 Dakota League. In 1933, Danny Boone, of Crookston, served simultaneously as an active player, team manager and Northern League president. The Fargo-Moorhead team began an informal relationship with the Cleveland Indians during the 1930’s. Many future Cleveland Indian players began their careers with Fargo-Moorhead.
By 1938, the Northern League had become firmly entrenched in the social fabric of the Upper Midwest. The Fargo-Moorhead Twins, Duluth Dukes, Superior Blues, Eau Claire Bears, Winnipeg Goldeyes and the Grand Forks Chiefs became mainstays of a full season, Class C professional league.
Prior to the 1942 season, the Crookston franchise was sold to the Sioux Falls Canaries owner, Rex Stucker. The Sioux Falls, S.D., team moved to the Northern League form the Class C Western League. The Northern League did not operate during the war years of 1943, 1944 and 1945.
The minor leagues experienced a rapid expansion during the 1946 season. Many players had returned to civilian life after World War II. Hence, two new Northern League franchises were created for the 1946 season, the St. Cloud Rox and the Aberdeen Pheasants. Both franchises became flagship operations in the Northern League and continued until the demise of the third Northern League in 1971.
The Sioux Falls franchise was sold to Winnipeg after the 1953 season, and so by 1962, the Northern League had truly become a “northern” league. There were franchises in Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada), Grand Forks (North Dakota), Bismarck-Mandan and Minot. The Fargo-Moorhead franchise ceased operation after the 1960 season.
Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda (1956) and Lou Brock (1961) won league batting crowns and another member of Cooperstown, Earl Weaver, managed Aberdeen in 1959.
The League operated as a full season, Class C league through the 1964 season. That year the Aberdeen Pheasants established an all-time, full season Northern League fielding record. They finished the season with a remarkable 80-37 record. The Pheasants’ pitching staff included future Hall of Fame pitcher, Jim Palmer.
Due to a National Association reorganization, the Northern League became a short season, Class A league in 1965. The reorganization resulted in the N.L.’s rosters being made up primarily of rookie minor leaguers.
The third Northern League, which folded in 1971, was the last National Association league to be allowed by organized baseball to close up shop. At the time of its demise in 1971, the Northern League was the oldest league in the lower classifications of the minors.
Many of the ballparks from the third N.L. remained in use throughout the Upper Midwest. But by the early 1990’s the Upper Midwest remained the only region in North America without active professional baseball, despite its rich tradition in the region.
The concept of reestablishing a totally independent professional baseball league was initially considered in the late 1970’s. As a result of his experience as owner/general manager of the the Durham Bulls, then an Atlanta Braves affiliate, and his membership in the governing body of the National Association, Miles Wolff became interested in the idea of rekindling an independent league. Wolff saw both the advantages and disadvantages in being associated with the Major Leagues.
Wolff, in conjunction with several interested individuals, began the process of resurrecting the Northern League with the notion that town-based teams, rather than organization-grounded clubs could flourish in the right communities. During the fall of 1992, after over two years of planning, the fourth generation Northern League was born.
In 1993, the umpire shouted “Play Ball!” for the Northern League once again. Six initial franchises were located in places like Wade Stadium, a WPA facility, in Duluth, Minnesota, and at the Sioux Falls Stadium, which had housed the Packers of the third N.L.
Northern League ball also returned to Winnipeg Stadium, home to the Blue Bombers of the CFL.
A new facility, Lewis & Clark Park, was built in Sioux City, Iowa, for the inaugural season. Sioux City’s tradition of pro ball goes back to the Western Association of the late 1890’s. Sioux City fans had been without professional baseball since 1960.
Thunder Bay, Ontario, had been part of the second Northern League when the community was known as Fort William. The St. Paul Saints were led by an ownership group determined to bring back outdoor baseball to the Twin Cities area. The St. Paul community quickly adopted the Saints as part of their unique persona.
Once again a short season independent, the League began with a 72-game schedule in 1993 that had increased to 96 games by 2004. A divisional format was adopted in 1996 after expansion added Fargo-Moorhead and Madison.
Following the 1998 season, the Northern League merged with the Northeast League, creating a 16-team Northern League with Eastern and Central Divisions that faced each other in the All-Star Game and Championship Series. After the Central Division added Gary and Joliet in 2002, the Northern League, under the direction of then-commisioner Mike Stone, returned to its original format for 2003.
Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta joined the league in 2005 to give the circuit two six-team divisions. The 2005 season ended in cinderella fashion as the Gary SouthShore RailCats, losers of a league record 65 games in 2004, defeated the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, who had posted a league mark of 68 regular season wins, in an exciting five-game Championship Series.
Changes in the Independent League landscape will mean an eight-team Northern League in 2006. Gary, Joliet, Kansas City, and Schaumburg will comprise the East Division with Calgary, Edmonton, Fargo-Moorhead, and Winnipeg in the West.
The Northern League continues to be acknowledged as the the pre-eminent modern era independent league. Over two million fans attended Northern League games in 2005, and the league average of 3,888 ranked as sixth highest among the 20 Minor Leagues, best among Independents.
The Northern League’s success has contributed to a growth in independent baseball that will see seven leagues across the United States in operation in 2006. With continued interest from communities and ownership groups hoping for expansion, the future of the Northern League will surely prove to be as dynamic as its storied and proud history.