To a crowd including Springfield business and community leaders as well as members of the baseball community, Jamie Toole, president of parent company Golden Rule Entertainment, introduced some members of the nine-member partnership. Included were Mike Manley of Peoria, Tim Hoker of Grayslake, and Jeff Jarrett, a retired professional wrestler and current wrestling promoter. Jarrett advised those in attendance that, while he did not know a great deal about the balls and strikes of baseball, he had quite a bit of experience he could offer in promoting sports entertainment. Golden Rule’s plan for Springfield baseball promises to be entertaining at many levels.
During the one-hour presentation, the new owners made clear they will be modeling their team after the hottest team in minor league baseball, the Savannah Bananas. The Georgia team plays in a wood bat collegiate league in the South. The team has sold out every home game for the past five seasons and has over 10,000 people on a waitlist for tickets. The team also has become famous on YouTube videos for a great deal of non-baseball hijinks. In addition, they have adopted many rules to speed up their games. The new owners want to win but, more importantly, they want to entertain. They promised an organization that will build upon the historical nature of Lanphier Park, the baseball history of Springfield and the involvement of the community. They want to build a team roster with more players from the area. Prospect League rules limit the number of players from an individual college on each team, but the number of baseball players from this area who play across the country is considered by the new owners to be a point of heavy emphasis.
Entertainment was an often-used word during the presentation. That goal includes food as well as activities between innings and before and after the game. The owners hope to have caterers who can provide fans with local favorites like Cozy dogs and horseshoes. Meetings with the Springfield Park District have already begun to discuss a lease and perhaps some remodeling of the ballpark. Just who will be paying for those improvements was one of several unanswered questions. The press conference was long on promises, but not so long on details. In fact, the new ownership has not yet been approved by the Prospect League and will not be finalized until January.
Non-major-league baseball has a long history in this capital city. In 1883 there was a team in the Northwestern League, considered by baseball historians to have been the first minor league. Springfield also fielded teams in the Central Interstate League, the Western Association, the Central League and the Mississippi Valley League. The longest affiliation for Springfield baseball came from the “Three-I League” (teams from Illinois, Iowa and Indiana). During the first half of the 20th century Springfield had teams in that league for 25 seasons. In 1978 Springfield reached its highest level of minor-league baseball when A. Ray Smith brought his Redbirds to Springfield as a AAA franchise of the American Association. In 1980 the Redbirds won the league championship. But in 1982, Smith sought greener pastures for his franchise and relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, where the team became the first minor league franchise to draw one million spectators during the season.
After the Redbirds moved, the parent St. Louis Cardinal team, established a franchise in the Class A Midwest League. By 1993, attendance was declining in Springfield and the St. Louis Cardinal ownership was unhappy with the condition of the Lanphier baseball park. The city would not pay for improvements to the facility and the Cardinal organization sold the franchise to Madison, Wisconsin. Springfield then became the host for independent baseball and, more recently, collegiate wood bat leagues that play 30-40 home games during the summer months after the college players have finished their seasons. Attendance during the last two seasons has averaged around 1,000 fans per home game, but many of the tickets were promotional.
Golden Rule Entertainment has already changed several policies. Season tickets are back on sale and promotional giveaways are not on the horizon. Toole hopes fans will come to the park for the entertainment. He also hopes to have events beyond the home games for his yet-unnamed franchise. Among the plans are perhaps an alumni game between ex-major leaguers and a game between competing law enforcement officers. Harry Carey always said, “You can’t beat fun at the old ballpark,” and Golden Rule may try to expand that concept in Springfield this summer.
Stuart Shiffman writes on baseball for Illinois Times.