Filling the On-Field Gap

Cavaliers kept baseball alive in Eau Claire, and they’re still going strong

Luc Anthony, photos by Allison Louks

STILL SWINGING. The Eau Claire Cavaliers, shown here in 2009, have been a Carson Park fixture since 1971.
STILL SWINGING. The Eau Claire Cavaliers, shown here in 2009, have been a Carson Park fixture since 1971.

There are at least a couple of generations of Chippewa Valley natives and longtime residents for whom the first words that come to mind when thinking of local baseball are “Eau Claire Cavaliers.” The Cavs, the underrated success story of America’s Pastime in western Wisconsin, are marking 45 seasons on the Carson Park diamond this year, 45 years of, as I like to say, bridging the organized baseball gap in the major metropolitan area of this part of the state.

Even through the pangs for the Eau Claire Bears/Braves and the longing for the return of minor league baseball, there were the Cavs, chalking up wins every summer. We kids who tried out for – and, in that era, failed to get into – Little League baseball only knew of Major League teams and those ever-winning Cavaliers.

A Cavs game was my first local exposure to baseball. I recall being there a few times in the summer of 1988, wearing my brand-new Boy Scouts shirt in the grandstand on one occasion, running under the first-base metal bleachers looking for foul balls and having to surrender them to Billy the ball catcher on another. As the years went by, I would see the Cavaliers highlights on the evening news and came to know Harv Tomter as a heckuva manager.

As that child, I had no knowledge of Eau Claire’s baseball history. The renaissance of area baseball nostalgia began with the 1990s Carson Park renovation and the display of the Henry Aaron statue, but even through the pangs for the Eau Claire Bears/Braves and the longing for the return of minor league baseball, there were the Cavs, chalking up wins every summer. We kids who tried out for – and, in that era, failed to get into – little league baseball only knew of Major League teams and those ever-winning Cavaliers.

The Eau Claire Braves played their final campaign in 1962, and three years later came the Milwaukee Braves’ last season before their move to Atlanta. The 1960s were a relatively empty time for the game in Wisconsin, but the beginning of the ’70s changed the landscape. Professionally, the Brewers arrived in County Stadium just in time for the 1970 season. The following year, Eau Claire baseball legend Glenn St. Arnault helmed the debut season of the first primary Eau Claire baseball team in nearly a decade: the Cavaliers.

Between St. Arnault and Tomter, his successor, the Cavs became one of the better amateur teams in our neck of the woods. If there was anything lacking, it was the championship game at the end of the season. Perhaps the lack of league trophies – trophies the Cavaliers surely would have won many times over had the amateur scene been arranged better over the decades – is what pushed Eau Claire baseball fans to want something with more structure. Something like what arrived a decade ago: the Eau Claire Express.

That Northwoods League team could have been developed from the Cavs, but instead, the teams began a co-existence at Carson Park. Despite some early speculation that the Express would vacuum up local baseball attention, the Cavaliers have held strong. They may not field many future Major Leaguers, they may not fill the Fan Deck, and their league may not have the structure of the NWL, but they have two local things we like: the best of our guys, and the best of our baseball heritage.

Recently attending my first Cavs game in over a decade, I was glad to see demographics across the age spectrum file into the main grandstand to watch solid play on the field. You have younger players not all that far removed from high school, and adults who have been around the game a bit. They all play the game for love of the game, and they do a good job. I’d whiff my way through three straight pitches if I went into the batter’s box.

Tomter passed away too early about a decade ago, but his legacy – and that of St. Arnault and all the great players over the years – lives on with the Cavaliers. Now members of the Independent League of the Wisconsin Baseball Association along with a plethora of similar state amateur teams – including the newer incarnation of the Bears – the Cavaliers still produce a usually victorious result on the field. There is always that possibility one of those players will find their way to The Show, a.k.a. Major League Baseball, as the players term that level. Eau Claire is a baseball town. Without the Cavaliers, such a claim would have struck out a long time ago.

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