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Extra Innings

with a history dating back to 1908, the Chippewa River Baseball League has been central to summer for generations of amateur ballplayers and fans

Joe Niese |

It is hard to fathom that something that has been around for over a century and has had more than 12,000 participants can remain unknown to so many people in the Chippewa Valley. Thus is the story of the Chippewa River Baseball League, a wood bat amateur baseball league in western Wisconsin. The 2016 season will mark the 71st consecutive (and 87th overall) year of play for the league known as “The CRBL.” That longevity makes it not only one of the longest running leagues in Wisconsin, but in the entire country.1

Baseball in the Valley

Baseball is deep-rooted here in the Chippewa Valley. In the post-Civil War years soldiers brought the game home with them, and it replaced “town ball” as the pastoral game of choice. One of the first organized “base ball” games in the area took place in September 1867 on the riverfront between Bridge Street and Bay Street in Chippewa Falls. Eau Claire’s Clear Water Boys and the Chippewa Nationals played, with both teams claiming victory.

Eau Claire had a minor league team by 1886: the Lumberman, of the Northwestern League. Local ball ruled, though, as seemingly every part of town fielded amateur ball clubs. Some represented a block, others a ward. Even teams made up of married men and bachelors took to the diamond to settle their hash.

“Baseball is deep-rooted here in the Chippewa Valley. In the post-Civil War years soldiers brought the game home with them, and it replaced “town ball” as the pastoral game of choice.”

By the turn of the 20th century, there was no doubting baseball’s status as “America’s Pastime.” In the Chippewa Valley, the game continued to thrive. Though the area hadn’t had a minor league team since the Northwestern League folded in 1887, it was now producing some of the best semiprofessional (semi-pro) teams in the upper Midwest.2 This led to a renewed interest in a western Wisconsin town being a viable location for a minor league club.

In 1906 Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls shared a team in the Wisconsin State League, which was entering its second year of play. By midseason, Chippewa Falls dropped out of the agreement, and the club – nicknamed the Orphans because of the trouble they had retaining a manager – went through four managers and finished in last place with a 44-71 record. Eau Claire, of course, went on to have a long history of minor league baseball. Chippewa Falls would never field a team at that level of play again.

Rather than sink money into the perceived financial risk that was minor league baseball, Chippewa Falls looked at starting a competitive amateur league of local teams. A few years later, in 1908, the Chippewa Valley League (CVL) was started. The league folded after the 1909 season and – for reasons that are now unclear – remained inactive for nearly two decades. Area teams continued to play, but not in a league format. The CVL resumed play in 1927 and ran under a few different titles until 1941. There was no league play from 1942 to 1945, the World War II years. The league reemerged as the Chippewa County League in 1946 and resumed using the Chippewa Valley League name the following the season.

“The 2016 season will mark the 71st consecutive (and 87th overall) year of play for the league known as “The CRBL.” That longevity makes it not only one of the longest running leagues in Wisconsin, but in the entire country.”

The post-World War II years are thought to be the pinnacle of amateur baseball in the Upper Midwest. Crowds came out in droves. The CVL’s largest recorded attendance was in 1951, when more than 2,000 turned out for a game in Tilden to see the Hamilton Chevrolets defeat the Tilden Tigers, 3-2. The CVL even had a junior league during these years.

In 1949 the CVL joined the Wisconsin Baseball Association (WBA), a governing body covering northern and western Wisconsin. By 1957, the WBA reported 160 teams in 20 leagues in a two “Class” system, “A” and “B.”3 According to unofficial league historian Andy Niese (see sidebar), the amateur baseball scene “became oversaturated by this time, as teams and league came and went.” This led to several years of heavy turnover in CVL rosters, with players jumping from team to team and league to league.

One of the teams that joined the CVL in the postwar years was the Tilden Tigers, which joined in 1946. They are now the longest-running team in the league with 65 years of play.4 Up until 2014, the Tigers played home games at their original ball diamond next to Bresina’s Hometown Bar and Grill (formerly Bresina’s Bar and Dance Hall) on Highway B in the southwestern Chippewa County town of Tilden.5 In professional terms, the Tigers are the New York Yankees of the CRBL, leading the league in numerous categories, including wins (1,055) and league championships (17).

Birth of a League

The Chippewa River Baseball League spawned out of a dispute among teams in the Chippewa Valley League. The source of acrimony was the eligibility of a player for the Eau Claire-based Twin City Sports. Questions of his eligibility as a former minor league player came about based on a wording technicality in the league’s bylaws.6 He was deemed ineligible, and the Sports were forced to forfeit several wins from the 1967 season. Hard feelings from the issue carried over into the off season, during which most of the league splintered off into the 10-team Chippewa River Baseball League for the 1968 season. The Sports were part of a five-team Chippewa Valley League, which went for one season before disbanding.

In 1971 the Eau Claire Cavaliers were formed. Playing as an independent amateur squad, the Cavs initially drew from Eau Claire high schools. In addition to taking players who may have played in the CRBL, the Cavaliers redefined the amateur baseball landscape for many in the Chippewa Valley, greatly overshadowing the CRBL.7 The CRBL in turn enacted a rule that no team could have a player on the roster who was playing for the Cavaliers.8

For the next decade-and-a-half the CRBL remained mainly in Chippewa County. Most team’s home ballparks were within 30 minutes of each other. In 1973, the league split into a North and South Division.

The League in Print

For nearly two decades Tim Peterson covered the CRBL; first for the Chippewa Herald-Telegram, then for the Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire. When he came to Chippewa Falls in the spring of 1978, Peterson had big shoes to fill: those of Mike Lucas, longtime sports writer and editor of the Herald-Telegram. Lucas laid the groundwork for area coverage of the CRBL. On Peterson’s first day on the job he sat down at his desk and opened the research files. They were empty.

“The post-World War II years are thought to be the pinnacle of amateur baseball in the Upper Midwest. Crowds came out in droves. The CVL’s largest recorded attendance was in 1951, when more than 2,000 turned out for a game in Tilden to see the Hamilton Chevrolets defeat the Tilden Tigers”

Peterson immediately pushed teams to keep better statistics. “Some people didn’t even keep stats, which made it difficult,” he recalled. Though Peterson didn’t make any friends with his persistence, he brought a whole new level of coverage to the league. Each Monday he posted league standings. On Tuesday were the game recaps. At the All-Star break and at the end of season he posted league leaders. He even named a league MVP a few years.

Peterson downplays his importance to this aspect of league history, but Andy Niese doesn’t: “(Peterson) was the first guy to formally compile statistics and hold people and teams statistically accountable.” Niese added that Peterson’s coverage was very professional in nature and presentation. Niese, who is often lauded for his organization of league statistics and information, said that the format that he uses is based on the one Peterson used.

In the early years of Peterson’s coverage of the CRBL, big games still drew crowds in the hundreds. Within a few years there were, in Peterson’s words, “just a trickle” of spectators, leading to him to question whether his efforts were worthwhile. He saw young, talented players sitting on the bench during league games, with older veterans given preferential treatment. This led to a wave of newcomers leaving or not entering the league at all.

By the mid-1980s player numbers had dwindled, and fewer communities were able to support teams. A decision was made to expand the CRBL south to broaden the pool of players. In 1986, the Eau Claire Pioneers entered league play. In 1989 the Augusta Athletics joined. The Pioneers found success, but were out of the league by 1992. Augusta became the team of the 1990s.9

Over several years the CRBL expanded further south, adding the Beef River Bullfrogs (Strum) in 1996, the Osseo Merchants in 1999, and the Whitehall Wolves in 2005. According to Andy Niese, tapping into this area south of Eau Claire gave the league “something it hadn’t had in a decades.” That “something” was a broader talent pool that went into Trempealeau County. Geographically, the league is as spread-out now as it has ever been, with 64 miles separating Bloomer and Whitehall.

In 2001 the CRBL made a major change. Players in the league had used aluminum bats since the mid-1970s. As aluminum bat technology progressed, baseballs were consistently flying out of the league’s small ballparks. Looking to level the playing field and return to a truer style of play, the league began using wooden bats exclusively in 2001. The entire WBA followed suit in 2002.

Today the CRBL is a well-organized operation. The league consists of a dozen teams in two six-team divisions. Represented are towns in Chippewa, Eau Claire, and Trempealeau counties. In true “hometown ball” fashion, players must reside within 30 miles of the team’s ballpark. There is a league president, a vice-president, and a secretary/treasurer. There are regular mandatory league meetings. There is a mid-season All-Star game, season awards, and a league championship.10 Furthermore, league teams must abide by a strict nine-page, 23-article constitution. Violations can lead anywhere from a team forfeiting wins to a monetary fine to expulsion from the league.

Reflecting on the CRBL’s rich past, the future looks bright for the league as it carries on a proud tradition of high-quality amateur baseball. According to Niese, the last five to seven years have been “one of the higher points” in participation, teams, and media coverage. Taking into account his knowledge of the league, it is safe to say he is right.

Joe Niese has written numerous articles about baseball history and has authored two books on the subject: Burleigh Grimes: Baseball’s Last Legal Spitballer and Handy Andy: The Andy Pafko Story. He lives in Chippewa Falls, where he works as a librarian.

2016 CRBL Teams

North Division

Bloomer Fightin’ Woodticks
Cadott Red Sox
Chippewa Falls Lumberjacks
Jim Falls Sturgeons
Stanley Slammers
Tilden Tigers

South Division

Augusta Athletics
Beef River Bullfrogs
Eau Claire Bears
Hallie Eagles
Osseo Merchants
Whitehall Wolves 

Andy Niese: CRBL’s Mr. Baseball

No sport’s history is more interwoven into the modern game than baseball. Statistics are at the crux of this relationship. From the mundane (most walks by a batter in one game) to the most important (number of league championships). For a league like the CRBL in particular and amateur baseball in general, attempts to compare one era or player to another is often done by word of mouth. Fortunately, for the CRBL, there is Andy Niese.11

Niese, 42, has been playing in the CRBL since 1993. Professionally, he is a physical education teacher in the Regis Catholic Schools, and (not surprisingly) he is also the head baseball coach at Regis High School, his alma mater. In 2003 Niese began work on a statistical history of the Chippewa Falls Lumberjacks, the team he has played with since 1998.12

Niese soon realized that there was something much larger waiting for him. For the next several years he slogged through reel after reel of microfilm compiling statistical information. The mind-boggling research effort created the Chippewa River Baseball League Record Book, released in 2009. Each year Niese has updated the book to include the most recent season. Now on an eighth edition, the most recent tome came in at 318 pages, more than double the length of the first edition. There is no end in sight, though, as Niese has delved into other leagues. Most recently he has committed to researching leagues in Trempealeau County.

In addition to a thorough history of the CRBL, Niese has also created a league Hall of Fame to, as he puts it: “recognize and remember the outstanding players, managers, coaches, and individuals that have made their mark on the league’s landscape since the inaugural year of play in 1908.” To date, there are 59 members. As one of the leagues most consistent players – and at times one of the best – Niese is destined to be in “The Hall.”

1 To date, there have been 183 teams from 72 different communities in the Chippewa Valley. Chippewa Falls has fielded the most teams with 25.

2 Semipro players are paid, but it is not a full-time occupation. Amateur players are paid nothing.

3 In 2015, the WBA was Wisconsin’s largest amateur baseball association with one “class.” It had 66 teams in six leagues.

4 The team was called the Tilden Terrors for five seasons from 1960-64.

5 They now play home games at Hallie Park in Lake Hallie.

6 In 1963 minor league baseball altered its classification structure. From 1946-62 it operated under six classes of play (from highest to lowest): AAA, AA, A, B, C, and D. In 1963 this was reduced to four classes (again, from highest to lowest): AAA, AA, A, and Rookie Ball. The Chippewa Valley League had a rule that stated that any player that played professionally at a classification of “A” ball or higher had to sit one calendar year before playing in a WBA affiliated league. The rule was never changed to accommodate the new classifications. In the mid-60s a local player returned to play in the CVL a year after playing minor league “A” ball. Several teams, citing the unchanged rule, raised protests.

7 Within a decade of play the Cavaliers had grown out of their amateur status, evolving into a quasi-semi-pro powerhouse. There were a few local ballplayers, but for the most part the roster was made up of former and current college players and the occasional minor leaguer.

8 In 2015 the Cavaliers joined the Independent League, a member of the WBA.

9 In the 1990s they appeared in seven league championship games, winning five. They also won the WBA state title in 1994.

10 In 2014 a “Wild Card” format was added.

11 Full disclosure: He is my oldest brother.

12 He has been the team manager since 2006.