By Vern Cahak
Baseball is often referred to as America’s game or the national pastime. While youth baseball is thriving in Antigo, including Little League at various age levels, and American Legion baseball for teens, there was a time when adult baseball was a very popular sport in Antigo as well.
Everyone knows that Schofield Stadium is the home of Red Robin football but the ancient athletic facility was the hotbed for local baseball teams from the 1920s through the mid-1950s when it was named Athletic Park. Antigo fielded a city team for most of this period.
Athletic Park was also the site for Antigo High School baseball, American Legion baseball, city softball league games and occasional Langlade County League contests. When Kretz Bros. Memorial Park opened in 1994, baseball games were shifted to that location.
A part of Athletic Park that made it appealing was a large, covered wooden grandstand that seated hundreds of spectators. The grandstand was constructed in 1924 and was razed in November of 1962 on a condemnation order. The loss of the grandstand seemed to diminish the enthusiasm of the sport.
In its heyday, Athletic Park was the center of semi-pro baseball that attracted up to 2,000 fans a game. It was the place for entertainment on Sundays and Wednesday nights.
Many of Antigo’s past teams were members of the Wisconsin Valley league. But with the beginning of World War II, the league disbanded in 1942 while most of its players were serving their country in the military.
Following the war, the Antigo Candy Company resumed sponsorship of the team and in 1946 the Valley League was reformed with a strong field of 10 teams. The team was known as the Antigo Candies.
Clarence Lauby managed the Candies and his ace pitcher was Mel Strong, who hailed from Eland. Rev. Louis Piehl, pastor of the Calvary Lutheran Church, was the catcher. The remainder of the starting lineup for the 1946 season opener included Bill Kohl, Jim Blaha, Leon Simons, Myron Fermanich, Eddie Vandehey, Bill Lutz and Clarence Vandehey.
The Candies prospered for the remainder of the 1940s, adding some outstanding players to their roster. The short period of 1946 through 1952 could be classified as Antigo’s golden era. It was at this time that the Antigo Candies, Merrill Rangers, Tomahawk Tommies and Rhinelander Shorties fielded some of the best semi-pro baseball players in Wisconsin.
By 1950, Antigo baseball went big time as the Candies recruited some of the state’s best pitchers to complement the local talent. The 1951 squad was perhaps the strongest Antigo ever assembled. In those days, the gate receipts were so prosperous that the players were paid at the end of the season with the pitchers reaping the major share of the financial rewards.
One of the greatest pitchers acquired by the Candies in ’51 was Lowell Grosskopf. Other outstanding players recruited from outside the area were Carl Luebbe, Clary Hackbarth, Connie Moore, Buck Beilke and Jim Thompson. Local talent on the team included Butch Kolz, Ray Kirsch, John Muraski, Jerry Guethner and Joe Goeman.
Antigo won the league championship that year by blanking Tomahawk in the title game 4-0 behind Grosskopf’s four-hit pitching, and finished with a 22-9 record.
When Major League Baseball came to Milwaukee with the arrival of the former Boston Braves in 1953 and expansion of television sports coverage, baseball fan interest in Antigo began to decline. And at the end of the 1957 season, in the face of financial difficulties, the Candies folded.
After a four-year absence, a city baseball team was formed. The Antigo Merchants were organized in 1961 but disbanded after only two seasons. Players on that team included the Strasser brothers, Tom and Dick, along with John Crha, Al Peterson, Bill Kubeny, John Muraski, Tom Kretz and Bill Grams.
High caliber baseball returned in 1990 when the Antigo Cardinals entered the scene and provided fans with exciting baseball for 14 seasons. Competing against some extremely strong teams from throughout Wisconsin, the Cardinals logged over 300 victories during their existence. They made several appearances in the Continental Amateur Baseball Association World Series, finishing as high as second place in 2002.
The Cardinals of 1990 became an immediate success, winning the Mid-Wisconsin League championship in their inaugural season. Members of that squad included John Wagner, Dean Noskowiak, Jeff Below, Tony Wilber, Barry Fermanich, Pat Schmidt, Scott Lukas, Jim Zimmerman, John Reetz, Ken Bastle, Tom Falk and Greg Pazdernik, Many of those players remained with the Cardinals throughout their existence. In later years, Dan Bastle, Mike Jaje, Darren Spiegl, Matt McCann and Ron Parks were added to the roster. Noskowiak was a staple of the Cardinals.
By July 1994, the Cardinals had racked up 100 victories, including a 5-4 victory over the Wausau Woodchucks in 13 innings before the largest crowd ever at Kretz Park. They went on to win the Mid-Wisconsin League title for the fifth consecutive year.
Adding pitchers John Schunke, Jeremy Solin and Greg Below to their staff, the Cardinals continued to flourish in 1995, posting a 24-10 record against some of the best teams in the state. The Cardinals went 26-9 in 1996 and 28-4 1997. Brian Hoppe added mound strength those years.
The additions of Scott Farmer (now Antigo High School’s head baseball coach), Pat McCann, Bill Uelman and pitcher Vic Cable added strength to the lineup in 1998. The 1999 Cardinals won the Northeastern Wisconsin Baseball League championship and notched a 37-13 record. New players on that squad included Luke Kolz, Brian Turney, Tom Weix and Craig Leader.
In 2000, the Cardinals made another CABA World Series appearance season. Led by Farmer’s hitting, they were back in the CABA tournament in 2002. They posted a 17-5 overall record.The Cardinals disbanded after the 2013 season, ending a great chapter in Antigo baseball history.