Memories of the Langlade County Baseball League
By Craig Marx, Editor
Last week, we discussed the Polar Bears and their storied past in the Badger Amateur Baseball Association (BABA) and also some of their time in the Langlade County Baseball League. An organization that existed for over half a century, the County League was another prime example of quality hardball found right in our own backyards.
The County League can trace its roots back to the 1920s, but was non-existent, for good reason, during the Second World War. It took a few years after the cessation of hostilities with the Axis forces to get the league going once more, where a reorganized collection of teams began playing again in 1948.
Originally, the league consisted of 12 teams placed into two divisions, including the Western Division comprised of Antigo, Kluball’s Bar, Deerbrook, Summit Lake, Kempster and Vilas, with the Eastern Division incorporating Polar, White Lake, Bryant, Hollister, Pickerel, and Pearson.
The Bryant team won the inaugural championship game in 5-3 over Kempster in 1948, winning the first title in a league that would last over 50 years. Deerbrook would go on to claim the most County League championships until the organization folded in 1999, bringing home eight titles to the community north of Antigo.
Jim Sopata, recently celebrating his 80th birthday, played third base and catcher for four years in the County League during its heyday in the 1950s with the Vilas team.
“I started off playing when I was about 16 years old in the Eastern Division for Pearson before going over to Vilas,” Sopata said. “I had nearly a .400 average and led the league for a number of weeks as the best hitter, but we only managed about five wins a season. We played out of Strobel’s Bar in Vilas.”
“We always had a good following. Late mass goers and other people would turn out to watch us with a cold beer and a sandwich in hand, and after the games they would come out and congratulate the pitchers and the players on the field,” Sopata remembers.
Tim Young was a veteran of 27 years in the County League, coaching for roughly 15 years and managing the Star Neva team and later the Antigo Cardinals after the former’s relocation to the city.
The Neva dynasty is of a particularly interesting note, winning six league titles in a span of seven seasons (1965 – 1971). The juggernaut Polar team broke up the incredible Neva winning streak in that span, taking the championship in 1967 over Kluball’s.
“I was around the County League since I was a small kid. My dad managed the Antigo team at that time and my brothers both played [in the league], so I would go with them on Sundays. I started playing myself when I was 15 years old with Star Neva,” Young said. “Then I started managing when I was about 22. For some of those championships we won, I was both manager and player.”
The Star Neva team’s success went beyond the county line. Much like the Polar Bears, hungry for competition on a more region-wide scale, Young’s team would play an entire season of County League and later qualify for BABA tournaments to take on teams from outside Langlade County. In addition to winning the County League titles in 1970 and 1971, the Star Neva club also won back-to-back BABA grand championships those same years.
The Cardinals team moved from Neva in 1972, but the talent level did not drop off. The Cardinals club won the league pennant in its first season at its new location and again in 1974.
Young also played for the Antigo Credit Union team, a ball club that took the BABA’s championship runners-up accolades two years in a row, 1976 and 1977, in consecutive losses to Waupaca. Leon McClinton, playing for Polar at the time, approached Ron Galarowicz at the credit union and asked him to sponsor an Antigo-based team. After approval, the new club found its home at Antigo Athletic Park.
As referenced by Vern Cahak in Part I of our historical series, the Athletic Park used to be the spot to go to for the Antigo community’s love of baseball. With its enclosed grandstand and seemingly endless number of teams playing on site, the death of that ballpark virtually signified the requiem for the County League and the popularity of the sport.
“In those days, the stands were packed. They filled them. They would close the stores for the ball game. Everybody went there. That was the thing to do around here,” Young noted.
The County League folded in 1999 with the Bastle’s team claiming the final championship pennant over Clearwater Lake. With the subsequent popularity of softball and other activities available in Langlade County, particularly in the summertime, the opportunity to play or witness true hardball in the Antigo area is available only to youth and school-sanctioned baseball, American Legion games, or the Polar Bears and their BABA club.