A Conversation With Rick Bartletti – The Antigo Candies and Men With Big League Dreams
By Craig Marx, Editor
We talked last week about the Langlade County Baseball League and the positive effect it had on the players, managers, and community after the Second World War, spanning to nearly the new millennium. For this installment, I had the pleasure of conversing with Rick Bartletti, a former player, coach, and aficionado of local baseball.
Bartletti’ s uncle, Harry Tainter was the original sponsor of the Antigo Candies, a semi-professional baseball club that can trace its roots to the mid-1930s and a candy industry that was based out of Shawano first before opening a location in Antigo. After the tragic murder of Tainter in Neopit, Rick’s father, John, took over the Candies ball club here in town.
The local semi-pro team played its games at the historic Athletic Park that was mentioned in earlier parts of the series, located near present-day West Elementary School. Bartletti remembers growing up with the Candies and their fanatical following from a young age.
“I was a ball boy for the Candies team when I was five years old,” Bartletti said. “Smoke Kretz, who was a year younger than me, was the bat boy. It was a good time back then. There were a lot of fans packed into that old, wooden grandstand. As kids, we used to go behind it every day and play wiffle ball or pick-up games back when Gordy Schofield used to be the athletic director. It was great.”
Teams from all over Northern Wisconsin competed in the 10-team field known of as the Valley League, an organization similar to the BABA-sanctioned ball found in the central part of the state. The Valley League featured teams that included Merrill, Tomahawk, Rhinelander, Shawano, and Wausau.
“They played during the week, during the evenings – a regular baseball schedule,” Bartletti added. “They played about 30 games a season, 15 home and 15 away. There wasn’t much for TV-wise back then, so those games used to be a big draw. Even on the road, the team had a good following.”
A season-long pass for the Candies cost just 50 cents back in the 1950s.
Talent was found mostly from around the Langlade County area. A few ringers were brought in to fortify the Candies, with the likes of Lee Grosskopf, a pitcher from Caroline, and Buck Beilke, a catcher from the Wausau area, headlining the recruited rosters of the team’s golden era.
Bartletti can trace his own playing days to the County League, where he began his career around 16 years old with the Elcho team. After returning from college in the ‘70s, the knowledgeable ball player and coach went on to play for Brookside.
After the Candies folded in 1957 because of financial issues, it was not until nearly 10 years later that the city of Antigo could enjoy amateur or semi-pro baseball once again. Bartletti would also play for this eventual juggernaut – the Antigo Cardinals. As previously mentioned after speaking with the esteemed local baseball historian Tim Young, the Cardinals basically evolved from the dominant Star Neva team, itself a ball club that won six County League championships in a span of just seven years, beginning in 1965.
The Cardinals and their travels across the state offered Antigo proper its only chance to view amateur ball until a gentleman named Leon McClinton formed the Antigo Credit Union team that took back-to-back second place titles in the BABA in 1976 and 1977. McClinton, while not from Langlade County originally, was a local baseball fixture in his own right.
In addition to teaching English at Antigo High School, McClinton also penned a book entitled “Cross-Country Runner,” highlighting another passion of his. Unbeknownst to some, the athletic author was also once a member of the Mets’ minor league organization as a left-handed pitcher.
McClinton represents a handful of Antigo personalities that reached the threshold of the big leagues. Eugene “Dude” Donahue, a former pitcher with the Bryant team that won the inaugural championship title of the newly-reformed County League in 1948, also had looks from major league clubs. Before leaving for military service, the tough-nosed pitcher played in exactly one game for the Chicago Cubs, never seeing the diamond beyond the dugout, however.
Max Johnson, formerly playing for the Star Neva and Antigo teams in the County League, played with the Chicago White Sox club teams in the early 1960s after playing basketball for the University of Kansas. Rumor has it the 6’ 3” outfielder was one of two men that the big league club had narrowed their decision down to in order to bring up. Johnson was unfortunately not selected.
“A lot of these guys were right there. With a little luck, they could have made it,” noted Bartletti.
Similar to Johnson, local man Allen “Pete” Peterson made it to the final cut in the early 1950s before being passed over. Playing for the Eau Claire Bears, a Class C minor league team, the left-handed hitter was adept at crushing line drives. Another player would prove to be more powerful on Peterson’s fellow roster, however, and the rest is history. The Langlade County native would eventually be left behind in favor of a man named Hank Aaron.
Current chief deputy of the Langlade County Sheriff Department John Schunke, a former player for Teal’s team in the County League, was approached by the Baltimore Orioles with an offer. While never having played ball in high school, the newly-discovered pitcher found he was capable of throwing 90 miles an hour plus in his early 20s. Contemplating the decision, Schunke asked his local coach at the time, Bartletti, for advice.
“I basically told him that if you go and play baseball at this stage of the game, they are probably going to put you in the minors for at least a couple of years before you would have the chance to make it. Just remember that. And that’s when he told me he would rather be a policeman,” Bartletti recalls.
More recently, Justin Berg has proved to be the most successful of the men that made their way to farm clubs with big league aspirations. Pitching for first the Cubs and later the Colorado Rockies, Berg has demonstrated a work ethic that embodies his Antigo roots and is a testament to his resolve.
“He was good in high school, but not on what could be a professional level,” Bartletti said. “Eventually, he developed his curveball and simply worked hard for a long time to make it where he is.”
Special thanks to Mr. Bartletti for his time and insight, and also to the Langlade County Historical Society for allowing me to take my time looking through the collection of old baseball items.