Tom Kacich: C-U's minor flirtation with pro baseball
100 years ago, team won its league but couldn't manage to win over enough wallets
Champaign-Urbana's brief history as the home of minor league baseball ended 100 years go this summer when its entry in the oddly named Illinois-Missouri League folded, followed soon by the entire league.
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The cities' team joined the Class D league (the lowest rung on the baseball ladder) in 1911 with the short-lived Champaign-Urbana Twins, who played in east Urbana. A year later, the franchise moved across town and became the Champaign Velvets.
By 1914, the 7-year-old Illinois-Missouri League didn't have a team from Missouri; in fact, the farthest west the six-team league went was Lincoln. And cost-cutting became such a factor that organizers kept track of how much each team would have to travel on interurban and regular railroads in the abbreviated (May 12 to Aug. 9) season. The Champaign Velvets were right in the middle, committed to 1,635 miles of travel.
The 1914 campaign began on an ominous note when team owners reported in mid-April that a preseason scheme to boost ticket sales had failed. The plan to sell 2,500 four-ticket books, good for any four games, at $1 apiece brought in only about $280. Ben Price, secretary and treasurer of the Champaign club, said that it was about $3,400 in debt and that at least $1,800 had to be raised before the Velvets could attempt another baseball season.
Businesses apparently stepped up and put the team into the black before the season began. But on May 6, a new warning appeared in the Champaign Daily Gazette: "Baseball is not a Paying Proposition" was the headline.
The story said that for a team to be profitable, it would have to have a total home attendance of 22,000 at 25 cents each to cover the salaries of its players and the guarantees to the visiting teams. In 1913, the Velvets attracted only about 13,000 fans. Playing 42 games at home, the Velvets were drawing only about 310 per game.
"The management desires to thank the public through these columns for liberal donations, without which it would be impossible to have baseball here this season," the club said. "The management also appeals to the public to attend games."
It probably didn't help that Champaign was (supposedly) a dry town and that beer wasn't sold at Velvets games. But local voters had repeatedly supported prohibition and the Velvets' owners abided by that public opinion.
"The management has promised to eliminate all objectionable features as much as possible and offers the public good, clean baseball," the team said. "Wednesday of each week has been set aside as Ladies' Day."
The newspapers did their best to promote the team.
Wrote the Champaign Gazette the day before Opening Day, "Interest in the opening game and also the league team has been growing in the past few days, and tomorrow promises to be the biggest day baseball has seen in Champaign in some time."
Parse that sentence — it simply means it was the biggest baseball game in town since the last one nine months earlier.
More bad news came on Opening Day, when inclement weather forced a postponement, including a big automobile parade from downtown Champaign to the ballpark and a band concert at the park on the west side of town.
"There were only two bad places, and it was thought that the ground could have been made ready for the game, but the continued gloomy weather and chilling temperature made opening festivities out of the question," reported the Champaign Daily Gazette. Given the weather, it's likely the crowd was small, too.
After that gloomy start, things got so good for the Velvets — on the field, at least — that they won the league championship for the only time with an impressive record of 62-27.
The league, however, was a disaster. Two teams — Kankakee and Lincoln — ended play during the season. Two other teams — Ottawa and Streator — joined another league when the season ended, and the LaSalle and Champaign teams went out of business.
The Illinois-Missouri League, begun in 1908 with one Missouri team (Hannibal) and five in Illinois (Macomb, Havana, Monmouth, Canton and Galesburg), ended swiftly and quietly. And Champaign-Urbana didn't have another minor-league team until 1994, when the Champaign-Urbana Bandits, an independent team, played for one year at Illinois Field.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.