25 years of Frontier Leaguing

[Originally published in the Windy City ThunderBolts game program in May, 2017]

On June 30, 1993, eight teams began play in the Frontier professional baseball League and a new era of baseball was born.

Well, maybe not exactly a new era. In fact, independent baseball is just about as old as baseball itself with leagues existing all over the country for well over a century. In the days before television, indy ball spread from coast to coast and was the only real way to take in the game in small towns. And before minor league farm systems took shape in the 1920’s and 30’s, every league not named American or National was independent.

By the time the Go-go 90’s rolled in, though, independent leagues were naught but a part of history, like the telegraph or silent movies. That changed in that fateful summer of 1993 when those eight teams took their respective fields (mostly borrowed from high schools or park districts) and played professional ball without affiliation to any big league clubs. Eight teams started the season, only six finished. The Tri-State Tomahawks and the West Virginia Coal Sox didn’t last the year. But when all was said and done, the Zanesville Greys swept a best of three series from the Ohio Valley Redcoats and the league had its first champion. (The Greys would never win another title, but 17 years later, after relocating to the St. Louis area, the franchise would win its second championship as the River City Rascals.)

The following year, the Erie Sailors won 42 of their 67 games and swept the Lancaster Barnstormers, claiming the second league crown. All eight teams made it through the year this time and the Sailors had led the way, averaging just under 1,900 fans per game. There was no doubt about it: the Frontier League was viable.

The success of the Frontier League and its upper Midwest cousin, the Northern League, ushered in a new golden age of independent baseball. Over the next five years, no fewer than 15 baseball leagues popped up throughout the country. In 2017, only two of the leagues from the great 90’s boom still exist, the CanAm and the Atlantic, and of course, the one that got the ball rolling, the venerable Frontier League.

In 1993, when this whole thing started, the idea was to bring baseball into areas of the country where fans might not get a chance to take in pro ball. West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southeast Ohio were represented in the early days of the league. But the Frontier League became something else altogether when, in 1999, a brand new stadium was built in Chicago’s south suburbs.

That new stadium belonged to the Cook County Cheetahs, who you may know better as the Windy City ThunderBolts. (If you don’t know them as that, please go back to page one in your program and read on from there.)  Hawkinson Ford Field was not only the first stadium built specifically for Frontier League play, it was also home to the first team to play in a major metropolitan area. The Chicago market may not have been what the league founders had in mind back in 1993, but it certainly added another layer of legitimacy to the league. (Note: The River City Rascals also had a stadium built for them in the St. Louis area in 1999, but the Rascals only ever get mentioned parenthetically.)

It wasn’t just the new stadiums that helped legitimize the league. The play on the field wasn’t too bad either. In 1998, Morgan Burkhart (a future ThunderBolts manager dontcha know) hit a still-standing league record 36 home runs in only 80 games. That equates to 73 over a full major league season. His OPS that year was 1.418. The MLB record is 1.422. Two years later, he became the second former Frontier Leaguer to join a major league roster behind pitcher Brian Tollberg, who made it earlier the same year.

Teams came and went, some moved, some changed names or stadiums. New franchises were booted up. Their names ranged from the ridiculous (Johnstown Johnnies) to the sublime (Werewolves of London?). Regardless of change, always there were enough teams to fill a league and every June (eventually May) a new season began, full of hope, excitement and cheap beer on Thursdays.

In 2001 and 2002, the Richmond Roosters, behind player/manager Fran Riordan became the first team to repeat as league champions. That feat has been accomplished twice more, most importantly in 2007 and 2008, when championships were celebrated in back-to-back years in Crestwood.

New teams have popped up less frequently in recent years but there haven’t been as many spots for them because so many of the current teams have longevity. The 2017 season opens with the same teams that closed the 2016 campaign.

As the league grew more stable in the 21st century, it became easier to embrace its history. The Frontier League Hall of Fame debuted in 2014, allowing fans to appreciate the journey that began in 1993. The hall is certainly worth checking out and is in Joliet for this year’s all-star game. Give it a look. Burkhart, Tollberg and Riordan are all there with many others.

The players on the field today may end up in the Hall of Fame one day, but they aren’t hoping for it.  Since 1993, over 1,000 players have been signed on to play affiliated baseball and 31 have made it all the way to the majors. It remains the dream of every Frontier League player. And that player development has become the legacy of a league that would still be fun if no one had ever moved up. Whether celebrating the present or the future of these players, the league has cemented its place in the game. The great thing about the Frontier League now is that it could all end today and it would still have a cherished spot in baseball history. Another great thing is that it won’t end today.