In 1902, over a century ago, the Northern League began play in six cities in Manitoba, North Dakota, and Minnesota. For 47 of the next 69 years, it provided summer entertainment and the chance to watch a handful of future major leaguers in places like Duluth, Minnesota, Minot, North Dakota, and two Canadian cities, Winnipeg and Brandon. In fact, Winnipeg teams, known as the Maroons and then the Goldeyes, played for 32 of these seasons. The league dropped out of the minor leagues after the 1971 season, a victim of poor attendance and increasing expenses.
Then, in 1993 it returned – and in a new and exciting form. Miles Wolff, who had made the Durham Bulls into one of the best-known and most prosperous minor league clubs of all time, had a vision. He planned a league in the upper Midwest and central Canada – places where there hadn’t been minor league baseball for years. And the league would be totally independent, totally free of the restrictions imposed by major league clubs on their minor league farm teams. Winnipeg, which joined the new incarnation of the league in its second year, has been one of the most successful clubs, and last season drew over 300 thousand fans.
The League has been a resounding success. It now encompasses 12 teams extending from Gary, Indiana in the east to Kansas City in the west and north, this year to Edmonton. Not only has it provided exciting baseball for fans, it has also provided the starting point for such current major league stars as J.D. Drew and the place where Darryl Strawberry began his comeback.
In the independent leagues, it’s all about winning. Managers don’t have to obey the dictates of distant farm club advisors; they just have to make sure their teams win and win often. Players are hungry – if they don’t contribute to wins, they’ll be let go; if they do well they may get a chance to be signed by a major league organization.
This is the tradition the Cracker-Cats will be joining. And, although the Northern League is new to Edmonton, professional baseball isn’t. In 1907, and from 1909 to 1914 and 1920 and 1921, clubs known variously as the Grays, Gray Birds, Eskimoes, Eskimos, and Esquimos were members of the Western Canada League. Another group of Eskimos joined the Western International League for the 1922, 1953, and 1954 seasons. And, of course, the Trappers were part of the Pacific Coast League from 1981 to 2004.
And, so this spring and summer, as the days grow longer and warmer, plan on spending some evenings or Sunday afternoons at TELUS Field. Bring the family and friends. You’ll all be part of two long-standing traditions. You may have a chance to watch a future major leaguer or two. You’ll see players dedicated to winning, to keeping alive their dreams of making it big in baseball. And, most important, you’ll have a lot of fun.