Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, to Goodland Field, home of the Appleton Foxes of the Class A Midwest League. It's July 26, 1986, a beautiful day, Old-Timers' Day and Miller Beer Seat Cushion Day.
Now this affair isn't quite as star-studded as the antique shows up in the majors, but the feeling here is hard to beat. The biggest name, literally and figuratively, is Bill Gogolewski. Bill, who hails from Oshkosh and pitched six years in the bigs, is examining the Heinie Groh model glove used by Carl (Cully) Schultz when he played third base for the Appleton Papermakers back in the '20s. "Why, this is no bigger than my hand," says Bill, who is right about that, although he does have unusually large hands.
Schultz, 84 and a retired farmer, goes to the mound to throw out the first ball to Smiley Nicadam, the Papermaker catcher in '29. Nice toss, Cully. Wait, he throws a second ball. And a third. And a fourth. He's getting into it now. Finally, announcer Bob Lloyd tells the fans, "This is really the first ball," and Schultz uncorks a beauty. He is lifted, at last.
They play a game, the old Foxes against the old Papermakers. Captaining the Papermakers is Kevin Bell, the only old-timer besides Gogolewski to have made The Show. Bell spent all or parts of six seasons in the majors, playing mostly third, mostly for the White Sox. He was a Fox in '74 and '75, and he married a fox from nearby Little Chute, Bonnie Bongers. "A couple of years ago, we were living in Arizona," says Bell, "when we thought, What better place to raise our two girls than Appleton?" Many of the ballplayers have much the same story: They came to Appleton, met a girl and settled there. Bell now drives a truck for Schmidt Oil, and on this day he drives in a couple of runs as his team wins 5-2.
While the game is going on, the present-day Foxes are sitting in the bleachers, looking at their futures. Maybe some of them will marry Appleton girls and join the community. Maybe some of them will make The Show. When the announcer says, by way of introducing Larry Connell, "Larry, you may recall, pitched a no-hitter for Appleton back in 1965 [actually, Connell threw a one-hitter]," the current Foxes kid pitcher John Stein, who had a no-hitter earlier this season. "That's what you'll be like in 20 years," says one. "You remember John Stein. He threw a no-hitter back in '86."
Flitting around, taking snapshots, is Patti McFarland. She looks a little like Margaret Hamilton, but she's actually the Good Witch of the North, baking birthday cakes for hundreds of Foxes, hardly ever missing a game. McFarland knew Earl Weaver when he managed and played second for Fox Cities, which is what the club was called until 1967, just as she knows the current manager, Rico Petrocelli. She remembers the time Dean Chance came back from a carnival with a car full of stuffed animals he won throwing baseballs. She held Cal Ripken Sr.'s infant son in her arms and went to Kevin and Bonnie Bell's wedding. She carries special places in her heart for so many Foxes that you would think she had no more room in there. But she has.
Appleton is a special place for minor league baseball. Oh, attendance is down this year, and the current club isn't doing very well—it lost a game 25-10 the other night. But its history, dating back to 1891, is rich with players and managers who went on to bigger things. In 1960 when Fox Cities was in the Three I League—why the heck a town in a W State was in the Three I League is a question best left to the ages—the parent Baltimore Orioles sent Weaver in with a club that included Chance, Boog Powell, Pete Ward and four other guys who made the majors. They won the Three I pennant by 10½ games. Weaver's trainer then is still his trainer, Ralph Salvon; his catcher was Cal Ripken. Sitting in the Goodland stands that summer was Vi Ripken, great with child. The child was, yes, Cal Ripken Jr.
The White Sox took over the Appleton franchise in 1966, and their very first club had eight guys who made the majors. In 1970 Fox players Bucky Dent, Rich Gossage and Terry Forster roomed together. In all, four Cy Young Award winners (Chance, Sparky Lyle, Pete Vuckovich and LaMarr Hoyt) and two MVPs (Zoilo Versalles and Powell) have graced Appleton. "It's no coincidence that so many players have come out of there," says Roland Hemond, the former general manager of the White Sox and now an assistant to the baseball commissioner. "The town is so nice, and the people so friendly, that the players can grow without feeling homesick or lost."
One of the joys of rooting for a minor league team is the opportunity to watch a player grow, to track his progress as if he were your own child and you were marking his height on the wall. If you're an Appleton fan, you can read the big league box scores and take special pride in Harold Baines's heroics or feel bad because Steve Trout got shelled last night. They were Foxes once.
But that pleasure may be in peril in Appleton. The White Sox are pulling out after this season, moving their Midwest League affiliation to a new club in South Bend, Ind. Nothing against Appleton, mind you, but the fellows in the front office think that by putting a minor league team in a city only two hours away, they can attract more customers to Comiskey Park and get more people in South Bend to subscribe to White Sox games on cable. So now the Appleton Foxes brass has to scramble around for another patron.