Smile Politely

Bring on the minor leagues?

The crack of wooden bats, the smell of fresh cut grass, and the taste of a cold beer on a hot summer evening are three things that have been absent from the lives of Champaign-Urbana baseball fans for generations. However, with the caveat that it’s extremely early in the process, Champaign mayor Don Gerard has begun laying the groundwork for bringing minor league baseball to Champaign.


Gerard stated that, unlike the most recent effort — which attempted in 2007 to bring an independent Frontier League team to C-U to play at an expanded Illinois Field — his vision involves an affiliated team and a new stadium to be built on city land. “I’ve been talking to people whose pockets are deep enough to finance something like this, and they’re not pooh-poohing the idea,” Gerard said earlier this week. “We’re starting from scratch. We’ll start with building the facility, and we’ll see where it goes.” Building an off-campus stadium would avoid any restrictions on alcohol sales, which reportedly had a role in torpedoing the 2007 plan and also hamstrung previous incarnations of C-U organized baseball.

Gerard has his eye on an area south of I-74 and east of Neil as a site for the proposed stadium. “I’d like to see something like new Busch Stadium and put it where you want to see development,” he said. “That’s an area that’s never going to be developed otherwise.” Gerard also floated the idea of extending the Boneyard linear park through to the stadium site, as well as including, ideally, a bar/restaurant as part of the development.

“I would love to see the whole thing be funded by private sources; however, that seems unlikely,” Gerard noted. “We will definitely need to explore the possibility of establishing another TIF [tax incremental financing] district or something similar. It seems if we can find $12 million to build a parking garage, we can invest in something which will have an actual immediate impact on revenue.”

Bowling Green, Kentucky, enacted a similar plan as part of a 40-acre mixed-use redevelopment. The development included construction of a stadium for the Class A Midwest League’s Hot Rods, who began playing in 2009.

The mayor’s office has made initial contacts with the mayor of Peoria (location of the nearest minor league team) and within Major League Baseball to get the ball rolling in this endeavor.


Kyle Betts wrote a comprehensive, five-part series in 2009 about the history of professional baseball in Champaign-Urbana, as well as the most recent efforts to lure a pro team. It was published this past February on Chillini, part of the ChicagoNow blog network, and is well worth a read. In that article, he summarized the spotty history of organized baseball in C-U thusly:

Although organized baseball can be traced back to 1889 with the Illinois-Indiana League, a true professional franchise did not develop until 1911 with the Champaign-Urbana Velvets. The Velvets played until 1914 as member of the Illinois-Missouri League before disbanding. Over the next few decades, several Negro League franchises would play in the area. The most notable was the Champaign Eagles, which played mostly in 1950s and 1960s. Some players from the Eagles still reside in Champaign-Urbana to this day.

After a few decades without baseball, the sport finally returned to the community with the creation of the Champaign County Colts in 1990. The Colts would compete until 1996 with Illinois Field as their home stadium in the Central Illinois Collegiate League (CICL), which is now known as the Prospect League. While not a professional league, the CICL was a place for college students from across the nation to play baseball during the summer months before returning to their respective schools. The CICL used wooden bats like all current professional leagues.

Professional minor league baseball finally arrived in 1994 with the Champaign-Urbana Bandits. The Bandits hosted their games at Illinois Field as a member of the now defunct independent Great Central League. As quickly as they came though, the Bandits were gone after only one season of play.


Matt Perry, president of National Sports Services, a consulting firm that was involved in the 2007 effort, is still optimistic about the prospect for professional baseball in C-U. “I think it’d be an interesting market, a successful market. I loved the geography and the people we were working with,” Perry said. “I would have some clients interested if there was an effort afoot, and would be willing to help a local group look at the numbers.”

Although the discussions didn’t result in a Frontier League team landing in C-U, things did work out for Chicago’s Steven Adelson. Adelson was interested in investing in the Champaign team, but ended up owning a different new Frontier League team, the Lake Erie Crushers, in Avon, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland). Perry said, “The stadium in Avon cost about $15 million and has 3,500 fixed seats including the suite level. It was driven by the mayor, and the team has a lease.”

The Midwest League would seem to be the most logical geographical and market-size fit for a Champaign minor league affiliate. The 16-team league has teams in locations from southeastern Iowa to northeastern Ohio (including the Cubs’ affiliate in Peoria), and features stadiums ranging in capacity from 3,500 in Beloit and Burlington (both smaller communities than C-U) to 11,000 in Lansing and West Michigan (both larger).

Maybe Gerard’s idea won’t result in anything other than a welcome burst of optimism in the midst of a sour economy, but there are worse things than that. Only time will tell.

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