In the winter of 1992-1993, several men got together and decided to start an independent professional baseball league to serve the West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southeast Ohio areas. They believed they could bring professional baseball to areas that would never have a chance of affiliated professional baseball coming to their communities. The seed was planted and they named their project The Frontier League.
These founders approached business people and interested individuals in many different cities to own and operate the franchises. In late June of 1993, eight cities began play in high school, college and municipal parks. College players quickly heard of the fledgling league and mostly came from the Midwest and east coast to chase their dreams of playing pro ball. Two weeks into the inaugural season, two teams folded their operations and the remaining six owners, led by current FL President Chris Hanners of Chillicothe, fought to keep the League above water. They made it through that first year with six teams and immediately began to make plans for 1994 by adding teams in Newark, Ohio and Erie, Pennsylvania. The Zanesville Greys were the first champion.
Prior to the 1994 season, the owners of the League made a commitment to move forward and they hired Bill Lee as the first and only Commissioner the League has seen. Lee had been in the professional sports business since 1980 and the owners hoped he could help the League grow and flourish in the future. The League got through the 1994 season with all eight teams in tact. The Erie Sailors won the League Championship and the future was looking brighter. Also, the League sold its first players to Major League clubs.
During the off-season between the 1994 and 1995 seasons, several changes took place that helped the League gain credibility and recognition. Teams were relocated to Richmond and Evansville, Indiana as well as Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The stadiums were major upgrades to the caliber of fields that were in existence. The markets were larger and as a result, crowds that attended games were larger. The Johnstown Steal won the 1995 title and Evansville's attendance was greater than the entire League attendance in 1993. The moves to Richmond and Evansville ultimately opened the door to the western expansion of the League.
In 1996, two more cities were added to the League by purchasing and relocating existing franchises. They were Springfield, Illinois and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Again, with bigger markets and better stadiums, the League attendance took a major leap forward. The caliber of play got better and the geographics from which players were coming to the League also continued to expand. The Springfield Capitals won the championship in their first season, but it was the third championship in a row for Manager Mal Fichman.
Several major changes took place in the League Rules in 1997 that led to a stronger level of competition in the League. First, the League went to an 80 game schedule. Second, the League allowed older players with more experience to play in the League. It also allowed for players who were popular in their cities to play in the League longer. The Canton Crocodiles, who had replaced the Zanesville Greys franchise, won the League Championship in their inaugural season. The Evansville Otters were the first franchise to draw over 100,000 fans in a season, including their playoff games.
1998 probably saw the greatest level of overall talent of any year in League history. Richmond's Morgan Burkhart established almost every single season hitting record including 36 homers in 80 games. Other great players such as Chillicothe's Gator McBride, Scott Pinoni and Mitch House, Springfield's Joe Ronca and Jason Simontacchi made the League extremely exciting. The Springfield Capitals became the first franchise to win two championships.
In spite of all of the tremendous on field exploits of 1998, it was the winter of 1999 that saw the greatest changes in the League and elevated it to another level. The League expanded by two teams, making a total of ten teams, by adding the River City Rascals and the Cook County Cheetahs. This was important because it took the League into major metropolitan areas (St. Louis and Chicago) and both franchises were building new facilities. These were the first facilities built specifically for Frontier League franchises. The schedule expanded to 84 games and the River City Rascals in O'Fallon, Missouri, led the way in attendance reaching an unparalleled 151,000 fans. During the season, League attendance went to over 711,000 fans, more than ten times what it drew in 1993. The Dubois County Dragons also entered the League in 1999 by purchasing the Ohio Valley Redcoats. This purchase also meant that only the Chillicothe Paints remained from the original eight franchises that began in 1993. Also, the League became international in flavor by moving from Kalamazoo to London, Ontario, Canada. The Werewolves would set numerous team records on their way to becoming the 1999 League Champions.
The year 2000 propelled the League to even greater heights in publicity and notoriety, when in June, former Chillicothe Paint Brian Tollberg was called up to the Major Leagues with the San Diego Padres. Tollberg responded by winning the National League Player of the Week honors in his first week in the big leagues. Six days after Tollberg, Frontier League legend Morgan Burkhart received his call to the Boston Red Sox. Burkhart singled in his first at bat off of Baltimore's Mike Mussina. Other great moments in 2000 included London's Brett Gray striking out a League Record 25 batters on opening night. This almost unheard of feat drew national attention and even saw memorabilia of the event going to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Gray was signed by the Cincinnati Reds two days later. There were also two no-hitters during the year, one by Chillicothe's Andy Lee and the other by Johnstown's Matt Sheets. The Johnstown Johnnies, who had barely played .500 ball in June, slugged their way to the League Championship. The River City Rascals eclipsed their own League attendance record by attracting in excess of 157,000 fans.
In 2001, the Gateway Grizzlies and Kalamazoo Kings were added to the League. These additions gave the League 12 teams. Gateway is based in Sauget, Illinois, a suburb east of St. Louis. They played their games in a temporary park in 2001, but opened a brand new $6.5 million ballpark in 2002. In Kalamazoo, a group of local businessmen led by automobile dealer Bill Wright brought baseball back in a big way. The Kings drew over 103,000 fans on their way to being named Frontier League Organization of the Year. The League saw its first former manager, Jack Clark of the River City Rascals, advance to the Major Leagues as the Hitting Coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers. A tremendous pennant race that was settled on the last night of the season, led to the Richmond Roosters claiming their first FL crown. Attendance reached an all-time high of 719,000 fans.
The League again saw changes for the 2002 season. Rockford, Illinois replaced Springfield. Rockford is the second largest city in Illinois and the Riverhawks had the highest average in professional baseball history in Rockford. Washington, Pennsylvania was also added by purchasing the Canton Crocodiles. The Wild Things opened new Falconi Field with a bang as they established a League Record for wins in a single season and took the powerful East Division crown. Also, Canton native Mark Haidet purchased the London franchise and moved it to Canton and Thurman Munson Stadium. The Richmond Roosters won their second consecutive FL title, the first franchise to do that. The League set a record for attendance by drawing in excess of 950,000 fans to its parks. The League saw five more graduates reach the Major Leagues as Zanesville's Terry Pearson made the Detroit Tigers roster, Ohio Valley's Brendan Donnelly was called up by the Anaheim Angels and eventually gained a World Series win, J.J. Trujillo advanced to the Padres, and the Cardinals called up both Jason Simontacchi and Matt Duff. More than 230 players, coaches, managers and trainers have moved on to Major League Organizations.
2003 was a record year for the League at the turnstiles. It was the first time in League history that the League attracted more than 1.1 million fans. The Gateway Grizzlies led the League in attendance and also claimed the League Championship en route to garnering the Organization of the Year award. The All-Star Game was a huge success and was televised by Fox Sports Midwest. In 2003, the League entered three new markets. Canton relocated to Columbia, Missouri, Dubois County relocated to Kenosha, Wisconsin and Johnstown ended an eight year run in the League by selling to Florence, Kentucky. The Florence club had to play their games in Hamilton, Ohio while their new stadium was constructed and ready for play in 2004.
In 2004, the League again took a dramatic jump in attendance. Nearly 1.3 million fans entered the turnstiles of Frontier League stadiums. The Gateway Grizzlies led the charge, being the first team to draw over 200,000 fans in a single season and average more than 4000 fans per night. The League expanded its schedule to 96 games with the majority of those games as intra-divisional play. Also, the first round of playoffs was expanded to a best-of-5 game series. The Rockford RiverHawks claimed their first League title, sweeping the Evansville Otters 3 games to 0. Rockford’s Richard Austin was named the League’s MVP. Former Evansville Otters lefthander, George Sherrill, was the tenth former FL player to advance to the Major Leagues as he pitched for the Seattle Mariners. Plans for new Frontier League stadiums were announced in Chillicothe, Oh., Rockford, Il., and Traverse City, Mi.
In 2005, the League attracted close to 1.2 million fans to its ballparks. The Kalamazoo Kings claimed their first League title in one of the most exciting playoff series in League history, defeating the Chillicothe Paints 3 games to 2. The Washington Wild Things hosted the All-Star Game to a sellout crowd at Falconi Field. Frontier League clubs moved 25 players to MLB clubs, and Kalamazoo’s Pete Pirman won the Morgan Burkhart Award as the League’s Most Valuable Player, eclipsing the League RBI record in the process. Following the season, the League suspended operations of the Ohio Valley and Mid-Missouri clubs for 2006. John and Leslye Wuerfel purchased the Richmond Roosters and relocated the club to their home town of Traverse City, MI. The League also hosted the 3rd Annual Independent Baseball Convention in St. Louis.
In 2006, the Frontier League drew almost 1.3 million fans to its 10 clubs. This translated to an average attendance of 2,713, the highest per game attendance in League history. Much of the attendance increase was due to new facilities in Rockford, Illinois and Traverse City, Michigan. The Frontier League’s 14th Annual All-Star Game was played in Evansville’s historic Bosse Field and was televised into more than 14 million homes on Fox Sports Net. The West Division won the game in a Home Run Derby tie-breaker when Evansville’s Beau Blacken slammed the game winner. Kalamazoo’s Ian Church was the MVP of the All-Star Game as well as the League MVP. He was only the second player in League history to hit more than 30 homers in a season. In a battle of the League’s two oldest teams, the Evansville Otters defeated the Chillicothe Paints 3 games to 0 to claim their first League championship. Former River City Rascal, Josh Kinney, was the 13th former FL player to play in the Major Leagues. He was an integral part of the St. Louis Cardinals run to the World Series Championship.
In 2007, the Frontier League drew a record 1.5 million fans to its 12 clubs. It was the highest per game average for attendance in League history. Much of the attendance increase was due to the addition of the Southern Illinois Miners that drew more than 5000 fans per game and a League Record total attendance of 259,392 fans to Rent One Park. The League’s 15th Annual All-Star Game was played in Florence, Ky., and was the first game ever sold out for the Freedom organization. The South All-Stars won the game, as Florence’s Reggie Watson garnered MVP honors. In a tremendous FL Championship Series, the Windy City Thunderbolts came from a 2 game deficit to defeat the Washington Wild Things in one of the greatest Championship Series in League history. It was the first championship for the ThunderBolts in their club history. Chillicothe Paints shortstop, Travis Garcia earned the League’s Morgan Burkhart Award as the Most Valuable Player.
In 2008, the Frontier League drew a record 1.46 million fans to its 11 home clubs, as the Midwest team operated as a road team the entire year. The Southern Illinois Miners again paced the League by attracting over 218,000 fans. The League’s 16th Annual All-Star Game was played in beautiful Wuerfel Park in Traverse City, Michigan, and saw in excess of 9,000 fans in attendance for two nights of festivities. The East All-Stars won the game, in a tie-breaking All-Star Home Run Derby. Florence’s Angel Molina garnered MVP honors. In the League Championship Series, Homer Stryker Field in Kalamazoo was flooded with over 3 feet of water due to storms. The entire series was moved to Windy City’s Standard Bank Stadium. The Thunderbolts took advantage of the situation and swept the Kings 3 games to 0 to claim their second FL Championship in a row and became only the second team in League history to win back-to-back titles. Windy City First Baseman Phillip Hawke claimed the League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Ryan Bird of Southern Illinois was the Most Valuable Pitcher. Kalamazoo Manager Fran Riordan was honored as the Manager of the Year. Three additional Frontier League graduates made their Major League Baseball debuts, as outfielder Justin Christian (River City Rascals, 2003-04) and right-handed pitcher Scott Patterson (Gateway Grizzlies, 2002-05) spent time with the New York Yankees (Patterson later appeared in games for the San Diego Padres, as well) and infielder Mike Cervenak (Chillicothe Paints, 1999-2000) was called up by the Philadelphia Phillies. In addition, former Evansville Otter George Sherrill became the second Frontier League alum to be named an MLB All-Star, as the left-hander tossed 2.1 scoreless innings in the game.
The 2009 season saw the opening of another new ballpark with All Pro Freight Stadium in Avon, Ohio, hosting the Lake Erie Crushers, while the Midwest Sliders set up camp in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to give their players a home for the season and introduce Frontier League baseball to the metro Detroit market in preparation for their move to Waterford Township in 2010. Two major League milestones were set. Rockford outfielder Jason James hit safely in 40 consecutive games from June 2 to July 18 to break the record set by former Johnstown Steal and Richmond Rooster Kevin Holt, while Kalamazoo’s Fran Riordan overtook Greg Tagert as the all-time winningest field manager in Frontier League history. Other individual accomplishments included Florence’s Preston Vancil tossing a no-hitter in only his second professional appearance, Windy City’s Robert Perry tying the League record with a six-hit game, and Traverse City’s John Alonso hitting for the cycle. Both the Gateway Grizzlies and Lake Erie Crushers received national television exposure, the Grizzlies on the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food for their “Baseball’s Best” line-up of concession items while the Crushers had an ESPN crew follow the team to document the story of pitcher Josh Faiola, who spent the season living at the Belvedere of Westlake, as assisted living facility located just down I-90 from the Crushers’ ballpark. The East Division captured the All-Star Game, helped by back-to-back home runs from game MVP Ryan Basham of the Florence Freedom and Home Run Derby champion Grant Psomas of the Washington Wild Things. In a playoff race where none of the participants clinched berths until the final weekend of the regular season, the Windy City ThunderBolts became only the third team to qualify in three consecutive seasons while the Kalamazoo Kings repeated as East Division champions. Both were knocked out in the first round, however, as Frontier League Manager of the Year Chad Parker led the River City Rascals against the expansion Crushers in the Championship Series. After dropping the first two games in the best-of-five series, Lake Erie rebounded to win the final three games and join the 1997 Canton Crocodiles as the only expansion team from the last 15 years to win the title. Joey Metropolous of the Southern Illinois Miners was selected League MVP, with Paul Fagan of the Lake Erie Crushers as the Pitcher of the Year and Windy City’s Vinnie Scarduzio the Rookie of the Year. Two more former players made their Major League Baseball debuts, with former Florence Freedom and Ohio Valley Redcoat pitcher Chris Jakubauskas (the first pick in the Frontier League’s 2003 draft) making the Opening Day roster for the Seattle Mariners and Clay Zavada getting called up to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bullpen less than one year after suiting up for the Southern Illinois Miners.
The 2010 season saw the opening of another new ballpark (The Corn Crib, home of the Normal CornBelters), two record winning-streaks, and a new Frontier League all-time home run king. Over 5,800 fans were at The Corn Crib on June 1 when professional baseball returned to the Bloomington-Normal area for the first time in 70 years. The Southern Illinois Miners shattered the league record for a consecutive game winning streak, posting 20 consecutive victories from June 9-28. The Miners 39-9 record at the All-Star Break was the best ever in the Frontier League, and Southern Illinois placed a league-record 10 players in the All-Star Game, which they hosted at Rent One Park in Marion. In the East Division, the Oakland County Cruisers won 29 of 37 games, despite playing all but six on the road, to give first year field manager Gera Alvarez the All-Star nod. The extensive travel for the Cruisers, who played 78 games on the road, combined by a league-record 20 home game winning streak for the Windy City ThunderBolts from July 22-August 25, gave Windy City their third division title in four seasons. The ThunderBolts joined the 1997-2000 Evansville Otters and the 2002-2007 Washington Wild Things as the only teams to make the playoffs in at least four consecutive seasons. While Southern Illinois maintained their lead in the West the entire season, both wild card races came down to the season’s final weekend with River City edging out Gateway in the West and Traverse City reaching the playoffs for the first time in their five seasons in the East. The Divisional Series matchups both featured comebacks, as the Beach Bums dropped game 1 to Windy City before taking the next three and Southern Illinois took the first two games from River City before the Rascals rebounded to game the final three games, including a 10-inning victory in the deciding game. In the Championship Series, Traverse City took the opening game with River City winning the next three for their first title. Championship Series MVP Josh Lowey threw a complete game in game 3, which was spread out over two days due to rain, including retiring all 15 batters that he faced after the game restarted. Gateway’s Charlie Lisk won the regular season MVP award in a year that saw him break the career home run record. Joe Augustine from Southern Illinois was the Pitcher of the Year, while Windy City’s Dustin Williams won Rookie of the Year. Between the regular season and the playoffs, over 1.52 million fans saw Frontier League baseball in 2010, setting a new record.
2011 brought another new market to the Frontier League with the expansion Joliet Slammers and saw the return of the Rockford RiverHawks under new ownership led by Frontier League founder Dr. Chris Hanners. The River City Rascals used a stretch of 12 wins in 13 games in late June to jump to the top of the West Division where they would remain for the remainder of the season. River City’s 68 victories tied them with the 2007 Windy City ThunderBolts for the most in one season. The Slammers played .660 baseball from July 1 through the end of August to become the first expansion team to win their division. Southern Illinois comfortably won the West wild card, while the East wild card came down to the final series with Lake Erie and Traverse City facing each other for the right to advance to the playoffs. After the teams split the first two games, it took ten innings on the final day of regular season for the Crushers to notch a 3-1 victory. Joliet and River City both advanced in the Divisional round leading to a Championship Series between the two division winners. After the Rascals took game 1 in River City, Joliet rebounded to win the next three games to bring the Frontier League Cup to the City of Champions.
2011 saw several on-field achievements highlighted by Joliet’s Andrew Moss tossing the 15th no-hitter in Frontier League history against the Lake Erie Crushers. Moss’ gem came just a few hours after the Cleveland Indians were no-hit by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 20 miles to the east of All Pro Freight Stadium and resulted in national coverage of two professional games featuring no-hitters by the visiting clubs on the same day in the same metropolitan area. Joliet’s Ryan Quigley recorded 28 saves to set a new record while Windy City’s Dustin Williams set a new mark by striking out 157 batters. River City swept the MVP and Pitcher of the Year awards with Stephen Holdren finishing in the top 5 in home runs, RBI, and batting average while Josh Lowey was in the top 5 in victories, strikeouts, and ERA. Joliet’s Erik Lis had a triple and drove in two runs to lead the East Division to an All-Star Game victory in front of the largest crowd in All Pro Freight Stadium history. Two more Frontier League alumni made their MLB debuts in 2011 as former Washington Wild Thing Tom Cochran was called up by the Cincinnati Reds for a nationally televised game in late May and former Windy City ThunderBolt Dylan Axelrod made four appearances (three starts) for the Chicago White Sox in September, finishing with a 1-0 record, 2.89 ERA, and 19 strikeouts in 18.2 innings.
The Frontier League added to their presence in the Chicago area in 2012 with the debut of the Schaumburg Boomers. The Boomers brought an outstanding operation to the Frontier League both on and off the field, starting with over 6,000 fans to watch their inaugural home game. In his first managerial job, the Boomers’ Jamie Bennett, who spent time in Dubois County, Kenosha, and Springfield/Ozark during his playing career, managed the West Division in the All-Star Game where he battled Traverse City’s Gregg Langbehn, who set a record by having 10 of his players selected for the game. Over 5,000 fans attended the game at The Corn Crib in Normal where London’s Joash Brodin was named MVP. Going into the final weekend of the regular season, only Traverse City had clinched a playoff berth, with Florence, Gateway, Lake Erie, Schaumburg, Southern Illinois, and Windy City all in the running for the three remaining spots. The Gateway Grizzlies won 16 out of 20 games in late July to jump into the race and finished with nine victories in their final 12 games to take the West Division title. The Florence Freedom won 13 of their final 14 games to take the top Wild Card spot while the Southern Illinois Miners qualified for the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five seasons. The Miners swept the Beach Bums in the first round while the Freedom defeated the Grizzlies in a series that went the full five games, setting up a Championship Series featuring two first-time participants. Southern Illinois captured their first title behind an 8-for-16 hitting performance from Championship Series MVP Cannon Lester. Seven of the 14 teams had a former Frontier League player as their field manager.
Individual achievements included a no-hitter by Windy City’s Tyson Corley, Gateway’s Jonathan Johnson reaching base safely in 65 consecutive games, Rockford’s Javier Herrera hitting for the cycle, Traverse City’s Ryan Still becoming the first player to walk 100 times in a season, and Darian Sandford setting the stolen base record with 71 for Southern Illinois and Washington. League MVP Jose Vargas tied the single-season mark with 100 RBI for Traverse City while Windy City’s Mike Recchia broke the records for strikeouts (177) and shutouts (5) in a season in being voted Pitcher of the Year. Former Evansville and Windy City pitcher Andrew Werner made his Major League debut with the San Diego Padres, becoming the 23rd player to advance to the big leagues. Following the season, former Zanesville Grey and Springfield Capital Darren Bush was named Bullpen Coach for the Oakland Athletics, becoming the first former Frontier League player to be part of a Major League coaching staff.