Digging up our past…

Last month, I had the opportunity to write a story about a topic that had always intrigued me, but I had never forced myself to sit down, form a plan, and begin learning more about it.

It’s the story of the Decatur Commodores. The team was part of the Midwest League (the league the Cougars play in) through the 1974 season, when fizzling attendance brought about their demise. The team re-surfaced in Wausau, WI before that franchise landed right here at Kane County prior to the 1991 season.

With Decatur being my hometown, the story obviously held some special meaning for me, and I was able to speak with some great people who were associated with the Decatur Commodores, that were invaluable resources for this story. That includes Bob Fallstrom and Lisa Morrison at my hometown newspaper, the Herald & Review, along with Steve Lipe and Roe Skidmore.

I wrapped up the story in time for this month’s game program. Thanks to several of you who have read the story and have mentioned that to me at a game this past week. For those who are unable to make it to a game this month, but were interested in learning more, the complete story is below.

-Shawn

Going Home
Digging up the story of the Kane County Cougars’ ancestors

By Cougars Staff Writer, Shawn Touney

Growing up in Decatur, my hometown always seemed like the forgotten spot in what is considered Central Illinois. Springfield is the state capital and has the name of Lincoln nearly everywhere you look. Champaign-Urbana has a collegiate vitality with the Fighting Illini, and Bloomington-Normal had Illinois State University and better shopping options than you could ever find at home. Despite a sizable population of more than 70,000, Decatur is probably best known as the original home of the Chicago Bears. The town has faced unfortunate economic hardships that have affected schools, jobs, new business development and the crime rate.  I never really understood, yet in a way I did understand, the city’s motto of “We Like it Here”.  To me, it always seemed like an excuse you’d verbalize to a curious out-of-towner , as opposed to a flagbearing set of words proudly displayed on a water tower.

And then there was that overbearing stench that comes with being the “Soybean Capital of the World”. Oh, that smell. Truth be told, on a windy, warm summer day, I was told you could smell the fumes of my hometown from 45 minutes away. Someone best described it once as burnt Cheez-Its. Now that’s pretty appetizing, right?

This story isn’t necessarily about what Decatur has, but what Decatur lost and hasn’t gotten back. The Decatur Commodores, a professional, major-league affiliated baseball team, played in the Midwest League for 23 years. Fizzling attendance and economic realities closed the book on Decatur’s team in 1974.

The club took residence in Wausau, WI until the end of the 1990 season, when a new franchise emerged in 1991 from Wausau – the Kane County Cougars.

So, the Cougars are a descendant of the Commodores. In an interesting sort of way, the lineage connects my past and present.

And that’s where the interest started for me.  Nearly 40 years have passed since the Commodores took their last breath.  It was time to learn more about this team and its town. What went right and what went wrong?

Let’s start with the good times.

Decatur’s professional baseball history actually goes further back than I originally thought. In 1901, Decatur began its association in the “Three-I” League, which was comprised of teams in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. The league briefly halted operations during the World War II period, but resumed in 1946. Decatur spent four seasons in the M.O.V. League (Mississippi-Ohio Valley League) before joining the Midwest League in 1956.

In its heyday, Fans Field, the home of the Commodores, held everything you’d come to expect with a professional stadium. Extensive grandstand seating with a dark green color, outfield advertising billboards and a well-manicured grass infield toed by some of the best young stars hoping to reach the big leagues.

Born and raised in Decatur, Roe Skidmore vividly remembers attending Commodores games as a youngster in the 1950’s. Roe’s dad, who sold shoes at Raupp’s in downtown Decatur, would return home from work and following supper, would take Roe down to Fans Field to see the “Commies”. Roe recalls how the infield was, in fact, grass. This was fairly uncommon among other facilities in the league at the time.

Fans Field in Decatur was described as a minor league mecca before its demise in the 1970’s. (Photos courtesy of Decatur Herald & Review)

A back exit from the dugout and a short path underneath the bleachers led to the player’s clubhouse. In about the 8th inning, Roe would stake out a choice spot to collect autographs from the players.

Bob Fallstrom, a writer for the Herald & Review newspaper in Decatur, is a wealth of valuable information and actually was the official scorer for the Commodores as well, beginning in 1960.

“A rickety press box with a rickety ladder” was how Bob describes the press box for Fans Field. On a typical night, Bob would climb that rickety ladder and take his spot in the press box. Oftentimes, a Western Union representative would send the inning-by-inning results via telegraph to places such as Waterloo or Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Coming full circle, Roe Skidmore lived out a childhood dream by playing with the Commodores after signing with the San Francisco Giants in 1967. Roe was first signed by the Atlanta Braves after an excellent collegiate career at Millikin University in Decatur.

Roe spent a good portion of the 1967 season, as well as the 1968 season, playing for his hometown team as a professional baseball player at Fans Field.

The competition during Roe’s time with Decatur was something else. Roe remembers George Hendrick, Vida Blue and Charlie Manuel as a few players of note. Vida Blue threw a no-hitter in the summer of ’68 for Burlington.  There’s a decent chance Roe would have seen a young Carlton Fisk behind home plate. Fisk  played with Waterloo (Iowa), that summer.

Roe has so much to be proud of as well. He holds the Decatur franchise record for most home runs in a season with 27 round trippers in 1968.

Roe made one major league appearance with the Chicago Cubs in 1970, lining a single off of Cardinals’ lefthander Jerry Reuss at Busch Stadium in his only big league at-bat. One lifetime big league at-bat, one base hit, a lifetime batting average of 1.000. That’s a story right there.

These days, Roe works for New Horizons Marketing in his home town, and serves as a part-time scout for the Mets as well.

Nobody has ever confused the minor league baseball lifestyle as one of luxury.

“An old guy named Dutch Henry was the business manager, and he would get on the bus and come down the aisle with an envelope,” Roe recalls.

What was held in that envelope? The players’ meal money for the trip. As a Commodore, Roe was given a per diem of $3.50 per day while on the road.

Roe told me that the money usually went to a lot of hamburgers and roast beef sandwiches.  One of his best memories of team travel was staying at an old, creaky downtown hotel in Dubuque, Iowa.

“You’d put a golf ball on the floor and it would roll to the other side of the room,” Roe says. “And the fire escape was literally a rope, just like in gym class.”

Just a ways south along the Mississippi River in Iowa, the Clinton clubhouse was so cramped, the team would usually have to enter in shifts following the game to get out of their uniform and shower. Getting dressed before the game usually took place at the hotel. There was more room to do so.

As Roe is sharing these harrowing tales of life on the road, our Cougars team is busing out from my window, on their way to Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s a lengthy 8-hour trip, but their 55-passenger coach features wireless internet and a roomy interior. They’ll probably watch a couple of DVD’s on the bus to help pass the time. I bet their hotel room floor is on a more level foundation than the one in Dubuque.

Times were tough for players as well as minor league front offices at that time. For a man like Dutch Henry, who was the “General Manager” at the time, it was his job to make all of the travel arrangements for the team, as well as generate ticket sales, sell sponsorships, work with the media, and even order the bats. A single groundskeeper, who Roe recalls had about 10 children, would be out in the field with his family getting the weeds removed before a game. A female receptionist who answered the phones rounded out the front office staff. A board of directors assisted with certain decisions, but that was the extent of it.

These days, some minor league teams have a staff member who specifically handles the team’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

Decatur drew a paltry 38,000 fans in 1973 – the lowest total of any team in the Midwest League. A less-than-competitive team, dying attendance figures and indifference among fans brought the state of the franchise to the crossroads. The team had even been wearing hand-me-down uniforms issued by their parent club, the San Francisco Giants. The board of directors decided to bring in someone with impressive credentials to right the ship. Rick Richardson, who had previously worked for other clubs across the country, brought a youthful zeal for ticket sales and promotions. But Richardson couldn’t make it work and quickly fell out of favor.

The team finally called it quits at the end of the 1974 season. Fans Field, which used to present itself as a legitimate minor league facility in its time, falls way short of that expectation presently. The field, owned by the Decatur Park District, is used for slowpitch softball games and bears no resemblance to its former self after being demolished decades ago. The park is in a working-class neighborhood of the northeast side of Decatur, at the corner of Woodford and Garfield streets.

Former Major Leaguer Gary Matthews played with the Decatur Commodores, years before he was well-known as part of the 1984 Cubs division championship team.

“You drive by that corner sometimes, and it just doesn’t look right”, Roe says of Fans Field, a shell of its former self that Hall-of-Fame executive Branch Rickey once referred to as a minor league mecca.

Having left with the team and stadium, those cigar and popcorn smells that Roe and Bob remember from days gone by on the northwest side of town, are long gone. A field that was dedicated in 1927 with Commissioner of Baseball Kennesaw Mountain Landis and Cubs President Bill Veeck, Sr. in attendance, is now a lazy park district field for slowpitch softball games.

Decatur, the “Pride of the Prairie”, will be a part of the Midwest League history book, and a part of the Kane County Cougars’ history book, forever.

Here are several players that called Decatur home as minor leaguers:

Carl Hubbell – compiled a 14-7 record at Decatur in 1927 and won 253 major league games.

Billy Herman – debuted for the Cubs in 1931 and amassed over 2,300 major league hits.

Gary Matthews – known as “The Sarge”, Matthews was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1973 and was part of the 1984 Cubs division championship team.

John Montefusco – threw a no hitter for the Giants in 1976 and was nicknamed “The Count”.

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About Kane County Cougars

The Kane County Cougars are the Class-A Affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
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