By Tom Emery
ILLINOIS — In recent years, minor league baseball has changed dramatically across the United States. Large urban areas with multi-million dollar ballparks are increasingly becoming the home of minor league teams that draw hundreds of thousands of fans each year.
It was a different story in decades past. Many smaller cities and towns in Illinois and elsewhere hosted teams, particularly in the early 20th century and the post-World War II era, when the minor leagues were booming across the nation. In those eras, towns of 10,000 or even less were frequently home to professional baseball. While only Peoria, the Quad Cities (with a team on the Iowa side), and some Chicagoland cities host affiliated minor league baseball today, many large- to mid-size cities in Illinois had the minors in the past, which is not surprising. Moline, Rock Island, Springfield, Decatur, Bloomington, Quincy, Rockford, Danville, and others were all home to the minors. Springfield hosted Triple-A ball with a St. Louis affiliation from 1978-81, Class A teams from 1982-95, and, along with the others, had teams in the Class B Three-I League. Though play was suspended during the world wars and for three years during the Great Depression, the Three-I lasted until 1961 – a far longer run than most minor leagues.
Class D was the lowest level of baseball and is a classification that no longer exists. The current designations of Class AAA, AA, A, and rookie level began in 1963. In earlier days, leagues were classified in descending order from AA, A, B, C, and D.
A surprising number of small Illinois cities had teams in the low minors. They included stops in the Class D Illinois-Missouri League, which lasted from 1907-14 and featured teams in Beardstown, Canton, Clinton, Kankakee, Jacksonville, Taylorville, Havana, LaSalle, Ottawa, Streator, Lincoln, Pekin, Monmouth, and Macomb. Others were in the Class D Eastern Illinois League, a circuit from 1907-08 that included outposts in Taylorville, Staunton, Shelbyville, Paris, Pana, Centralia, Mattoon, and Charleston.
Others were in the short-lived Southern Illinois League in 1910, a Class D loop that included Harrisburg, Herrin, Eldorado, and McLeansboro. Cairo was a longtime stop in the Class D Kitty League (short for Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee), while several other Illinois cities, including Jacksonville and Mattoon, briefly had teams in the Kitty. Across the state, Kewanee and Sterling also made brief appearances in the minors.
In that era, minor league baseball was bursting out all over, and even the smallest cities managed to find teams. In 1910, fifty minor leagues crisscrossed the nation – three times the number of today. As to be expected, many of these leagues were underfunded and unstable. Jacksonville hosted teams in five different leagues from 1906-1910.
The postwar years were also a golden era for the minors, as a record fifty-nine leagues in 438 cities were in operation in the United States in 1949. Again, several Illinois cities took advantage.?In 1947, the Class D Illinois State League opened the first of its two seasons, and included cities like Marion, Belleville, Centralia, Mt. Vernon, Murphysboro, and West Frankfort. That gave way to the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, the predecessor to today’s Midwest League, which thrives as a Class A circuit.
The MOVL, which held the name through 1955, featured stops in Mattoon, Paris, Mt. Vernon, Centralia, West Frankfort, Belleville, Canton, Danville, Decatur, and Springfield.
Some fifty communities in Illinois have hosted minor league baseball at some point since 1902. A number of them had teams in more than one league during their time in the minors, but many never got another chance. For all but a few of the former minor league outposts in Illinois, pro ball is only a memory.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.