The face of minor league baseball is changing today, as larger urban areas boast teams with state-of-the-art ballparks in areas of urban renewal. It is quite a departure from a century ago, when fifty-one minor leagues dotted the nation and placed teams in many smaller cities and towns.
Staunton was among them, and for four weeks in the early 20th century, the town was home to professional baseball. In that summer of 1908, Staunton was a member of the Eastern Illinois League, a Class D circuit that included teams in many Illinois towns of similar size. The league opened play the previous season with six teams.
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 times, leagues were classified in descending order as AA, A, B, C, and D.
There was also no major league affiliation. The concept of farm systems began in the 1920s when baseball visionary Branch Rickey established a minor league system for the St. Louis Cardinals, which proved wildly successful. Still, some in the Eastern Illinois League and other circuits managed to make it to the big leagues, including Grover Cleveland Lowdermilk, who won 33 games with 458 strikeouts and an 0.93 ERA for league champion Mattoon in 1907. Lowdermilk later played parts of nine seasons in the majors.
The 1908 season opened with eight teams, as Danville and Vincennes, in a state not true to the league name, joined. Danville’s Speakers reeled off 15 straight wins at mid-season but could not overcome financial woes, and on July 17, were sold to Staunton.
The Taylorville Daily Breeze reported that “$2500 in real money had been raised to support the Danville defuncts” in their new home. But the Speakers, the first-half champion at 42-18, were not allowed to retain the title, which was forfeited to second-place Taylorville.
The Speakers were not alone in their financial distress. Pana moved to Linton, Ind. at mid-season, while Mattoon and Charleston each dropped out, leaving six teams.
But with the Speakers in their new home of Staunton, their financial picture seemed brighter than the others, and a rivalry with Taylorville was budding. Taylorville hosted a three-game series with the Speakers at the end of July, and captured the opener 8-2 in front of a large crowd. The Daily Breeze gloated that “the chesty Stauntonites were humiliated” in a game that was a “sweet morsel for Taylorville fans.”
Home games were played at No. 6 Sporting Park in Staunton, and the Speakers raced out to the best record in the circuit. But the fun was not to last.
On August 18, Paris and Shelbyville folded, leaving only four teams. Three of the four were said to be in good financial condition and wished to play out the season, with Taylorville the exception. But the decision was made to suspend the league, and the final games were played on Aug. 19. Staunton went 23-9 in its month of pro ball, nudging out Vincennes for the best record in the second half.
Some of the Eastern Illinois League cities enjoyed minor league baseball later on, as several cities had stints in the Midwest League or Three-I League, among others. But in Staunton, fans were left to savor the memories of pro baseball from a much earlier time.
Tom Emery of Carlinville has written a booklet on the Staunton team in the Eastern Illinois League. The booklet ($3.99) may be purchased by calling 217-854-3010 or at Michelle’s Pharmacy in both Gillespie and Carlinville.