The Downward Slide Since Springfield, Illinois Lost Affiliated Baseball

photo: Robin Roberts Stadium at Lanphier Park (Springfield Park District)

The current story of the contraction of Minor League Baseball from 160 to 120 teams, as planned by Major League Baseball starting in 2021, has been explored extensively here at The Cardinal Nation.

After all, two long-standing St. Louis Cardinals affiliates, the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn League and the Johnson City Cardinals of the Appalachian League, are among those rumored to be on the chopping block.

We have reported on concerns of team owners and legislators from affected districts. We have explained why MLB organizations believe they can operate more efficiently and illustrated the cyclical nature of the size of the minor leagues over time.

We have shared fan reaction from those in State College and Johnson City, which is, as one would expect, laced with disappointment.

Yet one of the under-reported facets of this story has been nagging at me, one which is inherently both forward- and backward-looking at the same time.

“What happens down the road to a community that loses its affiliated baseball?”

While no two situations will ever be identical, there is much that can be learned from others who were once a part of earlier minor league reductions.

The case study offered here is Springfield – but the one that was prominent in Cardinals history long before the explosive growth in Southwest Missouri contributed to the arrival of the Double-A Cardinals in 2005. (This is the first and only time in this article that the mention of “Springfield” refers to the one in Missouri.)

Today’s subject is Springfield, Illinois, population 116,250 (in 2010). The state capital welcomed the Triple-A Cardinals in 1978 and remained a St. Louis affiliate at two different levels of play through 1993.

What follows are remembrances of those involved in the loss of the team as well as those affected both then and now, over a quarter of a century later.

The long “Slide”

This story of Springfield from the baseball perspective is a long and multi-step decline in the level of play over several decades, from the top classification of affiliated minor league ball to a college summer league today. Key milestone dates are as follows:

  • 1981 – Triple-A ball leaves Springfield
  • 1993 – St. Louis Cardinals Class A team leaves
  • 1995 – Class A leaves – end of affiliated ball
  • 2001 – Independent ball leaves
  • 2008-current – Collegiate summer wood bat team

The primary reasons for these individual changes were different, but each one contributed in its own way to a decline in fan support for baseball played locally.

Will this kind of slide be experienced in the future in State College, Pennsylvania and/or Johnson City, Tennessee?

Of course, the only true answer at this point is that we do not know.

But it seems fair to point out several important factors. First is that even when totaled, the population bases of State College (42,358 in 2018) and Johnson City (66,778 in 2018) are still substantially lower than Springfield.

Second is that both Cardinals affiliates to be cut for 2021 are much more geographically distant from both Major League Baseball as well as their current organizational parent. On the other hand, Springfield is just a 90-minute drive from St. Louis.

For that reason, Springfield remains in Cardinals country, with the regional flagship FOX Sports Midwest channel readily available in central Illinois.

Alternatively, without subscribing to a more expensive national package, fans in western Pennsylvania and eastern Tennessee would have to go much further out of their way to see St. Louis play on television.

But even if fandom – as represented by the level of support of the Cardinals brand – becomes diminished in State College and Johnson City, will these residents remain fans of baseball in general?

Based on clear attendance figures and anecdotal opinion samples, significant pockets of baseball followers remain in Springfield, but not at the prior levels of interest.

We will start with the numbers, then move into the reasons for the team changes backed by comments from a local government representative and a media member at the time and close with perspective from a pair of long-time Springfield baseball fans.

Springfield baseball attendance history (1978-2019)

The following table is sequenced from oldest to newest and represents annual averages in attendance during five distinct periods in Springfield baseball history.

Years League Level Team Avg ann att Home dates Avg per game
1978-1981 Am Assoc Triple-A Cardinals 106,421 68 1565
1982-1993 Midwest Class A Cardinals 147,352 70 2116
1994-1995 Midwest Class A Sultans (SD/KC) 46,843 70 669
1996-2001 Frontier Indy Capitals 46,205 40 1151
2008-2019 Prospect Col wood Sliders 33,494 28 1201

The loss of Triple-A baseball, replaced by a team in the Class A Midwest League, actually resulted in a significant increase in attendance.

Looking back, it seemed clear that based on the size of the city, Springfield was a far better fit for Class A ball. While in the Triple-A American Association, the team ranked last in the league in per game attendance in three of the four seasons and was second-to-last the other time.

Lee Landers ramped up his highly-decorated career in Minor League Baseball as the general manager of the Class A Springfield Cardinals for the club’s entire 12-year existence. After St. Louis sold the Springfield franchise, Landers became the president of the Appalachian League, a position he held from 1996 until 2018, and he remains the Short-Season Rookie Advanced league’s president emeritus.

In its peak season, 1991, the Springfield Cardinals drew over 175,000 fans, averaging more than 2,500 per game over a 70-game home schedule that stretched from April through August.

However, just three and four years later, respectively, Springfield Class A teams were viewed apathetically, averaging just 775 and 664 in nightly attendance. At that point, St. Louis had already pulled out, with “Springfield Sultans” teams manned by the San Diego Padres and Kansas City Royals basically drawing between a third and a quarter of what Cardinals affiliated teams attracted.

Larry Harnly

Larry Harnly is a member of the Springfield Sports Hall of Fame and was the 23-year sports editor of the Springfield State Journal-Register before retiring in 1998. During the entire span of the Cardinals time in the city, he also served as the newspaper’s beat writer covering the teams and he remains an avid St. Louis Cardinals supporter to this day.

“Those Sultans teams clearly did not catch on after the Cardinals left, who were just a natural for this area,” Harnly said. “When we lost the Cardinals, our minor league days were essentially over. When you have the Padres and Royals, instead, there was no interest here.”

From 1996-2001, the independent Frontier League came to town to replace affiliated ball. What had been a 70-game home season for local fans to choose from dropped to 40, with the independent league schedule concentrated on the more appealing summer months.

In three of the first four seasons, the Springfield Capitals averaged over 1,200 fans per game, and the team won championships in 1996 and 1998. Even so, that always placed Springfield among the Frontier League’s cellar-dwelling teams in attendance.

“None of those teams ever caught on to the level the Cardinals did,” Harnly noted. “When you get into non-affiliated baseball with the independent league, well that is even worse, because you know these guys are not somebody you are going to follow as they progress toward the major leagues.”

By 2000, the nightly average attendance slid to 1,043 and in 2001, it fell to 843. The Capitals were sold and left for greener pastures in Rockford, Illinois.  No baseball above the collegiate level was played in Springfield for the next six years.

Following the 2008 season, the Springfield Sliders’ first, its summer Central Illinois Collegiate League joined the Prospect League. The wood bat circuit plays a schedule that includes from 26 to 30 home games each summer.

In the early years, the Sliders owners hired as its managers well-known former Cardinals to help stir up fan interest. The team’s skippers in 2009 through 2011 were Jack Clark, Curt Ford and Danny Cox, respectively. Over the last 11 summers, the Sliders have consistently experienced attendance of over 1,000 per game.

Yet, over the course of a Prospect League season, the total number of fans to see baseball at Robin Roberts Stadium at Lanphier Park is less than a quarter of those who regularly followed the Class A Cardinals in person.

“Springfield has been kind of a vast wasteland for baseball after losing the Cardinals in 1993,” Harnly said.

(Addendum: The Sliders are not the first collegiate summer team to call Springfield home. The following is from the State Journal-Register, June 7, 2008:

“The first Springfield team, the Caps, ceased operations when professional minor league baseball came to town in 1978. The second — the Springfield Rifles — folded after the 2006 season because of financial constraints. The Rifles played their home games at Lincoln Land Community College for all but one season, and ‘crowds’ of fewer than 50 people weren’t uncommon.”)

The changing face of Springfield baseball

When flamboyant team owner A. Ray Smith brought Triple-A baseball to Springfield in 1978, he was just a year removed from pulling out of his club’s 28-year home in Tulsa. The reason was a dispute over stadium conditions. A year playing in New Orleans’ cavernous Superdome was followed by arrival in a more stable home, Springfield.

Four years later, the honeymoon was over. Some were hopeful that Smith would sell the team to local business leaders, but instead, matters got ugly. Smith was sued by Springfield officials when he reneged on a deal to remain in the city after the locals had invested in stadium renovations. For 1982, Smith relocated his Triple-A club to a larger, more lucrative market, Louisville, Kentucky.

The parent Cardinals organization immediately came to the rescue, securing an expansion franchise in the Midwest League and owning and operating the new Class A team, also called the Springfield Cardinals.

Under Landers’ guidance, the Cardinals drew well, as noted above. However, as the partnership between the organization and city moved into its second decade, the relationship soured.

St. Louis wanted to sell billboard advertising on the outfield fences of Lanphier Park, but Springfield’s mayor was against the idea. Ultimately, this led to the Cardinals selling the team following the 1993 season, with the new owners relocating the team to Madison, Wisconsin.

Bob Church was Deputy Mayor of Springfield from 1986 through 1995 and remembers well what happened.

“The city attorney decided he wanted in on the negotiations to keep the Cardinals,” Church recalled. “We had a meeting with the executives in St. Louis, who were pushing to get more revenue…If they wanted the signs on the outfield fence, the city wanted part of the money. The Cardinals threatened to pull out of Springfield, which they did when the deal fell through.”

Still, Midwest League baseball remained in Springfield, with the 1994-1995 teams renamed the generic “Sultans”. The Padres brought in their affiliation one year, then the Royals the next, but the downward slide in attendance accelerated, to dead last in the Midwest League. In contrast, when the Class A Cardinals had been in town, fan support was in the top third of the league every year.

“Our fans that were left were not as enthused when the team was not connected with the St. Louis Cardinals,” Church said.

Both Church and Harnly feel that a Cardinals or Cubs affiliation would have been the key to the success of Minor League Baseball in Springfield.

“After we lost the Cardinals to Madison, then everything went downhill from that point on,” Harnly said.

Starting in 1996, affiliated baseball left Springfield, perhaps forever. The relocated Midwest League franchise became the Lansing (Michigan) Lugnuts, which initially drew 10 times the Sultans’ attendance.

Facility complications

Springfield’s playing facility first opened in 1925, making Lanphier Park one of the oldest ballparks in the minor leagues. In 1976, its name was expanded to Robin Roberts Stadium at Lanphier Park to honor the hometown pitcher turned Baseball Hall of Famer. While the city-owned facility received some enhancements over the years, it was never up to par with more modern minor league ballparks.

Robin Roberts Stadium at Lanphier Park (Springfield Park District)

Still, it was initially good enough for the Frontier League, which moved in as soon as the Sultans departed. The Springfield Capitals began play in 1996. As noted above, early lukewarm attendance faded away. The final-year fan support in 2001 was down 35 percent from just two years before and a third of what the Class A Cardinals had drawn at their peak.

“It is a historic, neat ballpark,” Church said. “You can see everything wherever you sit. It hasn’t been upgraded, but it is not falling down or anything like that. It is just an old stadium.”

In 2010, State Journal-Register sports editor Jim Ruppert opined, “Robin Roberts Stadium at Lanphier Park is more relic than treasure.”

As the years passed and the facility continued to age, area colleges still playing there invested as they could, but in 2016, Ruppert wrote about the repairs that “in a lot of ways it was putting lipstick on a pig.”

The main scoreboard intermittently fails and it is so old that repair parts are no longer available. The stadium lights, especially the towers, are in bad shape, but the upgrades could cost as much as a third of a million dollars, money that is not available.

There have been talks over the intervening years between the Frontier League and town officials about a possible return of independent professional ball, but one key stumbling block is the field. As recently as 2016, the SJ-R reported on such a dialogue, summarizing league officials’ comments, “We’ll come if you build us a nice ballpark.”

Robin Roberts Stadium at Lanphier Park (Springfield Park District)

The $825,000 fee to buy back into the Frontier League, plus an estimated $10-$15 million for a new stadium is too much for local taxpayers to bear. Springfield’s schools are old and streets and sidewalks need significant repair, the paper noted.

Further complicating matters is a plan being considered for light rail that could pass through the ballpark’s outfield, with the uncertain future stifling any possible initiative to invest in needed stadium upgrades.

Harnly summed it up. “The way stadiums are now, Robin Roberts is not a Class A park.”

Today, it houses the Sliders. Reversing the long downward trend in level of play has become a chicken-and-egg problem with no solution in sight.

“I don’t think we will ever have minor league baseball again in Springfield,” Harnly concluded. “Why would you build a stadium when you cannot be sure how many people will come?”

Fan support remains

As a high schooler in the early 1990’s, Heather Griffin fondly remembers attending Springfield Cardinals games with her Dad. Now married with a 16-year old son and 11-year old daughter, Heather Griffin Roark teaches kindergarten in the Springfield Public School system. With her husband, Troy, the Roarks have served as a host family for Springfield Sliders players in each of the last three summers.

Heather enjoys the nostalgia the old stadium brings. “I like taking my kids to the same park I attended when I was young,” she said.

Troy, Connor and Heather Roark

Troy, who grew up 30 miles from Springfield, remembers that going to Class A Cardinals games was “always a treat.” “I distinctly remember sitting in the bleachers on the first base side, up high,” he noted. “There was always a big crowd.”

“It was the weekend thing to do,” Heather added. “I lived in Springfield and we went often.”

Troy feels the organizational presence in the 1980s cemented his family’s support of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Springfield is on the Mason-Dixon Line of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry,” he said. “I could easily have become a Chicago Cubs fan with the right exposure. Getting a chance to go to those early games and watch them locally, I think it solidified the whole thing.

“Having the Springfield Cardinals as a local team, I am absolutely positive now that it made my family die-hard Cardinals fans. My parents are big fans. They watch every (St. Louis) game (on FOX Sports Midwest).”

Even so, losing the local affiliation with St. Louis stung.

“When the Cardinals left, I remember it being a very big deal,” Troy recalled. “There was a real public outcry. ‘Why are they taking this from us?’”

While the Roarks are strong supporters of the college wood bat team that remains in Springfield, they readily acknowledge the differences from what they experienced as youths.

“The Sliders are in a good college developmental league, but it has taken a long time, decades now, for baseball to find its footing back after the Cardinals left,” Troy said. “It has always been a baseball town (a point which Harnly and Church also made separately), but for it to try to find its place again in baseball has been very difficult.”

Backed up by the numbers above, fan support is markedly different.

“Attendance is not close to what the Cardinals had,” Troy said. “They were busy nearly every game and had a big fan base. For the Sliders, it really depends on the night…” “…and the promotions they are offering,” Heather added.

“I don’t want to say it is apples and oranges (comparing the Prospect League to affiliated ball), but the Sliders are doing it on a shoestring, where the Cardinals had some money to support them,” Troy said. “This is a privately owned team by a young family in the Springfield area. It is a real challenge, but they do the best they can. We are big supporters.”

Buoyed by the availability of FOX Sports Midwest and their own personal histories, the Roarks also remain St. Louis Cardinals fans. When needed, the family can make the trip to Busch Stadium on a week night due to St. Louis’ proximity to Springfield, and they do so about five times per season.

But the fandom is different for 16-year old Connor Roark, a 6-foot-1 sophomore pitcher on the Glenwood High School junior varsity squad. While his parents characterize him as a Cardinals follower, the teen is most interested in “watching a good baseball game” no matter who is playing.

The Roarks are very aware of the pending changes to Minor League Baseball, both in terms of fewer affiliates and substantially shorter drafts.

Having been through cutbacks before as fans, and now as the parents of an aspiring professional baseball player and a host family for college players just one step away, they are concerned. Their worries are not only about reduced opportunity for these youngsters to be drafted and become professionals one day, but for the future of the game itself.

“We have a certain level of exposure to the kids who are trying to get drafted and get into affiliated ball, and I am certain what is happening is going to affect those guys,” Troy said. “While MLB says they want to help develop these independent leagues, my fear is that it is going to backfire and they are going to scare away players.

“The kids who are on the edge and still developing, they very well could think, ‘Why am I wasting my time?’” Troy said.

For the retired beat writer and sports editor, the decision made in 1993 was the beginning of the long slide for baseball in Springfield.

“To me, the worst thing that ever happened to this city was losing the Class A Cardinals,” Harnly said. “It should never have happened.”

So, if there is anything to be learned for today from the Springfield story, it is that baseball in some form will probably survive in State College and Johnson City, as well as the other 38 communities slated to lose affiliated ball in 2021.

But fan support will suffer and player interest may wane, with the depth of the long-term damage significant, but very difficult to measure until it may be too late to correct.

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