Part I in our series on defunct sports teams in West Michigan – Click here for Part II
A blending of passions always yields some interesting results. And recently I started blending two of my passions – sports and history. Makes perfect sense right? Fatigued with the high school sports (which after 7 years the local fanaticism, and hype still baffles me), and not really feeling the Griffins and Whitecaps, I started looking for something else. Some how I stumbled into the world of defunct pro/semi-pro teams that once were. Trust me there is a lot. Many of these teams only competed for a year or two, and then they either moved to a different city, closed up shop, or their league folded. Learning more about these teams and their history has been fascinating. These teams covered the gamut of sports from baseball, football, basketball, soccer, and hockey. Not only were these teams located in Grand Rapids, but there have been many teams that had homes in the smaller cities in West Michigan like Holland, and Muskegon.
It’s amazing how you start researching one aspect of this sports world and it starts unraveling more and more, such as the teams they played against, their leagues, and if your lucky you might also find photos of players, of the team, logos and if your lucky the stories.
Take for instance the Holland Oilers, which was a basketball team that played for two seasons in the Midwest Professional Basketball League in 1962-63 to 1963-1964 and even won the championship in 62-63 season. The Oilers also had the first ever high school player drafted ever by the NBA, play for them as well. The player’s name was Reggie Harding, and his fascinating, yet quite sad and tragic story can be read in full here. Another interesting connection is that the Holland Oilers were coached and co-owned by Gene Schrotenboer, and Gene also coached and co-owned the Grand Rapids Tackers, another Midwest Professional Basketball League team. I have no idea how you can coach two different teams in the same league but yeah it was the 60’s, I guess anything can happen. It’s difficult to find a lot info on the Tackers, but you can read more in the book “Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Grand Rapids” where a whole chapter is devoted to the team, check out the excerpt here.
Basketball in West Michigan also has a much more recent history as well – teams like the Grand Rapids Mackers turned Grand Rapids Hoops, turned West Michigan Mayhem. Does anyone else remember the team travel bus of the Mayhem? I have fond memories of that bus rolling down the highway with its huge gaudy “wave” looking mascot guy emblazoned on the side. It always resulted in a few double-takes. What I find fascinating is the amount of success that the Hoops had when they started, and what happened to lead them to disband in 2003. All mentions of the Hoops in local media state that the Hoops were quite successful early on in their career both with their playing and with attendance and fan support, so what happened? How come they left town and ultimately disbanded? I will be exploring this topic and writing down my thoughts on it in a future installment of this series. That’s right Part 1 and 2 or maybe even 3.
More recently within the past 5 years Holland Blast, and Grand Rapids Flight came into existence and just as quickly they left, Holland in 2007, and Grand Rapids in 2008. The Flight also have the distinction of having the world’s tallest athlete on their roster with Sun Mingming. Anyone see any games of the Flight with Sun Mingming playing? Here is an image below. Living in Holland we did end up supporting the Blast. It was a nice activity in the city and we attended a handful of games, and even got a T-shirt from the Blast. Recently I just found out that Holland is home now to another basketball team, the Holland Dream though their season just ended a couple weeks ago. Hopefully, I will catch them next year, if they are still around.
So that was a little trip down in basketball history, how about we talk about our national past time – baseball. Luckily, the West Michigan Whitecaps provide a nice little section on their website about the baseball history in this region. Baseball was played in Grand Rapids as early as 1882, and throughout the years many teams came and went and here are some of the notable names that were left behind:
- Furniture Makers
- Gold Bugs
- Black Sox
- Bissell Sweepers
- Dodger Colts
- Cabinet Makers
Those are some wild names, especially all the “Bill” & “Bob” names, not to mention the early corporate sponsorship with Bissell, and their product tie with the “sweeper” name. As you could image it is hard to focus on all these teams so let’s pick out a couple of interesting ones to look at further. For instance, the Grand Rapids Black Sox, featured future Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige who played for the team. The owner of the Black Sox formed the team and tried to get them to join the Negro Leagues in 1953. The Grand Rapids Chicks were a all girls baseball team that moved from Milwaukee to play in Grand Rapids from 1945 to 1954 in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. They were quite successful making the playoffs every single year that they were in Grand Rapids until the league folded. The Grand Rapids Historical Commission did a nice write-up on the Chicks.
The Chicks of course provide a great tie-in to my alma mater, University of Illinois at Chicago – UIC who in their earlier days were known as the Chikas (which was a Native American tribe) before they changed their name to the Flames (better). Another baseball team playing in that same decade, was the Grand Rapids was the Jets. They played in the Central League from 1948 to 1951, and played at Bigelow Field in Wyoming, who you can see in the above image doing some long toss.
Digging further back into the archives we can look at some teams in Holland that were operating back in the 1890’s – The Ottawa County Times, which sounds more like a newspaper than a baseball squad, but as we can see from the Grand Rapids names from this era of baseball anything goes. Some other baseball teams that played in
Holland were the Internationals, Wooden Shoes
(of course), and Flying Dutchmen (naturally). With all this history of baseball in Holland, there is some basis for trying to bring back a minor league team to Holland. It seems like there were a large number of teams all over West Michigan playing baseball. I am trying to learn more about them and plan to do so with this book “Baseball Fever: Early Baseball in Michigan”
One other baseball note I wanted to see if I could get some follow-up on is the West Michigan Whitecaps “Turn Back the Clock” days they have done in the past. Per their website they did the following games where they honored these past teams and wore their uniforms:
- 1899 Furnituremakers
- 1903 Orphans
- 1921 Joshers
- 1922 Billbobs
- 1948 Black Sox
- 1950 Jets
- Holland Flying Dutchmen
- Ludington Mariners
So if you have attended any of these games or have photos of the players in the jerseys, I would love to hear from you or see the photos.
Football was also quite prevalent. In the 1940’s there was the Michigan Independent Football League, which featured the Holland Hurricanes, and the Grand Rapids All-Stars. Some other teams found on the a game program, I dug out for the Hurricanes were the Ionia Independents, Highland Park Bears. Around that time there was also a Southern Michigan Football League for which there is a nice little write up about the Bay City team, and some of the other teams in that league.
In much more recent years, there was the Michigan Football League, which has somehow been miraculously preserved with this fine website on the league and its teams at http://www.semiprofootball.org/mfl.htm. I wish all these leagues had such a detailed website available about them. You can read up more on the Grand Rapids Crush (which could have very well been the soda), and other MFL teams, like the Huskies. I love the progression of the Holland Huskies though, they started out as the Hamilton Huskies in 94, then in 95 they moved to Holland to become the Holland Huskies, then in 1999 they moved to Grand Rapids and became the Michigan Huskies. For me it just strikes me as odd that a team would start out in Hamilton of all cities. Another team located in the city was the Grand Rapids Thunder, which was founded in 2003, but no longer seems to be in existence.
Well I think that is enough for now, next post we will take a closer look at hockey and touch upon soccer, and look into why minor league teams succeed or fail in West Michigan.
So did I interest you? Do you have anything to share? Have you been to any games, do you have any photos or additional information about these teams or any other teams that I didn’t mention? Please share – post them in the comments or shot me an email at ledgerwm @ gmail.com. I am extremely interested in learning more so anything you got, let me know. Let’s do a better job of preserving and sharing this piece of local sports history, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Part I in our series on defunct sports teams in West Michigan – Click here for Part II