By Don Langenkamp, Green Bay Press-Gazette Sept 9, 1976
A big seller in Door County this summer was a T-shirt bearing the legend, “Door County is for lovers.”
That should read baseball lovers.
While many small-town baseball leagues are dying out for lack of interest, the Door County League is a robust, money-making operation.
In fact, it’s more than that.
For many Door County natives (or, The County, as they say) Sunday means a little religion, a little baseball, and a little – well, most of the time a little – beer.
Church in the morning, game in the afternoon, and then a postgame celebration or wake, depending on the outcome that particular day.
For many of the teams, it’s double-knit uniforms and automatic pitching machines. Nothing smalltime about The County’s baseball… that’s for sure.
The teams hail from towns that are hardly recognizable unless you’re from The County.
Kolberg, Maplewood, Sister Bay, Egg Harbor, West Jacksonport, Baileys Harbor, Institute, and, oh yes, Washington Island.
Attendance at the games varies from place to place. Sister Bay has a big following and on Washington Island, baseball is kind of a second religion. Maplewood, this year’s league champs, also has a large number of faithful.
A word should be said right here about Washington Island. While all players in the league either are or were residents of Door County, the Island’s team is almost 100 percent Island-grown.
“I think every one of their players was born and raised there, except one,” says a veteran observer. “Their catcher was in the Coast Guard and was stationed on Plum Island. But when he got discharged, he moved over to Washington Island and started playing for them.”
Another weekly Sister Bay follower speaks of games on Washington Island in almost reverent terms. “The best ones of the year,” he says with obvious relish. “You go over of the ferry early in the morning, booze it up all day, and just have one helluva good time.”
Why is Door County baseball so popular?
“It’s the geography,” says Eddy Allen, who broadcasts games for WDOR Sturgeon Bay and doubles as league secretary. “Where are people going to go up here on Sunday? You can’t go east of west unless you like to fish, so you go to a baseball game.”
That may be part of it. There is also a rich tradition, dating back to pre-World War II days. Many old-timers now turning out for games vicariously see themselves turning the double play at second base or making that diving catch in center field. They remember the days when the uniforms were theirs.
The lure of playing baseball in The County is irresistible to many. One is Dave Olson, who now lives in Milwaukee but journeys back every week to manage the Sister Bay Bays.
There are many others, but a league rule dictates that a player who lives outside of Door County must stay on a roster every year. If he misses a year, he cannot come back.
Last Sunday, four teams were left in the playoffs which match up the top four teams from the regular-season standings.
It was the day before Labor Day, and the Sister Bay throng was primed for its game against Egg Harbor.
“After we beat Egg Harbor tomorrow, we’ll play Maplewood next week for the championship,” confidently predicted a bartender at the Sister Bay Bowl the previous night. (For the record, his confidence was short-lived. Sister Bay lost a 5 – 3 decision to the fourth-place upstarts down the coast.)
The game started at 2 pm, but there were many early arrivals who showed up to make sure the beer at the concession stand was cold enough and, incidentally, watch the two teams take batting practice.
Sister Bay gets a buck a head from anyone over 16, but that doesn’t slow ‘em down any. Last Sunday there were at least 400 in attendance.
“We’re a money-making outfit now,” says Olson. “Four years ago, we bought the first pitching machine in the league, and I think four teams have them now.”
The backdrop to the ballpark is an unlikely one. Orchards on one side, a go-kart track on the other. Some fans sit in the bleachers, but many park their cars along the right-field line and sit on their hoods.
Over on the left-field side, Eddy Allen sets up his antenna and gets ready for another WDOR (Slogan: People Turn Us On) broadcast.
“We never have any trouble selling sponsors on these games,” says Allen, who has been doing this sort of thing since 1968. “Six of seven buy every week, no matter where we are.”
In the bleachers, an old-timer settles down with a cold can of Pabst and a record player that has seen better times. He hauls out a stack of LPs and starts playing polka music.
The Woerfel brothers – Paul and Mark – start warming up for Sister Bay. Which will it be this week? Both are sound pitchers and Mark threw for the Green Bay Blue Ribbons for a year.
The word in church that morning was that Paul would start and Mark would be ready in relief. The work was accurate, as it turned out.
Mark Woerfel enjoys his baseball in The County. A year with Green Bay meant a lot of traveling and a lot of nights with just a few hours of sleep after a road game. While the Ribbons had to merely travel to Green Bay, he had to drive on to Fish Creek… an additional 60 miles.
“It’s more relaxed this way,” he says, between warmup pitches. “This is a good way to stay in baseball. The people are serious about it, but they leave it on the field.”
The game starts and, all of a sudden, Egg Harbor is to be taken seriously. Paul Woerfel is rocked for solo homers in the first inning by Jim Brauer and John Bley.
Sister Bay’s bleacher stalwarts heat up when The Bays get their turn. “C’mon, Bobby, jump on this bird,” a leather-lunged backer yells. But Bobby goes down swinging and Egg Harbor’s Dave Moeller stays in command for nearly seven innings.
Moeller is a new addition to Egg Harbor. He was carried on the roster all year but could play only after his Legion season ended at Sturgeon Bay.
“This league stays strong because our Legion program is solid,” says George Husby, who manages the Sturgeon Bay Legion team. “Baseball in The County is better than ever.”
Meanwhile, the Sister Bay fans are an unhappy lot. Between trips to the concession stand (a six-pack is only $2 and 25 to 30 cases of beer will be sold this day) they watch Egg Harbor take a 5 – 0 lead.
The Moeller’s control goes sour. Sister Bay suddenly jumps back into the picture with three unearned runs. But Brauer takes the mound, quells the fire and turns in two more scoreless innings of relief work to preserve the win, 5 – 3.
From the Egg Harbor side: Joy, cheers, and a rush to the beer stand.
From the Sister Bay side: Shakes of heads, grumbling… and a rush to the beer stand.
“Where’s the party?” yells one Egg Harbor player. The question is met with a dozen eager suggestions.
Over on the Sister Bay side, the thoughts turn to next year. The game against Maplewood the following Sunday (Maplewood edged the people’s favorite, Washington Island, 3 -2) is now only a pipe dream.
But when next year comes, one thing is as inevitable as the droves of tourists who swarm to the County every summer.
Next year again means more Door County baseball.
Nope, nothing smalltime about that outfit. Nothing at all.