Posted on: July 27th, 2014 by

December 11, 1930

Oconto County Reporter Article Recalls Baseball

    The story of what was essentially Oconto’s first city baseball team, formed in 1886 and winning 23 out of 24 games during its initial years, was recollected here recently by Frank Merline, 65, janitor of St. Joseph’s school, who was one of the two catchers on the team.

    A picture of the players now hangs on the wall of Faulds’ Barber shop on Main Street, having been presented last week by Mr. Merline.  It was taken 44 years ago, and depicts the men in their full playing regalia, with uniforms, heavy moustaches, and everything.  Though this team was preceded by another called “The Clippers,” the two teams combined shortly after the second one was formed and the two together represented Oconto’s first city team.

    Besides Mr. Merline, who was 21 years old when the team began, there were ten or twelve others who can still be recalled by old time baseball fans.  All the players were local men:  John Merline, Pat Scanlin, Jim Crowley, Ed. Brooks, Walter Grunert (mgr.), William Merline, Charles Reinhardt, Al. Merline, Steve Waggoner, John Runkle and Ed. Baldwin.  There were four Merlines on the team, all of them brothers, and John Merline acted as secretary of the club.  Waggoner and Runkle shared the battery play with Baldwin and Frank Merline.

    Oconto was quite a baseball town before football and basketball diverted the interest of the fans, according to the man who used to be catcher.

    “Why, say,” declared Mr. Merline, “when it happened that we played games on a week day, every business house in town closed up and the proprietors rushed out to the game.  We used to have excursions accompany us to other towns, too, and I remember a big crowd of 350 followed us to Wausau once—quite a crowd in those days.  We charged 25 cents admission and we often took in $175 or more.  Once, when we played an all-girls team from Chicago, our receipts were $450, so you can imagine the crowd.  Believe me, we certainly got support in those days!”

    The games were played on a tract on the old race course, near the city park.  While none of the players received anything like a salary, they divided at the end of the year the amount left in the treasury of the club.  During the last year of the team’s existence, however, the men were given a monthly salary of about $75; some a little more, and some less.

    In 1886, the first year for the club, the team won 23 out of 24 games, losing only to Marinette.  Opposition was furnished by such teams as those from Green Bay, Appleton, Kaukauna, Marinette, in Wisconsin, and Stevenson, Escanaba, and Menominee, in Michigan.  The Oconto team maintained an excellent record, though not always quite as brilliant as that of the first year, but the club disbanded along about 1890 because a new league had been formed and players from a Minneapolis team were hired to represent Oconto.

    Baseball in 1886, says Mr. Merline, wasn’t as gentle a game as it is today.  Only the catcher ever wore such a thing as a glove, and his protection was furnished only by a thin kid glove, with sometimes a piece of beef steak inserted in the palm for a shock absorber.  Fielders and basemen never wore gloves, taking the ball in their bare hands at full speed.

    “Believe me,”  said the former player, “it wasn’t any fun to be a catcher.  Sometimes, after a game, my left hand would be swelled at least an inch and of course the fielders’ and basemen’s hands didn’t feel any better.”

    The bats used then were about the same as those used in the big leagues now, except, possibly, they were a little longer.  Their shoes were fitted with triangular plates on the soles, fastened on with screws, and often they would remove the plates if they wished to wear the shoes after a game.

    Six of the players on the city’s first baseball team are dead, but three of the Merline brothers, John, William, and Frank, as well as Ed. Baldwin, are still alive and residing in the city.  Walter Grunert, who was manager of the team, is now living in Green Bay, where he has a jewelry store and Ed. Brooks is living on a farm near Abrams.

    Frenk Merline is still a baseball enthusiast.  Despite his 65 years, he still throws a ball around with the neighborhood boys and every summer he manages to play some with a real team.

    Like most baseball players, he says he “would rather play it than eat!”