Fifty-one years ago, in 1960, the Grand Forks Chiefs had six players who eventually played in the major leagues. Most notable was Willie Stargell, who spent two decades with the Pittsburgh Pirates and earned induction into the Hall of Fame.
The Chiefs that year were a minor league affiliate of the Pirates, in the Class C Northern League. The team folded in 1964.
The Grand Forks Varmints, of the Prairie League, played one season in 1996.
In 1998 came collegiate summer baseball. The Channel Cats folded after three seasons in the Northwoods League.
Friday, another attempt to bring high-level baseball to Grand Forks begins when the Whiskey Jacks host the Sioux Falls Sunfish at Kraft Field. The team is part of the Expedition League, a 12-team circuit in the Dakotas, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska. The Whiskey Jacks are an adopted team – the closure of the U.S.-Canada border means the squad cannot play in its usual city of Brandon, Manitoba.
Grand Forks is expected to get an expansion team of its own next summer.
Will summer baseball succeed in Grand Forks? The odds are stacked against it, based on previous experiences, but simple math shows it could work. Consider the league’s recent attendance numbers.
The Western Nebraska Pioneers have led the league each of the past two seasons, averaging 1,140 fans in 2019 and 936 in 2018. The Pioneers are based in Gering and Scottsbluff, Neb., with a combined population of about 23,000.
Other attendance leaders in 2019 were Dickinson (population 18,000), which averaged 743 fans, and Casper, Wyo., (population 58,000) which averaged 739. The team in Minot (48,000) averaged 653 in 2019. The average attendance in 2019, according to league figures, was 612.
Greater Grand Forks has a population of roughly 64,000. Will just 1% of the community’s residents attend Whiskey Jacks games this summer?
We’re hoping so, since we see summer baseball as a quality-of-life perk, in the same vein as parks, walking trails and other outdoors activities.
But here’s a problem: While Red River Valley summer evenings are perfect for baseball, they also draw many people away from the community each weekend. Greater Grand Forks is, after all, the closest Expedition League community to Minnesota’s lakes country.
And, aside from hockey, folks here don’t pack local arenas. The UND men’s basketball team has been averaging only about 1,800 per game; the UND football team averaged 8,340 during its 2019 playoff season, which is still about 4,000 below capacity at the Alerus Center.
The Whiskey Jacks are college players and are not paid throughout the course of the 64-game season. Will a future professional be among them? Probably not, yet these kids are still good enough to dream, and there’s a certain charm that comes with that.
We wish the Whiskey Jacks success this summer at Kraft Field, and we remind the team that sportsmanship, effort, fair prices and fun will go a long way to consistently drawing fans.
The Whiskey Jacks opened the season Tuesday with three games in Minot, but they return for their home-opener Friday against Sioux Falls. First pitch Friday and Saturday is 7:05 p.m.
Give them a chance.