When Miles Wolff first saw Wade Stadium in April, 1991, he envisioned it as the crown jewel in his dream to revive professional baseball in the upper Midwest. His vision may have been blurred by optimism. Author Stefan Fatsis described a stadium in disrepair: “The concrete flooring buckled, wiring was exposed, the roof leaked, holes dotted the backstop, (and) the stands were covered with pigeon dung.” It had been over 20 years since professional baseball had been played in the 50-year-old stadium.
Located a half-block southeast of the 35th Ave. W. and 2nd St. intersection in West Duluth, Wade Stadium stands in the shadow of the elevated railroad leading to Duluth’s ore docks. Merritt Creek runs near the right field wall and the abandoned Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific railroad line lurks beyond left field. The stadium has no luxury boxes or Jumbotron, and unlike big league stadiums, no restaurants, retail stores, or hotels have been built nearby, eager to serve fans. And while its 12-foot-high brick walls give it the appearance of a prison, its interior offers an opportunity for liberation from the grind of modern life by stepping into the past, both Duluth’s and America’s.
Professional Baseball in Duluth
Professional baseball had flirted with Duluth before the Dukes, the Wade’s first tenants, began play in 1934. The Duluth Jayhawks, Freezers, and Whalebacks represented the Zenith City in the 19th Century. The Duluth Cardinals built Athletic Park for the 1903 season, but were gone the next year, replaced by the White Sox. Among those early teams, the Sox lasted the longest, playing in Athletic Park from 1904 to 1916. The Northern League ceased operations on July 4, 1917, due to World War I. It did not come back when the doughboys returned home.
When Bruno Haas revived the Northern League for the 1933 season, he was criticized for attempting to launch a minor league during the Great Depression. His league not only survived the financial crisis, it lasted into the 1970s. Across the bay Superior fielded a Northern League team, the Superior Blues, who won the league championship in 1933. Duluthian Richard “Rip” Wade, a former player for the Washington Senators, managed the Blues. His father, Frank Wade, financed the team as a silent partner. When the league was expanded in 1934, the elder Wade was awarded the Duluth franchise. He named them the Duluth Dukes.
From 1934 to 1940 the Dukes—affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals—played at Athletic Park, located near where the Wade stands today (its right-field corner was in roughly the same location as the Wade’s left-field corner). Despite its significance as the home of the NFL’s Duluth Eskimos, Athletic Park was a hastily-constructed facility with uncomfortable seating, no locker rooms and an uneven field covered with the iron ore dust that rained down from the docks.
(See an aerial photo of Athletic Park and the Wade here.)
Building the Wade
In 1938 the call went out for a new stadium to replace dilapidated Athletic Park. Chaired by Walter J. Chantigney and Reuben B. Johnson, the Citywide All-Sports Stadium Committee was created in an effort to build a modern baseball park in Duluth. The committee presented the city’s Charter Commission with petitions containing 7,074 signatures supporting a special election on a $75,000 bond issue to cover the city‘s share of a new stadium. The election for the All-Sports Stadium bond issue was held on November 8, 1938, and “yes” voters met the necessary margin of more than three-fifths of the vote. The bond issue passed, sustained by a recount.
On December 28, 1938, the city council created a Public Stadium Advisory committee to work with the city planning commission’s recreational committee and appointed Arthur Von, Martin P. Hilber, J. W. Killam, Thomas G. Bell, Harold (Red) Hansen, Anton Ahlen, Walter Chantigney, Reuben B. Johnson, A. H. Muir, C. W. (Cubby) Campbell and Olaf “Uncle Ole” Haugsrud to the committee. Haugsrud had been the owner of the Eskimos and would go on to become one of the first owners of the Minnesota Vikings.
Eschewing a recent plan put forth by the recreational committee to build the stadium at Wheeler field, the advisory committee recommended a site adjacent to Athletic Park at 35th Ave W. Called the “old circus grounds,” the property had been purchased by the city in 1937 for a municipal garage that was not built due to lack of funds.
The recreational committee then proposed a site exactly one block to the north, along 34th Ave. W. It cautioned against using the valuable industrial land with trackage at 35th Ave. W. for a stadium. The 34th Ave. W. site would have required purchasing three parcels of land: one from the state, one from the DM&IR Railway, and one from Dukes owner Frank Wade. They chose the 35th Ave W. site.
A $20,000 work-relief allocation for Duluth from the State of Minnesota included $7,500 for stadium construction. Other projects receiving state funding that year included the Enger Park Golf Course clubhouse, the playground at Lincoln Park, and the Fond du Lac Winter Sports Center.
When plans for federal aid from the Public Works Administration fell through in the fall of 1939, the city applied for funding from another New Deal agency, the Works Project Administration (WPA). Formerly called the Works Progress Administration, the WPA employed more than 8.5 million people from 1935 to 1943 and built dozens of rustic structures and retaining walls in Duluth’s parks throughout the Zenith City in the 1930s.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved an allotment of $80,732 on February 28, 1940, after the Duluth Municipal Stadium plan passed the WPA’s federal engineering division and the federal project control division okayed a five-year plan to lease the stadium to the Dukes for $2,000 a year. However, the Duluth city council indefinitely postponed construction on April 8, pending the possibility of a congressional change of WPA appropriations.
The Duluth Building and Construction Trades council, which opposed the use of WPA labor because the WPA paid less than the prevailing wage scale for skilled labor, urged further postponement. The West Duluth Business Men’s club protested the postponement saying bonds had been sold and a majority of voters supported the plan.
No congressional action was taken, and on May 3 the city council gave the go ahead for construction. Work commenced on May 20 after a ground-breaking ceremony. The Duluth Herald reported on July 9 that “At present two shifts of 75 men, directed by Roy Gamache, superintendent, under the supervision of C. J. Knutson, WPA engineer, are placing wall footings, doing drainage work, and grading and filling in, with construction of the walls and stands to follow.”
On August 7, the Dallavia Construction Co. won the construction contract with a low bid of $12,994. The company would lay approximately 381,000 paving bricks salvaged from the reconstruction of Grand Ave. when it was repaved in concrete earlier that summer.
Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio visited the nearly-completed stadium in January, 1941, while staying with his in-laws. DiMaggio had married actress Dorothy Arnold, a Duluth native, in 1939. Joltin’ Joe waded through the snow to take a swing at an imaginary pitch and remarked, “Baby, batting out a homer in this park will be a good job for the best of ’em.”
The project needed several bail-outs before anyone could start knocking out homers, however. The WPA had appropriated an additional $67,648 on December 16, 1940, and the city itself had to make sacrifices, as the newspapers reported that “$1,311 was taken away from various city funds to purchase two carloads of cement.” As the stadium was close to completion in June, 1941, another purchase of materials was necessary to prevent a work shut-down. The city purchased the materials on the assurance of Governor Harold E. Stassen that $10,000 in legislative emergency council funds would be awarded to complete all of Duluth’s major WPA public works projects. (See a photo of the Wade in the 1950s from the Duluth News Tribune Attic here.)
The First Forty Years
The Dukes played their first game at the brand new Duluth Municipal All-Sports Stadium on July 16, 1941. While fans and players enjoyed the facility, the Dukes took it on the chin in their match with their rivals across the bay, losing to the Superior Blues 6 – 3.
The Northern League shut down after the 1942 season because of World War II. A short-lived but historically significant league was established in its stead. The Twin Ports League, the only Class E minor league to have ever existed, lasted six weeks in the summer of 1943 before folding on July 13. The league consisted of four teams: the Duluth Dukes, Duluth Heralds, Duluth Marine Iron, and Superior Bays. The three Duluth teams played their home games at the stadium. Most of the players were local industrial workers. The Northern League resumed play in 1946, and the Dukes were once again part of the Cardinals’ system.
On July 24, 1948, tragedy struck while the Dukes were traveling between Eau Claire and St. Cloud. A truck collided head-on with the team bus in Roseville, Minnesota, killing team manager (and bus driver) George “Red” Treadwell and players Don Schuckman, Gilbert Trible, and Gerald “Peanuts” Peterson. Another player, Steve Lazar, died two days later. Only four of the 13 survivors managed to continue their careers as professional baseball players.
The experience would prove difficult for Frank Wade to overcome. He sold the Dukes to Adam Pratt in 1951, but continued his role as president. Pratt sold the club to M. E. Olson and Ken Blackman in September, 1952. Wade served in an advisory capacity for the new owners.
Frank Wade died on Jan. 12, 1953, after suffering a heart attack. He was 80 years old. Known as Duluth’s “Mr. Baseball,” Wade spent a half century promoting the sport in the Zenith City. His obituary in the Duluth News Tribune stated that his health, “always vigorous and robust, cracked under the strain” of the 1948 bus accident.
A year later the old stadium advisory committee came together to propose that the city rename the municipal stadium in Wade’s honor, citing Wade’s work over the years: “(He) gave so freely, gladly and generously of his time, effort and money to perpetuate the great American game of baseball and to afford so much clean, wholesome recreation and entertainment to our citizens.” The city council passed a resolution on February 3, 1954, and the Duluth All-Sports Municipal Stadium officially became Wade Municipal Stadium. Duluthians would soon refer to it simply as “Wade” or “The Wade.”
Wade’s team continued to call the stadium home after his death. The team had lost its affiliation with St. Louis in 1950 and played independently until 1954, when it became part of the Cincinnati Redlegs system. The 1950s proved difficult for the Twin Ports to support two professional teams, since the advent of television brought Major League Baseball into living rooms across the nation. The Superior Blues folded after the 1955 season and merged with Duluth the following year as the Duluth-Superior White Sox, part of the Chicago system. In 1960, now as a Detroit farm team, the Dukes name returned.
Many future stars and hall of fame inductees played at the Wade while members of Northern League teams. Aberdeen fielded Don Larsen, Earl Weaver, and Jim Palmer. Hank Aaron played for Eau Claire. Roger Maris got his start for Fargo-Moorhead, while Willie Stargell did the same in Grand Forks. Lou Brock, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry all played for St. Cloud.
Duluth’s most famous connection to the major leagues was in the 1960s, when the club was affiliated with the Detroit Tigers. Twelve of the players on the Tigers’ 1968 World Series Championship team had played for the Duluth-Superior Dukes, including Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, and Denny McLain.
By the end of the 1960s, Duluth’s professional baseball team was once again affiliated with the Chicago White Sox after affiliations with Detroit and the Chicago Cubs, and the Dukes were thriving. They were Northern League champions in both 1969 and 1970, and the club marked a 25 percent increase in attendance between 1968 and 1969 and a 41 percent increase between 1969 and 1970.
The situation was different in the majors. The White Sox attendance in Chicago was less than 500,000 in 1970, and the team lost $900,000. Across the board, major league clubs were cutting ties with their low-level minor league affiliates in cost-cutting measures. By December, 1970, the Dukes had lost their agreement with the Sox and were unable to find a new parent club; Duluth dropped out. The Northern League lasted just one more season, fielding just four teams.
After the Dukes
The Municipal Stadium had long offered more than just Dukes games. In 1949 it hosted the third annual state high school baseball tournament, in which Minneapolis Edison defeated St. Paul Washington 6 – 3 for the state championship. At a banquet at the Spalding Hotel, guest speaker I. T. Simley, South St. Paul’s superintendent of schools, “indicated Duluth in the future may become the high school baseball capital of the state as Minneapolis is in basketball and St. Paul is in hockey.”
Baseball continued to be played at the Wade after the Duke’s departure. The University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs baseball team played their home games at the Wade from 1971 to 1988 and high school baseball continued at the Wade, but it was hardly enough to support the stadium. When Proctor defeated Duluth Denfeld for the 1976 Section 7AA Championship, the Duluth News Tribune reported the paid attendance of 929 was the “largest in recent years.” The two events that drew the biggest crowds to the stadium were not related to baseball. A Willie Nelson concert drew 8,200 people in 1983, and a year later the Beach Boys and Three Dog Night also performed at the Wade.
Even the efforts of Ray Adameak could only do so much in the face of years of neglect in the harsh Duluth climate. Adameak became the head groundskeeper at the Wade in 1986. He immediately put grass back in the infield that had been removed in 1974. Adameak worked to maintain the playing surface, but the structure itself fell into disrepair.
Miles Wolff’s 1991 plans for resurrecting the Northern League were solidified when he saw Wade Stadium. Wolff, former owner of the Durham Bulls and founder of Baseball America magazine, was steeped in baseball history. Fatsis described the moment Wolff first saw the Wade as an epiphany: “From the outside [Wolff] saw a fully enclosed brick behemoth, a structure full of mass and power, a ballpark stuck in a time capsule he had accidentally unearthed.”
Like Adameak’s work, a community “Save the Wade” task force could only do so much. Fundraising efforts included an exhibition game between the Minnesota Gophers and the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, but those efforts fell short. It took Wolff’s daring vision to get the city of Duluth and Mayor Gary Doty to authorize a $527,000 renovation project. The Wade was given a rebirth.
Professional baseball returned to Duluth in 1993 with a brand new team with an old name. The Duluth-Superior Dukes played for 10 seasons in the independent Northern League. Despite a league championship in 1997, they had nine losing seasons, poor attendance and a revolving door of owners who could not turn a profit. After the 2002 season the club moved to Kansas City, Kansas, and became the T-Bones. The T-Bones left the Northern League and joined the American Association at the end of the 2010 season.
The St. Scholastica Saints started playing home games at the Wade in 2000, and still do. It is also home of the Denfeld High School Hunters and was the long-time home of Central High School; the Trojans left in 2004 when their new field was built on its campus. Central High School is now a memory.
While professional baseball was gone, the Duluth Huskies immediately filled the baseball void in 2003 and have called Wade Stadium home ever since. The Huskies compete in the Northwoods League, a Summer Collegiate Baseball league. The Huskies are working with the city of Duluth, which owns the stadium, on gathering funds for another renovation project. The facility’s problems include a leaning wall along the first-base line, and its 70-year-old brickwork needs re-pointing throughout the entire structure.
In January 2012, the Huskies unveiled plans for an $8.1 million project that would include a new entrance plaza and artificial turf. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development passed on the proposal in September, 2012, despite approving funding for a ballpark project in St. Paul. This leaves the future of the Wade in jeopardy, as it is hard to fill seats in an aging facility, and that makes it extremely difficult to raise funds to restore it.
For most of his life, Frank Wade helped baseball grow in the Twin Ports. Only time will tell if the brick landmark that bears his name will continue to be the site of many a game for years to come.
[Editor’s note: You can read about the 2012 effort to Save the Wade in a story posted this past summer on UMD’s student-published Lakevoice News, here.]
Duluth native Anthony Bush works as a Special Education Paraprofessional for Duluth Public Schools and the pitching coach for the Proctor Rails high school baseball team (Bush is a 1994 graduate of Proctor) and acts as pitcher, president, and general manager of the Duluth Padres amateur baseball club of the Wisconsin Baseball Association’s Upper 13 League, which play its home games at UMD’s Bulldog Park. Bush, a member of the Society For American Baseball Research, began writing about the history of local sports in 2012 and is currently working with Bob Silverness on a history of Proctor baseball.