Eastern League (1977-1982)
Born: February 21, 1977 – The Berkshire Brewers relocate to Holyoke, MA.
Died: December 1982 – The Millers relocate to Nashua, NH.
Stadium: Mackenzie Field
The Holyoke (MA) Millers played six summers of minor league baseball in the double-A Eastern League between 1977 and 1982. The Millers took their name from Holyoke’s proud industrial heritage. At one time, the small Western Massachusetts city on the banks of the Connecticut River was a center of both textile and paper manufacturing. A grid of man-made canals powered the city’s booming mills and in the early decades of the 20th century Holyoke was known as “The Paper City”.
By the time the Milwaukee Brewers relocated their Berkshire (MA) Brewers farm club fifty miles east to Holyoke in February 1977, both the city’s manufacturing base and its population had entered into a steady decline.
“In the 1970′s Holyoke was the fire capital of the world; all kinds of fires, arson, spontaneous combustion,” local historian Craig Della Penna told Commonwealth Magazine in 2011, “Holyoke looked like Dresden in 1945.”
Holyoke itself had virtually no history with minor league baseball. The last professional club to make a home in the city was the Holyoke Papermakers of the Eastern Association way back in 1913. But for much of the postwar era, local baseball fans could enjoy games in the larger city of Springfield, Massachusetts, just eight miles to the south. The Golden Era of minor league ball in the Pioneer Valley came from 1957 to 1965 when the New York/San Francisco Giants of the National League had a terrific farm club in Springfield. The Springfield Giants won consecutive Eastern League titles from 1959 to 1961 and developed future Major League stars such as Juan Marichal, Frank Linzy, Manny Mota and the Alou Brothers, Felipe and Matty. But the Giants left Springfield in 1965 and the city’s Pynchon Park burned to the ground a year later.
From 1977 to 1980, the Millers were the double-A farm club of the Brewers. The Brewers’ era produced a few feature Major League journeymen such as Frank DiPino, Marshall Edwards and Ed Romero. The most enduring Major Leaguer to come out of Holyoke was outfielder Kevin Bass, who played the entirety of the 1979 and 1980 seasons with the Millers. Bass would spend the best seasons of his 14-year Major League career with the Houston Astros and made the National League All-Star team in 1986. During the Millers’ final season as a Brewers farm club in 1980, Holyoke won the Eastern League crown under manager Lee Sigman.
Prior to the 1981 season, the Brewers pulled out of their affiliation deal with Holyoke and moved their double-A farm club to El Paso of the Texas League. The California Angels moved in and would stock the Millers with prospects for their final two seasons in Holyoke in 1981 and 1982.
Ownership changed hands several times. Original Millers owner Lynn “Spike” Herzig, a New Yorker, arrived with the club from Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1977. Herzig owned the club during its previous incarnations as the Pittsfield Rangers and later the Berkshire Brewers. A young baseball executive named Tom Kayser owned the team by 1980. In 1981 Kayser sold the Millers to a group led by Jerome Mileur, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, for a reported $85,000.
During the Angels era, the Millers developed a handful of ballplayers that went on to significant Major League careers, including 5-time Gold Glove winning center fielder Gary Pettis (Millers ’81) and pitcher Dennis Rasmussen (Millers ’81) who won 91 games in the Majors over twelve seasons between 1983 and 1995.
In the early 1980′s, the Millers faced scheduling problems at city-owned Mackenzie Field, which was also used for baseball and track and field by the local public and parochial high schools.
“<My> most vivid memory is the cinder track that ran through the outfield,” recalled long-time Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers exec Jeff Eisenberg, who worked for the Millers in 1980. “The ballpark doubled as Holyoke high school track stadium. So this cinder track ran right through the outfield from halfway down the left field line straight across to the right field wall. It was the weirdest thing.”
Attendance was soft, as it was across much of the Eastern League in this era, shortly before the minor league boom of the mid-1980′s. During the Millers final season in the summer of 1982, the club attracted total attendance of 53,555 fans according to The Nashua Telegraph, well under 1,000 spectators per game. In December 1982, after months of public negotiation, Mileur moved his ballclub to Nashua, New Hampshire’s Holman Stadium. The ballclub became the Nashua Angels for the 1983 season.
Professional baseball never returned to Holyoke after the Millers left in December 1982. One big reason was the condition of Mackenzie Field. The ballpark, built in 1933, still stands today on Beech Street. A modern day baseball fan driving past would be shocked to learn that Major League teams sent their prospects to play in such a modest, ramshackle facility as recently as the 1980′s. Eric and Wendy Pastore, curators of the great Digital Ballparks website, have a great modern-day photo gallery of Mackenzie Field here. Mackenzie has hosted amateur teams in the New England Collegiate Baseball League since 2004.
The Eastern League franchise that once was the Holyoke Millers still exists today. After four seasons in Nashua, first as the Nashua Angels (1983) and later as the Nashua Pirates (1984-1986), Jerome Mileur moved his club again to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The team continues to play there today (ownership has since changed hands a couple of times) as the Harrisburg Senators, who celebrated their 25th season of play in 2011.