Woven in the fabric of the community: Chaska Cubs celebrate 90 years

By Nick Gerhardt

ScoreMonster Contributor

news@mnbaseball.org

Chaska might be that rare community that has maintained its small-town charm feel even as its population has soared.

When the Chaska Cubs officially began in 1928 the town’s population sat around 1,900. Ninety years later the number of residents has skyrocketed to more than 26,000. During all that time baseball has remained a central component to the town’s identity and the Cubs are celebrating their 90-year anniversary this season.

A team doesn’t simply exist because there’s a good stock of players available through the decades and the people involved with the Cubs have known that.

“We’ve always had people in town really committed to town ball,” said Cubs General Manager Bob Roepke and former mayor of Chaska. “We’ve had people who have really stepped up. The city has been a great partnership, too.”

It’s been about the fan experience for the Cubs, especially the kids. Athletic Park features a garden and a bronze sculpture in flowers. The garden includes flowers in Cubs helmets and Cubs cutouts made by high school students. The activities for the kids have included swings, wall ball, cart rides and money scrambles through the years.

For the kids who have grown up in Chaska, Athletic Park itself is a draw. Situated a stone’s throw away from the Minnesota River, the Athletic Park has become one of the most cherished ballparks in the state since its opening in 1950. The grandstand and picturesque views make it a destination for ballpark aficionados.

“The ballpark is important, tradition is important,” said Dale Welter, a former Cubs player who won a title with the team in 1971 and helped do the groundskeeping of the field until the city took over. “I say even if you don’t like baseball, you’ll like coming to the Chaska ballpark. It’s just fun to go down. I have city guys just go down there for lunch. It’s so relaxing.”

The reverence that people hold for the park is evident in the tournaments it has hosted and continues to host. Chaska recently received the 2021 Minnesota Baseball Association state tournament bid with co-host Waconia. It will mark the fifth time the park has hosted the state tournament.

Athletic Park has regularly hosted Minnesota State High School League Class A state tournament games since 2000 and the MN Play Ball! All-Star Baseball Series (previously known as the Lions All-Star Baseball Series) since 1989. It has also hosted the American Legion Division I state tournament in 1997 and 2008.

Baseball beginnings

Records of baseball being played in Chaska date as far back as 1876 but it wasn’t until Chaska Athletic Park got completed in 1950 that the community had a venue that adequately displayed that affection.

The ballpark opened that year with a grandstand capacity of 1,500 and the site became the first in the state with an electronic scoreboard. Five years later the rest of the state got to know what has become one of the great baseball jewels in Minnesota when Chaska hosted the 1955 state tournament. A total of 24,161 fans turned out to see St. Peter capture the Class A title and Cold Spring win the Class B tournament through the course of 10 days. The park’s capacity reached nearly 6,000 with additional bleachers in right and left field.

The park has received several honors through the years but in 1997 the Minnesota Coaches Association named Athletic Park the Field of the Year and Welter was named the Groundskeeper of the Year. Welter’s son, Eric, told Todd Mueller in Mueller’s book, “Town Ball Parks of Minnesota” that his father used to water the field at 2, 4 and 6 a.m.

The Cubs have hosted the 1955, 1988, 1998 and the 2008 state tournaments. The 1998 state tournament drew more than 17,000 fans, the most since 1960. 

The field has succumbed to flooding through the years but the city built a berm in 2015. The field has flooded six times in the last 13 years and a levee runs around the outside of the park.

Cubs success

Chaska’s success on the field came just as quick as the praise for Athletic Park. The Cubs have appeared in 34 state tournaments and own four state titles.

Four years after becoming a club, the Cubs claimed their first state title in 1932. They repeated in 1947 before going on a bit of a title drought. Chaska didn’t earn its third title until 1971. Chaska’s last state title came in 1987 and the team has taken second in 1978 and 1998.

There have been some great players through the years that have worn a Cubs uniform but there has also been some great continuity in the dugout. Herb Eder coached the Cubs from 1932 to 1937. He came back in 1950, 1952-53 and 1960 before Ted “Casey” Nikolai took over. Eder had just one losing season in that time.

Nikolai led the team in 1963 for a year before returning in 1966. He continued to manage until 1984. Nikolai earned a selection to the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979 after maintaining a winning percentage of better than .800.

John Seifert managed the team for 22 years before retiring in 2016 and turning the reins over to Bob Poppitz.

Community support

An organization like the Cubs doesn’t see the success like they have without tremendous community support. From volunteers to businesses to fan turnout, the Cubs have been a model.

Chaska’s Dugout Club has more than 400 members and events like Lenzen Night, named for the local Chevrolet dealer, bring out around 1,000 fans. It’s a night of games and giveaways for fans and the best attended game each season.

The Cubs offer four Dugout Club memberships ranging from $40 to $200. Dugout Club members receive a T-shirt, admission to all regular season home games, a beverage and popcorn.

Preserving baseball

For the kids who turn out to see their first Cubs game they get an experience not unlike a Major League Baseball park with Athletic Park’s entertainment options. Baseball is at the center of it all at Athletic Park but the experience creates an indelible mark for kids and makes it easy to fall in love with the game.

Those experiences are tough to create in other communities with populations approaching 30,000 but that’s what makes Chaska a special place for baseball.

“There’s been a big priority in preserving the history of the community,” Roepke said. “Maybe we’re not such a small town, but we’ve been absolutely committed to those small-town values. Preserving baseball has been a big part of its traditions.”

More information

The Chaska Historical Society has an exhibit documenting the 90 years of Cubs baseball on display now. For more information check out the Chaska Historical Society website or the Chaska Herald article about the exhibit.

Photos courtesy of the Chaska Historical Society

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