In 1994, a new baseball league was born, the Northwoods League, beginning with franchises in Kenosha, Wausau and Manitowoc, Wisconsin; Dubuque, Iowa and Rochester, Minnesota. This League was made up of "All-Star" teams of college players who competed in a 56-game schedule between June and August. Each franchise was to promote their games just like a professional franchise would. Fans could look forward to nightly giveaways, concessions, fireworks and many exciting game events. At the end of the first season, approximately 70,000 fans attended Northwoods League games and the Rochester Honkers had claimed the first League title with a 31-15 overall record.
In 1995, the League grew to six franchises when the Waterloo Bucks (Waterloo, IA) were added. That year also saw the Northwoods League's first All-Star game. On Saturday, July 22nd, the Wausau Woodchucks hosted the first Northwoods League All-Star game. This All-Star game featured the very best of the NWL. Along with the first All-Star game, the NWL had its first Championship playoff series. The teams with the best records of the first and second half of the season met in a Championship series. Eventually, the Kenosha Kroakers claimed the 1995 title, downing the Manitowoc Skunks two games to none and finishing with an overall record of 40-18.
The 1996 season season started on June 7th with the same six teams comprising the League. This season, the second year franchise from Waterloo hosted the 2nd Annual NWL All-Star game at Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo, IA. The Waterloo Bucks had earned the right to host the event by setting a single season attendance record in 1995, when 28,745 fans went through the gates in Waterloo. By the end of the regular season and Championship series, the 2nd year Bucks had claimed their first NWL crown, having defeated the Rochester Honkers two games to none.
1997 brought change in the NWL. One of the founding franchises, the Dubuque Mud Puppies, relocated to St. Cloud, MN and became the St. Cloud River Bats. Besides the location change, the league expanded its schedule of play to 64 games. Since its inception, the League now had 45 alumni playing or signed to play professional baseball. 1997 was the first time in League history that a franchise won a second NWL title, when the Rochester Honkers defeated the Waterloo Bucks two games to one. The Honkers finished with a 41-21 record. League attendance continued to grow, as over 135,000 fans came through the turnstiles during the season.
In 1998, the League celebrated its five-year anniversary, welcomed three new teams into the League, and moved to a two-division system. With the new teams entering the League, one founding member closed its doors, the Manitowoc Skunks. All three teams joining the NWL were former members of the now defunct Prairie League: Austin, MN, Brainerd, MN and Grand Forks, ND. The five-year old league had grown to eight teams covering four states (Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota). This season, the NWL introduced a divisional playoff scenario, having a first and second half winner meet in a playoff. The winners in each division series then meet in the NWL championship series. Another positive note for the League was that all of the eight teams were playing in ballparks where professional baseball had once been played. In 1998, the second year franchise, St. Cloud Rivers Bats, took the NWL crown when they defeated the Rochester Honkers two games to none.
1999 saw the first Alumnus of the NWL reach the Big Leagues. Jeff Weaver, a former Dubuque Mud Puppy pitcher, made his first start for the Detroit Tigers on April 14, 1999 against the Minnesota Twins. The year brought about a name change in one founding team. The Wausau Woodchucks became the Wisconsin Woodchucks, representing the only NWL team in the entire state of Wisconsin. This season saw the appearance of a new franchise and another founding member ceased operations. Entering the League was the Mankato, MN Mashers and the Kenosha Kroakers closed their doors. The annual All-Star game found a preeminent home in St. Cloud with the St. Cloud River Bats team playing host to the event the next several years. 1999 saw the Rochester Honkers earning their third championship crown. The Honkers and the River Bats met in a rematch of the '98 Championship Series, with the Honkers winning the series two games to one.
The new millennium, 2000, brought more changes for the League and another former NWL player made his debut with the Colorado Rockies. Juan Pierre, former outfielder of the Manitowoc Skunks, suited up for the National League's Rockies. The League continued to shift, with the Austin Southern Minny Stars moving to Minot, ND, to become the Minot Greenheads. With the increased miles for each team to travel, every NWL squad traveled by coach bus during the season. The St. Cloud River Bats defeated the Waterloo Bucks two games to none to claim their second title. Overall, the League continued to see growth, as more than 217,000 fans witnessed NWL baseball and five of the eight teams set new attendance records. By the end of the season, the NWL had more than 160 alumni that were either active or that had played professional baseball over the course of the last seven years.
The 2001 NWL season brought some great changes for the League. The Grand Forks Channel Cats and the Minot Greenheads ceased operations, while two exciting franchises opened in Alexandria, MN and Madison, WI. The Madison Mallards represented the largest city to host a NWL team, while the Alexandria Beetles became the smallest. The NWL All-Star Game saw a change as the NWL hosted Team USA in St. Cloud, MN. The NWL All-Stars wound up defeating Team USA, 1-0, in 10 innings. It was the first and only time to date that Team USA had been shut out by a team from the lower 48 states and their only loss to a team from the lower 48 states in 2001. The Wisconsin Woodchucks, one of two remaining inaugural NWL teams, claimed their first NWL Championship. The Woodchucks defeated the St. Cloud River Bats two games to one in the best of three championship series. League attendance continued to rise as more than 273,000 fans attended NWL games, more than any other summer collegiate baseball league at an average of 1,082 per game.
The 2002 NWL season saw single-season league records shattered, a long-time manager earn a Championship and attendance records fall by the wayside. The NWL saves record was broken by Wisconsin's Steve Grasley (Creighton) who racked up 19, breaking the old record of 15 set by Wisconsin's Tim McNab (Indiana). Waterloo's Adam Boeve (Northern Iowa) broke the stolen base record by swiping 43 bases, sliding by the old record of 42 on the last day of the regular season. Two NWL teams broke the team ERA record of 3.04 set by the 2000 St. Cloud squad. Brainerd's team ERA was an impressive 2.73, but not to be outdone, the Wisconsin Woodchucks posted a remarkable 2.53 team ERA. Long-time Waterloo manager Darrell Handelsman won his first NWL title by leading the Bucks to a 2-0 series win over the Brainerd Mighty Gulls. League attendance continued its unsurpassed growth by ballooning to another record of over 337,000. Average attendance grew from 1,082 in 2001 to 1,365 that summer.
The 2003 season saw a growth spurt with three new teams entering the circuit, bringing the League to 10 members. New affiliates in La Crosse, WI, Duluth, MN and Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada joined the League in 2003 as the Brainerd Mighty Gulls ceased operations following the 2002 campaign. Attendance grew by almost a quarter of a million fans to over 580,000, with the average attendance in the NWL increasing from 1,365 in 2002 to 1,803 in 2003.The Wisconsin Woodchucks won their second NWL Championship in three years, defeating the North Division Champion, St. Cloud River Bats, 2 games to 1, under the direction of former Major League pitcher Steve Foster. David Schultz (Creighton) of the La Crosse Loggers hit 16 home runs, the most by anyone since current Major Leaguer Jay Gibbons hit 17 in 1997. Mike Pankratz (San Jacinto JC) of the Wisconsin Woodchucks was named League MVP after posting a .699 slugging percentage along with 12 home runs. The story in 2003, though, was the pitching, as 5 players entered the top 11 all-time in single-season ERA. Jake Hansen (Northern Iowa) of the Madison Mallards led with a 1.23 ERA, second lowest in NWL history. Flame throwing Thomas Diamond (New Orleans) of the St. Cloud River Bats became the 4th NWL pitcher to strikeout 100 batters in a season as he finished 3rd all-time with 103. His teammate on both fronts (River Bats and New Orleans), JP Martinez, registered 17 saves, second all-time in the NWL. Will Krout (Sonoma State) of the Mankato Moondogs pitched great all summer, posting a League record 7 complete games and 3 shutouts, good for second in League history. The St. Cloud River Bats set a League pitching record for strikeouts and recorded the 2nd lowest ERA in team history.
In 2004, the Northwoods League would continue its trend of breaking records, both on and off the field. Eight of the ten NWL teams shattered their season attendance records, as 626,704 fans turned out for NWL baseball games in the summer of 2004. This number represented a 7.5% increase over the previous year's total. Leading the way was the Madison Mallards, who drew a NWL record 154,258 for the season including over 10,000 to a regular season game at Warner Park in June. The 2004 baseball season saw six more NWL alumni make their debut in the major leagues, bringing the current total to 19 former NWL players competing in the big leagues. Two former Wisconsin Woodchucks, Ben Zobrist and Jonathan Tierce, won batting titles at the professional level in their first full professional season. In all, seventy NWL alumni were drafted in the June 2004 Major League Baseball amateur draft including the 10th pick overall, Thomas Diamond, by the Texas Rangers. This marked the highest selection in NWL history, suprassing former alumni Jeff Weaver who was picked with the 14th overall pick in 1998. On the field, Rick Cavaiani (UW-Milwaukee) of the Woodchucks tied a team and league record for saves with 19. Ryan Hastings (Illinois) established a new League record with 57 base on balls while playing for Waterloo. His college teammate, Chad Frk, broke the all-time NWL record for games played with 227 from 2001-2004 with Waterloo and Madison. Phillip Hawke (Louisiana-Lafayette) was named League MVP after leading the circuit in home runs (11), RBI (41), and slugging percentage (.510). Hawke, also the winner of the "Star of Stars" award as All-Star game MVP, batted .301 and finished second in the League with a .443 on base percentage. Pitcher Lance Broadway (Texas Christian) finished with 95 strikeouts to lead the league (7th All-Time) while also tossing one of three no-hitters in 2004. Adam Sanabria (Florida) from Rochester and Greg Reinhard (UW-Whitewater) of Wisconsin threw the other no-hitters. The Madison Mallards won their first League championship in 2004 under the guidance of Darrell Handelsman, who was named Manager of the Year in the NWL. The championship marked the 2nd in Handelsman's career, the only manager in League history to win the title twice. Madison's pitching staff recorded a 2.54 team ERA, good for 2nd best All-Time in the NWL while four teams struck out 500 or more batters during the season, led by Wisconsin's 524 strikeouts, placing each in the top 6 All-Time.
Remarkably, the 2005 season witnessed more growth as both two new teams and fans alike accounted for another record-breaking season in the NWL. With the addition of Eau Claire, WI and the re-emergence of the Brainerd, MN franchise, the NWL had expanded to 12 teams in this their 12th year of operation. With growth came more record attendance numbers, as over 775,000 fans turned out for the 2005 season. Leading the way once again was Madison, WI who averaged an astounding 5,738 fans per night on their way to attracting a Summer Collegiate Baseball record of 200,000+ fans to the friendly confines of Warner Park. Ten of the 12 franchises set new attendance marks with a League-wide average attendance of 1,884. On the diamond, it was the League's only Canadian entry, the Thunder Bay Border Cats, who took home the coveted hardware when they won the NWL Championship. The Cats, who were making their first playoff appearance, knocked off the defending champion Madison Mallards, 2 games to 1, in an exciting Championship Series witnessed by record crowds the final two games in Thunder Bay. Border Cats reliever Shawn Williams (College of Charleston), son of former Big League Manager of the Year Jimy Williams, set a new NWL saves record with 20, eclipsing the previous mark of 19 established twice in the previous three seasons. Perhaps the biggest on-field story was Waterloo's Zach Daeges (Creighton), who ended the season as the NWL's first triple crown winner. The slugging first baseman led the circuit by batting .366, belting 13 home runs and tying for the RBI lead with 48. However, Madison outfielder Ryan Rogowski (Illinois) claimed the MVP award by hitting .345 and leading the NWL in hits (86), triples (5), runs (52), and setting the all-time stolen base mark with 44. Alexandria, MN hosted its first All-Star game before a record crowd of 1,857 in July. Once again, the NWL had over 70 players drafted in the MLB Amateur draft in June and watched six of its former alumni make their Major League debut in 2005, bringing the total to 25 former players to have gone on to play in the Big Leagues.
The 2006 season saw continued growth as the Northwoods League broke another attendance record as over 813,000 fans came through the gates. The Madison Mallards led the way, drawing over 6,000 fans nightly to Warner Park, fondly known as "The Duck Pond". Eight of the twelve Northwoods franchises set new attendance records in the League's 13th season of play, as the average attendance League-wide ballooned to 1,989 per game.
The Rochester Honkers won the Championship in record-setting fashion, finishing with a 50-17 record, prior to sweeping through the playoffs with four straight victories. They defeated the Madison Mallards in the divisional championship, before knocking off the defending Northwoods League Champion Thunder Bay Border Cats in the championship series. The Honkers were led by reliever Jake Toohey (Illinois) who set a Northwoods League record for saves with 24 and all-purpose first baseman/pitcher Efren Navarro (UNLV) who was named the League MVP.
The League's All-Star game flourished in La Crosse, WI as former Major League Manager Bob Brenly addressed the All-Stars at a gala luncheon prior to the combine and game attended by a bevy of Major League Scouts and over 3,400 fans. Brenly's son Michael (UNLV), played for the La Crosse Loggers in 2006, and Oney Guillen (North Park, IL), son of Major League Manager Ozzie Guillen played in Thunder Bay.
Pitching dominated the scene in 2006 as only five batters hit above the coveted .300 batting average. The Madison Mallards set a League record for Team ERA as they posted a 2.17 ERA. Pitcher Charlie Shirek (Nebraska) set the career ERA record for all Northwoods League pitchers as he posted a 1.47 ERA in his two seasons as a Duluth Huskie.
The Major League Amateur Draft saw a record 96 current or former Northwoods players taken as the League's talent continues to escalate and gain recognition from Major League teams. For the third consecutive season, the League had a former pitcher drafted in the first round as former La Crosse Logger Max Scherzer (Missouri) was the 11th pick overall. He follows former St. Cloud River Bat Thomas Diamond (New Orleans) 10th overall in 2004, and former Wisconsin Woodchuck Lance Broadway (Texas Christian) 15th overall in 2005.
Nine Northwoods League alumni made their debut in Major League Baseball in 2006, bringing the total to 35 former players who have gone on to shine in the Majors.
In 2007 the Northwoods League got bigger and better, once again, by growing in size, expanding to a new media frontier, breaking more records, and having dozens of alumni advance their baseball careers. The League grew to 14 teams with the addition of the Battle Creek, MI Bombers and the Green Bay, WI Bullfrogs. The Battle Creek franchise became the first Michigan entry and the League now had a presence in four U.S. states plus the Canadian province of Ontario. However, it was the Green Bay Bullfrogs that made the big splash on the field as they became the first expansion franchise to reach the playoffs after running away with the South Division first half championship. They accomplished this, in part, by breaking a nine year old League record for consecutive victories by winning 15 straight games in June, to snap the mark of 14 set by the 1998 St. Cloud River Bats. Amazingly, that record didn't even hold for a season, as the Madison Mallards strung together 16 straight wins late in the year in their failed pursuit of the Eau Claire Express who won their first division championship. Both Eau Claire and the North Division's Duluth Huskies were steamrolled in consecutive playoff games by an emotional St. Cloud River Bats team who swept their way to a third League Championship. St. Cloud's triumph came nine days after the death of 19 year old pitcher Richie Gargel (Temple) who suffered fatal injuries in a swimming accident.
St. Cloud's season began with a stadium change, the first such instance in League history. The River Bats moved across the parking lot from their ten-year home of Dick Putz Field to their new home, the upgraded Joe Faber Field. This park, and the other 13 League-wide, combined to set another League attendance record with more than 854,000 fans watching NWL action in 2007. The League was again paced by Madison, which topped 200,000 fans for the second straight season and the one-million mark overall in their seventh year. Eight teams set their own single-game attendance record on a given night during the '07 season. The Mankato MoonDogs were one of those teams, who in addition had an even larger crowd of 2,319 when they hosted the annual Northwoods League All-Star Game on July 11th. That record crowd saw local favorite and MoonDog third baseman Nate Hanson (Minnesota) get the game-winning hit and earn the "Star of Stars" game MVP honor. Hanson went on to earn even more hardware by winning the batting title with a .363 average, the Rawlings Defensive Player of the Year (formerly Silver Glove) at third base, and a new Northwoods League award, the Rawlings Offensive Player of the Year that was issued to the top hitter at each position. The League MVP award was shared for the first time as Eau Claire outfielder/closer Kole Calhoun (Yavapai) and Green Bay outfielder Daniel Robertson (Concordia-Irvine) received Co-MVP honors. Robertson and Duluth second baseman Joe Bonadonna (Illinois) share a new League record having both stolen 45 bases in the 2007 season. Bonadonna, in his third year with the Huskies, tied the career mark with 75 steals. Other records set in '07 include Mankato's Chad Dawson (Indiana State) breaking the career saves mark by four, with 32, in two seasons and Brainerd Blue Thunder outfielder Andy Dirks (Wichita State) reaching base safely in 52 consecutive games to snap the old record of 50 set back in 1995.
The entire Northwoods League was showcased to a nationally televised audience for the first time with coverage provided by ESPNU. Three games, including the All-Star Game, and eleven 30-minute episodes of "Northwoods Baseball Weekly" aired throughout the summer on the specialized college sports network. In the meantime, NWL Alumni were advancing their careers with nine more players making their Major League debut to bring the League total to 44, and a record 120 players getting their named called during the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
In 2008, the Northwoods League celebrated its 15th anniversary season and accomplished some milestones along the way. Many of the milestones were because of great accomplishments by League alumni. In June, 141 current and former NWL players were selected in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft. This number dramatically eclipsed the previous record of 120 set a year earlier. In all, six players that once donned Northwoods League uniforms debuted at the Major League level in 2008. Max Scherzer (La Crosse, 2004) first appeared for the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 29th. His debut was one of the best debuts in Major League history with the right-handed pitcher entering the game in relief and throwing 4.1 perfect innings while striking out seven. In September when Casey McGehee (St. Cloud, 2001) joined the Chicago Cubs he became the 50th NWL alumnus to appear on a big league roster. Baltimore Orioles closer George Sherrill (Kenosha, 1997-98) became the first NWL alum to appear in a Major League all-star game when he pitched 2.1 scoreless innings in July's 15-inning classic.
The present day NWL players were seen in a new way in 2008. The League launched a new website in May, northwoodsleague.tv, which allowed fans from around the world for the first time to watch any game on the NWL schedule live or archived via a video webcast. For the second consecutive year fans from across the country viewed the NWL All-Star Game on ESPNU. The South All-Stars defeated the North 8-4 at Warner Park in Madison, WI on July 11th in front of an all-star game record crowd of 5,357. Madison set a summer collegiate baseball record totaling 207,949 fans through their gates during the 2008 regular season. Madison's 6,116 and La Crosse's average of 3,319 fans per game represented the two highest averages in all of Summer Collegiate Baseball. Madison and five other NWL franchise's set a team attendance record for per game average.
The success stories of some teams in attendance weren't felt by the Northwoods League as a whole. The League took a step back in overall attendance for the first time since 1996. This happened in part due to arguably the worst year for weather in NWL history. Twenty-four games were rained out and a number more were suspended shortly after starting. The Waterloo Bucks were displaced from Riverfront Stadium for 33 days due to the ballpark flooding in June. They were to play 16 games at Riverfront during that stretch. Instead, two were cancelled and the other 14 were played either on the road or a high school field in Waterloo drawing far fewer fans than they would have under normal circumstances. For the second time in four years the Thunder Bay Border Cats overcame one of the more difficult travel schedules in the League to take home the Northwoods League Championship. Playing the finale at home at Port Arthur Stadium, Thunder Bay defeated Madison two games to one in thrilling come-from-behind fashion. Wisconsin and Mankato were the other playoff participants with the MoonDogs being led by NWL MVP Carlos Ramirez (Chandler-Gilbert CC) and Manager of the Year Jason Nell (Iowa Lakes CC).