The Man That Brought Baseball to Grand Rapids

There has been much talk of the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays moving to Midland. That decision has not been made yet. A part of that decision rests in the hands of Whitecaps CEO Lew Chamberlin. Lew is on the "Transfer Expansion Committee" of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues for his time of duty. Lew was one of two gentlemen in the Grand Rapids area that shared the dream of having a professional baseball team in West Michigan and were able to see that dream come true.

Lew grew up in Grand Rapids during the 1950's and 1960's and remembers going to Tigers games with his father and grandfather from time to time throughout his childhood. They used to take a train from Grand Rapids that would drop them off within a couple blocks of Briggs Stadium. Those were special times for Lew. He could not remember much about the game as a child or even if they won or lost, but loved the excitement of being at the game and the shared experience with his family. "I have such strong memories of walking through the dark tunnel and seeing the bright green field." His neighborhood would get together every day throughout the summer and play baseball--it didn't matter whether 2 or 3 or 18 showed up, they played baseball anyway. "When I was growing up, baseball was kind of all consuming. During the summer we had a lot of free time on our hands and we spend it playing baseball--all day everyday." After dark he listened to a lot of Ernie Harwell. Yes, Lew has had the chance to meet Ernie Harwell. "One of the perks of being in my position is meeting many of my baseball heros, getting to talk to them and hear their stories." Heros like Bill Freehan and Al Kaline who he watched in the 1968 World Series with his dad and brother, and others he watched in the 1984 series.

Mr Chamberlin later became a lawyer and practiced for two years in the late 1970's, but ended up working in the family owned steel business. In 1980, there were a series of articles written by Corky Meinke in the Grand Rapids Press comparing Evansville, IL, where the Tiger's AAA team was located, to Grand Rapids. It posed the question that if Evansville, a significantly smaller town, could have a professional baseball team and family entertainment, why not a town like Grand Rapids? In the early 80's there were a few attempts to bring baseball to Grand Rapids, but they failed for various reasons. In 1985, Lew found himself at a cross road in his career when the family business was sold. With the support and encouragement of his parents and wife, Lew began researching minor league baseball, seeking to understand the game, the leagues, and player development with the thought of bringing his dream to a reality. One day he opened the Grand Rapids Press and found an article telling about a man named Denny Baxter, who was doing the same thing, but had progressed further in feasibility studies. The two were able to get into contact, and found that they had the same philosophy: to bring inexpensive family entertainment to the Grand Rapids area, so they decided to pool their efforts.

Between the years of 1985 and 1992, Lew and Denny worked at trying to find financing for a professional baseball team. They immediately found their biggest problem to be what Lew refers to as the "classic chicken and egg problem." Noone wanted to build a stadium without a team, and noone wanted to bring a team in with no stadium in which to play. Lew and Denny decided they needed to establish credibility for themselves in the baseball business, so in the summer of 1989, with 4 gentlemen from the Chicago area, they bought a minor league baseball team now known as the Kane County Cougars. Lew and Denny had 50% ownership. Back then the team was located in Wausau, Wisconsin, and was known as the Wausau Timbers. In 1991, they moved the Wausau Timbers to Kane County and were encouraged by the great response of the community.

During this time, Lew and Denny had tried to find a way to get the community to fund a stadium, and had a great deal of interest from the small community of Wyoming, but the deal fell apart. They tried a few other communities such as Byron Center, but again, the deal fell through. Finally, in 1991-1992, they decided to find a way to finance their own stadium. They found out about a piece of land available, and were able to finance the stadium through a commercial loan and the selling of the naming rights to Old Kent Bank, and Old Kent Park was born. Lew and Denny had a small office on the corner of Lewis and Ionia that they called "West Michigan baseball, Inc." The Madison franchise that they purchased in 1993 was brought to Grand Rapids in 1994.

To establish a fan base, they had interested parties make a small deposit on a season ticket. They were able to sell 700 and almost all of them were transferred into season tickets.They knew there was some interest in the project with media interest and community interest in a lengthy "name the team" contest that had 1800 contestants. Even so, they were not prepared for the enthusiastic crowd that showed up, the night before the individual tickets were sold in March of 1994, carrying sleeping bags to camp out by the office. By morning the crowd circled the building. Lew has fond memories of that day and the fun they had mingling with fans, and looking forward to a great season.

The Whitecaps inaugural opening remains one Lew's favorite memories. The rain stopped long enough to get the game in. The sell out crowd of 6210 watched the West Michigan Whitecaps beat the Burlington Bees 5-2. Lew's fondest memory of that opening night is framed above the desk in his office. A picture of his son and daughter, Joe and Meg, and Denny's daughter Tara throwing out the first pitch of the game.

Most of Lew's strongest memories are of beginnings and endings of seasons--the excitement of the new season and the bittersweetness of walking along the quiet concourse at the end of the season, knowing that it will all start up again in 7 months. As much as Lew has enjoyed seeing three championship teams come through the ballpark (1996, 1998, and 2004), the fans are Lews greatest delight, especially the kids. He enjoys watching the kids chase the foul balls and their excitement in the prize. "I really enjoy watching some big brut catch a foul ball and then turn around and give it to a kid." Lew has wonderful memories of having his parents at the Whitecaps games over the years. His dad is gone, but his mother still comes to every opening game.

It took 10 long years to make his dream of bringing professional baseball to a reality. Many of those years were very frustrating as they would almost accomplish the goal and end up right back where they started. Denny and Lew never gave up. Their dream was accomplished by perseverance. "No, the Midland team is not a done deal," Lew said shaking his head, "I have seen too many possibilities shot down. Before they can have a team in Midland, they have to get through the application process in that manual over there " Lew pointed out a thick notebook which holds the application process for the transfer of the Battle Creek team to Midland. What advice would Lew give those trying to start a team in Midland? "Build more storage space," he laughed, "Seriously, I would tell them to take the time and effort to understand the market and community involved in the endeavor--find out what makes them tick."

Tigs Town Top Stories