The Northern League, based in Chicago, is an independent baseball league which operates in the Northern United States and the Canadian province of Manitoba, unaffiliated with either Major League Baseball or the organized minor leagues.
The Northern League exists so that professional baseball players who are not signed by a Major or Minor League organization could have another chance at playing at a higher level. Although the level of Northern League play can be categorized as between A and AA, players in independent baseball are usually not scouted heavily by Major League teams. Many Major League alumni have called Northern League teams home in an effort get back to the Majors.
The league started in 1993 with 6 teams: Duluth-Superior Dukes (Duluth, Superior WI), Rochester Aces (Rochester, Minnesota), St. Paul Saints (St. Paul, Minnesota), Sioux Falls Canaries (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), Sioux City Explorers (Sioux City, Iowa) and Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks (Thunder Bay, Ontario). The prospects for the league were originally "cloudy." Many forecast an early demise especially in St. Paul where competition with the Minnesota Twins led many local sportswriters to consider it a "beer league."
In fact the league was, overall, quite a success with only one franchise, Rochester, failing to attract significant crowds. The ailing Aces franchise was sold to an owner in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Sam Katz) and renamed the Winnipeg Goldeyes.
Part of the success of the league is the structure of the teams with both salary caps and roster rules. Teams are permitted no more than 4 veterans (5+ years professional experience) and required to have at least as many rookies. The rest of the rosters are made up of players with various years of experience (listed as LS-1 to LS-5 for "limited service).
The league expanded from six to eight teams in 1996 with the addition of franchises of the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks (Fargo, North Dakota) and Madison Black Wolf (Madison, Wisconsin). After the 1998 season, Thunder Bay, originally with the second best attendance in the league, was sold and became the Schaumburg Flyers (Schaumburg, Illinois) in 1999.
In 1999, its eight teams merged with the Northeast League, which had begun in 1995. During these years the original Northern League franchises made up the Northern League Central and the Northeast League teams became the Northern League East. Despite becoming one league, the 2 divisions only played each other during the league championship series. In 2002 expansion in the Central added the Joliet JackHammers (Joliet, Illinois) and Gary SouthShore RailCats (Gary, Indiana).
The relationship between the two leagues ended at the conclusion of the 2002 season. The Northeast League was reestablished as a separate league (which later reformed as the Can-Am League). It was the final year that Miles Wolff remained associated with his creation. Mike Stone replaced him as league commissioner.
During this same period two more teams struggling with attendance and difficult stadiums relocated. In 2001, the Madison Black Wolf became the Lincoln Saltdogs (Lincoln, Nebraska) while in 2003 the Duluth-Superior Dukes became the Kansas City T-Bones (Kansas City, Kansas).
After the 2005 season, the St. Paul Saints, Sioux Falls Canaries, Lincoln Saltdogs, and Sioux City Explorers left the Northern League to establish their own independent minor league, called the American Association. Soon after that, Mike Stone stepped down as commissioner and was replaced by Jim Weigel.
The Northern League played the 2006 season as a two-division, eight-team league. In 2007 Clark C. Griffith replaced Jim Weigel as commissioner. Following the 2007 season, the Calgary Vipers and Edmonton Cracker-Cats left the Northern League to join the Golden Baseball League.
Over 12 seasons, over two dozen former Northern League players have played in Major League Baseball. These include players such as J. D. Drew, Kevin Millar, Chris Coste, Jeff Zimmerman, and Rey Ordoñez. Several former MLB players have played in the league including Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, Darryl Strawberry, Jack Morris, Pedro Guerrero, and Leon "Bull" Durham. Former MLB players and coaches have also coached or managed in the Northern League including Terry Bevington, Jackie Hernandez, Hal Lanier, Danny Jackson, Wayne Terwilliger, Darryl Motley, Matt Nokes, and "Dirty" Al Gallagher.
|Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks||1996||Fargo, North Dakota||Newman Outdoor Field||4,513|
|Gary SouthShore RailCats||2002||Gary, Indiana||U.S. Steel Yard||6,000|
|Joliet JackHammers||2002||Joliet, Illinois||Silver Cross Field||6,016|
|Kansas City T-Bones||2003||Kansas City, Kansas||CommunityAmerica Ballpark||6,537|
|Schaumburg Flyers||1993||Schaumburg, Illinois||Alexian Field||6,000|
|Winnipeg Goldeyes||1994||Winnipeg, Manitoba||Canwest Park||7,481|
When the league dropped to six teams in 2008, it still played a 96-game schedule, but did not split the season and did not have divisions. Instead, the top four teams qualified for the playoffs. First best of five round was against first- and fourth-place finishers, and between second- and third-place finishers. The winners of the first round then played a best of five championship season.