A History of Baseball in Langlade County, Part II
BABA Baseball and the Polar Bears
By Craig Marx, Editor
Baseball history in Langlade County would be almost non-existent without the mention of the once venerated County League. But for a few such teams, competition against strictly in-county opponents was not enough. While the Antigo Credit Union and Star Neva-sponsored teams went on to play amateur ball against rival towns throughout Wisconsin in what is known as the BABA, let’s take a look at the historic Polar Bears – a team that is as much a part of that community’s culture and history as the town itself.
The Badger Amateur Baseball Association, better known by its acronym BABA, is an amateur baseball league in Central Wisconsin that is open to players ranging from high school age and above. Using a standard, nine inning game length and fast pitch hardball rules with wooden bats, the BABA showcases an exceptional level of baseball talent across the board.
The BABA was created on April 3, 1946 by Albert Brunner at a meeting held at the Clintonville City Hall. Brunner, a long-time baseball enthusiast, combined the Shawano County League with the Wolf River and Little Wolf leagues to create a baseball superpower of amateur talent.
The ground rules laid down by the BABA and Brunner were simple enough and have not been changed in 70 years. The league was established to display talent from Central and Northern Wisconsin and firmly believed in the exclusion of outside players, in particular “ringers” from other areas of the state or country to come into the league and potentially dominate the field.
Teams were allowed to recruit players from within only a 10-mile radius from their home ballpark and, unlike some leagues at the time, the BABA stressed the local talent demographic of its proud participants. The original 1946 season was comprised of four divisions of 30 teams spanning from Birnamwood to Weyauwega.
Before the Polar Bears made their mark on the BABA scene, the team played in local and countywide leagues from as far back as community residents can remember. Once they joined the BABA, however, the Bears had success competing against towns and cities from outside Langlade County. Though unable to win the coveted grand championship, played for amongst the winners of the associations’ four divisions, the Bears took runner-up honors in 1973 and 1983.
Lee Kuenzli, the current coach of the newly-resurrected Polar Bears, has been around the team for years. Designing and constructing the Bears’ current ballpark complex on County Road S, Kuenzli and his family are staples of the county’s only current BABA club.
“I started playing with the Polar team when I was 15 years old,” the 61-year old former second baseman recalled. “I played with White Lake and for Polar. I had the opportunity like a lot of other guys to go off and play for a farm club, but I never did. When you’re 17 or 18 years old, you don’t think about those things. It was a family decision. My dad had to go down to Milwaukee to work which left me with my mother and nine other siblings. Seven of them are still alive.”
The Bears played at the Polar Country Club to packed stands of hundreds of fans gathered to see the local talent en masse. After Polar enjoyed years of success in the BABA’s Northern Division, interest in the sport itself, almost on a national level, unfortunately began to dwindle later in the century.
The Polar coach explained the modern trend of how the Bears eventually folded as a BABA-sanctioned ball club in the late 1980s. With so many high school and college students beginning to shy away from sports in favor of more docile activities, the BABA began to downsize. The Bears eventually broke away from the iconic Central Wisconsin amateur organization and returned to their roots, playing solely in the Langlade County League.
The Polar team made efforts to try and get back in the BABA, but the league administration was worried by the club’s recent downsizing and reversion back to County League ball, a sport that was noted for its use of players outside the home ballpark’s domain.
In the history of the Polar Bears and their County League play before the organization’s closure in 1999, the team won six league championships and took second place 11 times (not including the Bears’ brother team, the Cubs, but that is another story to be told).
After time, the Bears ceased to play at their storied home diamond at the country club. The Polar community, with the Kuenzlis destined to bring back the glory of the Bears and Sunday afternoon hardball, received 15 acres of land donated from Richard Deede on Cty. Rd. S. With land set aside for new diamonds, Lee Kuenzli went to work.
“I remember Memorial Day 2000. My dad was standing on [Highway S] with a white kerchief tied to a stick, flagging people down and stopping traffic as I brought my dump truck in and out of where we were making the field. It probably wasn’t the best way to do it but it worked,” Kuenzli said laughing. “It took me almost seven years to build it, but we did it.”
The new complex consists of two diamonds, with the west ball field used for modern BABA games and the east field for softball and youth baseball. A beautiful pavilion, equipped with retractable doors to serve in nearly any kind of weather or make the building open air, hosts bingo, parties, and weddings during the appropriate seasons.
Karen Fay Kuenzli, Lee’s sister and the Bears’ current manager, was pivotal in helping the Bears rejoin the BABA. A few years back, the Mattoon Loons were on the brink of folding. After negotiation, Karen was able to secure rights for the team to become the new Polar Bears and once again compete in the highly-competitive amateur association.
This is the second season since the Bears returned to both the BABA and the Polar community. In just one year, the Polar club has already reached a Northern Division championship game which brought an unfortunate loss against Elderon. The season also saw the untimely death of player Shawn Wickersheim, a 29-year old White Lake native that played with both the Mattoon and Polar teams. A memorial to Wickersheim was placed over the fence line in center field at the Bears’ home field.
The honor of playing for the historic Polar team runs through generation to generation, and with the BABA and the Bears back in town, Langlade County residents can once again watch exciting amateur ball at a wonderful new field and facility.
“I am proud to be from Polar and be a part of a team that had a dynasty in baseball,” Lee Kuenzli said in closing. “With players from here playing from Little League all the way to the big leagues, it makes you proud to be part of a small community like this.”