Everyone knows how the story of Wisconsin Badgers baseball ends. Maybe that’s why it took more than 25 years after the program recorded its last out — a 1-0 loss to Purdue at Guy Lowman Field on May 10, 1991 — for someone to officially tell it.
“Nobody has ever written a history of the baseball team, which was the first varsity sport at the university,” says Steven Schmitt, author of A History of Badger Baseball: The Rise and Fall of America’s Pastime at the University of Wisconsin (UW Press), published earlier this month. Schmitt — a Madison native, Badger baseball fan, Wisconsin alum, and former reporter for several newspapers in the state — took seven years to write this book and interviewed 135 former players and coaches dating from the 1940s to the program’s 1991 demise amid a swirl of debt and Title IX concerns.
He will be selling books at a doubleheader between UW-Madison and Marquette University club baseball teams at Warner Park on April 22, beginning at 2 p.m., and he will be joined by journalist Doug Moe during a publication party at HotelRED, 1501 Monroe St., on April 24, at 7 p.m.
UW’s varsity baseball program began in 1870. Players participated in a first-of-its-kind nine-game road trip to Japan in 1909, and the Badgers appeared in the 1950 College World Series. The sport was on the chopping block multiple times during its 121-year run, beginning in the early 20th century. “I didn’t realize how often that happened until I did the research,” Schmitt says. “But football has always carried the other sports, whether in 1905 or 2017.”
Many former players who went on to build successful off-the-field careers in Madison are featured, including longtime and now retired Monona Grove High School athletic director Ron Nieman and Pat Richter, who left a career at Oscar Mayer to become Wisconsin’s athletic director in 1989. Harvey Kuenn made it to the big leagues and managed the Milwaukee Brewers to the team’s only World Series, and Dale Hackbart played for five NFL teams, including the Packers.
A History of Badger Baseball appears amid renewed hopes that the varsity sport will return to Wisconsin, the only Big Ten university without a team. “Some people say baseball will never come back, because it won’t support itself. Well, it never did,” Schmitt, says. “There would be people willing to pay the funds to bring it back.”