The modern era for local professional sports really isn’t that old — only going back about 20 years — because the industry is facility driven. Without a stadium, field or arena capable of holding sizeable crowds, the revenue won’t be there and neither will the franchises.
That was the case here until April 12, 1994, when the West Michigan Whitecaps played their first Midwest Baseball League home game at Old Kent Park in Comstock Park. That spring day capped an eight-year crusade driven by Lew Chamberlin and Dennis Baxter to bring professional baseball here; they moved the Madison Muskies to the 10,000-seat suburban park and became an affiliate of the Oakland Athletics.
“I speak at a lot of functions and what’s amazing to me is that people are surprised it’s been 20 years,” said Whitecaps President Scott Lane.
But before Chamberlin and Baxter made their mark on the modern era, one businessman was the sports business here. Robert “Bob” Sullivan owned and operated Sullivan’s Carpets and Furniture on the site now occupied by Bridgewater Place and River House condos. He also had a tile store on Bridge Street where the Swift Printing Co. is today.
Sullivan held interests for decades in local basketball, football and baseball teams at the semi-professional and amateur levels. He formed and managed the Grand Rapids Sullivans, a top-notch amateur baseball club, in 1953. The Sullivans played home games at Valley Field, now Sullivan Field, on the city’s west side and won the National Baseball Congress World Series in 1960, 1970, 1983 and 1984. In fall 1961, Sullivan played a major role in bringing the Grand Rapids Tackers into the Mid-West Professional Basketball League and won the league championship in the 1963-64 season. The following year the Tackers moved to the North American Basketball League and won two titles there in 1964 and 1967, the year the NABL disbanded.
Sullivan had a hand in football, too, with the Grand Rapids Shamrocks and Grand Rapids Blazers. Both teams played home games at the South High School field in Burton Heights. Both played in the United Football League and both won championships. The Shamrocks was the first entry and won the title in 1961. Then the Shamrocks became the Blazers the following year and also became champs in 1962. The league dissolved two years later in 1964.
Three years before Sullivan started his baseball club, the Grand Rapids Rockets were playing hockey at Stadium Arena, now the DeltaPlex Arena and Conference Center in Walker. The Rockets skated in the International Hockey League from 1950-1956 and lost in the league finals three times. The franchise left town after the 1956 season to become the Huntington Hornets and then moved again to become the Louisville Rebels in 1957. The franchise folded in 1959.
Twenty-two years passed before pro hockey was played again at Stadium Arena. In 1978, the IHL’s Dayton franchise moved here and became the Grand Rapids Owls. The Owls only played for two seasons, losing in the IHL finals the first year and failing to make the playoffs in their second and last season.
But pro hockey returned in a big way 16 years later. The Van Andel Arena opened Oct. 12, 1996, and the Grand Rapids Griffins, then an IHL franchise, began their run a few days later in front of a packed house of 10,834. The Grand Action Committee, a coalition of local business people, and the Downtown Development Authority worked together for a period of four years to bring the city a first-class facility.
Spectacor Management Group was chosen by the DDA to manage the building. The city had hired SMG to oversee operations at the Grand Center, the convention and meeting facility, in 1994. Craig Liston was the SMG manager then and told the Business Journal Grand Rapids was the nation’s largest city without an arena until the Van Andel made its debut.
Dan and Pamella DeVos and David Van Andel created West Michigan Hockey Inc. in 1995 with the sole purpose of bringing pro hockey here. Their firm signed a lease agreement for the arena with the DDA on Oct. 11, 1995, after the IHL awarded the partners an expansion franchise the previous April.
“When we announced the formation of West Michigan Hockey in January of this year, our stated objective was to offer affordable family entertainment through the highest quality hockey possible. Under the terms of this lease agreement we will have accomplished that,” said Dan DeVos then.
The Griffins played in the IHL through 2001, the year the league dissolved, and joined the American Hockey League the following season. The team, the primary affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, won the Calder Cup championship in June 2013 and presented the city with its first hockey title.
The Griffins weren’t the arena’s only pro sport tenant. The Grand Rapids Hoops beat the Rockford Lightning on Nov. 16, 1996, in a Continental Basketball League game at the arena that drew 8,704 fans. Businessman Bob Przybysz and his partner Brendan Suhr had bought the Grand Rapids Mackers in March of that year and moved the team from the Welsh Auditorium, which only had a seating capacity of 3,500, to the arena. They returned the franchise to its original name after running a name-the-team contest. The Hoops debuted in the CBA in the 1989-1990 season at the Welsh and the successful 3-on-3 tournament Gus Macker crew bought the club in 1993.
But the CBA struggled and the Hoops folded in February 2001 when the league suspended operations. Isiah Thomas, former Detroit Pistons great, bought the league and all its franchises. But when Thomas accepted the head coaching job for the Indiana Pacers, the National Basketball Association forced him to relinquish his ownership. Buyers couldn’t be found and the CBA died.
The Hoops played for a season-and-a-half in the International Basketball League when local businessmen Joel and Bruce Langlois, owners of the DeltaPlex, revived the franchise and moved the games into their building. The franchise ended in 2002 following a third-place finish in the IBL.
Football also was played in the arena. Dan and Pamella DeVos brought the indoor variety of the game to the building in 1998. A year earlier, their firm, DP Fox Ventures, purchased the defunct Arena Football League franchises of the Detroit Drive and Massachusetts Marauders and named the club the Grand Rapids Rampage. The franchise won the ArenaBowl, the league’s championship, at the arena before a national audience on ABC television on Aug. 19, 2001.
In 1999, arena football was identified as the hottest pro sports commodity around. But a decade later, financial strains throughout the league convinced owners to cancel the 2009 season. “I believe what is best for the AFL is best for the Grand Rapids Rampage. When the league is ready, the Rampage will play,” said Dan DeVos at the time. But on March 5, 2010, DP Fox announced the Rampage was officially out of business.
The Whitecaps recently concluded their 20th season, and management is making plans for a 21st that will begin at Fifth Third Ballpark next April. The franchise set minor league attendance records in its first few seasons and drew an all-time high of 547,401 in 1996. The team pulled in a very respectable 390,000 fans through its turnstiles to finish fourth in MBL attendance.
The Whitecaps have made it to the MBL championship series five times in their history and won the title every time. They beat Wisconsin in 1996; Rockford in 1998; Kane County in 2004 and 2006; and Beloit in 2007.
Perhaps the club’s biggest victory was bringing baseball here and kick-starting the modern era of local pro sports. The Business Journal gave Chamberlin and Baxter its prestigious Newsmaker of the Year Award in 1994 for their never-say-quit effort to make the Whitecaps and the local sports industry a winner.
“We reached levels of success we might never have dreamed we’d reach,” said Chamberlin back then.
“It was frustrating at times, but I never lost the idea that it was going to be successful,” added Baxter. “It was just too good to back away from.”