Merrill Baseball: A tradition 118 years strong
By Jared Schmeltzer
Baseball has long been one of America’s favorite pass times, and in the early to mid 1900’s it was the heart and soul of the Merrill community. Professional baseball has been around since 1869, with pro baseball making its way to Merrill in 1906, with the Merrill Stars. In the 1920’s, Merrill picked up Buck Weaver from the Chicago White Sox, a player who was on the team during the Black Sox Scandal in the 1919 World Series. The 1926 season marked the last season of professional baseball in Merrill, with the 1930’s Merrill teams consisting of local unpaid players.
It wasn’t until after World War 2, with the explosion of baseball in America, did the Merrill Rangers semi-pro team come to be. In the seasons of 1945-1947, the Merrill Merchants were a team made up of local players. However, in 1948 the team changed their name to the Merrill Rangers and started to recruit and pay players. Two key additions for the Rangers in 1948 include former minor league players, Frank Shade and Chet Cichosz. In that season, the Rangers would be crowned the champions of the first half of the league, however would not sit atop the league at the end of the season. A heated match-up with the Tomahawk Cubs saw Tomahawk take the second half championship, with a 4-1 win over the Rangers. The Cubs and Rangers then set off on a three-game playoff battle, with the Cubs besting the Rangers in the first game, the Rangers taking the second game and the Cubs winning the series and Valley Title with a third game victory.
According to Mike Weckwerth, Author of The Rangers Reign and son of famed Merrill pitcher Warren Weckwerth, players used to get payed more money to play baseball in the Wisconsin Valley League than they did at their regular jobs.
“Baseball was huge in Merrill back then,” explained Weckwerth, “Players were getting paid a lot of money to play ball. I remember my dad used to tell me that he made more money a year playing for the Rangers than he did at his day job.”
In the 1950 season, with a revamped squad, the Merrill Rangers finished the first half of the season with a record of 14-0. The Rangers would not fare as well in the second half of play, losing four games which allowed Tomahawk to take the second half championship. The stage was then set for another exciting playoff series between the Cubs and Rangers. The Rangers dropped the first game of the series by a score of 6-0. Merrill then rallied to win the second game by a score of 5-3 and went on to win the third game by a score of 4-3, winning the Wisconsin Valley League. The Rangers finished the season with a record of 32-10, with a record of 5-4 against the Tomahawk Cubs.
After winning the state championship in 1951, the Rangers would play in the National Tournament. Merrill lost in the tournament to Camp Lejuene, NC, by a score of 3-2 in an 11 inning game.
In the late 50’s the Rangers and the rest of the Valley League would go through some hardships. In 1959 the Wisconsin Valley League and many teams, including the Rangers, disbanded. In the 1960 season, the Wisconsin Valley League and the Merrill Rangers were back, however no players would be paid anymore, as they made the team up of local ball players. The year 1962 saw the once powerhouse of a team in the Rangers, struggle to field a team and only come away with an 8-8 record for the season. This would be the final season of Rangers baseball, as the local Board of Directors decided it was time to disband the team.
In the mid 1980’s the Merrill Rangers would once again be a baseball team. Semi-pro baseball had died off in Central Wisconsin and the Rangers were back to fielding a team of local ball players. Merrill would find some success throughout the years, however would never draw the same type of crowd that the early Rangers teams were able to. To this day, the Merrill Rangers are still kicking, playing in the Wisconsin Baseball Associations Dairyland League.
Current Rangers player and President of the Merrill Baseball Association, Shawn Schultz, started playing Ranger baseball in 1990 and still enjoys playing the game. “It’s still fun to get out and play,” said Schultz, “I have made many friends and met lots of great people. My family still comes out and enjoys our games at Athletic Park. One of my first years playing with the Rangers we won a championship, while we haven’t been champs again, it has still been a lot of fun. From singing the gambler, many trips to Taylor County, pork chops on a stick, entertaining ejections, a swing and a miss at a dugout pole, it has all been great.”