It was the year 1931 when a group of young men gathered to form a baseball league in the Dubuque County area. Little could they have known that 90 years later, that same association of ballclubs — known as the Prairie League — would be celebrating its 75th consecutive year of play and its 85th year overall.
In recognition of that 75-year anniversary, a Prairie League Fun Day will be July 17, at Epworth Centennial Ballpark, with two Prairie League games, an old-timers contest and a home run derby.
“I thought about it and said, ’You know what? We need to do something, not only for the league being here for 85 years, but for 75 years in a row,’ so, I threw it together and threw it out to a few people,” said Rob Hoerner, one of the coordinators of the event. “Everyone said, ‘That would be awesome, let’s do it,’ so, that’s where we are right now.”
The original league, consisting of teams from Bernard, Fillmore, Melleray, St. Joseph, Otter Creek, Key West, LaMotte and Zwingle played 10 years until play was suspended in 1941 due to World War II. After reorganizing in 1946, the League began its 75-year run.
“My dad, Paul Hoerner, was one of the guys that got things going again in 1946, so one of the reasons I want to be doing this is to recognize what he did, but really to recognize and salute the past and present players that have kept the league going,” said Hoerner. “To me, 75 years is a huge accomplishment for a league like this. I don’t know if there’s another league in the United States that has this. I grew up on Prairie League Games and played for years. I’ve been a Prairie League fan all my life.”
The League currently consists of 12 teams: Farley, Peosta, Bellevue, Bernard, Zwingle, Balltown, Dubuque Budweisers, Epworth, East Dubuque, Dubuque Packers, Placid-Pleasant Grove and Holy Cross.
There are players of all ages and backgrounds, but each has a love of the game. A recent Rickardsville Tournament game saw a father-son combination in the lineup.
“Tom Evans from Zwingle DH’d last night,” said Hoerner. “His son, Isaac, played down at Coe. I’d say Tom is one of the older guys still playing out here.
“It’s a hidden gem. When people watch baseball around Eastern Iowa, it’s a family thing. If you don’t go to college, there’s not much baseball and this is a traditional league for people like that. Each town might have had 14 or 15 guys that wanted to play and that was it. Playing for the team in town has always been a family tradition and we just want to recognize that.”
The League also provides an opportunity for college players from the area to stay sharp during the offseason.
“If it weren’t for the college kids, I don’t know how many teams would be in existence. In the past, there weren’t many college kids involved and it was just home-grown players,” said Hoerner. “You hear some of these college kids say they stay back here because it’s the only place they can play all summer. The atmosphere around here is amazing.”
One of those home-grown players is 2020 Western Dubuque graduate Ben Bryant. After a solid high school career, Bryant is at Wartburg College, where he plays football, but has elected not to play college baseball. The Prairie League gives Bryant and others like him a chance to continue playing the game they love.
“It definitely means the world to a bunch of athletes around here. The best way to explain it is that this is an awesome opportunity to compete and gain that ability back again,” said Bryant. “It’s great playing with the guys and all the teams around here. It’s awesome to see the young kids out there and so many come back.”
Make no mistake, this is high-level baseball.
“The guys playing out here — the old-timers and the new guys — are all competitive and they want to win,” added Bryant. “It’s competitive and really good baseball. It’s a step up.”
The July 17 celebration will kick off with a Prairie League game between Placid and Epworth beginning at 11 a.m., with an old-timers game to follow from 1-2 p.m. At 2:30, two of the original Prairie League teams — Bernard and Zwingle — will play.
One of the scheduled activities that will surely draw plenty of interest will be the home run derby featuring eight selected players from around the League.
“We put the home run contest in there to just have a little fun. We’re going to use aluminum bats and we have some pretty big shooters coming for that,” Hoerner said. “These guys are going to put a show on.”
Door prizes will be drawn throughout the day, and 75th-anniversary memorabilia will be available. Following the on-field festivities, music will fill the air starting at 6:00 p.m.
Hoerner said the day’s proceeds will benefit a worthy cause — the Miracle League Baseball Organization of Dubuque.
“The Epworth Orioles are helping with this, and we threw out the idea that we’d like to donate the proceeds to a charity,” said Hoerner. “We decided we wanted it to go to something involving baseball, so all the proceeds are going to the Miracle League.”