BY KATIE MATTESON
On Oct. 19, 1919, the first football game was played on the newly named Horlick Athletic Field. An estimated 800 fans attended the contest between the Kenosha Nash Motors and the Racine Horlicks. Admission was 35 cents, including War Tax. The Horlicks won the game, 39-0.
On Oct. 19, 2019, the City of Racine Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department will celebrate Horlick Athletic Field’s 100th Anniversary with a full day of family-friendly activities to showcase the field’s rich history. Admission will be free.
Those in attendance will also get a glimpse at the new baseball field turf, upgraded in honor of the anniversary.
Sarah White, the department’s Recreation Program Coordinator for Marketing & Special Events, said the gates will open at 11 a.m. and the activities will wrap up at 8:30 p.m. In addition to the historical information tent, children’s activities and concessions, softball and football exhibition games will take place, including Racine women’s softball players vs. players from the World War II Girls Baseball Living History League.
The day will conclude with a showing on “A League of Their Own,” a 1992 feature film about the All-American Girls Baseball League of 1943 which tells the story of the Racine Belles, who played their games at Horlick Field from 1943-1950.
The idea for the celebration came from Don Wadewitz, the broadcaster and webmaster for the Racine Raiders football team. Even though he lives in Milwaukee with his family and works in Madison, he’s passionate about his hometown’s history.
He’d researched the history of Horlick Field and approached Parks and Rec Director Tom Molbeck last year about the upcoming anniversary.
Wadewitz said that Molbeck welcomed the opportunity to celebrate the history of the facility that has served a central role in sports and entertainment for men’s and women’s baseball, softball, football, drum and bugle corps competitions, donkey baseball, traveling all-star teams, barnstorming professional teams, youth sports, traveling entertainers, community festivals and more.
The city became the owner of Horlick Athletic Field in 1935 when William Horlick donated the property he’d purchased in 1919. As part of the deed, the city agreed that park would always be known as Horlick Athletic Field “only to be used for the promotion of athletic sports, outdoor games, amusements, musical events, military drills and events of similar nature” and “not to be used as a general public park.”
In November 1935, construction began on the walls around Horlick Athletic Field, as well as the ticket office, as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. Three years later the project was completed at a cost of $17,000 with the federal government paying the project balance of $15,752.
The Early Years
According to Wadewitz’s research, the athletic field was established in 1906 when J.M. Cooney purchased part of the Henry Eiler property located between High, Forest (now North Memorial Drive) and St. Patrick streets and Blake Avenue for a reported $5,000 paid in installments. Apparently the property was up for sale for development and he was looking for a place to host baseball games.
Baseball at Cooney Park would have a rough time getting off the ground. Another group was able to lease land and put together a local league at the North Side Park while Cooney was still trying to get a team to place in the Lakeshore League, of which he was president.
Unable to do it himself, Cooney organized a stock company which started by selling 350 shares for $1 per share in March 1907.
By May, 1907, there was baseball at the Racine Baseball Park. The Racine team opened their Lakeshore League play against Manitowoc and faced George Wilson on the mound. Wilson was considered one of the best and highest salaried African-American players in the world, according to a Racine Journal article previewing the game.
Despite bringing baseball back to Racine, the conditions weren’t the best. The grandstand and sidewalks weren’t going to be ready for the game.
By August, the community seemed to be fully behind the baseball team and the new park. Employees from the Belle City Malleable Iron Company, just to the south of the field, supplied 18 to 32 employees, who worked late into the night over several evenings to level the playing field. However, in September of that year, there were grumblings of Cooney not paying bills and salaries.
By the start of 1908, the Racine Journal reported that Eiler was taking legal action to take back the land. Apparently Cooney had only paid $200 and over $1,000 had become due. Eiler would win the foreclosure settlement in late February and left baseball fans wondering if there would be a semi-pro team that year.
Despite the need for legal action, Eiler and Cooney would work together to improve what was known then as Eiler Park. In early March, Cooney arranged for 16 box seat sections to be constructed in front of the grandstand.
Again, financial crisis would hit the team and by July, Cooney was meeting with Racine businessmen, asking them to run the baseball team or risk losing semi-professional baseball in the community.
Two days after the meeting, the businessmen agreed to take over the team and form the Racine Baseball Association, which would be headed by W.H. Armstrong. The team was completely reorganized and even needed a special waiver from the Lakeshore League to continue playing. Cooney, who also headed up the league, stepped down from that role as well.
By 1909, the park had another new name as semi-professional baseball in Racine moved away from the Lakeshore League to the Wisconsin-Illinois League and the name of the park became W.I. League Park. In 1910, the factory league amateur teams were being allowed to use the park, when the semi-professional Racine team wasn’t using it.
In 1912, semi-professional baseball got an overhaul. Fred Gates became president of the Racine Baseball Association and he hired Billy Fox, a pilot and successful manager, to lead the team. A press stand was building in front of the grandstand that would seat four people – two sportswriters, the official scorer and Gates. By 1915, soccer was being played at the field but there was no mention of American football (though it’s likely that football was being played on the grounds).
The first mention of football in the park goes back to 1907 at the former Cooney Park, when James Murtaugh, manager of the Waldheim football team based in Racine secured a Thanksgiving Day game against the Fort Sheridan Soldiers. Waldheim’s was a department store in downtown Racine located in the Martin M. Secor building (239-241 Main St.).
National Football League
Fast forward to 1922. Three years after William Horlick had purchased W.I. League Park and renamed it Horlick Athletic Field, professional football came to Racine.
The 4,000 fans in attendance at Horlick Athletic Field on Oct. 1, 1922, couldn’t possibly understand the magnitude of what they were watching. The newly minted Chicago Bears, having just changed their name from the Decatur Staleys, came to Horlick Athletic Field to play the upstart Horlick-Legion.
The Bears had won the 1921 American Professional Football Association (APFA) championship, though it was a disputed title. The Horlick-Legion wanted a big draw for their first game in the National Football League – renamed in the offseason just like the Bears. The Racine team held their own, allowing just two field goals and falling 6-0 to the defending champs.
Professional football wouldn’t last long in Racine. In August 1925, the Racine Post of the American Legion, which owned the franchise, planned not to field a team in 1926, but to hold onto the NFL franchise.
Commander Jack Melvin offered to negotiate with any potential local buyers, but was only getting interest from Milwaukee, Chicago and Portsmouth, Ohio. Football would continue to be played in 1925, but it was under a new name, the Racine Regulars, and of the semi-pro variety.
The Horlick-Legion would try to field a team again in 1926 at the request of the league as the American Football League was providing real competition to the NFL. The team would last just five games and post a 1-4 record before disbanding for good and paving the way for a rich history of semi-pro football in the community.
It would be another three decades until the Racine Raiders semi-professional football team arrived on the scene in 1953. They’ve since become the tenant with the longest tenure to date.
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League
Probably the best known sports team to play at Horlick Athletic Field were only there for eight years and brought 550,000 paid admissions to the field during the timeframe – 102,413 fans in 1946 alone.
The Racine Belles were one of the league’s four original teams, along with the Kenosha Comets, Rockford Peaches and South Bend Blue Sox. The league was created in 1943 by Philip Wrigley to continue the popular sport of professional baseball during World War II by fielding all-women teams.
The Racine Belles won the title the first season and repeat as champions in 1946. Racine gave up the franchise in 1950.
Drum and bugle corps capital of the world
“If Racine is the drum and bugle corps capital of the world, then Horlick Athletic Field is its cathedral,” this is how Alan R. Karls started his book called “Racine’s Horlick Athletic Field: Drums Along The Foundries.”
He went on to explain that “by 1941, Horlick Field had become a revered place in which drum and bugle corps were honored to perform…In the early 1960s, when few corps traveled and corps from other regions of the country were rarely seen, Horlick Field regularly hosted corps from Canada, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota…”
“Between 1962 and 1978, Horlick Athletic Field was a phenomenon; it hosted more drum and bugle corps shows and more drum and bugle corps than any other venue in the country.”
By the 1960s, Horlick Athletic Field was in bad shape. The only improvements made to the field since the WPA project was construction of the concrete storage building inside the northwest wall in 1957.
The grandstand for the baseball field backed up to the north wall and football field ran east-to-west in the baseball field outfield and had stands that interfered with the baseball field.
The city proposed keeping the baseball field and building a football field outside the west wall, but the residents of Carlisle Avenue balked at the idea.
Late in 1962, the city came up with a new plan. They would tear down the west wall of Horlick Athletic Field and moved the baseball field there and install a football field running north-to-south where the baseball field was located. It appeased the property owners on Carlisle Avenue, as baseball wasn’t as popular in Racine as football.
The complete renovation, which included the current concessions stand, locker room and bathrooms behind the concessions stand, was held on July 3, 1964. The first event was the annual Goodwill drum and bugle corps competition, sponsored by the Boys of ‘76 Drum and Bugle Corps. The one complaint following the event was that the facilities, which included seating for 7,500 at the new football field had only one drinking fountain.
Historic Horlick Athletic Field today
The only major renovations at Horlick Athletic Field since the 1960s has been the construction of new metal bleachers and additional bathrooms in the late 1990s.
The new field turf on the baseball field will allow for better playing conditions and fewer rainouts due to better drainage.
Plans call for the installation of new field turf on the football field in 2021.
The baseball and football fields are still used regularly by the Raiders, high school teams and other youth baseball and football leagues.
“We treasure our beloved Horlick Athletic Field and plan to take good care of it for the next 100 years,” Molbeck said.
For more information, visit horlickfield.com or like Historic Horlick Field on Facebook.
Editor’s Note: Unless otherwise noted, most of the historical information in this article was excerpted from “Historic Horlick Athletic Field Turn 100” by Don Wadewitz, who serves as the broadcaster and webmaster for the Racine Raiders football team. The full article originally appeared in the Racine Raiders 2019 yearbook.