There is no joy in Janesville.
The once mighty summer baseball programs have struck out.
OK, perhaps more technically speaking, they’re standing in the batter’s box fouling off pitch after pitch to stay alive. More on that in a bit.
The Rock River League baseball season began in earnest this weekend, with the Milton Junction Pub Raptors losing a road game Sunday.
Not listed in the box scores from the weekend and not listed in the schedule on the Rock River League website are the Janesville Aces.
The last mention of the Aces comes from the RRL’s December organizational meeting. Under new business it reads: “Juneau and Janesville not returning.”
And thus ended a seven-year stint in which the Aces—for decades a prominent club in the Wisconsin State League—returned summer amateur baseball to Riverside Park in Janesville.
The Aces’ demise comes one year after Janesville failed to field a 19U American Legion team—another summer baseball program steeped in history.
“I guess it’s just a sign of the times,” Tom Klawitter said Monday.
Klawitter, a Janesville native, played professionally with the Minnesota Twins. Upon returning home following his pro career, he helped develop the Janesville Aces into a championship Wisconsin State League team.
Harris Ace Hardware and Wisconsin Distributors were the team’s early sponsors, according to Gazette archives, and part of the reason the “Aces” namesake was adopted.
“Janesville has always had a rich history of amateur baseball, even before the Aces,” said Doug Welch, a local author and historian who also manages the Milton Junction Pub Raptors in the RRL. “There was the Ken’s Club Cubs, and they were really good. They were kind of the precursor to the Aces. And ‘Klaw’ came back from pro ball to the Aces in the late 80s, and they really had a thing going.”
The Aces played in the Wisconsin State League. They won the league title in 1975 and then three more times during the Klawitter era—in 1989, 1990 and 1993. Nine former Aces (Klawitter, Dan Davis, Jim Coulter, Pat Campbell, Tom Imhoff, Bill McQueen, Joe Shere, Chris Kilen and Matt Fredricks) have been inducted into the WSL Hall of Fame.
“They had six or seven of those guys that would play every single year,” Welch said. “And then they’d pick up a handful of good college kids every summer. They played at a high level for a long time.”
The arrival of the Northwoods League in Wisconsin eventually marked the end of that generation of the Aces, and a shift in amateur baseball in the state. The collegiate wood-bat summer league was founded in 1994, and in 2001 the Madison Mallards joined—followed by teams in La Crosse (2003), Eau Claire (2005), Green Bay (2007) and Wisconsin Rapids (2010).
“A lot of talent in college baseball back then would play in the Wisconsin State League,” said Campbell, a 2019 Janesville Sports Hall of Fame inductee who spent about 15 years playing with Klawitter and the Aces. “The talent is very diluted these days, because there’s a lot of different places for players to play.”
Campbell’s son, Jacob, who was selected by the Chicago Cubs in last year’s major league draft and is now playing at University of Illinois, will play in the prestigious Cape Cod League this summer. Pat Campbell, a Janesville Craig High assistant, said several other recent high school graduates will play in other wood-bat leagues around the country.
As the options increased, the ability to get players to make a weekly summer commitment to the Aces waned. Similarly, there was no one willing to commit to the managerial aspects of Janesville’s program when Klawitter looked to step away.
So, in 2010, there was no Janesville Aces. Some of the local players, including Klawitter, Fredricks, Coulter and brothers Joe and Josh Shere played for the Raptors, who joined the RRL that season, according to Gazette files.
In 2012, the Aces were revived as a Rock River League team of their own, though many of the players who had joined up with the Raptors continued to play for Milton.
The first season was the new Aces’ best, as they went 12-4 before losing in a playoff play-in game. Janesville had one other season with a .500 record, going 9-9 in 2014.
The difficulties in getting players to commit to being at the diamond on a weekly basis remained. Janesville went 4-14 while piecing things together a year ago.
Welch said David Gackstatter, who had managed the Aces the past couple summers, texted him in November and let him know the Aces would not be coming back. Gackstatter, who said he would return a call Monday but had not as of press time, and former Aces teammate Austin Geller are listed on the RRL website as part of Neosho’s roster this summer.
Along with Juneau and Janesville, the RRL South Division lost Watertown to a year-long leave of absence this season, though Farmington rejoined and brought the division back to nine teams. The North lost a team from West Bend and also sits at nine teams.
“It just kind of speaks to how difficult it is to keep a team together,” Welch said. “The younger guys, you might get them to come out for one year, and they’re only 24 but they don’t come back after one year.
“And then you get people (managers) who want to give it up, but there is nobody to give it up to. If I gave it up, I don’t know if I’d find someone interested in doing it (in Milton).”
A Legion shift, too
The loss of the Aces comes on the heels of a summer when Janesville could not field a 19U American Legion team due to a lack of players signing up.
A handful of players from Janesville joined the Beloit program and played there last summer.
It was the first summer in more than 60 years that a Post 205 team did not take the field.
In that span, the program reached the state tournament 25 times, won seven state titles and advanced to the World Series in 1989.
But the Legion program has suffered from issues similar to those with the Aces.
Instead of Craig and Parker players joining forces to form a successful Legion club, most of the top players choose to play for travel programs, where they hope to be seen by college and professional scouts.
“Our level was stung by the Northwoods League,” Welch said. “And the Legion level was stung by travel ball.”
In another similarity, the Legion program has struggled to find a successor for Bob Schenck as manager.
Alas, amidst the 30th anniversary of that World Series Legion team, there will be a 19U team playing at least some of its home games at Riverside Park this summer.
Schenck and Scott Huffman will be the co-presidents of Rock County Legion Post 205, with Rich Raisbeck coaching the 19U squad. Schenck said half a dozen Janesville players will suit up for the River Monsters, along with players from Beloit and other area cities.
So, just as the Raptors offer a place to play for some of Janesville’s amateur baseball players, a new version of Post 205 exists for Janesville’s high-schoolers.
And the latter ensures that there will at least be some summer baseball at Veterans Field in Riverside Park—a longstanding tradition that will keep some joy in Janesville and would be a shame to lose.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the coach of the 19U team.