BLOOMINGTON — With the Normal CornBelters opening their inaugural season this weekend in Evansville, Ind., it’s a good time to remember the Bloomington Bloomers, the Twin Cities’ longtime minor league club, which last took to the Elysian Fields more than 70 years ago in the storied Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League.
Unlike the CornBelters, who play in the independent professional Frontier League, the “Three-I” (also known as the “Three Eye” or even “Triple Orb”) was affiliated with Major League Baseball, operating from 1901 to 1961 as a Class B circuit, similar to high A or AA ball of today.
Bloomington was a founding member, and remained in the league for nearly four decades, bowing out after 1939.
Joining Bloomington for the Three Eye’s debut season of 1901 were Cedar Rapids and Davenport from Iowa; Decatur, Rock Island, and Rockford from Illinois; and Evansville and Terre Haute from Indiana. The Terre Haute Hottentots, led by future National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, captured the league’s first pennant with a 72-39 record.
Others enshrined in Cooperstown who played or managed in the Three-I include Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg (Evansville, 1931); Carl “Meal Ticket” Hubbell (Decatur, 1927), who won 253 games in the big leagues, all with the New York Giants; and Tony Lazzeri (Peoria, 1923), part of the New York Yankees “Murderers’ Row” that included Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
Not only did more than a dozen hall of famers pass through this “bush” league (as the low minors are still called), but plenty of other Three Eye veterans enjoyed long and productive careers in the “bigs,” including the likes of Carl Erskine (Danville, 1947), Allie Reynolds (Cedar Rapids, 1940-1941), and Chicago Cubs legend Charlie Root (Terre Haute, 1921-1922).
The league’s roster of teams underwent constant revision, with changes sometimes season-to-season. Illinois was home to a handful of cities that can boast long runs in the Three Eye, including Bloomington, Danville, Decatur, Peoria, Springfield and Quincy.
Bloomington captured four league titles—1903, 1919, 1920 and 1935. The last championship club featured manager/starting pitcher Burleigh “Ol’ Stubblebeard” Grimes, who had wrapped up his Cooperstown playing career the previous season. His 19 years in the Majors included 270 wins, though he’s most famous as the last big league hurler to legally throw the spitball. In 1920, the spitter was outlawed, though grandfathered in were a handful of active pitchers who depended on such trickery for their livelihood, and Grimes was the last of those to retire.
Other successful big leaguers who played for Bloomington include George Blaeholder (1923), an early practioner of the slider who won 10 or more games over 7 consecutive seasons for the hapless St. Louis Browns; Bob “Fats” Fothergill (1920), a portly yet talented outfielder who played in Detroit for much of the 1920s; and Bob O’Farrell, the 1926 National League MVP for World Series champion St. Louis, who managed here in 1938.
The Bloomington Bloomers (though they occasionally were called something else, such as the Cardinals in 1935) played at Fans Field on the southern edge of Bloomington, behind what’s today the National Guard Armory.
For those who love team nicknames, the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League is a goldmine. At one time or another, Dubuque was known as the Shamrocks, Dubs and Hustlers, and Quincy the Infants, Old Soldiers and Gems. There were also the Davenport Prodigals, the Decatur “Commies” (short for Commodores), the Hannibal Mules, the Moline Plowboys and the Peoria Distillers (and later the Tractors).
Colliers magazine spotlighted the Three Eye in 1950, calling the league “the symbol of the bushes” and “a cradle for embryonic major league stars.” That year there were an estimated 50 former Three Eye ballplayers in either the American or National League, including future hall of famers Lou Boudreau (Cedar Rapids, 1938) and Warren Spahn (Evansville, 1941).
The Three-I League experienced a resurgence after World War II, breaking attendance records with teams tied to successful Major League organizations, including Danville as an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yet by the late 1950s, the Three Eye had fallen on hard times, and the final seasons included teams from Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska. When the old Triple Orb folded for good after the 1961 season, it marked the end of baseball’s longest-running and arguably most influential Class B league.