Is there a better place on the planet to watch a ballgame? Forget about Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park — give us the simple joys of a Duluth Huskies game at Wade Stadium. Sure, there’s no exploding scoreboard, no sideshows like trained pigs or Norwegians, no nuns dispensing massages. But the Wade — which faced the wrecking ball in the early 1990s — was lovingly restored by volunteers who were passionate about their city and their baseball, and that commitment to a pile of bricks — 381,000 of them, to be specific — and concrete makes the Wade a ballpark that’s truly cherished by the community.
Year Built: 1940-41
Dimensions: 343L, 380C, 340R
Playing Surface: Grass
League: Northwoods League
Parking: Free but limited.
Address/Directions: 101 N. 35th Av. W. Duluth, MN. Wade Stadium is in a residential neighborhood south of downtown Duluth. To reach the stadium from either the north or south, exit I-35 on the 40th Av. W. exit, head west (to the left) on 40th Av. W., hang a right on Grand Avenue and stay on it until you reach 34th Av. W., on which you’ll hang a right. Drive two blocks (past the bowling alley) and you’ll see the parking lot for the Wade.
Why does Wade Stadium evoke such strong feelings among ballpark lovers and local residents? Because over the years Wade Stadium has become an integral part of the city. Summer without a baseball game at Wade Stadium just wouldn’t be the same, and that proud sense of tradition — which seems especially pronounced in Duluth — shines through when people discuss the Wade. It is more than just a pile of bricks and concrete.
Let’s face it: ballparks constructed during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) are a dying breed, as many of them are too small and too old to serve the needs of today’s baseball fans. The brick-faced Wade Stadium — or, the Wade, as the locals say — undoubtedly been torn down in the early 1990s had the Northern League not come to the area, according to city officials. At that time, a Wade renovation was structural in nature, ensuring fan safety, while changes were made in the concourse area. In recent years the parking lot was (finally!) repaved and a new concession area was added to the third-base-line area.
Though seating capacity at Wade Stadium has shrunk over the years (bleachers once extended far down each line), the basic ballpark experience has changed little at the Wade since the Duluth Dukes of the original Northern League hosted dreaded crosstown rivals Superior Blues. That experience makes the Wade the best place to actually watch a baseball game in both the Northwoods League and in all of Minnesota.
True, the ballpark is not perfect, and a little preparation is necessary should you attend a Huskies game. If you go to a day game on a sunny day, you can be reasonably sure that temperatures will remain steady. However, if you go to a night game, all bets are off. If a cold wind and fog rolls off of nearby Lake Superior, it can be 10 or 20 degrees cooler between the beginning of the game and the third inning. (We’ve been to more than one game that was called or postponed on account of fog.) Season-ticket holders tend to bring quilts, blankets and sometimes parkas to night games, no matter how warm the temperatures are during the day. And those outfield metal bleachers can get mighty chilly at night.
Still, there are no bad seats in the horseshoe-shaped Wade, and the aforementioned bleacher seats are generally filled with the locals, who know that they can save a few bucks by sitting there and not sacrifice a great view of the game. In fact, the best seats in the park might be the back row of the right-field bleacher seats. From here, you can see Lake Superior and the loading docks for the Duluth, Messabe & Iron Range Railroad; in past years it was not unusual to see the 1,000-foot-long Mesabi Miner roll into the docks to pick up a load of taconite. If you’re in the grandstand, you have a surprisingly intimate view of the action: the seats are ground level and you’re close both the home plate and the dugouts.
Even though the Northern League’s Duluth-Superior Dukes slunk out of town in 2002 to take up residence in Kansas, Wade Stadium didn’t sit empty for very long: the college wood-bat Northwoods League quickly filled the void with the Duluth Huskies, and the team was a success in its inaugural 2003 season. The feeling among many locals is that the Huskies better serve the Duluth market: the season is shorter and starts in June, when the weather finally turns nice in the northern clime. Team ownership had a difficult task — selling baseball to fans burned by the Dukes — and it looks like they were successful in reestablishing baseball in Duluth. In fact, one of the largest crowds in Wade Stadium history showed up during the last weekend of the season, when the Huskies were in playoff contention.
If you combine the years the city of Duluth has yielded a team in all the incarnations of the Northern League, you’d find a rich tradition of baseball in the port city spread out over 50 seasons.
Duluth entered the Northern League in 1903, the second year of the league. Throughout most of the history of the Northern League there were separate teams in Duluth and Superior, with the Dukes and Blues enjoying a fierce rivalry on the field. That rivalry ended with the 1956 season, when the Duluth-Superior Dukes participated in the Northern League until its demise after the 1970 season. That 1970 season was a bittersweet one for Duluth fans, as the team won the final championship of the original Northern League.
The Dukes originally played at Duluth’s Athletic Park, virtually next door to the current Wade Stadium location. When the Northern League reformed in 1933, Athletic Park was not available for professional baseball, so a Northern League team was placed in Superior under the ownership of the Wade family. When Athletic Park became available in 1936, the Wades moved their franchise to Duluth, but it quickly became apparent that a new facility was needed. A city commission issued a report in September 1938 that argued for a new stadium:
“Duluth does not have a suitable stadium for professional baseball. The present athletic park, privately owned and used by Duluth’s professional team, has too small a capacity, the seats are unsuitable, the sanitary facilities are seriously inadequate and the playing field is smaller than regulation size.”
As a result, a referendum was placed on the upcoming November ballot that authorized the city of Duluth to sell unemployment bonds to finance a new stadium. It passed.
A slump in the economy, however, led to delays in the construction process. The original budget for Wade Stadium was $163,232, with $75,000 coming from the city bonds and the rest from the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). However, the project went over budget (eventually costing $230,880), which led to first a shutdown in construction and then a bailout from Duluth Mayor Edward Hatch, who purchased the construction materials needed to finish the project. Wade Stadium — then known as the Duluth All-Sports Municipal Stadium — finally opened to a crowd of 2,500 on July 16, 1941, watching the Dukes takes on its biggest rival, the Superior Blues.
The Dukes lasted through the 1942 season, after which the Northern League and many other minor leagues shut down due to World War II. When the Northern League relaunched operations in 1946, the Dukes were indeed back in the league and played under that name through the 1955 season, after which the Superior Blues ceased operations. In 1956, the Duluth-Superior White Sox made their debut, but by 1959 the team was playing under the Duluth-Superior Dukes name. The franchise lasted until the end of the 1970 season, when the entire Northern League disbanded.
Pro baseball returned to Wade Stadium in 1993 with the revival of the Northern League, this time as an independent league. The Duluth-Superior Dukes lasted through the 2002 season, winning one league championship in that time, but frequent changes in ownership and an overall losing record forced team owners to move it to Kansas City, Kansas.
Never to miss a good opportunity, the college wood-bat Northwoods League swooped in and established the Duluth Huskies for the 2003 season. Although the team started slowly in terms of attendance, by the end of the season the Huskies were competing for a divisional championship and attracting larger crowds to the Wade.
The main concession stands are located in the grandstand. Two are full-service counters with hot dogs, brats, popcorn, pizza, and more. One specialty counter offers candy and ice cream novelties, while another serves beer.
In addition, the Huskies turned a general concession area down the third-base line into the Kennel Klub, an all-you-can-eat-and-drink area that features food, beer and pop. You’ll find these in most Northwoods League stadiums, but the hook here is that the third-base area is one of the best places to watch a game at the Wade.
WHERE TO STAY
There’s nothing within walking distance of the Wade, and the few hotels in the general area cater more to truckers than tourists. You’ll want to stay in Canal Park, a short drive away, where multiple hotels face Lake Superior and allow easy access to the Lakewalk, which runs alongside Lake Superior all the way up to the Glensheen estate.
The best of the hotels is the Inn on Lake Superior (350 Canal Park Dr., 218-726-1111; $175-$300 per night), with an assortment of standard rooms and lakefront suites.
Families will also want to check out the Suites Hotel at Waterfront Plaza (325 S. Lake Av., 218-727-4663), the Hampton Inn (310 Canal Park Dr., 800-426-7866 or 218-720-3000) and the Comfort Suites (408 Canal Park Dr., 218-727-1378). Other downtown hotels worth checking out includes the high-end Fitger’s, the Holiday Inn, the Radisson, the newer Sheraton and the quaint, clean and delightful Voyageur Lakewalk Inn.
FOR THE KIDS
Kids hang out down the first-base line, either playing catch (a surprising number of kids come to games with glove in hand) or participating in the new activities the Huskies installed for the 2006 season. Because of the way the Wade is set up, it’s a pretty kid-friendly environment.
BEFORE/AFTER THE GAME
Wade Stadium has a new neighbor as of this summer: Clyde Iron Works Restaurant (2920 W. Michigan Av.). It may make little sense to open a new restaurant in the industrial part of town in this economy, but there’s actually some method to this madness. First, the restaurant is located both to the Wade and to Heritage Sports Center, a new arena that draws traffic year-round. Clyde Iron Works was a steel foundry launched in 1889; the reclamation of the old building celebrates that heritage.
In the last 30 years Duluth has transitioned from a robust shipping port to a diversified economy that includes tourism, high tech and a smaller shipping industry. Tourism in Duluth is centered around the Canal Park area south of downtown. This area, formerly dominated by machine shops and garages, has been transformed into a funky collection of hotels, shopping, restaurants and museums. For the most part the area is remarkably chain-free, which adds to the pleasure.
The area is dominated by the 227-foot-tall Aerial Lift Bridge, which dates back to 1929. The bridge is raised every time a ship needs to leave the harbor and head onto Lake Superior. (When I was a kid, you were allowed to stand on a platform on the bridge when it was raised.) At the foot of the bridge is the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center (600 Lake Avenue S.), which explains the history of shipping in the Duluth-Superior area. If you’re not familiar with the ecology of the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Aquarium (353 Harbor Drive) provides an excellent introduction. Two other museums worth a visit (but not in the Canal Park area) are the Duluth Depot (506 West Michigan St.), the impressive former train depot that houses several museums, including the excellent Lake Superior Railroad Museum; and the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum (902 East First St.), one of several museums around the country that display important original documents and manuscripts.
Our favorite restaurant in town: Fitger’s Brewhouse (600 E. Superior St.), where a dedicated crew of brewmasters revived beer production in the old Fitger’s brewery. The beer is great; so is the food. If nothing else, drop by after the game for a beer and a side of fries.
Grandma’s Saloon & Grill (522 Lake Av. S.) is the spiritual home of Canal Park: it was founded at a time when the only attractions in the park were the bridge and the museum. The food at Grandma’s is pretty good, albeit on the casual side. It’s usually crowded there at mealtimes, but tables turn over fairly quickly. Other decent restaurants in the Canal Park area include Little Angie’s Cantina (11 E. Buchanan St.), HellBurgers (310 Lake Av. S.) and Green Mill Restaurant and Bar (340 Lake Av. S.).
Shopping in the area is definitely on the touristy side, but it’s focused on local offerings. The Duluth Pack Store (365 Canal Park Drive) is geared toward those interested in the outdoors: Duluth packs (which are canvas backpacks) are renowned by campers for their durability, and the store also offers other camping gear as well as items suitable for the cabin. The DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace features 15 stores of various types, including a pretty decent cooking store and a shop devoted to regional artists.