Forty years after Jan Krueger started the Augusta Athletics and 25 years after the team hoisted the Wisconsin Baseball Association state championship in 1994, Augusta said goodbye to it’s local ballclub.
The plan coming into the season was to close up shop at the end of the anniversary season, but bad weather and a lack of players forced the Athletics to cut the season short, competing in just 13 games this past year.
“It’s bittersweet,” James Gilbertson, a former Athletic manager and player, said. “You’d like to keep everything going for as long as you possibly can, but it is sad. Me, my brothers, even my mom and dad, we all kind of shed a tear knowing that what was started in Augusta, something that is really special, is coming to an end.”
For Jake Krueger, Jan’s nephew, it was upsetting seeing his uncle’s work come to an end. Jan led the team to 15 WBA appearances and 186 Chippewa River Baseball League wins, the most of any CRBL manager in both categories. For years, the Athletics were amongst the CRBL’s best, but the team has struggled to field a competitive squad for the past few seasons.
“When it came to the end of the year, we were scrapping to get guys to show up and that kind of stunk,” Krueger said.
The reason for the club’s shutdown was largely due to geography, according to CRBL president Mike Gilbertson.
“When (Augusta) was the most successful in the ‘90s, we had players who were from Strum, Osseo and Whitehall,” Mike said. “Now Strum, Osseo and Whitehall all have teams, and Eau Claire has three teams... so at Augusta, we’ve just become landlocked as far as trying to find players.”
The country’s general population shift has also hurt Augusta.
“It’s not that young baseball players are leaving town, young people are leaving town,” Mike said. “It’s not just a baseball thing, people in their 20s are leaving small towns.”
Between 2012 and 2017, Augusta saw it’s population drop from 1,549 to 1,514, and, in 2017, 20 to 25 year olds made up just 3.7% of the population, according to census.gov.
The league’s expansion into the surrounding towns, coupled with Augusta’s declining young population made it almost impossible to field a team in 2019.
“I’m happy to see it end this way rather than see it continue to struggle,” Mike said. “We did the best we could for 40 years and now it’s time for it to end.”
Mike, however, said he doesn’t regret expanding to the towns surrounding Augusta. Despite it causing his home club’s demise, he said the CRBL has always had the attitude that every town that wants a team should have a club.
The league will go down to 11 teams for next season, which Mike said should be a good number.
“I think we’ve reached a saturation point,” he said.
Just because the Athletics are gone now, however, doesn’t mean the CRBL won’t be back in Augusta at some point down the road.
“I’m thinking about possibly, when my oldest daughter graduates and I have more time, to potentially bring a team back to the Augusta area,” Krueger said, “I’d love to do that, out of respect for my uncle and knowing I never gave up on baseball myself.”
The Athletics are hosting a celebration to honor the 25th anniversary of their WBA State championship on September 21.