Werewolves’ Legacy Fun At The Forks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

London Werewolves’ Legacy Fun At The Forks
Story & Photos: Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com

In sports, as in life, we often do not appreciate what we’ve had until it’s gone. This certainly holds true of the London Werewolves who played in the independent Frontier League and called Labatt Park home from 1999 to 2001.

During their charter season, the Werewolves – still my favourite all-time moniker amongst local teams – captured the hearts of London baseball fans and also captured the Frontier League championship.

It’s hard to believe we’re marking the 20th anniversary of that championship. In July, players and coaches from that 1999 team gathered for a reunion with the Frontier League’s Evansville (Indiana) Otters, managed by Andy McCauley, bench boss of that ’99 team.

But for those of us who were fortunate enough to have taken in the sights and sounds at a Werewolves game, it seems like only yesterday that the quiet corner of Wilson and Riverside somehow morphed into a combination of New Year’s Eve at Times Square, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Bull Durham-esque minor league baseball, all rolled into one big party.

John Kuhn

The mastermind behind the Werewolves ballclub was American John Kuhn, whom I once dubbed the Tony Robbins of Minor League Baseball. It was all in good fun. Kuhn has a big heart for baseball and an even bigger heart for the fans. In fact, forget Chris Farley’s Saturday Night Live character who lived down by the river. Kuhn, owner of an impressive baseball resume, was a mastermind at motivating local ball fans to visit the forks of the Thames for an entertainment extravaganza.

Sure, baseball was the epicentre of Kuhn’s entertainment, but a Werewolves game was much more than just nine innings of the grand old game: it promised and delivered pure fun like no other sports event in London before or after the Werewolves called London home.

After all, Kuhn has had baseball in his blood ever since he was an entertaining kid who talked his way into the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training clubhouse and exchanged banter with the likes of Willie Stargell and Dave Parker. And as a long-time minor league baseball front office employee and executive, he leaned on mentors including Mike Veeck, former marketing director for the Tampa Bay Rays, part owner of a string of minor league franchises and son of the game’s greatest promoter, Bill Veeck.

Kuhn, 51, left pro ball in 2017, although he still catches and plays infield for a senior men’s team. Today he’s special events manager with the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida in his hometown of Fort Myers where he has volunteered since 2012. Kuhn and his wife, Londoner Jennifer Burling, and their son, London-born TJ, a high school senior, are enjoying Florida life.

But with this the 20th anniversary of the Werewolves charter and championship season, Kuhn fondly reminisces about that magical summer when Labatt Park came alive after years of hibernation. After all, Kuhn is a baseball lifer.

London Werewolves opening night 1999

With no disrespect to the London Majors of the Intercounty Baseball League (est. 1919), the fan experience at a Majors game during that three-year span more resembled Crokinole at the retirement home than it did the circus atmosphere provided by Kuhn and the Werewolves. I should know, as I pitched and coached third base with the Majors in 2000 and 2001. When we played a Sunday evening game following a Werewolves Sunday afternoon contest, it was as if the circus had folded its tents and had left nothing behind but the smell of caramel corn: as quick as a Jordan Hicks fastball, Labatt Park morphed from a boisterous baseball video game to a Norman Rockwell painting. The silence was deafening.

London has a history of fielding successful – and not so successful – baseball clubs. Of course, it all began with the London Tecumsehs, Canada’s first major league baseball champions and founding members of the International Association in 1877 – the first league established to challenge the struggling National League. Teams from London and Guelph – both boasting talented American ballplayers on their rosters – competed in the newly-formed Canadian Association of Base Ball Players in 1876, which saw London crowned league champions. The next year, the Tecumsehs became world champs.

The Majors – founded as the Cockneys in 1925 – promptly won the Intercounty crown. The Class AA Eastern League London Tigers, who played at Labatt Park from 1989-93, won the league championship under manager and former New York Yankees slugger Chris Chambliss during their sophomore season.

The Tigers left for Trenton, New Jersey following the 1993 season. The London Monarchs played in the independent Canadian Baseball League that existed for half of the summer season of 2003 before folding, thanks largely to a dismal marketing plan. And the London Rippers lasted for half a season in 2012 before packing their bags. The franchise was a nightmare from the start, with a poorly-chosen name, overpriced tickets, next to no connection with the community and financial struggles that saw them evicted from their own downtown team store.

Kuhn was director of sales and promotions for two seasons with the Madison (Wisconsin) Black Wolf of the independent Northern League. The club had moved from Newark, Ohio to Kalamazoo after the 1995 season.

In 1998, the Kalamazoo Kodiaks averaged 1,100 fans per game but played in a City-owned park that had been left in disarray for many years. There club had stretched the fan base to the limit, too. And rent was about to increase for the 1999 season. Enough was enough.

John Kuhn graced the cover of London Business Magazine in June 1999

When Kuhn brought his show to town, he arrived with much talk but he also walked the walk – it just took big C conservative London a little while to adjust. And while the Werewolves handle was chosen amongst 1,100 entries in a name-the-team contest, there was no question which name Kuhn was rooting for in 1999.

“Andy (McCauley) and I drove up from Kalamazoo to see the ballpark. We didn’t have a place to play. Someone had heard about (Labatt Park), and called my mom and dad’s farm in Tennessee. So we pulled into London. We didn’t have a clubhouse in Kalamazoo. We rented shower trailers from a construction site.

“As we’re leaving Labatt Park, Andy said, ‘You’ve already got the team name picked out, don’t you? Werewolves, man. Gotta’ be.’ So we had the built-in theme song.”

During their three-year stay, the Werewolves impressed on and off the field in a town tough on every spectator sport minus the London Knights. Before moving to Canton, Ohio, the club went 54-30 with a league title in 1999; 46-37 with an Eastern Division playoff loss in 2000; and finally a fifth-place finish after a 37-47 record in 2001.

Attendance during that span totalled 60,456 in 1999 (average attendance 1,439); 58,747 (1,416) in 2000; and 42,061 (1,001) in 2001. Considering the fan climate in London during that time, those were impressive numbers.

Umpire Jim Cressman goes over the ground rules with London Werewolves manager Andy McCauley on opening night 1999

McCauley led the club from the dugout, while Kuhn did his magic in the front office – and anywhere else where he could contribute, including occasionally inside the costume of team mascot Warren Z. Vaughn (a clever play on Warren Zevon, who recorded the song, Werewolves of London).

The 1999 squad benefited from extraordinary team chemistry, and included numerous Canadian players – many with Intercounty ties – including Jason Borghese, Brett Gray, Ian Harvey, Derek Masse and Jamie Pogue.

Gray was the Werewolves’ opening day starter in 1999. The right-handed hurler would etch his name in the baseball history books in 2000, when on opening day at Labatt Park he recorded 25 strikeouts against the Chillicothe Paints. The Petrolia native painted the corner before 4,732 fans, surrendering only a solo home run to first baseman Mike Cervenak in a 9-1 win. Cervenak was a mid-season call-up with the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.

With a league-imposed $49,600 US salary cap, Kuhn had to jump a lot of hoops for the City of London, too. The Werewolves’ first-year contract called for them to pay $1,000 for each game; $1,550 for a double header; $100 for each daytime practice; and $285 for each evening practice. The club paid the City $42,000 up front for playing regular-season games at Labatt Park.

It seemed back then that there was a constant war of words between Kuhn and then Majors owner Arden Eddie, the crusty, old-school ballplayer/manager/GM/owner who functioned in the style of former Yankees skipper Billy Martin: always with a chip on his shoulder – a me-against-the-world mentality. Eddie battled the City and the Werewolves for Labatt Park dates and for park fees, and he heavily criticized Kuhn’s marketing moves.

“I remember Arden was always taking shots at me, because he was used to his traditional ways. But I generally liked Arden because was like Robert Shaw from (the movie) Jaws. (Shaw played the shark hunter, Quint). He reminded me of the guy. So I generally liked him. If you sat down and talked baseball, it was great. But he didn’t appreciate (Werewolves marketing and promotions).”

Kuhn certainly took the city by storm (he even played for the Intercounty’s St. Thomas Storm), but some were taken aback by what they called good-old American grandstanding. But in the end, Kuhn was simply enthusiastic about the game and about bringing fun to the ballpark.

Brett Gray

With London now a city of 400,000 and boasting a much less conservative feeling, there would be no opposition staged towards Kuhn today. In fact, he hinted that the ballclub would do much better at the gate today as opposed to 20 years ago – not just because of the population increase but also because of how the fans have grown much more accustomed to off-field entertainment. Today, Eddie would be considered a dinosaur at Majors games, where over-the-top PA announcements would be more at home at a Monster Truck event or WWE Wrestling.

“I think after our 0-4 start, then going 54-26 plus playoffs, 39-5 at home, they liked us in London because we played in an offensive league,” said Kuhn. London scored 612 runs that season, allowing 470. “We hit the ball. So people loved the brand of baseball. And they loved the fact that we opened up the gates and let them go on the field after the games to meet the players.” It’s a practice that current Majors owner Roop Chanderdat has borrowed from Kuhn.

The media-savvy, media-friendly Kuhn was also extremely accessible, always available for an interview. He said he does not agree with the practice of many who today refuse media opportunities and instead attempt to control their own messages via social media. “I wasn’t brought up that way. Mike Veeck would tell me stories of how the phone would ring in Bill’s office, people wanting tickets to Browns games, and Bill would say he knew right away that they were from out of town because no one in town wanted to buy tickets. They would ask, ‘What time is the game tonight?’ And Bill would say, ‘What time is convenient for you?’

“In London, people were so used to hockey. They would ask, ‘What days do you play?’ I would say we play Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We have an off day every other Monday.”

When Kuhn was setting up his circus during the winter of 1998-99, we met to talk about the brand of baseball he would offer to London and area fans. His enthusiasm would have made Robbins blush. But he was genuinely passionate about doing things right.

“We’re not faith healers!” Kuhn said of those who market minor league baseball. “You might heal 50 per cent – and that’s pretty good for faith healers, from what I hear! We have to please 99-per-cent of the thousands of people who come here. Every night is New Year’s Eve and every fan is a king or queen.”

A diehard Chicago Cubs fan, Kuhn was born the youngest of four sports-minded siblings in Hammond, Indiana. His father, James, was the Werewolves majority owner.

“My first recollection of anything was a picture of (Cubs hall of fame shortstop) Ernie Banks running in the grass at Wrigley Field,” said John in a 1999 interview.

Simon Galarraga, who would later play first base for the London Majors, leads the 1999 Werewolves onto the field at Labatt Park

In 1970, the Kuhn family moved to Fort Myers. John would later pitch and catch for the Tusculum College varsity ballclub in Greenville, Tennessee and earned his BA in Business Administration in 1990. He had a short-lived teaching career, but baseball won.

In 1990, he was assistant director of corporate sales with the Fort Myers Sun Sox of the now-defunct Florida-based Senior Professional Baseball Association. From 1992-95 he worked in the marketing department under Mike Veeck. It was Veeck’s father, Bill, who died in 1986, who introduced fireworks after home runs; hung Wrigley Field’s ivy; orchestrated the Eddie Gaedel stunt at the plate for the St. Louis Browns in 1951; and, with Mike’s help, staged the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979.

Fittingly, Kuhn and the Werewolves saluted Disco Demolition Night at Labatt Park in July 1999.

In a 1999 interview, Mike Veeck told me, “John loves the game. He’s got a darn near photographic memory. He has a great ability for fun.”

John Kuhn. Photo: Harry Chapin Food Bank.

Kuhn had replaced Ben Creed, who would eventually move to the post of director of marketing partnerships with Florida Marlins. In 1999, Creed told me, “There’s a tremendous amount of work at the minor-league level. You are forced to wear a zillion hats. John has a lot of enthusiasm. In minor league ball, you have to get out and meet the people.”

After leaving London in 2001, Kuhn was director of sales and marketing with the Northern League expansion club Joliet JackHammers (October 2001-February 2003); same post with the league’s St. Paul Saints (February 2003-September 2004); GM and later president of the American Association Sioux Falls Canaries (2005-2009); consultant to the Green Bay Bullfrogs of the Northwest League, and consultant with Heitman Professional Baseball in 2010; president of the Frontier League River City Rascals in 2011; and finally director of business development with the Fort Myers Miracle of the Florida State League from 2012-17.

In total, Kuhn was part of four championship minor league teams, all playing in different leagues. And when you consider his impressive baseball CV, few of his contemporaries are in his league when it comes to marketing savvy.

“In many places I visit, I’ve had people walk up to me and say they’re from London, Ontario. They remember the Werewolves. I’ve been to many taverns after ballgames talking with Mike (Veeck) and he always said, ‘We’re not selling baseball. We’re selling fun.’ No one in the history of mankind has said that they don’t want too much fun.

Canadian Werewolves in London

“London treated us very fairly,” Kuhn said. “To a man, every one of the players said it was the best summer of their lives. They’ve grown, they have their own kids, but they remember that summer and how much fun it was. They were with each other every day from spring training in late-April through September. They were brothers.”

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Jeffrey Reed has covered sports in London since 1980. An award-winning writer and three-time author, Reed founded the Intercounty Baseball League media relations office in 1994, and for two seasons 2000-01 pitched and coached with the London Majors of the semi-professional Intercounty Baseball League. Reach him at jeff@londonontariosports.com.

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office http://www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989. Publisher/Editor of this website and https://londonontariogolf.com.

One Response to “Werewolves’ Legacy Fun At The Forks”

  1. Joe Serratore says:

    This is one true fantastic story by Jeffrey Reed. Nice reporting. As an umpire it was a pleasure to officiate in the Frontier League. John Kuhn was a great promoter. He loved baseball and he brought excitement to London. Great memories. Joe Ump