Sports in Southwest Michigan

Published 12:39 pm Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Auto Specialties Company of St. Joseph was responsible for the most ambitious company-sponsored local sports program. The company sponsored Auscos baseball team won the National Semi-Pro Championship in 1946 (Submitted photo)

The Auto Specialties Company of St. Joseph was responsible for the most ambitious company-sponsored local sports program. The company sponsored Auscos baseball team won the National Semi-Pro Championship in 1946 (Submitted photo)

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. — The Heritage Museum will celebrate the grand opening of its newest exhibit, Work and Play: Sports in Southwest Michigan, with a free admission day on Sunday, June 14, from 12-4. Families are invited to visit the new exhibit and enjoy snacks and crafts as part of the celebration.

Museum Director Christina Arseneau said that the topic of sports was chosen as a fun and accessible way to explore the region’s history and how local events are tied to national trends.

“Whether soccer mom, super fan, or star athlete, sports play a role in nearly everyone’s life,” Arseneau said.” Past, present, and future are connected through historic sporting tournaments, living memories of school championships, and athletic projects designed to bring the community together.”

Sports in Southwest Michigan takes visitors back to the late 19th century, when the sports craze started with baseball. Following the Civil War’s end in 1865, a wave of industrialization swept across the newly reunited nation.

Industrial reforms allowed workers more free time and the health benefits of physical activity were becoming widely recognized. Troops played baseball in Civil War camps and veterans returning home spread its popularity, setting baseball on a course to becoming America’s national pastime. Industries began sponsoring baseball teams, offering players “day jobs” so that they could play ball at night. This phenomenon was mentioned in the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams.

The popularity of sports quickly took hold in southwest Michigan. St. Joseph’s Auto Specialties Company (Ausco) formed its own baseball team which won the 1946 National Semi-Pro championship. Other businesses sponsored athletic teams, from bowling clubs to golf leagues.

Historic sporting events have taken place here. In 1920, boxing’s World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey defended his title in Benton Harbor. Today, Harbor Shores hosts the Senior PGA Championship. Geography has shaped sporting activities: our proximity to the water allows for maritime sports, our hills create challenging golf courses, and our four seasons provide opportunities for sports ranging from vintage baseball to ice hockey. The development of local industry will be explored through sports and recreation, as many area companies, such as Whirlpool, Auto Specialties, and Benton Harbor Malleable, sponsored sporting activities and encouraged employees to participate.

Sports in Southwest Michigan offers something for all ages.

“It is our hope that several generations will visit together,” Arseneau said. “Grandparents will share memories of cheering on their school teams, while children will find inspiration from names like Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth, all while playing together.” Children can try an early version of basketball, which was first played by throwing a soccer ball into a peach basket. A reproduction House of David baseball bus, complete with beards, offers a fun photo opportunity. Golf, cheer, and football are among the other fun hands-on activities. A number of rare artifacts are on display, including autographs from sports legends, vintage baseball uniforms from the Auscos and the House of David, and the jersey worn by Joique Bell when he played football for Benton Harbor High School.

Schools sports are a major part of the exhibit. Southwest Michigan schools hold several state titles, and athletes from the area have played for the NBA, NFL, and MLB. Many local athletes, coaches, and athletic directors have shared their stories and highlights from these interviews will be playing in the exhibit. Beyond baseball, football, and basketball, sports with a history in area, such as judo and horseracing, are explored.

Emphasizing the opportunities opened up by Title IX legislation, several female athletes are highlighted, as well as the role of the local YWCA. Athletics also played a role in opening doors for minorities throughout society.

The opening of Work and Play: Sports in Southwest Michigan coincides with the Heritage Museum’s 50th anniversary. The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, once known as the Fort Miami Heritage Society, was founded in 1965 to bring people together and serve the community. A number of activities are planned to mark this important date, including an anniversary campaign.

Executive Director Amy Zapal said, “We are honored to be the home of our community’s history and look forward to the next 50 years.”

The Heritage Museum & Cultural Center is located at 601 Main Street in St. Joseph, Michigan. Regular admission to Work and Play: Sports in Southwest Michigan is $5 for adults and $1 for children 6-17. Ages 5 and under are free. Admission is always free for Heritage Museum members. Admission fees also include entrance to the lower level exhibit, The Big Three: Boat and Shipbuilding in Benton Harbor. Call (269) 983-1191 or visit for more information.