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Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Merle Athmann, left, secretary/treasurer of the Bird Island Baseball Association, and Lions Memorial Park groundskeeper Jim Flann said Wednesday morning, that the park and field is in tip-top shape and ready to host the three-day Division II American Legion Tournament starting Friday.

Community hits home run with ballpark

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BIRD ISLAND — Lions Memorial Park and the cities of Bird Island and Olivia, just five miles apart on U.S. 212, are ready and eager to host the Division II American Legion State Tournament.

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This is not the first big dance for the Bird Island Baseball Association. In 2010, Bird Island was co-host, with Willmar, of the 2010 State Amateur State Tournament. Last summer they hosted a town-team regional tournament.

 The infield has been edged, a portable building brought in providing office space for state officials and the grass is as green as the tall corn in the surrounding fields.

Baseball at Bird Island has been traced to the early 1920s, according to a baseball history that appears in the 2013 DII program.

 The games were played by local farmers and laborers, more for the social aspect of getting together on a Sunday afternoon than to determine a winner.

An open field or pasture was all that was needed. Every small town and township in Renville County had a team.

There was a baseball field in Bird Island at the south end, near the fairgrounds with a small backstop and a few planks.

When the boys returned from World War II, town-team baseball went off like a shooting star. At one point, there were over 900 teams in Minnesota in the late 1940s. The highest level (AA) went semi-pro. Top players got game money; the promise of a summer job attracted both professionals and top college players.

The current field, on the southwest side, dates to the late ’40s, according to the history. Both businessmen and farmers cooperated to raise money, build fences, install lighting and seed the fields. The first wooden bleachers were borrowed from the fairgrounds and reassembled.

The local town team surged in the early ’50s reaching the state tournament in both ’51 and ’53. But choked by TV and other entertainment options, amateur baseball declined in popularity almost as rapidly as its post-war rise.

 By 1970, the field was being managed by the school district. In 1989, the lights were “literally hanging by the electrical wires.” Repairs would be costly, perhaps beyond the reach of the school district.

Baseball loyalists coaxed the school district, City of Bird Island and the local Lion’s Club to form a joint venture to renovate the baseball facility. From 1992 through 1995, a new grandstand, electronic scoreboard, dugouts, fencing, sprinkler system, and a grass infield were implemented. Thousands of man hours were donated to keep costs low. The Lion’s Club added a roof to the grandstand as a finishing touch.

Total renovation was put at $225,000. Bird Island now had a new baseball stadium with a new name, Lion’s Memorial Park.

The next renovation began in 2007 and was completed in 2010 in preparation for the amateur state tournament. The project included new dugouts, a large plaza and concession stand along the first baseline, plus a berm constructed at the edge of the plaza extending down the right field line. The 815 blocks in the retaining wall weighed 520 pounds each. A backhoe and chain placed each one.

 Local farmers brought in loads of dirt for the berm. The city was instrumental providing equipment and man power. The volunteer efforts of the local towns’ people and the Bird Island Lion’s, again, were the driving force. Total cost of the second renovation was $275,000.

The names of the people who made the project possible are listed on a signs around the ballpark. The written history estimates the project cost without donated time would be over $1.5.

Lions Memorial Park is now a centerpiece. It’s the home field for the American Legion Mudhens, the Bird Island Bullfrogs town team, the state champion BOLD Warriors and the VFW team.

Banquet this evening

The Legion pre-tournament banquet will be held at the Bird Island Ballroom doors today. The doors open at 6:30 p.m. with supper (two meat smorgasbord of turkey and roast beef) at 7:00.

Former Twins catcher Tim Laudner is the guest speaker. Bird Island Baseball Association president Mike Nagel is the MC.

Each coach will introduce the players on their team.

 Tickets available at Family Eye Center-Olivia; Athmann’s Inn Bird Island, or call Mary Gartner at 320-365-3546. Tickets also will be available at the door.

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Rand Middleton

Covers Willmar and area high schools and Ridgewater College, plus amateur baseball, stock car racing and fitness events in summer. Writes weekly column since 1980. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 

(320) 214-4334
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