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Netland: A catcher behind a keyboard

Dwayne Netland had a long and brilliant career in journalism, but the spring of 1950 stands out.

He was a senior at Willmar High School, getting ready for graduation and, presumably, for prom.

He was the catcher and leadoff hitter for the Willmar Cardinals baseball team that won the West Central Conference in both 1948 and '49. He also caught and batted third for the Willmar Kernals of the Corn Belt League, an amateur team that played second fiddle to the semi-professional Willmar Rails.

And that spring, and indeed his final year of high school, he practically wrote the local sports page.

Herb Hengstler, the longtime sports editor at the West Central Daily Tribune, was in failing health. Increasingly, he relied on the young scribe who had started covering the local teams two years earlier.

Netland, who died June 30 at age 77 in Arizona, was a gifted writer from the start. He was a fluid writer and he must have been lightning fast on the keyboard. He had a flair with words, tossing out adjectives like a backstop gunning down base runners.

Here's a paragraph from a May 9 story that he wrote on one of his classmates who was a football and track standout:

"When bouquets for the greatest athlete in the star-studded senior class at Willmar are handed out, it's generally the peerless Harlan Brogren who receives most of the recognition (for) blazing one of the noblest roads in school history. But it's widely conceded that Jerry Wolfe rates the No. 2 spot."

His non-baseball articles were under the byline "Netty". He wrote a column several days a week titled "Sideline Slants" by Netty. The photo insert showed a handsome youngster with short black hair, dark eyes and a warm smile.

The articles on the Cardinal baseball team, which he clearly wrote, went without attribution. He didn't write himself out of the articles but the accolades, if well deserved, went to his teammates.

He wrote of the season opener: "It will probably mark the toughest opening for the Cards in years with Milo Fowler's fabled Dragons ... giving the acid test to Howard Iverson and his seasoned Redbird veterans."

He was clever and inventive in a day when citizens picked up the sports page not just for information but an evening's entertainment.

He wrote that the Cardinals starting infield of Butch Berg at first, Frank Hawks at second, Owen Wallin at shortstop and Brogren at third "Must now rate among the elite inner tubes in the area."

Brogren was best friends with Netty.

"He had a baseball card collection and he knew every name and the average of guys in the majors and the minor leagues," said Brogren on Tuesday from his home in South Carolina. "Everybody liked Netty."

He covered the Rails, who were a huge deal in that era. The players were famous and games at the park on Willmar Avenue where the water tower now stands drew over 1,000 fans on a week night and over 2,000 on Sunday.

On May 15, Netty wrote of the long-awaited season opener with the Glenwood Lakers: "Again Willmar put two on in the 10th, but (Dick) Selvig wrote finis to the evening festivities by grounding to (Dave) Bogie at second and the 19-year old Larry Borsch, a Minneapolis Marshall graduate, had himself a precocious win and Rails followers were scratching their heads -- could this be 1949 all over again?"

The next day, he followed up in his column with notes on the local diamond wars: "Gene Kelly's fast ball was hopping, but so were the Lakers bats ... Litchfield drew 1,200 fans for its opener with Atwater, a 3-1 win."

Presumably, he was still going to class.

As the Cardinal catcher he could wrote with unattributed authority on the pitching staff, as he did in this May 23 coverage of a 4-3 win over Montevideo: "(Jack) Strom's fastball was working for the first occasion of the campaign. And probably could have weather the assault, but he tired visibly and Iverson elected to insert the fresher Hawks, who sniped the Mohawks on three pitches."

Hengstler continued to write his daily column. On June 3 he announced that Lee Meade had been hired away from the Litchfield Independent Review and was taking over the daily chores of putting together the sports pages as "I've been told to take it easy."

Then he added: "I want to say a word about the young fellow who has filled in the part so well during past months. Dwayne Netland took over many of the duties of the job last fall after I left on that 'extended vacation.' Netty has done a swell job. Originally engaged to handle highs school sports when he was only a sophomore ... he took over much of the work while carrying a heavy load in high school. In my book he has a very bright future as a sports writer or any other type of writing which he decides on at the conclusion of school."

Following college at the University of Minnesota, Netland went on to cover college and pro sports for the Minneapolis Tribune from 1956 to 1974.

From there, he was a senior writer for Golf Digest until his retirement. He covered major tournaments, including 18 Masters. He co-wrote golfing books with both Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

He spent his retirement in Park Rapids and Scottsdale. His last visit to Willmar may have been in 2004 when he attended a reception for Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame Inductee Allan Backlund.

Also there was Charles Goff, a 1947 Willmar graduate and a retired judge who also wrote for Hengstler under the byline "Duffy" while still in high school and later in college.

It was one of the privileges of this job that I got to know both men, at least slightly.

Brogren, who was in the first class inducted into the Willmar HOF, said he and Netty played baseball every day all summer growing up.

And when the afternoon grew long, they'd go to Brogren's house at the corner of Seventh Street and Monongalia Avenue for refreshments.

"We'd raid my mother's cookie jar," said Brogren. "I still have that cookie jar. Every time I put my hand into it now for a cookie, I think of Netty."

He's worth remembering.