Amateur baseball: Summer of '52, when a Dodger hit clean-up
Howie 'Stretch' Schultz helped lead the Willmar Rails to an amateur baseball championship in 1952
WILLMAR — Seventy-five years ago ballparks were the community square. Sunday afternoons were the big day but after ballparks were lit games could be played weekdays too.
The post-war years were a comparatively joyous time following the horrors and belt tightening of the War Years.
Baseball was cheap entertainment — a quarter to a half-dollar or simply pass the hat in the seventh inning. At Willmar, a 25-game season pass was $10, plus tax, or $14 reserve seating.
This paper reported after the ‘52 season that the Rails drew 36,100 fans to 29 home games at Hodapp Field, where the football stadium now stands. The 1952 West Central League best-of-five playoffs series pitted second-place Litchfield and first-place Willmar. A photo of the Thursday night crowd at Hodapp for the climatic fifth game states that 3,831 fans saw the 5-3 Rails victory.
It was the heyday of town team baseball. The Minneapolis Tribune July 30, 1950, issue displayed a state-wide schedule that showed 80 leagues and 800 teams in three classes — AA, B and C. Rivalries (and betting) were intense: imagine Willmar (pop. 9,400) at DeGraff (pop. 270) drawing 1,500 fans at mid-century.
But times were changing. Televisions, golf, boating, bowling, fishing, camping and motor trips were growing in popularity and the Korean War draft sapped young players. People had more money and time. Baseball wasn’t dying, but no longer was it the only show in town.
In the summer of ‘52 Kandiyohi County couldn’t have done any better on the ballfields. The Willmar Rails captured the crown in semi-pro Class AA — the “Big Leagues” of Town Team at Austin while the Blomkest fast-pitch team won the state championship up in Virginia, just days apart in early September.
Ex-Dodger leads Rails
Howie “Stretch” Schultz was a 6-foot-6, 200-pound athlete who had led the Hamline Pipers in his hometown of St. Paul to a small-college basketball national championship.
Howie came to Willmar in 1951 at age 29 to play first base and provide a home-run threat. Behind him was a dual career in professional baseball and basketball. He played 470 games in the major leagues, mainly for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1943-47. (Stretch was twice denied military service because of his height). It was reported that Schultz was traded to Philadelphia in 1947 to make room for Jackie Robinson, the future Hall-of-Famer who famously broke baseball’s color barrier that year.
Schultz got just short of 1,600 at-bats, hitting .241 with 24 homers. In the winter he played for the Minneapolis Lakers during the early years of the NBA. A spot player, he averaged a modest 4 points per game over four seasons. He played on the ‘51-52 team that won the NBA championship a short time before returning to the Rails for a second season.
Bud Grant, another Lakers reserve, like Schultz a two-sport pro athlete, is quoted: “I made more playing Town Ball then I ever did playing basketball for the Lakers.’’
A 1952 town-team overview in the West Center Daily Tribune labeled Schultz the most “sought-after player in Minnesota.”
He too liked the easy income playing baseball plus a summer job in town at the end of his top-level pro career. (With a few exceptions, major leaguers didn’t start making that much until the reserve clause that bound them to one team for life was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1972 in favor of free agency).
In the ‘52 state playoff opener Sept. 6, a Saturday, at Austin, Schultz delivered a “340-foot towering home run in the 7th inning” to support Litchfield draftee Johnny Herr’s 1-0 win over the Albert Lee Packers (the Southern Minny champs) before whipping Fairmont 12-4. That put the Rails in the finals of the four-team double-elimination event.
On Tuesday, Sept. 9 clean-up hitter Schultz belted a grand-slam homer in the eighth inning to provide the winning margin in a 12-8 victory over Albert Lea, which had emerged from the losers’ bracket after eliminating Fairmont and the Minneapolis Parks National League champion.
Will Gullickson, the new Tribune Sports Editor, wrote from Austin: “Willmar and Albert Lee left no doubt they were the best outfits competing in the Class AA events.’’
The next day at a “Gigantic Welcome Home” parade the players rode in convertibles down main street between crowded sidewalks. Other Willmar stars included pitcher Gene Kelly (14-1), the city rec director out of the University of Minnesota, retiring player/manager Art Grangaard (the state tourney MVP), catchers Byron Sharpe and Max Ross, infielder Chub Ebnet (29 games without an error), Pete Kramer (6-for-12 at state) and outfield Lefty Ranweiler, future Tribune sports editor.
Bird Island won its league and regional playoff to advance to the Class A tourney with a 31-9 record but lost in the first round to Glenwood.
York, Siebert star
There were other ex-major leaguers playing along U.S. 12, the spine of the WC League. Rudy York ended his long playing career in ‘52 for the Benson-DeGraff Irish/Chiefs as a player/manager. The ex-Detroit Tiger was a seven-time American League all-star with 277 career homers, including 18 in one month, in ‘37, besting the count of 17 shared by both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
The Litchfield Optimists landed Dick “Chief” Siebert, who batted .282 over an 11-year career with the Dodgers, Cardinals and Philly A’s. He led Litchfield to the Class AA title in ‘51 and then in ‘52, at age 40, led the league in home runs, RBI and batting average.
Seibert was known as the voice of town team baseball, state wide and even nationally via the Sporting News was the head coach of the Gophers’ since 1948 and would bring some of his top players down Highway 12 to Litchfield. The Gophers would win three NCAA titles in his long tenure. Siebert Field is where the Gophers play today.
Fast-pitch softball was also popular with fans. Games sped along. The windmilling pitchers were artists at painting the plate with their speedballs, drop balls and change-ups.
Blomkest played in Willmar’s four-team league with American Legion, Liberty Cafe, and Dave’s and Fran’s, the team it beat in the playoff final on Chuck Lindquist’s one-hitter with 12 strikeouts. That sent Blomkest to the state tournament where they were the reigning champions.
The Blomkest nine defeated Odin, Grand Rapids and New Brighton to face Navarre on Lake Minnetonka for the Class A title. It won that game, 9-5. That set up a showdown for the overall title. In a tense, thrilling final, St. Paul Herges, the AA champ, edged the Blomkest 1-0
Slow-pitch would eventually push aside fastpitch in participation-levels but the Svea, Lake Lillian, Blomkest area was still a hotbed for the hitter-centered game. Hanson Silo of Lake Lillian and Norling Silo of Svea produced state championship teams and national tournament entrants in the 1970s and into the ‘80s.
Baseball’s early years
In the 1880s, games were played in pastures or open fields on Sunday afternoons. Norway Lake had a team by the mid-eighties. A news report in 1885 reported the Burbank Nine beating Warner Nine 21-17 (New London Review).
By the early 1900s things got serious. Willmar bought land for a ballpark. Spicer and Raymond formed official teams. By the 1920s, Kandiyohi County had a league of its own consisting of Atwater, Norway Lake, Kandiyohi, Willmar, New London, Goldenrod and Spicer.
The Corn Belt League formed in 1934 with Benson, Raymond, Kerkhoven, Willmar, Clara City, DeGraff, Murdock and Norway Lake. Crowds of 200 were not uncommon with playoff games attracting twice to three times as many.
The West Central League in its post-war glory drew crowds in the thousands. In 1948 the Minnesota Baseball Association created Class AA recognizing the proliferation of pros and college players. Class A had some of the above while Class B was strictly amateur and local. Benson, DeGraff, Atwater, Lake Lillian, Granite Falls, Montevieo, Willmar, Alexandria, Litchfield, Morris and Glenwood were each at one time a part of the ever-changing West Central League lineup. Benson and DeGraff paired for the ‘51 and ‘52 campaigns, the heated rivals friends for a time but so goes baseball.
Sources: KCHS microfilm and research materials. Pro baseball stats found on line, including Wikipedia. The “Early Years’' section is based on an article that appeared in the West Central Tribune April 18, 1994, by Marvin Hauge with research by Mark Lilly, both former players from the Sunburg-Kerkhoven-Norway Lake area. Also, “Baseball in Minnesota” by Steve Thornley and “Town Team” by Armand Peterson and Tom Tomashek provided information.