As hard as it might be to believe, Minnesota is not just a hockey playing state, covered with snow. The springs are crisp, the summers tend to be hot and humid, and the falls are spectacular. My mom grew up in Waseca, Minnesota, 71 miles south of Minneapolis. Waseca was a vibrant farming town, in the heart of southern Minnesota farm country, where farm fields seemed to roll on forever, and baseball fields broke the monotony of tall corn stalks.
Growing up a baseball fan in a southwest suburb of Minneapolis, I was curious about relatives of mine, who might have played baseball, at any level, college or pro. When I was young, my mother informed me that her oldest brother, John (Jack) Thornby played college baseball for the Minnesota Gophers in the late 1940’s. My mother was much younger than her older brother Jack, as she graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1955, and Jack graduated by 1949. The story was that Jack was a 1st-baseman for the Gophers and eventually competed with Bud Grant (former Minnesota Vikings head coach), who happened to be a 3-sport athlete at the University, playing football, basketball and baseball.
Aunt Marge, Uncle Jack, and Mary Ann (my mom)
In doing a little research I was able to locate a picture of my late uncle, pictured below (upper right hand corner) from a 1949 Minnesota Gopher annual:
It wasn’t much, but it at least validated that my uncle was indeed playing for the Gopher baseball team in the late 1940’s. My uncle’s head coach, was Gophers head coach Dick Siebert, the former Philadelphia Athletic from 1938 to 1945. In the same picture above, to the left of my uncle, is Harry Elliot. Elliot played a few years for the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid 1950’s (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/e/ellioha02.shtml).
Dick Siebert and the Gophers would go onto to win 3 National NCAA Division I titles, in 1956, 1960 and 1964. They would come up just 2 games short in the 1973 College World Series, losing to USC in game #13, the eventual winners. Future Major League HOF’er Dave Winfield was on that ’73 Gopher team, where less than a month later (June 19th) he was making his Major League debut with the San Diego Padres. Future Major League HOF’er, Paul Molitor would also star in the mid 70’s for the Gophers under Siebert before making his Major League debut for the Brewers in 1978.
(Dave Winfield, circa 1973, Minnesota Gophers)
(Paul Molitor, circa 1976, Minnesota Gophers)
My mother told me stories about growing up with her 3 brothers and 1 sister (my mom was the youngest, born in 1933). The stories consisted of her older brothers Jack, Jim and David being die-hard Cardinals fans and picking up as many Cardinals games on the AM radio in the evenings as they were able during the 1940’s (Sportsman Park in St. Louis had night games beginning in 1940). I met my uncle Jack a few times, and due to my young age when I was around him, I was naively in awe of who he was, even though he was not a Major League ballplayer. I really appreciated the fact that here was a relative who played baseball at a high level, and shared my interest in baseball, and he even played for a former Major Leaguer and with a former Major Leaguer.
My uncle was a smart man, smart enough to know that his baseball career would come to an end after his college career. He earned a degree in Mathematics and a PHD in Statistics from the University of Minnesota. He went on to work for Pillsbury Corporate in Minneapolis in the 1950’s and through the early 1960’s as well as the University of Minnesota. He moved to Pennsylvania taking on a professor job in the Department of Mathematics at Bucknell University, then onto the University of Florida in their Statistical Analysis Department before ending up in Houston, Texas area doing medical research for the Baylor College of Medicine from 1986 thru the rest of his career. He stayed active into his 90’s and was even completing marathons at his old age.
(Jack’s last run, he died in 2009)
My mom’s father was the family dentist in Waseca. The 3 boys, Jack, Jim and David all grew up playing sports. Marge was my mom’s older sister, and is the only living member remaining of the 5 children born by my grandmother Mary Thornby and my grandfather Ingram Thornby. My mom, Mary Ann, passed away in February of 2014, and was almost 81 years old.
(Back row standing: Jack, Jim, David, Marge. Front row sitting: Mary, Mary Ann, Ingram)
My mom’s brother Jim (who I was named after), died tragically while serving for the Army in California, in the summer of 1953 (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=110776360).
Baseball has always been a big deal in Waseca. And it was not just for white players. EACO Flour Mill in Waseca, sponsored an integrated team 47 years before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier.
Major Leaguer, Jerry Terrell (Twins and Royals, ’73-’80), was born in Waseca as was current Twins 3rd-base coach, Gene Glynn.
Southern Minnesota is home to some of the best amateur baseball played in the upper midwest by returning college players and former high school players who are home for the summer, locally known as “Townball” (regular baseball, not to be confused with the old time Town Ball played in the 1800’s). Over time, you end up with several “veterans” and former Major/Minor league talent, coming back to play for their communities. Former Major Leaguer, Steve Comer, pitcher for the Texas Rangers, among other teams, played Minnesota Townball for years following his Major League career. Steve was a graduate of my High School, Minnetonka (http://www.minnetonka.k12.mn.us/alumni/Pages/SteveComer.aspx), graduating in ’72, 12 years before I graduated from there. I even had the pleasure of playing in a 35-and-over league game against him when I played for the Prior Lake 35-and-over team in 2005. Luckily for me, Steve was no longer pitching, at least not in that game. Comer was playing for the Shakopee Indians 35-and-over team.
Several of the ballparks these teams play in are featured in the “Townball Tavern” at Target Field in Minneapolis.
(Some of the photos displayed within the Townball Tavern)
Tink Larson Field in Waseca, 71 miles south of Minneapolis, is where my uncle would have played much of his high school/summer ball (when it was called Waseca Community Field, built in 1939), and is still in use today:
(Arial view, 2000s)
(Game action with packed stands, 1950’s or 1960s)
(A more recent photo of the wooden infield grandstand)
(Arial view, 1972)
(Tink Larson himself still manicures the local field)
(Waseca Braves action, 2015, Tink Larson Field, note the mounted stadium seats you see are from the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington)
Waseca is just one community in Southern Minnesota with a strong baseball following. Travel 55 miles to the west of Waseca, northwest of Mankato, and you get to New Ulm, where the Steinbach brothers grew up playing baseball for New Ulm. Tim, Tom and Terry went on to play for the Minnesota Gophers (http://www.nytimes.com/1982/05/17/sports/sports-world-specials-steinbach-bros.html), and eventually Terry would play for the Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins, becoming an All-Star MVP in the ’88 All-Star game for Oakland.
(Terry Steinbach, Gophers 1981-1983/Oakland A’s All-Star 1988)
Johnson Park, in New Ulm, 91 miles southwest of Minneapolis, is one of the iconic ballparks in Southern Minnesota, and hosts one of the 2 bigger “Legion” tournaments of the summer, The Upper Midwest Classic: (http://www.legion.org/baseball/tournaments/invitational/93088/upper-midwest-classic), attended by dozens of midwest college coaches searching for upper midwest talent to play college baseball. Teams from as far away as Nebraska enter this tournament.
(Home to New Ulm Baseball and the Upper Midwest Classic)
My oldest son Zach had the honor of pitching a win for Prior Lake Legion in the summer of 2012, vs New Ulm at Johnson Park during the 2012 Upper Midwest Classic:
(2012 Upper Midwest Classic, Johnson Park, New Ulm, MN: Zach pitching)
If you are ever in southern Minnesota during the summer months, make sure you locate one of the many ballparks located in almost every town. You will be treated to an old-time experience, being at the ballpark, and feeling like you are back in the mid 1900’s.
For the crown jewel of Southern Minnesota ballparks, Chaska Athletic Park, you need not go further than 31 miles southwest of Minneapolis. Chaska, Minnesota is home to the Chaska Cubs, one of the strongest Townball teams in Minnesota. They are able to draw college players who grew up in several nearby communities (Eden Prairie, Shakopee, etc).
The wood posts/supports and seats are typical of several ballparks in southern Minnesota, a throwback to early 1900’s ballparks:
The tall light towers make it easy to locate these fields when driving into the small towns:
The pristine Chaska field is another ballpark where my college-age son Zach (#11) was able to pitch at this past summer (2015) for the Prior Lake Jays townball team:
Chaska Athletic Park has been around since at least the 1940s:
The ballparks in southern Minnesota are relics of a time gone by, but buzzing every summer with the local high school, legion and townball teams. Jordan, Minnesota, home of the Jordan Brewers townball team, and the Jordan Mini-Met, 35 miles southwest of Minneapolis, features another gem near the banks of the Minnesota River:
The High School Class A (there are 3 classes, AAA, AA, A for High School baseball in Minnesota) quarter and semi-finals are hosted at the Jordan Mini-Met, leading to the championship games which are played at Target Field for all 3 HS classes.
(Signature wooden grandstand)
(Sometime before 1950, when a barn ran parallel with the 1st-base line)
I presented just 4 of these beautiful old-time ballparks still in use today in southern Minnesota. But they are everywhere in the state, north and south. The southern part of the state has a greater concentration of them, and they are easy to get to. My uncle Jack would have played at these same fields, back in the 1940’s and early 1950’s before his work career would make him leave baseball behind. I had the chance to play on several them during my 35-over season playing for Prior Lake in 2005 (I was 39 at the time). My oldest son, has played on more of them, during his High School and Legion and now Townball playing days. For a lot of these former High School, College and Pro players, it is the reason why they continue to play baseball when they settle down and raise a family in Minnesota. There is nothing better than baseball in southern Minnesota in the summer time. I am hopeful my soon-to-be 13-yr old son will get to continue the tradition of playing on these same southern Minnesota ball fields, as he follows his baseball journey. His middle name is “Thornby” …
(Standing next to the Christy Mathewson bust is my son Hayden, then 12-yrs old, visiting Cooperstown, NY in 2015)