Milroy, Minn. — Television was a rumor in the rural areas of Minnesota in 1954 and there were two primary forms of entertainment in the summer: fishing and watching the hometown team play baseball.
That summer, there were more than 700 town teams in the state, divided into Class A, where a limited number of players could be recruited and paid, and Class B, where such extravagance was alleged to be prohibited.
The small burg of Milroy (population 243) had restarted its town team in 1945, through the efforts of Bob Zwach and John Dolan. Zwach was a catcher, a fiery character and the brother of John Zwach, who would serve four terms in Congress in that area of southwest Minnesota from 1967 to 1975. Dolan was not a ballplayer but an admirer of the game.
Dolan and his wife, Mary, offered more than baseball enthusiasm. They raised 13 children on a farm in nearby Lucan, including six sons who played baseball in Milroy. Seventy-three years later, a total of 45 descendants of John and Mary have played ball for the team long known as the Yankees.
Milroy had an all-Dolan infield of Jack at first, Louie at second, Spike at shortstop and Joe at third. After Louie stepped aside, Joe moved to second, keeping a Dolan double-play combination intact.
And in that amazing summer of 1954, Milroy, with its population of roughly 300, won the Redwood County League, won the state Class B title, and then defeated Class A champion Benson in what was referred to as the State Mythical title game.
“They played in Madison — located between Milroy and Benson — and the crowd was reported to be over 4,000,” Pat Dolan said.
Pat was Louie’s son. He played with his brothers and cousins and married Lori Zwach, Bob’s daughter. He also became chiefly responsible for maintaining the legacy of the Dolan double-play combination, playing 22 seasons (1969-90) for the Milroy Yankees, primarily at shortstop.
His brother Bill was the second baseman into the early ’80s. And from 1983 until Pat’s retirement in 1990, the second baseman was cousin Bob.
“There was a good reason I stayed at shortstop to the end,” Pat said. “I also was the manager and wrote the lineup.”
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There can be no reasonable attempt without the help of an ancestry chart to lay out the lineage of Milroy’s baseball-playing (and managing) Dolans. The 13 children of John and Mary produced 69 offspring.
“We would have the family celebration for Christmas in the basement of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, because there wasn’t enough room in anybody’s house,” Pat Dolan said.
Any holiday gathering of Dolans (and Rohliks, Schmidts, Lavoys, etc.) would include tributes to family and faith, and conversation on what obstacles the Milroy Yankees might face in preparation for the start of the next season.
One of those was maintaining the field at the ballpark adjacent to town. Yankee Field opened in 1955 and Grandpa John was the first groundskeeper … sort of.
“He would tie a rope around a railroad tie and drag it behind his yellow Ford,” Pat Dolan said. “He would drive around the infield pulling the railroad tie, and that was it.”
Pat laughed and said, “We had a terrible infield.”
Yankee Field looks gorgeous today, thanks to the efforts of Doug Christopherson as the volunteer groundskeeper for 30 years, with Pat Dolan as his helper.
As does Irish Yard, the ballpark located 7½ miles to the northeast, thanks to the efforts of Bob Dolan, and therein lies the twist in this tale of a family’s passion for baseball.
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Bob Zwach managed the Yankees through 1964, followed by a string of Dolans in that role: Donnie, Spike, Kenny, and then Pat became the manager in 1976 and stayed in that role to the late ’80s.
Bob Dolan took over as manager with assistance from his brother Neil. There was a run for the state Class C championship in 1994, led by pitcher Chad Kemp. He was 20-0 and pitched them to the final, wasn’t available for that game, and the Yankees lost to Belle Plaine and lefthander Barry Wohler.
Joe Dolan was the father of Bob and Neil. He was a fantastic player for the Yankees, and the hitting star of the 1954 state championship. Joe was one of John and Mary’s 13 children, and then he had 13 children with his wife, Evelyn.
His nephew — another Joe Dolan — was also a tremendous athlete, leading the Milroy basketball team to the district title game in 1963.
“Joe was great, and that Milroy team was 22-0 before losing to Marshall in the district final,” Pat Dolan said. “And Marshall went on to win the state championship.”
Joe became a well-known coach and athletic director in the Bloomington school district. He died at age 65 from leukemia.
Bob Dolan is the kid brother in Joe and Evelyn’s family of 13. “I’m intense when it comes to baseball,” he said. “As a manager, I pushed the players to win. There’s no question about that.”
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Ryan Rohlik is the current manager of the Yankees. He’s does play-by-play and hosts a radio show in Marshall as “The Swami.” He is a Dolan relative and started playing for the Yankees in 1999.
“We were very good in 2002, and lost to a team in the state tournament that we shouldn’t have lost to,” Rohlik said. “That kind of started things going downhill for the players and Bob.”
There was a rare losing season for the Yankees in 2003. “Bob lost it on players a few times,” Rohlik said. “Nobody was having fun that you’re supposed to have in town baseball. There was a players meeting and most players said they wouldn’t be back if Bob and Neil were still running it.”
Milroy has a baseball board that oversees the team and finds the funds to keep it operating. Milroy’s situation is different in that the team (not a municipal entity) owns the ballpark.
The board decided to back the players. Pat and cousin Tommy Dolan asked to meet with Bob and told him he was out as the manager.
“I offered to back off [in intensity], but they had made a decision,” Bob said.
He was sitting at a table at Irish Yard, the ballpark that he built with assistance in the countryside between Milroy and Vesta, and said, “It worked out for the best for everyone.”
Then, Bob Dolan, 51, took in the glory of 6 acres of soybeans turned to a ballpark, the sun splashing against a scoreboard reading Irish Yard, and added:
“I think every kid who grows up playing and loving baseball dreams of building his own ballpark.”
I’d say that dream is unusual, Bob, although not as unusual as actually pulling it off.
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Bob spent five years formulating the plan to start a team. He chose the name “Irish,” suggesting it was the pre-Yankees nickname used for Milroy baseball. More likely, it was never an official nickname, but rather a reference to a team with all those Dolans.
Either way, Bob’s new team started by playing a limited number of home games at Southwest Minnesota State’s field in Marshall in 2009. A year later, neighbors Jim and Kathy Zwaschka gave Bob the bargain price of $1,000 per acre for 6 acres on a gravel road near Hwy. 19.
That is where Irish Yard started to come together. Bob had three sons helping him, and Neil had a pair. And most important, Bob’s wife, Peggy, was fully on board.
For instance: A few days before Irish Yard was set to open with a doubleheader on June 2, 2012, Bob saw online that seats removed from Baltimore’s Camden Yards were on sale in Louisville. Bob negotiated a deal for 72 seats, and Peggy helped make the 1,700-mile round trip to collect and transport the green chairs that now sit in Irish Yard.
They were able to add lights in 2014, after getting light poles that were being removed from the track at Southwest Minnesota State.
One minor issue was the absence of a landmark to convince civilians that a turn on the gravel road would lead to a ballpark. Bob’s brother Mike owned the land on the corner and came up with a tribute to his family’s strong faith. Thus, if you’re driving west on Hwy. 19 out of Vesta and want to find Irish Yard, turn right at the 30-foot-high statue of Christ on the cross.
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The Yankees and Irish play in different leagues and in different regions. They have strong clubs this season with hopes for a trip to the state Class C tournament. They have never played. The minds say a big crowd but the hearts are not yet willing.
The Dolans all will be together at the end of July — not for baseball, but for the 48th annual Dolan Classic family golf tournament over two days at the Tracy Country Club. The event is open to descendants of John and Mary Dolan, and spouses, generally with 80 players and 130 people taking in the dinner and a talent show.
It would seem an annual Sunday game between the Irish and Yankees would be a perfect end to the Dolan family weekend. Or maybe not.
“I get sick of talking about the Dolan angle,” Pat said. “I’ve heard it my whole life in this area: ‘You have to be a Dolan to play baseball for Milroy.’
“We’ve had so many great players: magnificent pitchers like Reed Lovsness, Chad Kemp, Drew Van Loy; an incomparable hitter like Rich Kramer, so many. … Going back to Day 1 with Bob Zwach, Milroy baseball always has been about more than the Dolans.”