The baseball bug bit Joe Jensen when he was a tyke and never let go.
He grew up playing on the storied Dunning Fields near his St. Paul home. By age 6, he was taking pointers on the game from a godfather who was a baseball scout.
Jensen finally hung up his cleats at 82, after decades as a semi-pro and amateur pitcher. He retired with a career record of 273-58, two no-hitters and an enviable ERA of 2.45. About half of those victories came after he was 52.
"He knew where every pitch was going," said Chuck Murry, a friend who coached Jensen on various amateur teams from 1986 up until just a few years ago. "He could throw a nice changeup and throw a curveball and they'd be swinging too late or too soon. He had very good control."
Jensen died Oct. 2 of acute myeloid leukemia at his Burnsville home. He was 84.
Although he also played college football and hockey, baseball was his true love, said his wife, Pat. Early in their courtship, Jensen took her to a baseball field, handed her a bat and stood her over home plate. Then he wound up and threw a curveball at her, so she could experience it. She grew to love the game as much as he did.
A high school coach at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights first recognized Jensen's potential as a hurler, moving him from the outfield to the pitcher's mound. When the college scouts came calling, Jensen, whose father died when he was 2, stayed in the neighborhood to play ball at St. Thomas College. At 20, he signed a contract with a Cleveland Indians' farm team and dropped out of school with two years' eligibility left.
The Army snatched his dreams of the majors during the Korean War, but Jensen was able to keep his pitching arm nimble. Instead of getting sent off to combat, Jensen headed to La Crosse, Wis., where he played baseball for the special services, the military's entertainment branch, to keep the troops' spirits up. At catcher was a young Elston Howard, who later became the first African-American to play for the New York Yankees.
Jensen left the Army with a 25-0 pitching record, and the pros never stopped calling. The family found a letter from the New York Yankees, sent on stationery from the Biltmore Hotel, the now-gone luxury hotel next to Grand Central Station.
But at 23, Jensen decided he was too old for the pros and turned to semipro ball, where he traveled to small towns across the Midwest to play for $500 to $1,000 a month, Murry said.
A serious ankle break (not from baseball) sidelined him, and Jensen turned his attention to starting a family and a business, later co-founding Northwest Packaging in St. Paul, where he worked until he was 70.
Seventeen years later, the lure of the sport called him back. Soon a 52-year-old Jensen was back on the mound, starting seniors teams in the Twin Cities and earning accolades from Minnesota to Florida. Known variously as "Smokin' Joe" or "Pappa Joe," Jensen won a number of state titles and MVP honors. Less than a week before he died, he was inducted into the St. Thomas Academy Athletic Hall of Fame.
"I'm proud of all his athletic accomplishments, but I'm more proud of the person he was," said one of his seven children, Jane Bohman, who dug through a scrapbook 5 inches thick and boxes of memorabilia to pull together her dad's sporting career highlights.
"So many people told me he was the kindest person they knew," she said. "That makes me beam."
In addition to his wife, Pat, and daughter Jane, he is survived by daughters Meri Crouley of Manhattan Beach, Calif.; Therese Blanchard of Eagan and Karen Abbott of Eagan, and two sons, Joseph of Minneapolis and Mark of Burnsville. He was preceded in death by his son Jack.
Services have been held.
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335