Bob Klepperich recalls how his heart sank in October 1960 when he heard on the radio that the Washington Senators baseball team was moving to the Twin Cities, pushing the minor league St. Paul Saints out of town and all the way to Omaha.
Midway Stadium was losing its main tenant, which meant Klepperich would be losing his job as equipment manager for the Saints’ visiting teams, a position he had held since the summer of 1956 at old Lexington Park.
“That’s the end of the dream,” a devastated Klepperich thought.
Instead, it was just getting started.
Klepperich continued to work at Midway, moonlighting as assistant equipment manager for the fledgling Minnesota Vikings football team while at the same time launching a career as a St. Paul high school teacher. In 1982 he became manager of the city’s new Midway Stadium, which before long became home to a new and quirkier collection of Saints.
Now, after nearly six decades working at St. Paul’s municipal ballparks, the dream job is ending for good. The Saints’ season ends Thursday, and when they take the field next year it will be at a $63 million ballpark in downtown St. Paul. Klepperich won’t be with them; the management model for the new ballpark doesn’t have a place for him.
Few people will miss Midway, an aging park with funky charm but few amenities. But everyone at Midway, it seems, is going to miss Bob Klepperich.
“He was a second dad and mentor and inspiration to a whole group of people,” said St. Paul police commander Axel Henry, who started working on the grounds crew for Klepperich as a teenager in 1985 and continued there in college. “He was my first exposure to the outside world which confirmed and supported my dad’s words about hard work.”
Klepperich encouraged the Saints in 2004 to sign Jason Verdugo, a former minor league pitcher who was coaching Hamline University’s baseball team at Midway. Verdugo, now Hamline’s athletic director, went on to pitch the Saints to the league championship.
“A lot of that opportunity was because Bob stuck his neck out there,” Verdugo said. “What made Midway special to me was to see someone as good and caring and passionate as Bob Klepperich.”
Klepperich, a wiry 74-year-old who relishes getting out of his cluttered stadium office to drag the infield or sweep the stands, shrugs off the praise. “The joy of this job is the wide variety of people that you work with,” he said.
‘A really good run’
Klepperich worked his first season at Lexington for tips, selling visiting players cigarettes, candy and soda for a slight markup. If there was laundry to do, he’d take it home for his mother to handle; the old ballpark had no washers.
It wasn’t glamorous work, but his friends envied him. He met minor leaguers before they became major league fixtures, players like Maris and Killebrew and Gibson. His favorite visitors were the Denver Bears, a Yankees franchise. “They showed class all the way around, including how they tipped,” he said.
When the Vikings made Midway Stadium their practice field, Klepperich worked five seasons for the team in between finishing college at St. Thomas and getting his first job at Monroe High School in St. Paul, where he taught social studies and journalism.
“Literally every game was an away game, because we had to pack everything up and move over to the Met [Stadium] or to the airport,” he said.
Before one gameday kickoff, Viking defensive back Ed Sharockman waved his crutches from the car to direct traffic as they raced back to Midway to retrieve a player’s shoes.
Although Klepperich continued working at the ballpark, life quieted down a bit after he left the Vikings. He married his wife, Judi, in 1967 and had two children, David and Kathryn. Monroe closed in 1977 and Klepperich moved to Humboldt High School on the city’s West Side, where he remained until he retired in 1999.
In the 1960s and ’70s, St. Paul struggled to find suitable draws for the original Midway Stadium. “The place became a political football,” Klepperich said. “Anybody who ran for office said, we’re going to start doing something to get people into Midway Stadium. So we had a slow-pitch softball league that bombed, we had rodeos, we had motorcycle races, we had concerts. But the vast majority of the events attracted less than 200 people.”
Mike Veeck’s Saints arrived at the new Midway in 1993, ushering in a new and slightly crazier era at the ballpark for which Klepperich had a front-row seat. He was told to expect about 2,500 at Saints’ games. Instead, 5,000 showed up every night.
“I didn’t have enough trash cans, I didn’t have enough dumpsters, I didn’t have enough help,” he said. “We didn’t have enough of anything … It was just unbelievable how it went. And I was still teaching at that time.”
What kept Klepperich going was baseball, whether it was the Saints or American Legion ball or the Minnesota Baseball Association’s Class A league, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame this year. “Bob is the person who provided the care needed for all players to have their ‘field of dreams’ become a reality,” his citation read.
“It would be tough to be in this business as long as he has without having a passion for the sport,” said Saints general manager Derek Sharrer.
And something else stood out. “I don’t think he’s ever had to post a job listing,” Sharrer said. “There’s always a funnel of people waiting to come work at this ballpark for Bob.”
Said Gage Miller, a recent college graduate from West St. Paul who has worked for Klepperich for seven years: “I don’t really see it as a job. He’s more than a boss. He’s more like a mentor.”
Klepperich isn’t sure what he will do next. He might stay with the city for a while in another parks job, or he might retire and spend his time spoiling his grandchildren and tending to his garden in Mendota Heights.
One thing he does plan to do, he said, is travel to other cities and see their ballparks.
“I’ve had a really good run,” he said. “I taught so I could afford to work at the ballpark, because the ballpark at the time wasn’t all that lucrative. But it was something I really, really wanted to do.”