GREEN ISLE, Minn. – Clarence Herd was a player for the Green Isle Irish in the 1930s. “Maybe the late ’20s; I’m not exactly sure when my dad first played,” Gene Herd said. “This is now the fourth generation of Herds playing ball here.”
Gene was sitting in the small grandstand at the Irish Yard on Thursday night. Green Isle was playing the Hamburg Hawks, one of the Irish’s main rivals in the 15-team Crow River Valley League.
Gene was a player and a manager for the Irish. More than that, he has spent over half of his 80 years fretting over and maintaining the playing field at the Irish Yard — a devotion to town-team baseball that earned him induction into the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
On Thursday night, the grass was emerald and so level that it looked as if it had been cut with a barber’s clippers.
Gene was asked to look back at his family’s 80-plus years with the Irish and to name the best ballplayer among the Herds.
“It depends on what you want,” Gene said. “If you want a hitter, it would be Mike. If you want a pitcher, it would be my boy Mark.”
Mike was a one-name baseball star in this part of the country: “Whitey.” He started playing in 1975 and still was getting a few at-bats in 2010. He had 1,268 hits as a town-team baseball player.
On June 18, Mike Herd died of a heart attack. He was 52. This was a shock that was doubly tough to take, since Don (Pumper) Sauter — another Green Isle baseball legend — had died of a heart attack on Jan. 15 at 58.
Joe Kreger, a former standout player and for decades the baseball organizer in Green Isle, said:
“Whitey played shortstop and Pumper played second. They were side-by-side in their prime as players for a dozen years until Pumper quit in 1989. They were Green Isle’s version of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.”
Whitey’s nickname came from his almost-white head of hair in high school. Pumper’s was more complicated.
“Larry Klunder was a coach at Arlington-Green Isle High,” Kreger said. “Donnie’s older brother, Lee, was a quarterback with a good arm, but slow, and Klunder called him ‘Slewfoot.’ Then, Donnie came along, he was a receiver and faster, so Klunder called him ‘Slough pumper’ … the big old bird you see around here.”
That was shortened to “Pumper,” and the nickname lived through his ball-playing for Green Isle, and his coaching days at Arlington-Green Isle (later Sibley East after a merger with Gaylord).
Sauter lived in Arlington, but he spent his amateur career playing 7 miles away in Green Isle. How did that work?
“He was married to a Brazil [BRAZ-ull] girl,” Kreger said. “So am I. There were three Brazil sons who played ball, and there were eight Brazil daughters, and they knew what they were getting into when they married a ballplayer.”
They were signing up for spring and summer Sundays and selected weeknights at the Irish Yard and other quaint ballparks.
On Tuesday, June 18, the Irish were scheduled to play a few miles away against the Young America Cardinals. Whitey Herd died that morning. An announcement was made quickly that the game would be postponed.
Whitey’s sons, Zach and Lucas, are current standouts for the Irish. They balked at the idea of a postponement.
“The boys wanted the game played,” said Kris Herd, Whitey’s wife, and it was.
“When Lucas left the house, he was in tears,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m going to hit a home run for Dad tonight.’ “
And he did … a left-handed blast in the midst of a 4-3 loss.
Lucas sobbed as he ran the bases. He was greeted at home with a bearhug from his tearful older brother, Zach. Kris was in the stands, also sobbing, and then she was presented the home run ball as a memento.
Jeremy Stender runs a radio station in Glencoe and broadcasts amateur games. He also serves as public address announcer when possible in Young America.
“I was on the PA that night; it was unbelievable when Lucas hit the home run,” Stender said. “Everyone in the ballpark was choked up. As a Young America guy, I thought, ‘It’s great Whitey’s son hit a home run, and great that it was a solo.’ ”
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org