Greater Chaska was the town’s version of a chamber of commerce after World War II. Baseball was booming in Minnesota, and the Chaska civic boosters got together to finance and build Athletic Park.
Hauser Lano was the 24-year-old president of Greater Chaska when Athletic Park opened in the spring of 1950. A couple of years ago, Chaska was getting ready to host the State American Legion tournament and Lano said of the ballpark:
“Even after 60-some years, it really is something still.’’
There is only one problem: the danged Minnesota River that is located not far behind the outfield fence. The deluge of late spring caused the river to come out of its banks in mid-June and flood the ballpark all the way to the grandstand.
When the river finally receded, the grass was dead and Athletic Park was unusable.
“We haven’t played a home game since,’’ said Bob Poppitz, the manager of the Chaska Cubs. “And we won’t … not until next season. I think not having the ballpark, for batting practice, for the psychological edge any baseball team gets playing at home, has had something to do with the skid we’ve had lately.’’
The Cubs stopped hitting in late July and lost four of five against their Class B rivals: the Victoria Vics, Shakopee Indians and Prior Lake Jays. On Friday, two best-of-five playoff series — Victoria vs. Prior Lake, Chaska vs. Shakopee — start to determine a pair of entries into the 16-team Class B state tournament.
Two of the Cubs’ late-season losses were to Victoria, 6-1 and 10-3. There’s an extra sting in losses to the Vics, since Mike Poppitz, Bob’s older brother, is the manager and major force with Victoria baseball.
“There’s a legend out here that we don’t get along,’’ Bob said. “That’s not true. We’re competing now in baseball, but as brothers, we’re very close.’’
Mike was the oldest of four brothers. Bob was the youngest. They were raised on a farm in Augusta, a stop on the road near Carver.
The father was called “Hubbell.’’ It was a nickname given to him years earlier in honor of the great pitcher, Carl Hubbell, although no one is sure why, since Hubbell Poppitz was a catcher.
Hubbell helped to organize the Carver Black Sox in 1948 and was the catcher. Mike caught for Carver until he injured his arm. Brothers Rick and Bob caught for Carver.
“The only way to get out of work at the farm with my dad was to play baseball,’’ Mike said. “You would be out there throwing bales for hours on a hot, miserable summer day and he’d say, ‘Keep going. Baling hay makes you hit better.’ ”
Mike quit playing in his mid-20s because of an arm injury and became the manager for Carver. Bob was his catcher for several years. In 1982, Mike moved to Victoria to manage the Vics.
“We’re in the same school district, and the Chaska and Victoria ballparks are five miles apart,’’ Mike said. “The Cubs have a great tradition, and we’ve developed one, too. We’ve been fighting for every ballplayer for years.’’
Dale Welter, now retired as Chaska’s extra-successful high school coach, said: “I was at Eden Prairie years ago and I remember Mike sitting in our dugout during batting practice, trying to get our good kids to play for him. I’d say, ‘Geez, Mike, wait until after the game to recruit. …’
“He’s got my neighbor kid in Chaska playing for him in Victoria now.’’
Mike Poppitz has made his living as a drywall hanger — a task almost as conducive to eating dust as baling hay. He’s never let that get in the way of baseball.
“For Mike, maintaining that Victoria ballpark and running the Vics … those things are his life,’’ Bob said.
In 2009, the Victoria City Council showed its appreciation by naming the ballpark Poppitz Field. It’s beautiful, and on high ground.
John Seifert is the longtime Chaska baseball man who managed the Cubs and competed for players with Mike Poppitz. John decided to take a step back a couple of years ago. He’s now a coach (officially, co-manager) and Bob Poppitz is making the managerial decisions.
“I think I might get more involved in helping to line up players, if John wants that,’’ Bob said.
The Cubs are in good shape at catcher with Cory Poppitz. Even Uncle Mike wouldn’t take a run at bringing Bob’s son to Victoria.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org