They wore synthetic uniforms, carried aluminum bats and checked their cellphones. Everything about this baseball team screamed 21st Century.
Except their mode of transportation.
The Robbinsdale Armstrong-Cooper Raptors traveled back in time this week, taking a train to their game in Big Lake on Monday. During a 45-minute ride from Fridley on a westbound Northstar train, a team of 16-year-olds stepped back into an era that vanished even before the Washington Senators relocated to Minnesota more than a half century ago.
“Big leaguers used to travel like this? No way!” said an animated Carter Burns, a catcher and outfielder who had never before ridden on a train. “They really took trains?”
Of the 11 players who took the Northstar commuter ride out of Fridley at 4:40 p.m., only two had traveled by train before. Many players left their seats to explore the train’s two levels. Some read. Others relaxed and played cards, no one keeping score.
“Just chillin’ with the boys,” said Andrew Basri, a catcher-third baseman who had never ridden one of these magic carpets made of steel. “You can’t do this in a car or on a bus.”
Team Manager Wally Langfellow came up with the concept of riding the rails. It came to him while he was stuck in traffic en route to a game in Albertville. A 25-minute drive took more than an hour.
Langfellow is executive editor of Minnesota Score Magazine. When he told Eric Nelson, an on-air partner with the Minnesota Score radio show, about simmering in traffic, Nelson responded, “Why don’t you take the train?”
The schedule offered the perfect playing field. The Big Lake game, at the high school field a mile from the Northstar station, was to start at 6:30. The train would arrive around 5:15.
The Raptors, hoping for a victory, could grab a slice of Americana along the way.
“I’m fascinated by the history,” Langfellow said. “I wanted to introduce these kids to something they had never seen or knew about.”
Langfellow’s son, Tony, had ridden Northstar before and had also taken an Amtrak train through Wisconsin.
“Wait until these guys step aboard that Northstar train,” Tony, a pitcher, first baseman and outfielder, said before his teammates did just that. “They can walk around and imagine how major league players used to ride trains for more than seven hours. And they did it without laptops and cellphones!”
The way it was
The relationship between trains and baseball dates back to the 19th Century and continued for a couple of decades after the Cincinnati Reds became the first team to travel by plane, in 1934. The Yankees were the first team to charter a plane, in 1946. The Dodgers, after flying their minor league teams in St. Paul and Fort Worth, bought their own 40-seat plane in 1957.
An era was ending. Red Sox star Jackie Jensen was terrified of flying and retired after the 1959 season, at the height of his career, although he later came back briefly. Milwaukee Braves slugger Eddie Mathews lamented that the camaraderie between players on trains was lost in the air.
And then there were the stories, funny and tragic: Babe Ruth was said to have held Yankees manager Miller Huggins over the platform of an observation car of a moving train. Washington slugger Ed Delahanty fell to his death off a railroad trestle.
The way it is
Bjorn Bjerke, who says he plays every position, was the other Raptor who had ridden the rails before this week.
“This was such a smooth ride,” he said of Northstar. “My dad told me that players used to travel this way. You wonder why they’d give this up altogether.”
He and others were surprised to learn that they hadn’t. The Yankees and Phillies traveled by Amtrak for the 2009 World Series. The Orioles and Nationals have used the train to travel between Baltimore and Washington.
“This was kind of fun, but a little bumpy,” said Raptors first baseman Christian Hunley.
It got bumpier — and not just from the muffled thumping of the rails beneath their feet. The players exited the five-car Northstar train to thunder, lightning and a sudden downpour.
Their game in Big Lake was rained out. Suddenly, 11 cellphones appeared as players notified parents who would take them back to Robbinsdale — by car.
“Just sitting around on the train, having fun with my friends makes this a rainout that I’ll probably never forget,” said Josh Lehnertz, a second baseman. “I can see why trains stayed around baseball for so long.”
As players grabbed their gear, Langfellow resurrected what was once another major league baseball staple that has become as rare as socks with stirrups.
“Tomorrow,” Langfellow told his players before they scurried in the rain, “we’re playing a doubleheader.”