The great Minnesota baseball town of New Ulm will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Johnson Park, a marvelous WPA project, on Saturday.
The festivities will start with the rival town teams, the Brewers and Kaiserhoff, playing at noon. This will be followed by a banquet at 5 p.m. at the city's historic Turner Hall.
I've been doing this so long that here's a slightly edited version of an opus I wrote for the Star Tribune on Johnson Park's 50th anniversary in June 1989:
NEW ULM -- Herb Schaper has spent hundreds of hours organizing the research for the baseball reunion that will be held this weekend at Johnson Park.
"We decided to do it this year because it is the 50th anniversary of the ballpark and the New Ulm Baseball Association," he said. "Now, we've discovered a note that says the first baseball game was played between the railroad workers and the townspeople in 1889. So, I guess this is also the centennial for baseball in New Ulm."
The reunion will celebrate New Ulm's American Legion, VFW, midget teams and high school teams, and then the town teams from the Western Minny and Tomahawk Leagues on Sunday.
In the spirit of the occasion, one of Schaper's suggestions was that this city of 13,500 officially make peace with Bob Bullock, a former umpire. "Bob is in his 90s now," Schaper said. "It has been more than 40 years since he made the call. I think it is time for New Ulm to forgive him."
Schaper said this to a group having breakfast at the Ulmer Cafe. The group included Henry Nicklasson, Otis Loose and Duke Eichten. They are three of the illustrious players from the glory years of town team baseball. This period lasted from 1939 through 1954 in New Ulm, and covered roughly the same years throughout Smalltown, Minnesota.
Yes, it was a long time ago, but Nicklasson, Loose and Eichten were not quick to embrace Schaper's proposal of public forgiveness for Bullock.
"We were playing a tournament game in North Mankato," Nicklasson said. "What year was it, Otey? I'd say '47. A guy hit a little roller in front of the plate. He ran five feet out of the base line. Bullock called him safe and a run scored. We must've argued for 10 minutes. That run wound up beating us. After that, Bullock needed an escort out of town almost every time he came to New Ulm to umpire."
The fellows at the table laughed.
"I ran a shoe store," Eichten said. "Bullock put out this little newspaper for umpires, and he'd sell ads for it. The next time he came in my store trying to sell an ad I chased him out. I don't know of many New Ulm merchants who bought ads from Bob after that call."
Eichten was one of the workers who dug the postholes for New Ulm's new ballpark in 1939. It was named for Fred Johnson, a local historian, and squeezed into a plot of land with a rise in left field, a retired city pumphouse in center and a dropoff behind the fence in the cozy right field corner.
"It used to be 375 feet to left field and the outfielder had to learn how to catch the ball going uphill," Schaper said. "In 1958, we had the state amateur tournament here and that's when they built the inner fence. Now, when someone downtown is talking about a home run Tom Steinbach hit the night before, the first question you ask is, `Both fences?' "
New Ulm is a German town - so much so that, for years, when a certain Legion coach wanted a player to bunt, he would simply yell at him to do so in German. "The high school football team used to call its signals in German," Loose said.
It all went together - Schell's, knockwurst, steamy Sunday afternoons and a passion for baseball. Schaper said there are two particular eras when baseball has dominated the city: the Western Minny days, and the revival ignited by the Steinbach clan, Tim, Terry and Tom [in the 1970s].
"I remember hearing about those kids when they were in teeball," Nicklasson said.
Tom and Terry - along with Doug Palmer, Jeff Schugel, Randy Stuckey, Jeff Keckeisen - led New Ulm to the American Legion World Series in 1978. Terry is the All-Star catcher of the Oakland Athletics. Tom is the manager-outfielder-pitcher for Kaiserhoff, one of New Ulm's two town teams. The other club goes by New Ulm's traditional nickname of Brewers.
"Tom hit a couple of home runs here the other night," Schaper said. "I guess one of 'em was out there by the pumphouse."
The breakfast group had moved from Ulmer's to the ballpark. It is a splendidly manicured place covered by a grass carpeting that is thick and rich. It is here that Nicklasson, Loose and Eichten - and Stan Wilfahrt, Wally Ebert, Bruts Welsch, Ronnie Spelbrink, Huntley Prahl, Stan Manderfeld, Leo Leininger and Jack Pollei - represented New Ulm in "The Game" on an August night in 1948.
"We were playing Springfield, of course," Loose said. "The Western Minny had six teams. Fairfax had good clubs with the Mauer boys from St. Paul. Redwood Falls won it one year. Sleepy Eye had a few OK teams, and either St. James or Gibbon were in for a while. But almost every year it came down to Springfield and New Ulm."
In 1948, Springfield and New Ulm went into the last game of the regular season tied for first place. The game was scheduled for 8:15 p.m. New Ulm fans started camping out in front of the ballpark at 4 o'clock. The caravan of cars from Springfield - 28 miles to the west - started to arrive an hour later.
The paid attendance was 3,853, more than double Johnson Park's seating capacity and the largest Western Minny crowd in New Ulm's history.
Loose was a fixture as New Ulm's catcher, from Legion baseball in the mid-'30s and then on to the Brewers. There was an interruption to fly 22 bombing missions over Germany.
In 1948, Loose was in his familiar crouch behind the plate. Nicklasson was playing third, a spot he had occupied for the Brewers since 1941, when he was drafted from Fairfax by New Ulm after it won the league.
"New Ulm won the state championship in '41 and I was the tournament MVP," Nicklasson said. "After that, the New Ulm baseball board went to the school board and told them they thought this Nicklasson was exactly the phys-ed teacher the school needed. That's how I wound up in New Ulm."
Springfield was another town not adverse to hiring a teacher with a talent for playing baseball. The Tigers also had the Babe Ruth of the Western Minny, Bassie Wagner, and a high-priced pitcher from Minneapolis named Hy Vandenberg. In '45, with the war taking its toll on major league rosters, Vandenberg pitched for the Cubs in the World Series. In '46, he was back pitching for Springfield.
On the night of The Game, Springfield started Red Hellendrung, but Vandenberg entered in the sixth as New Ulm was putting together a five-run rally. Springfield scored two runs in the eighth to make it 7-7, and then the Tigers and the Brewers played into the night.
Springfield took a lead in the top of the 15th, but New Ulm scored twice off Vandenberg. Prahl's double brought home Wilfahrt with the winning run. It was nearly 1 a.m.
"There were a lot of husbands in trouble that night," Nicklasson said. "When they got home at 1:30 or 2 in the morning, their wives wanted to know where they had been, and they didn't believe it when the boys said, `At the ballgame.' "
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