STEARNS COUNTY, Minn. – The Central Valley League and the Stearns County League were competing in the annual townball challenge on a Saturday in June. It was the SCL’s year to host, and there were four games in Farming, and another four 15 miles west in Spring Hill.
“We call it the Radius Cup,” said Mike Schleper, the president of Farming’s baseball board.
What’s the trophy look like? “There really isn’t one,” Schleper said. “We just call it the Radius Cup.”
St. Martin gave the SCL a victory in the early game, 6-5 over Luxemburg, although the usual number of fans did not make the short drive to Farming to watch the Martins.
“There’s a wedding in town,” shortstop Kyle Lieser explained. “Ashley Beier’s getting married. Everybody is going to the wedding.”
There’s an informal rule among Stearns County League participants: No weddings during baseball season.
“This is different,” Lieser said. “Ashley’s not marrying a ballplayer. When it’s a player getting married in the offseason, there will be players from every team in the league at the reception.”
The second game on the schedule at Farming featured Lake Henry vs. Pearl Lake from the Central Valley. Lake Henry is a burg of 103 that draws much of its roster from Paynesville.
Lilly Kampsen, 18 months old, was with her mother, Brandi; her father, Shane, was playing for Lake Henry. Lilly was in her stroller, working on an icy pop, and getting occasional greetings — “Hi, Lilly” — from people in the stands, whether from St. Martin, Farming or Lake Henry.
“Look at Daddy, Lilly,” Brandi said. “Daddy’s batting.”
Shane Kampsen reached base. Next hitter: “That’s your uncle, Lilly.”
And the next hitter: “Your cousin is batting, Lilly.”
Stearns County is the largest county by square miles (1,343) in the southern half of Minnesota. Drive an hour northwest from the Twin Cities on Interstate 94 and you hit the exits for St. Cloud.
That college town and the area surrounding it might have more than half of the county’s 155,000 residents, but it’s become a far different place than the 35-mile stretch of farmland that encompasses the Stearns County League — from Richmond on the east to Elrosa on the west.
Gene McCarthy, the populist, anti-Vietnam War, extra-liberal senator, was raised and played baseball in Watkins (a Central Valley team), but the rural Stearns County of today has turned reliably red in elections.
The uniqueness of the Stearns County League is that it dates to 1950 in what is basically its present form. Regal was an early member, as was Freeport. Meire Grove and Greenwald were Green-Grove until separate teams were formed in 1959.
For nearly six decades, it has been those two, plus Farming, Lake Henry, St. Martin, New Munich, Richmond and Roscoe. Of course, 1983 saw the admission of Elrosa and Spring Hill.
“Those teams had to come up with the expansion fee,” Schleper said. “They each had to buy a case of beer for the league’s board of directors.”
The 10-team Stearns County League forms a family, both in spirit and in reality. Herman Lensing is a reporter from Star Publications, the publisher of weekly newspapers such as the Melrose Beacon, Sauk Centre Herald and Albany Enterprise.
Herman is among the 222 residents of Greenwald. He’s famous for having his camera always at the ready. He has been chronicling the exploits of this league and other area townball teams (29 total in Stearns County) for decades.
“One summer I decided to put together a mythical Stearns County League roster with at least one player from each team,” Lensing said. “And the rule was that there had to be someone playing on another team in the league that was a second cousin or closer for a player to be on my team.”
You get that? You couldn’t be a member of Herman’s team unless you had a close relative playing for another team in the league.
“It would’ve been a pretty good team,” Lensing said.
There are generations of names associated with every team in the league. That’s a tribute to the large Catholic families of farmers. The farms are fewer and the families are smaller in current times. Still ...
“To be a true Stearns County town, you need a Catholic church, two bars and a ballfield,” Schleper said.
The family connections in the SCL came through dramatically during an all-star game vs. the County Line League last weekend in Elrosa. I figured Lake Henry had the market cornered on Kampsens, with three in the Lakers lineup.
Then came the drive to Elrosa. The names of six Elrosa Saints Hall of Famers were attached to the back wall of the grandstand, and three were Kampsens: Clarence, Halbert and Herman.
“They were very good ballplayers, but the best of them was their brother, Father Fred,” said Donnie Lenarz, Elrosa’s 92-year-old ticket taker. “I once had an umpire, guy named Schmidt who was famous around here, tell me Fred Kampsen threw so hard the ump couldn’t see the ball.
“Teams wanted to sign him, but Fred told them, ‘I’m going to a higher league,’ and he joined the priesthood.”
The Rev. Aaron Nett has continued the tradition of priestly ballplayers in the Stearns County League. He grew up on a farm in Farming Township and played for the Flames. He went to Albany High School and then North Dakota State to play baseball.
He taught for a few years and received his calling. He started at the St. Paul Seminary and then spent four years at the North American College for seminarians in Rome.
“On a visit home, I arrived here from Rome late on Monday and was pitching against Pearl Lake on Wednesday,” Nett said. “That was interesting.”
He’s now assigned to parishes in Eden Valley and Watkins and joins the Flames as a first baseman and pitcher when possible.
The Flames need him for the stretch drive. If they remain in fifth (last) place in the South Division, they will miss the league playoffs after being in the state Class C tournament in 2016.
This dire circumstance in the standings will not spoil the mood for this Saturday. Farming will host Elrosa. It will be the official dedication of Farming’s first lights at the ballpark and its naming as Schleper Brothers Field.
The brothers were Joe, Urban, Eddie, Paul and always Elmer, the godfather of Farming baseball and Mike’s father.
The Farming ballfield used to be infamous for its deep drop-off in the right field corner. The right fielder would disappear down a hill chasing a ball.
“We filled that in, we built new dugouts and redid the grandstand, improved everything, but the last thing was the lights,” Mike Schleper said.
The tab would be $170,000. After much fundraising, Farming baseball still was $58,000 short.
“We applied for a Major League Baseball grant for $50,000 and eventually were turned down,” Schleper said. “I contacted the cousins and asked, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ ”
Fifty-eight cousins were on the list. When one offered $25,000 as a match, the Schlepers were able to raise the money and the lights were installed for this season.
On Saturday, there will be a joint 90th birthday party for Rose and Leona Schleper, two surviving members of the greatest generation, and then the 8 p.m. dedication game.
The Flames expect to have a priest in the lineup, which always helps, especially when he can hit and also pitch.
What astounds is standing at a ballpark in Farming, Spring Hill or Elrosa, looking across the prairie, and trying to figure out how Stearns County League teams renew themselves. Richmond is near Cold Spring and close to 1,500 in population, but the rest of these little places are a Catholic church, two bars (or one) and a ballfield.
The basic radius rule for player eligibility is 6 miles. The old saying was, “You should play where you go to church.”
The four 15-mile exceptions to the radius rule are still low by state amateur standards. Most important, the SCL runs Little Dipper (Little League age) and Big Dipper (Base Ruth and Legion age) programs as a feeder system. Parents pay no fee, and the kids swing with wood bats to get ready for the town team.
Many of the bills are paid through pulltab sales at local bars, where the ballclub is the charity. There are also offseason fundraisers.
“The sausage breakfast for baseball at St. Martin is the best you will find,” Herman Lensing said. “Every year on Palm Sunday … tremendous.”
Shane Kampsen was playing in the all-star game in Elrosa. He and Brandi became the parents of Thad a few days earlier, giving Lilly a baby brother.
“How’s Lilly doing?” he was asked.
Kampsen smiled and said: “She’s the greatest. We sat down to watch TV last week. I turned to cartoons and she said, ‘No. Ball.’ So, we watched the College World Series, and she was into it.”
Count on this: Come 2040 or so, Lilly Kampsen won’t be scheduling her wedding during baseball season.