Town team baseball remains a Minnesota phenomenon. Charming though it is today, there’s no comparison to the decade after World War II. The outstate folks were looking for summer entertainment, and television was not yet prevalent enough to fill that void.
Murray County was no exception to this. For instance: My hometown of Fulda had a fierce rivalry not only with Slayton 12 miles away, but also with Iona, a tiny village that was a couple of miles closer.
My father, Richard, was the manager and my brother Michael was the bat boy for the Fulda Giants in 1949. Michael and I were talking Wednesday and he recalled a game in Iona, when Fulda’s catcher, Earl Ashby, broke a shin guard.
“Earl went over and asked Iona if he could use a shin guard,’’ Michael said. “They said, ‘Nope,’ and Earl went back and got behind the plate with one shin guard. I remember the Iona people screaming bad things at Earl when he got back down in his crouch.’’
Iona’s refusal to loan a catcher a shin guard might not have been based strictly on the town rivalry. Earl was one of two black players hired by my father to play for Fulda that summer.
The other was Hilton Smith, previously a great pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Smith was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, the same year as Kirby Puckett.
Fulda, Slayton and Iona have long since stopped fielding town teams. There is now only one amateur team in Murray County: the Hadley Buttermakers, representatives of the town of 60 people.
Hadley is home to a company that makes grain bins (Hadley Steel), a grain elevator and a municipal bar and liquor store. Myron Bennett runs the bar and off-sale operation. He’s also the manager of the Buttermakers.
“The legend is that baseball was played in Hadley as far back as 1882,’’ Bennett said. “I have photos in the bar of the town team called Buttermakers going back to the 1920s.’’
It’s a great name for selling T-shirts in 2016, but it also comes with a legitimate tradition.
“There was a good-sized creamery down by the lake,’’ Bennett said. “Hadley was known for that creamery, and Buttermakers came from there.’’
The State Amateur Baseball Tournament started in 1924. It went to classifications in 1930. In 1949, there were three classificatons — AA, A and B. The AA leagues permitted highly paid players from well outside a town’s geographical area.
The Buttermakers had their most success earlier in the ’40s. They went to four state tournaments. The last was 1945, before the GIs were back and there was money to spend on town team baseball.
Hadley dropped its town team in the early ’70s, with the Buttermakers gone the way of the Slayton Rockets, Fulda Giants and other versions of town teams in Murray County.
“The Johnson family produced a lot of Buttermakers before we shut it down,’’ Bennett said. “One year, Hadley had nine Johnsons in the lineup.’’
One of those Johnsons, Brent, an owner of Hadley Steel, started pushing for the return of baseball. The Buttermakers returned to life in 1986.
“We have a number of Slayton guys, a couple from Fulda … players from all over the county,’’ Bennett said. “The radius down here is 30 miles. We’re in the middle of the county, and that puts us within 30 miles of most everywhere.’’
The Wilmont Cardinals, from across the line in Nobles County, gave up their long town-ball run after last season. “One of our best hitters is Blake Rogers, a college player [Morningside] who was at Wilmont,’’ Bennett said.
The loyalty to the Buttermakers is such that Nick Bruning now lives in Sioux Falls, but he’s eligible and has played in 29 of Hadley’s 34 games.
The Buttermakers ended a 56-year drought by reaching the state Class C tournament in 2001. They went again in 2003, and now have gone back-to-back — last summer, and this time as the champs of Region 13C.
Hadley plays the Regal Eagles at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Hutchinson. It’s not often that Hadley, with its 60 residents, plays a smaller town, but Regal’s official population is 34.
“It’s a trip to Hutch, 140 miles, but Buttermakers’ fans are excited,’’ Bennett said. “We have one fan bus full, and a lot of people driving. We’ll have a good turnout.’’
As for T-shirts, Bennett might want to put a few in the trunk.
“People love our nickname, that’s for sure,’’ he said.