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Necessity or Mrs. Mickelson: the mother of invention?
|By STAN HOOF|
Because I was just a little kid in 1950, there is not much I can tell you about that great Lester Prairie baseball team that captured the Minnesota State Championship.
The details of that exciting title run are best told by the men who participated.
I'm sure that if you were to bribe Wally or Doug Dibb, Bruce Birkholz, or Orland Kruschke with a cup of coffee, they would be more than happy to relive some of those moments with you.
Lester Prairie amateur baseball of the 1950s certainly has a great and storied tradition.
But as those young men on the town team smashed home runs and dove for fly balls at the municipal field on the southeast corner of town, the field of dreams that belonged to my friends and I existed on a much smaller scale and migrated from neighborhood to neighborhood as circumstances dictated.
We didn't play baseball; we played "rubber ball," and we managed to find some great places around town to do it. On a typical summer morning, we would bike up to the bandstand with baseball gloves dangling from our handlebars to decide where to play.
Many boys would come and go throughout the summer months, but the hard-core bunch that you could always count on consisted of David Briesemeister (Breezy), Gordy Zuehl, Ricky Voss, Gary Jenneke, and me.
The year that Kenny Peterson moved to town, he also became part of our gang. Kenny's folks owned the bar across the street from the bandstand, and the parking lot behind it was a perfect place to play ball.
Home plate was located just outside the back door of the bar; first base was a big rock next to a car shed near the old feed store; second was a wooden shingle by the alley; and third base was a brick by the side wall of Kolbe Hardware.
In straight away center across the alley was a huge gray shed where some guy parked his milk truck.
Gordy was our best hitter and he would occasionally pound a homer so far over the gray monster that it would bounce into Bob Lorence's backyard and end up in his fish pond.
But the home run ball that everyone tried to duplicate, but never did, was the long fly ball that Breezy hit to left that ricocheted off the telephone pole behind Mohwinkel's Red and White and rolled all the way down the alley to Norman Schwartz's house.
And people think that Fenway Park has character!
Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end. One day a line drive took out Zuehl's kitchen window and Kenny's dad was "sick and tired" of wild pitches banging against the back door of his beer joint, so we were forced to move our game.
The nearest vacant lot was located between the old city hall and Hausladen's implement dealership. It wasn't actually a vacant lot as there was a large elm tree (first base) near the west side, and parked against Houzie's building was a manure spreader the back tire of which served as second base.
Home plate was up against city hall; and because we made up our own rules, there was no third base.
We oriented our diamond (triangle in this case) north and south, the narrow direction, across the lot.
This made it possible to drive a rubber ball from the city hall side hard enough off Hausladen's wall so that it would bounce back and forth between the two buildings two or three times creating some very interesting and calculating infield play.
But adults can seldom stand to see kids have so much fun, so after a week or so, Reggie Hausladen chased us away because, as he put it, "That damn ball is drivin' me crazy. Stuff is fallen off the walls in the parts department. Now get the heck out of here before I call the cop. Why don't you kids go play at the ball park?"
Play at the ball park! What fun would that be? Grownups just didn't understand.
What we needed was a place to play where they wouldn't chase us away, and for the rest of the summer we settled upon Briesemeisters' backyard.
It was a pretty open space with plenty of room for a diamond, the only drawback being that center field was cut short by a garage wall with two four-pane windows.
We soon learned that a six by six pane of glass cost 24 cents.
By summer's end we had the task of rapid window replacement down to a science.
At the end of any game in which a window was broken, Gary and I would collect a few pennies or a nickel from each guy who played, then we'd bike down to the hardware store.
We always bought glass at Weise's and rubber balls at Kolbe's.
It took us about 15 or 20 minutes to return to Breezy's with the freshly cut pane, unless one of us dropped it. By that time Breezy would have the window out of its frame, the broken glass removed, and the old putty chiseled out.
We never had to buy glazing compound because Breezy's dad brought it home from Lester's by the gallon.
Breezy was a pretty handy kid and well practiced with a putty knife, so within 10 minutes or so, the window would be as good as new.
You might wonder, as Fred Baumann at the hardware store did, why we didn't just nail up a couple of pieces of plywood or even some cardboard to protect the garage windows.
The simple answer was that we were stupid; however, the complex answer involved a perverted respect for the rules of the game.
The rule: If you hit a ball that broke a window, you were automatically out.
Breezy had always been a pitcher. He knew how tough it could sometimes be to get that third out, and he figured he would rather give up a few windows than a chance to end an inning.
There was one other problem with playing ball at Briesemeisters', and that was their neighbor Mrs. Mickelson. If a player hit a ball to center, over the garage, it would land in her garden.
I think she made a point of tending her tomatoes whenever we played. If a homer landed in her rhubarb or potatoes and she didn't happen to notice, we would give her a prank call on the phone.
While she went inside to answer, Ricky would run into the garden to retrieve the ball. But most of the time she noticed, and the ball ended up in her apron pocket.
We were all too chicken (even Ricky) to challenge her because most of the damage to her tomatoes was our fault and her husband was a part-time cop. Besides, she toted a pretty mean looking garden hoe.
Sometimes we fantasized out loud about her having a root cellar half-filled with rubber balls, maybe enough to retire on if she cashed them in when she got old.
However many she may have had, we were pretty much a one-ball outfit, so on any day that we couldn't raise 15 cents among us to buy another, our game was cut short.
As annoying as Mrs. Mickelson and her strong territorial instincts seemed to us, I do have to credit her with inspiring an important innovation in our game.
We started cutting our rubber balls in half to save money.
If you know anything at all about aerodynamics, you'll realize that half a ball is a pitcher's dream come true.
Flat side up, it drops; flat side left or right, it curves; flat side down, it's a riser. And when it's hit, it only flies half as far.
So only on rare occasions did anyone hit a home run into the garden; and when they did, it only set us back seven cents.
A kid could learn a lot in a Lester Prairie summer. I learned how to hit a curve ball.
I learned that home plate is where the heart is.
And, finally, I learned that if necessity wasn't the mother of invention, then Mrs. Mickelson surely was.