By Jim O'Leary
An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.
Sept. 30, 2002
Waverly baseball, the best there ever was . . .
The Twins' last game of the wonderful season was Sept. 29, against the Chicago White Sox.
I had to submit this for deadline before I knew the score, but I will bet all of you readers know already who won, thanks to WCCO Radio: "Give us life, liberty, and the Minnesota Twins on WCCO Radio" and I will be a happy man.
With the news that a strike in the major leagues had been averted, Friday, Aug. 30 was one of my happiest days.
The Twins were 16 games in front and it looked as if they would be coasting into the playoffs. I still have the "homer hankie" Jeanne Painschab had sent me when the Twins won the World Series in 1991, so I can always dream.
The Twins clinched the division win Sept. 15 by winning over defending champion Cleveland 5-0, along with a Chicago White Sox loss at Yankee Stadium.
How sweet it was! We pull for the underdogs, right? Especially if they are our underdogs.
Like many other Waverly boys, I can trace my love for the game back to Chester Ogle, for whom, let it be said, I was one of his rare failures.
Even in these days, Ches would be an outstanding coach. I can remember his having us dig sliding pits and practicing endlessly how to slide.
And how to keep from getting hit by wild pitches in those days before batting helmets - "Back and away," he would say, and then would lean back on the bat behind him on the ground as if it was a stool.
Wilton Anderson never took his advice. He got hit by more pitches than Barry Bonds. And he did it on purpose.
"Anything to get on," he would say, as he pinched himself on the ankle to show the umpire where the bruise was.
Wayland Kuka was a good hitter in the same lineup with Wilton, but he was called "Gramps" because his progress from first to second was excruciating to watch. And still Ches won game after game.
Ches Ogle's days were the glory days of St. Mary's High School baseball, I was the scorekeeper and (may I brag here?), I also wrote up the games for The Waverly Star, turning in my copy to Marks McDonnell, who never changed a word, nor gave me a compliment, but he always had a twinkle in his eye.
Of course, I never got to play. We never got far enough ahead or behind for Ches to risk it. There was also the concern for my safety.
The baseball season of 1948 was Ches Ogle's last year as the St. Mary's coach (our volunteer coach, let it be noted.)
We won every game that season. On that team was George Tuckenhagen as catcher, Bob Decker at first base, Chuck Gagnon, Jack McHale (as a seventh grader Jack was playing second base), Don Smith (who, in a game against Buffalo, hit a winning home run into the lake over the right field fence. Buffalo was wisely trying to walk him, throwing the four required balls to do so, when Don reached over the outside and parked a far outside pitch into the lake).
We played all the public high schools in the area, complete with their own school buses, their paid coaching staffs, and classy uniforms.
Side note - We had to raise our own money for uniforms by begging all the Waverly businessmen and sometimes we "borrowed" uniforms from the American Legion team, coached by Ed ("Getz") Jolicoeur, who looked the other way while we helped ourselves.
Other members of that 1948 team were George Stackhard, Eddie Paul, Arnie Stifter, Jack Daigle, Bernie Althoff, and Cyril Dressen. (Please let me know if I have missed any.)
1948 wasn't the only great season St. Mary's ever had. St. Mary's closed its 1941 season with its eighth straight victory and no losses by defeating Delano 20-0.
This was captain Tom Littfin's 20th high school win with no losses. Hans Gritz hit two doubles and a single that day, and Jack Reinert went three for three.
Reinert won the batting crown for the season. Littfin pitched two hit balls, striking out 11 batters. He also had a double and a single at the plate. Probably the best battery in the state at one time was Tommy Littfin pitching, with his brother George catching.
The boys of Sunday
The Waverly town team in the Minnesota Valley League drew crowds so large Sunday afternoons to the Waverly Ball Park on the lake that you wouldn't believe it.
The umpires always came from "the cities." One of the umpires was named Joe O'Leary, but Joe wasn't related to us, no matter how hard my father, a big fan, tried to talk him into being a cousin.
I sold popcorn for 10 cents a bag, from a concession Henry Happe had opened up, borrowing the popcorn machine from the Waverly Theater, which was run at the time by Henry Van Sloan.
I got a penny for each bag I sold and I made a good living at it. My brother Paul ran the popcorn machine in the movie theater during the week, so you could say we were in cahoots.
The bowling alley had a big blackboard up behind the bar with the names on the scoreboard of the Waverly players and their accomplishments.
George Berkner was the very successful manager of the team in the post-war years. In 1955, the town switched to the Wright-Star League with Phillip Zeller, John Main, Joe Decker, and "Red" Fitzpatrick, the directors.
That Waverly team consisted of: Al Gutzke, manager and center fielder; Kenny Campbell, 2B; Bob Decker, 1B and outfielder; Gib Main, RF; Kenny Norman, SS; Robert "Zip" Zeller, 3B; Art Hokenson, 1B; Allan Le Page, catcher; Don Smith, OF; George Stackhard, OF; Clayton Smith, OF; Cyril Dressen, infielder; and Jerry Claessens, infielder.
Pitchers were Lowell Sisson and Milton Voltin. Campbell, Norman, Hokenson, and Kegler were from Winsted, Voltin from Delano, and Gutzke from Howard Lake.
I can remember Bobby Decker Sunday mornings, going at first light down to the ball park to have someone bat him grounders by the hour until Bob had to leave for Mass.
Bob was a left-handed golden-gloved first baseman. He was also an avid Yankee fan, so I became one. He used to bring "Baseball News" to school with him when he was in high school.
He claims it was the only reading he ever did. He did tell me recently that the one book he had ever read was "Hans Brinker and His Silver Skates," which he read, I suppose, because of his Belgian roots. But I will have to ask him.
Some of the players from outside the area (even outside Minnesota) were paid, and there was a bit of resentment by the local players who often played better and had better batting averages.
The only time Don Smith ever got paid was when he hit a game-winning home run into the lake in the bottom of the ninth against archrival Maple Lake.
Many Waverly fans had bet rather heavily on that game and shared some of their winnings by stuffing Don's pockets with dollar bills. Lee Berkner was one of them (but I will bet it was more than a dollar.)
One of our pitchers was Ernie Sowata of Holdingford, who later became an MD. Ernie also pitched after his Waverly career for the Minneapolis Millers, a farm team for the Dodgers.
George Berkner was accused of dirty tricks, such as planting baseballs in high grass for the Waverly outfielders, who thus made stunning throws to home. Nobody was ever able to prove anything, but George took no chances.
When they played at Maple Lake, George always parked his car for safety in case of vandalism in the garage of the priest's rectory in Maple Lake, with Father O'Brien's permission, of course.
The bowling alley was the place where players and fans met and mingled after the game. They almost always had to tap a fourth keg before it was over.
Sometimes Waverly was able to recruit men from Howard Lake, but so far as I know, no Waverly player ever went to play for the Orphans (The Orphans were called "orphans" by the way, because they were the only team in the league who had never found a sponsor. And I am sorry they lost in the playoffs this season.)
Mondays in the Waverly businesses all over town were given over to recapping the game and analyzing it from the day before. The biggest social event of the year was the picnic put on at the end of the season by Joe Decker at Decker's Point on Upper Waverly Lake. Everybody was welcome and the picnic went on far into the night.
Waverly's first championship team was in 1895, with Johnnie Quinn as catcher and captain.
I have been lucky all my life, but one of the luckiest things of all for me was to grow up in a baseball town like Waverly.
Don't ever try to tell me "it's just a game."
Corpus Christi, Texas
For previous issues of the Waverly Star, see the web site at www.herald-journal.com/waverly star.
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