Weeds: Duke was a good man, baseball buddy

Weeds

I suppose it’s possible live a good life and not like baseball. At least that’s what I hear. Most of my friends are fans though. I have different groups of “baseball buddies:” some I played with, others I go to games with, and some I just enjoy talking ball with.

One of my best baseball buddies passed away in March. Donald Cook was 89; everyone knew him as “Duke.” I first got to know Duke back in the Seventies when I was playing and coaching. Many conversations about softball/baseball, farming, and life followed. I’ll miss those talks.

The last one was at Oak Hills Living Center in New Ulm a few days before Duke died. Scott Surprenant and I went to see him. I don’t always get things right, but that visit was one time I did. Duke was frail and bound to bed. But he was able to talk with us. I guess we all knew we were saying “good bye,” although no one said that. He smiled when I took the baseball that was on the nightstand and suggested we go have a game of catch.

Duke was a gentle spirit. I really don’t recall him raising his voice. That isn’t to say certain things didn’t upset him. We occasionally delved into politics, and he had a way of scrunching his face that told you he wasn’t too pleased with some turn of events.

I missed most of Duke’s playing career. That began as a boy with Mulligan in the Brown County League. There were seasons with Leavenworth and Comfrey. Later, Duke played fastpitch softball when those games drew big crowds to small towns. Duke played two seasons in the semi-pro Western Minny League with his brother Mel. Mel was an all-star slugging outfielder; Duke was more of a role player.

The brothers were close beyond the ballpark. They farmed together, growing and selling seed under the Cook Brothers Seed label. Duke and Mel were of that Greatest Generation of farmers who crossed from horses to tractors, bridging World Wars and a moon landing.

Duke and Mel grew up on the farm following sports by vacuum tube radio and newspaper. They played every game they could. There was even a Leavenworth hockey team that played on area sloughs. Farm kids were clad in homemade catalog-pads to protect their shins.

Duke joined the Marines in the Fifties. This was at the height of baseball’s popularity and the soldiers played ball wherever he was stationed. He told about teaching the game to Japanese players on a tour of duty across the Pacific.

I did get to play a few games with Duke. Ten or so years ago, a group of locals played the St. Paul Quicksteps at Fort Ridgely and Sleepy Eye Ballpark. These were a demonstration of 1860’s “base ball.” There are no gloves. The pitcher or “striker” throws underhanded. If a ball is caught on one bounce, the batter was out. Duke was our catcher, and a number of foul hits bounced to him that he caught for outs. We named Duke our MVP, not bad for a fellow near 80.

It won’t be as a player that Duke will be remembered though. In 1964, a group of girls wanted to start a Leavenworth softball team and asked Duke if he would coach. He said yes. That “yes” began a remarkable half century of coaching and organizing leagues.

In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Act. That began the process of giving girls the opportunity to play sports that we take for granted now. This area was way ahead of the curve. Duke was a big part of that.

Duke was a very good coach. His teams were always well-prepared and usually successful. A 1977 newspaper article referred to a 50-game winning streak his Leavenworth Bi-County team had.

Around then, I coached the Prairieville girls team. We were pretty good, winning more than we lost. We never beat Leavenworth. There was a tournament in Comfrey when my Prairieville team beat some good teams to make the championship game on a Sunday night. The girls were excited and recruited all their friends and relatives to come watch.

Unfortunately, the opponent was Leavenworth. The score ended up something like 30 to 2. Afterward, in his humble and affable way, Duke came over and congratulated our team and told me how nervous he was to play us. I may have been grimacing, but my girls loved him.

In his later years, Duke continued to help out whenever he could. Phil Siefkes and I coached an ASA team that our daughters played on. We loved having Duke on the bench with us. He had about 10,000 games under his belt and had seen everything.

A lot of us coach our kids, and that is important part of passing on our games to a next generation. There are a few people who are involved not out of parental obligation, but for love of the game. Duke was one of those. Of course, like any good coach, Duke’s greatest gift was never teaching skills. It was understanding that life lessons can be learned in practice and in games.

When I did research for an exhibit on local baseball at the Brown County Historical Society, I recruited a committee of area “historians.” Duke and Mel were part of that. I remember going to their farm to do an oral history and being enthralled by their recollections of pasture ball in the Forties. Not only games and scores, but what it looked like and sounded like and felt like to spend a Sunday afternoon at Billy Groebner’s pasture where huge crowds of farm families would gather.

I’m going to miss those memories and keen recollections. Duke was telling me once about Ted Williams’ visit to Springfield in 1938. His Minneapolis Millers team played the Springfield Tigers as part of Sauerkraut Days. Duke was ten years old. He told me the count on Williams when he hit a deep triple late in the game. This was 75 years ago; he knew the count!

Last winter, our oldest Anna was home visiting. She went in to Schutz Foods to get something. When she got home she told me she had seen Duke there. Anna played for Duke 25 years ago. Duke asked her, “You’re Anna, Randy’s daughter?” When Anna said yes, Duke replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Oh good, I got one right.”

Often when someone close to us passes, we like to say they are in heaven engaging in some Earthly activity that they enjoyed. I don’t know the accuracy of those claims; they may be more to comfort the surviving. But if Duke is playing catch somewhere in the beyond right now, that’d be okay.

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