Weeds: Sunday in June perfect for a baseball tour

Submitted photo The boys of Summer 2018: from left Randy Krzmarzick, Stew Thornley and Scott Surprenant.

You’ve seen those surveys where they ask people if they could spend a day with anyone, who would they choose? Notable figures like Lincoln, Ghandi, and Einstein usually rank near the top.

I was lucky in June to spend a day with Stew Thornley. Stew would be behind Abe, Mahatma, and Albert on my list, but not too far. And he has the distinct advantage of being alive.

If you are a baseball fan, you’ve probably heard of Stew Thornley. Stew is the preeminent baseball historian in Minnesota, having written several books and numerous articles. He has been around the game in many capacities, and currently is an official scorekeeper for the Minnesota Twins.

Thornley found my name connected with Babe Ruth’s visit to Sleepy Eye in 1922. I have written about that day in my hometown’s history. Stew was doing research about ballparks in Minnesota where Ruth played on his barnstorming tours. He was excited to learn that the actual ballpark is still here.

Stew was interested in coming from the Cities to see the ballpark. He likes to make a road trip or two each summer to see town ball across Minnesota. It made sense to combine a visit with a ballgame. Or two. Or three. We found a Sunday in June where we could make a tour of Brown County baseball, taking advantage of a full day on the Tomahawk East League schedule.

We met up in Hanska where the Lakers were hosting the Essig Blue Jays. It was warmish, and we found a spot shaded by trees behind third base, joining families with their lawn chairs set up. Hanlin Field is in very nice shape. The concession stand built into the grandstand is a natural gathering spot.

Thus, began our day of watching ball and visiting about all sorts of matters. A note about watching baseball. There is no better setting for conversation than a ballgame. There are breaks interspersed with action that intermittently demands attention. Conversation can drift along about jobs, family, current events and at any moment turn back to the game. And then drift away.

Stew and I crossed paths years ago. We were both at Met Stadium on June 26, 1977. That was the memorable day when Rod Carew went over .400 and the Twins beat the White Sox 19 to 12 in front of a full house. During a radio interview a couple years ago, I found out that Stew was the infamous fan who climbed the leftfield foul pole on a dare about fifty feet in front of me. I was one of 46,000 wildly cheering him on.

Of course, I had to bring that up. Stew admitted it was not his proudest moment. He was thrown out and missed the rest of a great game. In a courtroom later that week, he was fined $25. Stew said there was snickering when the judge read aloud the incident report.

Terry Helget was at Hanska on the day we were there. Stew knew of Terry through a common umpire friend; I think Stew knows everybody. While visiting, Terry’s son Jay lined a solid hit to center. Jay is from a ball-playing family. Stew knew of the Helget legacy, so that was a good moment.

After a few innings in Hanska, we took the road north to County Road 24, which cuts through Brown County with an improbable five ballparks on its way. We stopped our cars briefly at Sigel and Stark. Then it was to Leavenworth to see Duke Cook’s Baseball Museum in the old Catholic school building. We met Scott Surprenant there.

Duke passed away in March. His museum with its delightfully random collection of baseball keepsakes lives on. Fittingly, there was a kid’s game on the neighboring ballfield and we watched that from the right field fence for a bit. Then we drove past the church and cemetery before a stop at the Leavenworth ballpark on the corner of 24 and 8.

Next up was Sleepy Eye ballpark, the same ballpark where Babe Ruth and Yankee teammate Bob Meusel played on Oct. 16, 1922. On this day, the Indians were hosting St. James in a late afternoon game. A small storm had passed through with a quick shower, and cool air made conditions perfect.

After walking around the park and picture-taking for Stew, we made our way up to the press box. Tom Wheeler was broadcasting the game for KNUJ. Being in the booth by himself, Tom had about 20 things he was doing at one time. But he slipped a pair of headphones to Stew, and they kibitzed between pitches about the Twins, town ball, and Babe Ruth.

Denny Mangen was up in the booth operating the scoreboard. Denny is a longtime baseball volunteer, one of those people who keep the game alive in our area. A funny moment came when Denny put an error on the scoreboard on a difficult play for an infielder. Stew said almost under his breath, “Oh. That’s an error?” Scott and I looked at Denny and started laughing. He wasn’t used to having his scoring questioned by an official Major League scorekeeper.

Stew originally planned to leave for home late afternoon. When Scott mentioned that his son was playing that evening at Stark, Stew decided to extend his baseball day. So it was west and south, to see Stark host Gibbon on one of the Field of Dreams ballparks. (In the movie, corn grew beyond the outfield. In any given year, Stark, Leavenworth, Essig, Sigel, and Searles might have soybeans. It would have been less impressive for ghost-players to walk out of a soybean field, so the producer chose well.)

At Stark Stew got to meet a few of the local characters, which is half the fun at these ballparks. From our spot behind third base, we saw David Surprenant power a homerun over the leftfield fence. Scott informed us that he had homered off that pitcher late in his own career, and that this was the first pitcher he and his son had both homered off. I suggested to Stew that he add witnessing that historic homerun to his long list of baseball highlights. He agreed, maybe a bit below the World Series games.

As darkness began to fall, Stew headed home, with talk about a return date next summer to see a game at Essig and/or Springfield.

Let’s take a look at the final statistics for our day: three ballgames, five ballparks, a Hanska dog, a Starkburger, a couple of Schell’s, and lots of good conversation. I’d say that’s a win.

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