In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, baseball was king in small-town Wisconsin. Now, I’m not talking softball or slow pitch, I’m talking baseball like the major leagues, only on a local level.
There were baseball leagues all over the state and in almost every city. Even unincorporated small crossroad communities with a church, a tavern and a gas station had a baseball team. As you drive the countryside, you can still see the few bleachers and a backstop screen, rusting and dilapidated, neglected after 60 to 70 years without use. This was the post-World War II era and young men recently returned from military duty across the state and country were looking for some activity.
The same was true in my hometown of Kiel in eastern Wisconsin. I was a teenager at the time with an older brother who had served in the Army. Earl, or as his buddies called him, “Oily,” was one of those looking for something to do in his spare time and was interested in baseball.
A fraternal organization called “The Redmen” first sponsored the team. This was a group that believed in the nobility and personal high values of the Native Americans. They had nothing to do with baseball — they were just community-minded citizens. Later they formed an athletic association and simply called themselves Kiel AAs. They raised money for uniforms and equipment in various ways and collected donations to pay umpires and offset costs. More on that later.
Kiel belonged to a league call the Eastern Wisconsin Conference. The league consisted of teams from various parts of Manitowoc and Calumet counties, from incorporated towns and villages and also from those crossroad junctions. The rivalries were strong and all of the men took baseball seriously.
Being in my early teens, I was a kind of hanger-on kid. My brother would go to baseball practice three times a week. In this day, when few people want to belong to anything even once a week, whether it be a church or a VFW club or a bowling team, it may be hard to understand. Regardless, every Tuesday and Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon, he went to the diamond and grandstand (which I wrote about in a previous Yarns of Yesteryear contribution). He put on his baseball spikes and his glove and practiced. And I got to tag along.
Practice was made up of every player taking his turn to stand in the batter’s box while the manager, who was generally an older man than the players in their 20s and 30s, pitched 18 or 20 gently thrown balls to him and he hit them. Meanwhile, the other players stayed in the infield or outfield where they normally played and fielded the hit balls. Since it wasn’t a game situation, extra players would fill in the areas of the field that were not occupied, making it easier for all of the hit balls to be caught or chased down and thrown back to the man pitching the batting practice. The players were generous in allowing some of us teenagers to fill in those areas too. I loved it! On rare occasions, we’d even be allowed to take a turn at bat at the end of practice.
At the end of practice, the manager would hit some fly balls to the outfielders and ground balls to the infielders and require them to throw the ball back to a certain base or home plate, just like a game. After practice we often sat until dark in the grandstand because it was the coolest spot in the city.
We sprouts learned so much from those sessions. I in particular loved to hear the players talk about their lives, their families and jobs. My father died when I was 3 and these adult males provided a lot of background for me, lacking a father to hang out with. We also knew somehow that if we were going to be there with them, we were to be seen and not heard. We listened. We did not talk. This was our routine three times a week all summer long. But then came Sunday. Sunday was Game Day.
Some weeks the game was at Kiel and some weeks the game was away at some other community. If the team was at home, a short practice was held at about noon. Pitchers warmed up their arms and fielders took some balls hit to them and also hit a few balls themselves for about 45 minutes. Then the visiting team was allowed to take infield practice and at a set time cleared the field for the game to begin.
For me the game was a time when I acted as bat boy. That is, when a player hit the ball and ran to the base, I quickly collected the fallen bat and returned it to the player’s bench area. If a batted ball went backward over the backstop screen, I would run down the road or into the neighbor’s yard to retrieve the ball and get it back to the umpires. Baseballs were expensive and had to be recovered.
Neighbors didn’t like us rummaging in their gardens for lost balls, though, so we did try to be careful. Many of the spectators sat in the grandstand to watch the game. Many also lined the street along the first-base line and sat in their cars to watch.
Somewhere in the midst of the game, non-participating men would circulate the fan areas with a cigar box to collect donations. Even those in their cars were solicited. Also when the home team scored or made a good play, the fans’ cheering was deadened by the car horns being blown. You could be downtown three blocks away and know something about how the game was going by the sound of the car horns.
The dedication of the Kiel players to practice three times a week meant the car horns blew often to disturb the Sunday nap of the non-baseball neighbors. An occasional front car window was broken, too, when a foul ball went down the right field line. A broken bat was a treasure for some boy to glue, tape or screw back together. We didn’t have much after the war.
One of my personal heroes on the team besides my brother was Alison “Lefty” Gebhart. He did, of course, bat and throw left-handed. What he did best was hit the ball hard and long. The athletic field was located between Fourth and Sixth streets with houses facing the streets on both ends, and their backyards bordered the field. The baseball field was backed up on the Fourth Street side and Lefty hit home runs with regularity off the garage walls of places on the Sixth Street side — not quite two blocks away. He played on a minor league team for a few years with the Cleveland Indians, but he was a small-town boy and returned to Kiel.
Away games were a bit different. All of the players met on the front steps of the city hall downtown and then it was decided who would drive and who would go in what car. I might have to sit on someone’s lap in a back seat, but since I was bat boy, I always got to go along.
There was in every community a tavern or dance hall where the team stopped after the game for refreshments. Often the home team and the visitors were at the same place. A lot of games were played and replayed at that time, and regardless of the game’s outcome, these were good times. A number of players didn’t even own cars. Can you believe that? That’s a story in itself for another time. Frequently they were the first guys to buy a round of drinks. The fact that some players saw me as the little poor boy who had no money meant I often got a pop or candy bar.
Baseball brought a community together in a lot of ways — something that in large part was lost forever in its demise.