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Voyageur's Best Sports of 2005

Tamarack baseball team

Turning back the Clock
 
Remembering local sports
 
by Cynthia Brekke, John Grones and Erin Suhonen  |  August 2, 2005
 

Remembering that 'field of dream'

Whether or not everyone agrees depends greatly upon one’s outlook on life but dreams, to me, are a blessing to us. We can ‘dream’ of a white Christmas, marry our ‘dream’ boat and build or find our ‘dream’ home. Dreams allow us to look forward to the future, while they hold our memories and put a smile on our faces that no one else understands.

Baseball used to be a big deal around this area and many towns sported baseball diamonds and teams. Games drew crowds and created local legends. One such legend (although he would never call himself one) is Kelly Hawkinson, a lifelong resident of the Tamarack area and a member of the renowned Wright-Tamarack baseball team.

Kelly began playing ball at 15-years old. His talent caught the eye of baseball scouts, and he was well-known for his pitching arm. He could also hit the cover off the ball and was known all over the state of Minnesota for his exceptional talent and ability as an all-around baseball player. He received offers to play from different teams, including the Minneapolis Millers, and played in the minors for a short time.

Kelly shared a few tidbits, including some of the baseball fields that used to exist (in the most unlikely places) such as Island Lake Road in Haugen Township (north of Tamarack) and by the old Retreat. “That was before I played, but I remember going to games at those fields,” he said.

It’s amazing to look back and think about what kind of impact the game had in this area. “At one time there were 20 teams around here,” Kelly commented, adding that the league swelled in size sometime after WWII, when all the guys came back from the service. Floodwood, Waukenabo, Kimberly, Rossberg, Lawler, East Lake, Sandy Lake, McGregor, Wright-Tamarack, Cromwell, Kettle River, Aitkin and Palisade were among the area teams he recalled.

While Kelley didn’t talk much about his own baseball prowess, one of his former teammates, Ray Marsyla, had no problem elaborating. In fact, Ray credits Kelly for getting the area kids involved in baseball back then.

“Kelly’s parents owned the house by the railroad tracks [in Tamarack],” Ray began explaining. “There was a Standard Oil building on the south side of the tracks and he would round us up there and pitch to us with a little rubber ball. That’s how we got started in baseball.”

“He was the most fun player in the whole area,” Ray said. “He was extraordinary. I caught for him after Delbert [Brekke] hurt his knee. Kelley volunteered me. Here I was, 120 pounds, and never caught a game. We won 2-0. I don’t even remember who we played but I bet my eyes closed every time the ball hit my glove. I flinched.”

Kelly recalled pitching with Delbert as catcher and chuckled. “His knee was so bad that he would squat with one leg sticking straight out.” Ray concurred. “We had to straighten him and move his leg after a play.”

The Wright-Tamarack team took the Seaway League Pennant for the second straight time in 1964, defeating Kettle River by a score of five to four. In a Duluth News Tribune article from that year, it states that Kettle River outhit the Wright-Tamarack team 13 to 7, but couldn’t get the needed runs. It’s a game that stands out in Darrell Berg’s mind, for sure. “It was the bottom of the ninth and I drove in the winning run,” he said. The article stated that Darrell singled with the bases loaded to sting Kettle River and snatch the championship on the final day of regular play. It was exciting for Darrell, who began playing in the league, “as soon as I was old enough to play,” he said.

The Wright-Tamarack team advanced through Region 1B play to the 41st annual Minnesota Baseball Association tournament, held in Brownton in September of that year. Teams were allowed to bring extras on their roster, so two guys from Kettle River, Kenny Halverson and Roger Anderson, went to Brownton with the WT’ers. A pitcher, Joe Harmala, was recruited from Cloquet. (Harmala was eventually inducted in the Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Ray noted some disadvantages the team faced at the state tournament. “We had never played under lights, at night,” he said. “Looking into those lights, with the ball disappearing in the dark and reappearing... we weren’t used to that.” The team adjusted best they could. “I think the first game we played, we won 5-0.”

Another disadvantage for the team was the time slot they were given to play their games. “We always had to play the eight o’clock at night game and we were the furthest away,” Ray said. “By the end of the week, with the travel and the late games, it made a difference for us. We had as good a team as anybody in the state.”

Kelly and Joe Harmala pitched in the tournament. In the final game, Ray and Harland Marsyla played outfield with Warren Wells, Phil Bodway played short, Don Serfling was first baseman, Duane Pomplin covered second and Jim Latvala handled third. Ken Halverson took on the catching. The champs from the Seaway League finished third in the state.

For the spectators, going to the Brownton games was as exciting as attending a major league game. “They had a nice field in Brownton,” Ray said. “When the [Minnesota] Twins built their new outfield, the old fence was put up in the outfield at Brownton.” This added to the ‘big league’ feel of the stadium, along with the lights.

It was more, however, than the ambiance; it was the era itself. “The fifties were a nice time,” Ray commented. “We didn’t just play against the guys on the other team, we actually knew them. We were all friends.” The games were a regular, Sunday afternoon affair, pulling families and communities together.

The Wright-Tamarack team disbanded after their successful season in 1964. Even though the crowds vanished and the diamonds faded, the memory still sparkles in the minds of those who played, and those who watched, living on in the field of dreams.

The forming of friendships over a half-century ago

A pair of 80-year-old men, Rainy Maron and Warren Kirsch, share a few memories of their playing days on the McGregor teams

From the moment these two elderly friends met and embraced, it was apparent they shared a common bond with each other. Rainy Maron and Warren Kirsch met up with each other this past week and shared a few memories of their younger years playing ball for the local McGregor town teams in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Judging by the smiles on their faces, they were more than happy to share and reminisce about a time when their friendship formed.

Rainy and Warren both played basketball and baseball for the McGregor teams and they remember the guy responsible for organizing all the teams. “Elmer Shuft was the promoter,” said Rainy.

“Yep, it was his life,” continued Warren. “He promoted Golden Gloves boxing, a couple of professional wrestling matches... he’d get the Harlem Globetrotters and the House of David...”

“... and the Red Heads,” Rainy added as both guys busted out laughing. “Kirsch got caught pinching one of them on the cheek.” According to Rainy and Warren, the All-American Red Heads were a group of women that traveled around playing the local sports teams. They traveled some 30,000 miles and played 180 games, entertaining small-town crowds.

Warren, in defense of Rainy’s pinching accusation, continued to share more of the truth about that game. “I’ll tell ya,” he said. “Those women were pretty grabby, too, you know. They knew what they were doing down around the basket.”

Both guys laughed even harder and Rainy, who refereed the game, recalled a comment from one of the gals. “Remember that one when I called a foul on her? She must have been the intellectual one on the team, because she said something like, ‘I believe you were mistaken about that call.’ She didn’t call me a dirty rotten scoundrel; I believe you were mistaken.”

The All-American Red Heads was just one of the many promotions Elmer Shuft organized. Elmer came to McGregor by way of the Minnesota Highway Department. He was the local foreman. “He used a lot of his own money,” added Warren.

Elmer was also responsible for organizing the Upper Mississippi Baseball league that included teams from McGregor, East Lake, Tamarack, Cromwell, Wright, Palisade, Hickory, McGrath, Sawyer, Swatara, Aitkin, Deerwood, Rossburg, Waukenabo and Kalevala. Elmer served as the league secretary and treasurer and did an excellent job promoting the league in the newspaper. Newspaper articles often appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune, such as the one tled: McGregor Ace Hurls No-Hitter.

McGregor pitcher Lester Maron pitched a no-hit, no-run game versus Wright that year. He faced just 27 batters in the 6-0 victory. “I remember diving to my right to catch a line drive in that game,” Warren recalled. Warren played first base and Rainy played second.

“We played good ball that day,” added Rainy. “I caught a blooper over my shoulder I could barely reach. Of course, somebody that is faster would have got there sooner.”

Both guys laughed some more, then recalled their center fielder Bill Johnson. “I remember Bill got a fly ball in the (sensitive area) and he throws the ball in and passes out,” Warren laughed.

“Every time the ball was hit to him, we all prayed,” added Rainy. The two poked a little fun at Bill, but then recalled that he always hit a two-bagger in most games. He soon earned the nickname Two-bagger Bill.

As for Lester, both Warren and Rainy both agreed he was on that day. “He was on that day,” said Rainy. “He used to throw what the call a slider now days. We called it a curve ball. Whenever Art (Maron) would call that pitch, Oscar (Maron) would tell everyone in the infield to move over. Oscar had an uncanny ability to position the players.”

The McGregor team even got the opportunity to play the Duluth Dukes at Wade Stadium. It was quite a treat. “I think we won,” said Warren.

When it came to the basketball team, a few names stood out from the rest. Bob McDonald was the best player on the team in the 1950’s and is currently the winningest coach in Minnesota Basketball history. He coached the high school team at McGregor for a couple of years and led the town team with over 35 points per game. “He was a pleasure to watch,” said Warren.

“He had a fall-away jump shot that was just impossible to guard,” added Rainy, “and he would hit ‘em.”

The memories came flooding back for the two men and one game stood out in their mind. “Do you remember the game we were three points behind,” said Warren. “There was only a minute or so left and Tuffy Kovatovich says, ‘Never mind Elmer.’ He got the ball and he took it down and scored. He did back flips all the way down the floor. We were still down by one point.”

“And don’t you know, he steals the ball and does the same thing. We win the game by one point. Little Tuffy Kovatovich, I see him once in a great while.”

Warren and Rainy also talked about some of the other players, including Gordy Hawks, Pete Bobich, Rudy Brandstrom, Elmer Johnson, and Pete Korach.

As the young men got up in age, so did their playing days. Both recalled one of the highlights of their basketball playing and it was their last game – versus the Harlem Globetrotters. “They were fun to play against,” said Warren. “We had to help them out a little bit. They’d brief you before the game.”

“Those were the days of Meadowlark Lemon, Goose Tatum and that bunch,” added Rainy.

Since that time, Warren and Rainy have gone their seperate ways. Rainy stayed in McGregor where he raised a family working at the Highway Department. Warren moved to Grand Rapids where he raised a family working for the DNR.

Both are now up there in age. Rainy will be 81 in August and Warren will be 80 soon. They have a lot of memories to share and they could have talked all night. The two hadn’t seen each other in a while and it was apparent they wanted to savor their time together.

Just like they had a half-century earlier.

Wright A.C. Cagers

“It was the most fun I had in all my life every year” – Leonard Aho

Picture it... around the year 1940, seven grown men trudging through the snow in the middle of winter, candle in hand, in an effort to get to the highway where Martha Maki would pile them all in her car (along with their bright orange and black wool uniforms) to take them to their basketball tournament in Brule, Wisconsin.

Why the candle you ask? As Leonard Aho explained; when his basketball team, the Wright Athletic Club, would go to play their games they would all pile in his model A (because he was one of the few players who had a car). They would bring a candle with them to hold up to the windshield and thaw it out when it would frost over. They didn’t have a defrost button in 1940.

The Wright A.C.’s basketball team began because of Oscar Groth. They started by playing in the upstairs of the old store that was across from what is now John Anderson’s farm. They would play in the finish halls around the area at first; the ceilings were low and there was usually a wood stove in the corner of the building. One such hall was the “Pyrinto” Hall, which is Finnish for endeavor. This didn’t stop the athletes though, they played many games here against many teams.

The A.C’s went through many different players as the team endured over three decades. Some of the players included: Hank Aho, Eino Walli, Wayno Kari, Art Aho, Arne Kari, Toivo Walli, Arve and Nillo Suhonen, Niel Groth, Raymond Petit and many others.

The team started up sometime in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s and ended in the 1950’s. The Wright A.C.’s ended due to lack of interest and because the high school basketball teams were becoming more important. But to the gentlemen who played on this team, it was one of the most important aspects of their life, and for their families lives.

According to Leonard, “there would be so many people we’d hardly have room to play, especially when Deerwood came,” of playing games in the gym of the old Wright School. Toini Aho (Leonard’s wife) agreed, having been one of those many fans adding, “The lives revolved around these athletic events.”

It was a different time though. Instead of the 30-plus basketballs a current team has, they would buy one new basketball a year. This didn’t stop their success though. In an article from The Co-operative Builder from 1941 it says, “During the last three seasons, the Wright Basketball team has played a total of 98 games, of which they have won 78 and lost 20.” The team that the article is about consisted of Eino Walli, Arne Kari, Walter Wesa, Toivo Walli, Arne Walli, Niilo Suhonen, Arve Suhonen and Vernon Fogelberg. They were managed by Ernie Wallli.

This same article also went on to talk about the tournaments the team had played in. It says, “Last year the Wright team took the championship at the tournament which was held at Brule Co-op Park, and this season they won the championship of the Lakes Region Tourney which was held at McGregor, Minn., on March first and second. Last Sunday they won consolation honors at the third annual Resort Region Tourney at Deerwood by defeating Pequot Lakes in the first round and losing in the semifinal game to Aitkin in an overtime period. The consolation game was against Isle-Wahkon, Wright winning 43-41. Unfortunately, Niilo Suhonen, star forward, had to leave his teammates a few weeks ago to join the army.”

Niilo was not the only teammate who had to leave for the service; Arne Walli also left. Arne, according to Niilo, “was a good player.” Leonard also supported this saying, “Definitely Arne and Niilo were our best players, by far.” The team continued to play without some of their players because there were enough young men who couldn’t go to war due to the fact that they had to stay home and take care of the farm. Leonard Aho was one of these people. Oscar Benson, the manager of the creamery, had said that he would not let him leave for the service because the creamery needed his milk. But as soon as the war was over the boys came back and continued playing.

Basketball wasn’t just a game back then, “it was the most important thing in their life,” said Toini of the players. The times have changed though, along with the game. They played back in a time where there was a jump ball after every basket. If you asked the children playing basketball nowadays that would be unheard of. It was an important time, and for some... the most fun they ever had.

From the Raju team to the Flying Finns

When it came to naming basketball teams, Cromwell certainly had the edge on the competition. Early on, there was a team called the Golden Eagles, later the ‘Raju’ athletic club, and most recently the Flying Finns.

The Flying Finns came about in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The name was not approved by everybody. “I said, ‘No way,’” remembers Harold Maki, who played on the team. Harold remembers when the guys went to Duluth to buy the uniforms. According to two other members of the team, Bob Manninen and Dick Huhta, it must have been Charlie Nyberg who came up with the name.

At any rate, the team nickname ‘Flying Finns’ fit. The team consisted of a bunch of small, quick guys who graduated from high school and wanted to continue playing. Bob, Dick and Harold were on that team along with Danny Kempi, Edwin Maki, Rudy Nikko, Denny and Jerry Korpela, Ron Langavin, Ronny Koivisto, Don Clark Jr. and Lee Vigness.

According to Bob, the Flying Finns were a quick team with good shooters.

“That’s right,” said Harold. “We had a very good fast break. I would get the ball out to Danny and Jerry and they had the sprinter speed.”

As for height, that was a different story. Cromwell teams have never been known for tall guys. “I was the center at 5’11” tall,” added Harold. “I had trouble on defense as you can imagine.”

Harold has several memories of those days playing ball, but one game in McGregor stands out. “We had the McGregor All-stars by 17 at the half,” recalled Harold. “In the third quarter, they closed it it down and in the fourth they led by one point. I remember we got the ball to Danny at half court. He drove down and threw up an underhand layup beneath their big center, Jed Watson who was an all-conference Jr. College player.”

“We won the tournament,” reported Bob.

“We pressed that team,” added Dick.

“I never have forgotten Danny’s speed,” added Harold.

Dick recalled Danny’s basketball exploits in high school. “He scored 54 points twice in high school,” he said. “That was high point for the area for many years.” All the guys were pretty sure the point total is still a school record.

Bob, Harold and Dick all recalled the games versus the Vikings. It was about 1973. “We were ahead at halftime,” said Bob. “I remember Dave Osborne sharing that his team was lucky to have won.”

All three former players noted that Osborne had cabins on Eagle Lake at the time. “That’s how we ended up playing them.”

The ‘Raju’ Athletic Club team goes back even further. Bob Manninen found a picture from 1931-32. His father George was on that team. In addition to George, the team included a number of recognizable names – Erv Lehti, Wayne Koivisto, Iver Lundin, William Lundin, Elmer Lehti, Wayne Pajanen, a Koski, a Nyberg, a Peterson, and a Kinkki.

In a few newspaper clippings from those early years the Raju Athletic Club played a number of local teams including the Wright Athletic Club, the Cloquet Missions, a Cromwell town team, a team from Kalevala and a Superior Co-op team.

According to Bob, Raju means ‘vibrant’ or ‘ready to go’ and that the club was located just east of the Eagle Lake School.

As the years progress, and the older generations pass on, so do many of the stories. If you have a story of days gone by, let us know. That’s how this special section came about.

This article first appeared in the August 2, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.