A National Past Time
Kraft, Bill. "A National Past Time." Emmons County Record, August 2007.
|Father Matthew Fettig
sometimes took over the reigns of the Little League (Midget)
Team in Strasburg. (Photo courtesy of Assumption Abbey, Richardton,
(Editor’s Note: This story is reprinted with permission
from the May/June 2007 edition of Minnesota Moments.)
There was, in my hometown of Strasburg, North Dakota, a structure
common to the small towns scattered across the Great Plains during
the decades of 1940 to 1960. It was the local ballpark or “baseball
diamond” as we referred to it.
These structures were a matter of community pride less for the
manner in which they were built than for what they represented.
They became a repository of a town’s competitive spirit
and, on Sunday afternoons, the scene of spirited rivalries among
the neighboring towns.
The local ballpark was distinguished by its most prominent feature,
the grandstand. Ours, in shades of dark green, was propped on
the north edge of town where the encroaching prairie grass intruded
just enough to mark the demarcation point between well-groomed
lawns and the rough edges of the prairie. It stood imposingly
against the harsh elements of the passing seasons, perhaps in
tribute to the sturdy character and resourcefulness of the hardy
German-Russianinhabitants who had built it.
Its roof was propped up on wooden pillars deeply embedded into
the ground and rising to a height that slanted backwards from
the front to the rear at an incline. Presumably, the angle of
incline was to facilitate drainage of thawing winter snows and
The roof served another purpose as well. On cold afternoons our
childhood imaginations transformed that roof into a launching
pad for our gambols in the winter snows. Deep drifts of snow carved
by the winds into white waves became an “ocean of snow”
into which we
propelled out bodies from the top of the grandstand. We reached
the top of the grandstand by scaling a network of X-beam supports
that ran from the base of the structure to its roof. With an agility
peculiar to childhood coordination, we climbed in sudden lurches
from beam to beam until we reached the top. Once there we prepared
ourselves for the exhilarating leap into space and the banks below.
Perched on the edge of the roof, we felt a sudden surge of fear
and excitement, a vertigo that sent our equilibrium into freefall.
In a moment we were into space with limbs flailing as the white
rushed up. If there is a moment in childhood when you sing for
the sake of singing, when you leap for the sake of leaping, then
that was the moment. It is liberation. It is joy gone rampant.
The old ballpark had its seasons. During the summer baseball
reigned. It was a longstanding tradition that each community fielded
its own team. This was a matter of great significance since the
fortunes of the local team were directly commensurate with community
pride. Teams were comprised of an assortment of locals, from college
students home for the summer, to the old mainstays, men who had
set roots in the town, and young men between high school graduation
and their first foray into higher education at college.
It was also common practice to import “outside talent”
for a competitive edge. Outside talent usually came in the form
of a young man with a very strong arm to be utilized on the pitcher’s
mound. That talent might be recruited from a location away from
the competing communities so as to defuse charges of “talent
raiding” among the competitors. It was also customary to
arrange summer employment for the recruit. Such arrangements provided
financial inducement for the recruit while keeping intact his
amateur status. Direct compensation was a violation of the amateur
code of ethics founded on the honor system.
It was not unknown for the parish priest to set aside his robes
on Sunday afternoons for the more secular pursuits of the great
American pastime and lend his talents to the local team. One such
figure was Father Matthew Fettig, who was assigned to the local
parish. In addition to his spiritual duties, the pastor sometimes
assumed the role of mentor taking over the reigns of the little
league or “midget team” as it was commonly referred
to at the time.
Father Matthew, by some accounts, bore a well-cultivated resemblance
to the popular crooner of his day, Bing Crosby. The ever-present
pipe dangling from his mouth beneath a hard straw hat trimmed
in gold was complemented by the customary black slacks and light
summer shirt. At
social occasions Father Matthew demonstrated an insouciant charm
that ingratiated him into the confidence and good graces of his
parishioners. The overall effect was an elegant sophistication
and social ease that served him well in the administration of
his duties in the parish.
Like his renowned alter ego, nature had also blessed him with
a rich, deep-throated baritone voice. Encountering him on a snowy
December day, you might have expected him to burst forth with
his own rendition of “White Christmas.”
On game day the opposition sometimes found Father Matthew’s
managerial style a bit enigmatic. From his vantage point behind
third base, Father Matthew engaged in a series of elaborate motions
designed to deceive and confuse the opposition, while directing
base runners and batters in the usual strategies of the hit an
run, the bunt or the steal sign.
Such rituals, a fundamental part of the game, assumed many variations.
Father Matthew’s were a bit unorthodox. From his familiar
crouch along the third base line, Father Matthew dipped into the
left pocket of his shirt, deftly fetched a handful of sunflower
seeds, popped them into his mouth, and then cracked them open.
At that precise moment, a runner on first base streaked for second.
If the opposition failed to crack the code, their frustration
might have been attributable to two explanations. Either Father
Matthew was bestowing some sort of benediction on the proceedings,
or he was invoking Divine Providence to aid the fortunes of his
The assistance of Divine Providence was at times much in demand.
Our second baseman, not renowned for his fleetness of foot when
called upon to steal a base, seemed more preoccupied with a sense
of self-preservation than with the good fortunes of his team.
At such times, his instinct for self-survival simply overwhelmed
his competitive spirit. Somewhere between first and second base
he threw up his hands flailing in desperation to cover his head
to fend off the
catcher’s throw streaking from behind home plate. To the
dismay and amusement of his teammates, he stumbled toward second
base like a lumbering ox on his way to the slaughterhouse. While
he seldom reached second base ahead of the ball, his cranium remained
intact for the duration of his playing days. Perhaps it was an
oversight that such manly feats were not immortalized in the form
of a plaque bearing the image of a runner breaking for second
base with his hands shielding his head and an inscription reading,
“Divine Providence assists those who assist themselves.”
The maxim that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday
sun is not inclusive enough. So do little league baseball players.
Our practices were conducted in the middle of blazing summer afternoons.
Since we did not have the benefit of sophisticated sun block lotions,
we simply sweated it out.
A prelude to our practices was a friendly competition know as
the “grandstand climb.” The grandstand climb provided
a formidable challenge guaranteed to get the glands pumping. A
thick wire mesh anchored to a wooden base ran from the bottom
of the grandstand to its top. The object of the competition was
to see who could scale the wire façade to its highest point.
In order to do so, competitors approached the façade with
a headlong sprint and then at the precise moment hurled themselves
onto the mesh to begin the ascent. In one continuous burst of
motion and energy, they dug their spiked shoes, with sparks flying,
into the wire and clawed their way toward the top with a force
strong enough to send a ripple of waves across the mesh.
Once they had gotten as far as they could go, they began their
descent in a deliberate backwards motion like a man descending
a ladder. Back on the ground they inhaled great gulps of air and
felt the sting of perspiration seep into their eyes. The wire
mesh had left deep purple indentations and an insistent throbbing
in their hands.
Part of practice was aimed at a drill designed to hone the catching
skills of the outfielders. While we settled in the far reaches
of center field, Father Matthew launched a barrage of fly balls
into the heavens. This was done with a fungo bat, a specially
designed elongated club shaped to propel the ball upwards. Ascending
rapidly into a high arc, the balls seemed to hang motionless like
tiny white dots in the sky and then began to plummet like rockets
into the leather webbing of
our gloves. We called them “dependers” because in
our imaginary scenarios the outcome of the game depended on whether
we made the catch at the crucial moment. Such a challenge appealed
to our inventiveness.
Some of us emulated the great Willie Mays and his basket catch
tucking the glove to our midriff to catch the ball at the waist
and then firing it toward the infield. The more fearless of us
attempted the basket catch in reverse by turning our backs to
the ball and tucking the glove
at the base of the spine. The result was often painful when we
miscalculated the ball’s trajectory and felt the lancing
impact of the
ball against our spine.
We sometimes varied our style with the under-the-leg maneuver.
We executed it by resting our weight on one foot, raising the
other leg into an inverted V and attempting to catch the ball
with the glove under the V. From a distance our antics and the
muted pop of the balls into leather seemed like a pantomime of
grace and, at times, clumsy ineptitude.
Games for the adult teams were reserved for Sunday afternoons
when the local ballpark became the focus of community pride and
pregame preparation. While the opposing teams took their turns
in the batting cages, some of us waited for the errant foul balls
that came looping over the grandstand into the deep grass. Each
ball carried a fifty-cent bounty for its return to the playing
field. At times some of us chose sentiment over profit. Some of
those balls found a place on our shelves at home alongside the
treasured memorabilia of Tops baseball cards.
Other pregame preparation took place at the concession stand.
fans, in keeping with tradition, demanded the kind of cuisine
synonymous with the great American pastime. That demand was met
by the concession stand. Ours, painted in a muted dark green,
was built on the back side at the base of the grandstand. A sliding
wooden panel barred from the inside was loosened to accommodate
the customers. If the stand’s subdued exterior appeared
a bit drab, its contents compensated for it. Inside was a larder
groaning with a rich assortment of candies, soft drinks and boiled
hotdogs tucked into buns dripping bright yellow mustard down the
side. On the shelves, rows of Baby Ruth, Butterfinger and Snickers
bars stacked up against each other to offer the kind of sticky
sweetness that lodged like mortar in your teeth. To accommodate
the thirsty, a steel tub of ice water held bobbing bottles of
drinks. Of these, only the Nehi brand lorded its superiority over
its rivals, whose offerings were but a mere token of competition.
Its ruby-red strawberry soda inside the familiar rippled glass
bottle burst into your throat with a potency that shocked your
taste buds into a sensory rush of flavor rich enough to savor
again and again, its aftertaste like a long sweet goodbye. It
was like a first love. It held a special affection that no rival
could ever match again.
As game time drew near, rows of automobiles in single file inched
their way up the gravel road toward the gate. From there they
formed into rows along the first base and third base lines, which
gave them a vantage point directly behind the dugouts of the opposing
teams. Wooden posts with wire screens ran from the main grandstand
down both baselines to protect vulnerable windshields from foul
balls and errant throws. Such proximity to the action gave hecklers
easy access to cast their barbs at opposing teams.
However, the true “artists of invective” seemed to
gather in the main grandstand directly behind home plate. Such
proximity made an easy path to the sensitive ears of the umpire.
Umpire baiting, as integral to the game as the American hotdog,
assumed a ritualistic distinctiveness of
Local fans had a special affinity for the salted sunflower seeds
sold at the concession stand. The seeds, which had to be cracked
open inside the mouth to extract the kernel, came in small paper
packets that tore open at the corners. A novice in the art of
sunflower seed eating found it to be a formidable challenge. The
older generation, however, had honed the skill to perfection.
With a staccato-like precision and speed the shells shot from
their mouths into small piles around their feet while the epithets
they hurled like spears found their mark in the umpire’s
hide. Their insults often formed a strange hybrid of local German
dialect and English. Thus “Kill the umpire” translated
into “Dawd schalgen (beat to death) the umpire or “Mach
hea (make dead) the umpire.” Other colorful epithets became
part of the repertoire as the game progressed and the piles of
seeds grew higher.
Each game has its own dynamic, its own character and its own
drama. Our house was close enough to the ballpark, so that we
could hear those sudden outbursts of drama when the home team
scored a run, hit a homer or made a special play in the field.
Those outbursts came in a sudden cacophony of blaring horns, raised
voices and the thundering of feet pounding in unison on the grandstand
bleachers. At such moments a quickening in the blood sent me racing
to the scene of the drama unfolding in the ballpark.
On one such occasion I witnessed an event unique in the annals
of local legend. The home team was engaged in a stalemated struggle
in the late innings of the game and threatening to score with
men on base. As good fortune would have it, our mightiest slugger
was due at the plate.
Would it be another Casey at the Bat, or would the locals tip
a brew in tribute to a great victory in the taverns that night?
The opposition adhered to conventional baseball wisdom and began
to deliver the pitch outside of the strike zone to walk the batter
intentionally. What happened next became the topic of discussion
in the taverns for years thereafter. Our version of Casey stepped
forward and delivered a whack that shot the ball toward the heavens
in left field. Stunned silence
and disbelief soon broke into pandemonium. This time Casey had
not struck out! I cannot attest to it as a fact, but I would wager
that many a glass was raised in tribute that night in Mattern’s
Blue Room.Maybe that homerun was the last call to glory for the
old park. It is a truism, of course, that the only permanence
is change. Maybe small town teams disbanded with the advent of
television, easy access to automobiles, and an evolving pop culture
that offered too many
affordable distractions. The old ballpark fell into disrepair.
Weeds choked off the infield. Holes and rocks pockmarked the outfield.
Rain washed away the chalk baselines almost overnight. The old
grandstand in my hometown was razed years ago.
Still, sometimes on a warm summer night or on a hot Sunday afternoon,
I feel a sudden urge to stop behind where third base used to be.
Maybe if I look hard enough, I’ll see Father Matthew dig
into his pocket just one more time to give the steal sign.
Reprinted with permission of Emmons County Record.