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, N.D.)

(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 rains.

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 team.

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. Ravenous 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 soft 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
its own.

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.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller