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Architecture

Baseball and Milroy: A 50 Year Love Affair

By: Joe Kemp

Introduction

Introduction

Baseball is truly America’s game. It always has been. From 1930 to 1955 virtually every town in Minnesota had its won baseball team. The game grew in popularity and many towns grew and thrived with their teams, such was the case in Milroy. Milroy’s team had passed the test of time, while many of the town’s rivals had failed. This small town wanted baseball to live, and somehow it did.

From the time Alexander J. Cartwright established the rules of the game until 1996, this game has grown up in America’s cow pastures and backyards to the multi-million dollar stadiums of today. On June 19, 1246, two amateur teams met on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, and played a form of ball that no one had ever seen before. From Cartwright’s design, the game flourished and spread to other regions of the United States.

By the time the Civil War broke out baseball had spread all the way the West coast, and rural baseball had become a form of entertainment. During the Civil War, the soldiers would play the games amongst themselves and from time to time they would play versus the soldiers they had captured. The game relieved the boredom that often accompanied the soldiers’ lives. When the war ended, the soldiers came home with new knowledge of the game and the rage for ball playing began.

By the late 1800s a rough version of baseball was played all across America, from the farms to the large cities. By 1865, thirty-two teams existed in Chicago, and in the rural regions pasture ball became a craze. In the late 1800s a town would gather nine men and send a message to a town nearby to meet them. The nearby town would round up nine men, and the two teams would meet in an open pasture and play all day. As might be imagined, the players had to watch their step.

As the1900s were ushered in, so was a more organized form of baseball. The major leagues as we know them were in their infancy, and amateur teams and leagues were beginning to form. By 1930 most Minnesota towns had teams and leagues. Baseball became a form of competition between local towns.

Then World War II struck not only a blow to the world, but baseball as well. Towns could not supply the manpower needed to uphold a team, because they were all away at war. The boys were gone, and baseball in the rural areas could no longer live. Louis Dolan, a member of the Milroy baseball team from 1945 to 1953, recalls, “There wasn’t a lot [of playing] baseball shut down pretty much during the war years. There weren’t enough young guys, guys were going in to the service right out of high school.” From 1941 to 1945 amateur baseball suffered its biggest slump.

With the end of the war came the reemergence of baseball as the “national pastime.” The men came back, and so did the sport. In 1946, baseball had everything going for it. The National Football League did not have the fan base and was relatively small compared to baseball. Television was not as prevalent in the rural areas, and people were on small incomes and could not afford to go on vacations. With activities limited, baseball prospered. The years right after the war were the high point for town team ball.

In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the town teams would play primarily on Sundays. This allowed the family to pack up the car and drive into town for a weekly vacation. Baseball was the only game in town, and it quickly became a place for a family to get together and support their town, along with catching the latest gossip. In rural Minnesota, baseball games were said to attract crowds in the thousands for a single game. Often times, there was a bigger crowd for town team practices than today’s games attract.

While the ‘40s and ‘50s gave the fans a chance to cheer like crazy for their hometown heroes, the 1960s would again serve as a threat to baseball’s popularity. Why this threat occurred and how it affected amateur baseball is a formidable question in itself. The better question may be how and why did some small town teams survive and others did not? One team that did survive was Milroy.

Milroy, Minnesota, is small farming town located in the southwest corner of the state, approximately fifteen miles east of Marshall. This tiny community, situated on the edge of Redwood County, gained recognition with its baseball, despite a population that has average about 260 people over the last thirty years.


MILROY THE TOWN

In the early 1940s the Milroy community consisted of Art Stolp’s 3.2 beer place, Charlie Reed’s restaurant, and the pool hall, among other small businesses. Milroy was a farming community that took great pride in their baseball team.

Milroy like many other small midwestern towns took its lumps economically later in the century. By the mid-70s Milroy was in the midst of losing many of its businesses and its population dropped to around 240. “The town’s business leaders were passing away and no one was replacing them.” Remembers Vicki Dolan, wife of Milroy baseball player Mark Dolan.

Since then, the town has been able to support Kirsh’s Korner, the Oasis Bar, and the grain elevator. The population has grown to 297, with many using the town as a suburb of Marshall.


THE MILROY YANKEES

In 1944, at age 25, Bob Zwach Sr., manager of the Milroy baseball team for thirteen years, drove from rural Milroy to Hank Nicklasson’s sporting goods store in New Ulm to pick up what he remembers as “two or three bats and about six balls.” From there Zwach proceeded to round up a few guys and play games against some of the surrounding towns. During that first year Milroy played without uniforms and without a league.

According to Mark “Spike” Dolan, the shortstop on the 1954 Milroy team, those first games were quite an experience:

He [Bob Zwach] called me up, I was sixteen years old. He said, I’m getting a baseball team started in Milroy and I’d like to have you come along, we’re going to Hansenville. I had no idea where Hansenville was, I didn’t even know if it was in Minnesota or what, I was in high school at the time. I said sure I’ll go along. Bob picked me up, we had no uniforms a bunch of guys wand we went up to Hansenville, they had suits and there was a dance hall, that’s wall there was. A dance hall and this ball field out in the country, quite an experience for me.

The 1944 version of amateur baseball in Milroy certainly was not one the team cared to cherish. Zwach remembered playing Wanda one afternoon when “they laughed us out of the place. I was catching and I had an old mitt that wouldn’t stick, I couldn’t hold it with two hands. Leiter the banker and Bordy, Oh, they made fun of Milroy. Spike made an error at shortstop and they told him to lower his apron. They beat the hell out of us! That determined us in ’46 and ’47, we’ll get Wanda.

And they did, in 1946 and 1947. Milroy always beat Wanda in the crunch, and not just Wanda. By 1947 the Milroy team had built itself into a solid team and was beating plenty of other teams as well. From 1945 until 1955 Milroy played its baseball in the defunct Redwood County League. That league housed teams from Sanborn, Wabasso, Wanda, Lamberton, Tracy, Walnut Grove, Balaton, and Milroy.

From 1947 to 1950 the Milroy team was busy winning region titles and competing in the first of what would be seventeen Minnesota State Amateur Tournament appearances through 1995. Although these teams won only one game at the state tournament, the support in Milroy was reaching an all-time high. Games between local teams like Wanda and Milroy would often attract one to two thousand fans.

As Spike Dolan recalls:

We had great spirit here in Milroy, just the fans were great. It was the main thing talked about in Milroy. Saturday night was always a big night in the small towns. Farmers would come to town and bring their families, buy their groceries, and visit. And I can recall just about every Saturday night groups of people talking about the ball game that was going to be on Sunday. And as soon as they saw some of us players they had to come and ask us how’s our chances tomorrow. And that was really the conversation on Saturday nights in town.

As the fans came out, so did the bettors. “They would walk up and down the third baseline with fists full of money asking for bets. I imagine those who bet for Milroy made a lot of money, because they would always buy the players a beer afterwards, and we won many of those games,” remembers Reed Lovsness, the star pitcher for Milroy from 1953 to 1955.

Many ballparks did not have lighting. Thus games had to be played on Sunday afternoons all across the state. The Sunday afternoon game became the biggest fundraiser that a town could have. Teams tried desperately to play even after rain storms, they had to play because they made so much money selling beer at the games.

Zwach remembers “we had two thousand fans at a game versus Wanda one afternoon and we sold a thousand dollars worth of beer. We wanted those Sunday afternoon games, it was always hot and we sold beer, that and donations helped fund our team.” Between one-dollar tickets sales, beer sales and donations, Milroy was able to successfully fund a team.

By now the Milroy team had also adopted the name the Milroy Yankees, after Zwach’s favorite man, Casey Stengel. Stengel, the manager of the New York Yankees, at this time was known for his quick tongue and feisty attitude. He was a perfect fit for Zwach. “Bob was the fastest man on our team. If there was a close call, Bob would be out of the dugout and to second base [where the base umpire was locate] in no time. His feet wouldn’t even touch the ground,” said Lovsness. Zwach always wanted to be like Stengel, and he often was.

Perhaps Zwach’s greatest move as a manager came in the winter of 1953. During a snowstorm, Zwach and John Dolan Sr., the father of Louis, Joe, Jack, Spike and Donny, jumped in a car and drove to Cottonwood, Minnesota, and signed a lanky right-hander named Reed Lovsness. Lovsness, who had just came back from the service, had played minor league baseball in the Pittsburgh organization. Lovsness would turn out to be, as Zwach called him, “the difference between Milroy being a good team and a great team.”

The signing paid immediate dividends for the Yankees in 1953, when Lovsness recorded seventeen wins and only three losses during the season. Lovsness quickly became a part of the Milroy community. “I was well received in Milroy. People would write letters to me saying they were glad I was there. It was really great place to play,” said Lovsness.


STATE CHAMPIONS AND THE NEW FIELD

In 1954 the Milroy Yankees achieved the unthinkable, the Mythical State Championship, which is equivalent to today’s World Series in its stature. In order for Milroy to win the Mythical State Championship, they had to first win the State Class B Title. Class B was the division in which no players on the team could be paid. This in itself seemed like a daunting enough task, considering Milroy had only one state tournament game in their short history.

The Milroy team had now grown up; they had shown a passion for the game that they had only picked up seven years before. According to Spike, “we went out and practiced at least three times a week, we wanted to become good. We would hit an then pick up ground balls.”

They were ready to put Milroy on the map. Milroy defeated four teams enroute to the Class B State Championship: Perham 2-0, Hibbing 9-5, Warroad 19-3, and St. Joseph 11-2 in the championship game.

The second step to winning the Mythical State Championship was to defeat the Class A state Champion squad from Benson. In Class A baseball, teams were allowed to pay two outside players to come in and be pitchers or catchers. This allowed the Class A teams to have a distinct advantage over the smaller Class B towns.

Despite the disadvantage, Milroy was able to become the first ever Class B champion to defeat the Class A champion for the Mythical State Title. Milroy overcame a three run deficit to down Benson 4 to 3 in front of a crowd of four thousand in Madison, Minnesota, on September 26, 1954.

Baseball was Milroy’s claim to fame after the tremendous 1954 season. The state champs had brought notoriety to the small community, and Milroy would forever be linked with baseball.

With pride overflowing, the community of Milroy decided to back the team in a new way that fall by building a new baseball field. Milroy’s original diamond was on Highway 68, or what is considered main street in Milroy. Home plate on the old field rested where Kirsh Korner is today, with right field straight south alongside the road. This location had presented problems for the ticket takers because the park was not enclosed, and people would wander in from any direction. According to the 1951 manager of the Milroy Yankees, John Kagel, “with the old field right along the highway you would have a problem collecting tickets. You needed six to eight guys, I mean you would not believe the crowds.”

The old field not only presented problems for the ticket takes, but parking was a problem as well. Many stories were told of people going to church at ten o’clock, and parking their car alongside the field, going to church and then walking home, just to have a parking spot for the game later that afternoon. Another story, probably a tall tale, had people parking their cares on the highway the night before to insure a spot.

In the fall of 1954, the town of Milroy took donations from thirty-five people and some businesses and purchased a plot of land from Carl Rolland. The plot is located on the southern edge of Milroy at the intersection of Highway 68 and Redwood County Road 32. The donations the team received ranged anywhere from ten to one hundred dollars.

The money raised was enough to buy the land, but much work was still needed to be done. Once again the community pitched in and formed work groups to supply the labor. Louis Dolan remembers:

The baseball players were up there [at the site of the new field], the townspeople were there and then after six farmers would come in. They would get together in groups and decide on a time and a whole bunch of them would come on up. The farmers would work in their fields until six, and then a group of twenty or so would meet at the field. There was people that hadn’t played baseball a day in their life up there helping.

“It was a community thing as far as the work on the land,” recalls John Kagel. “I know that my part of it was sodding the infield. And I got a group of businessmen together and we rented a machine and went out about six miles south of town. Then from a farmer by the name of Hicks, we got sod out of his pasture, and the local implement dealer had trucks and trailers and we hauled it in. This was in the spring of the year and us amateurs laid the sod and watered the infield like crazy, that was the year we had a really dry spring, but it stayed.”

The entire field, the grandstand, and the wooden outfield fence, with painted on ads were all built within six months. “The old diamond was a fair diamond, but nothing like this. It sits out here by the road where everybody can see it, and everybody was proud of it coming through on the highway. The whole community was proud of it,” remembers Louis Dolan. Even today, the field stands pretty much as it did that spring of 1955. The adds on the fence have been repainted and the scoreboard is different, but the field still brings smiles to the face of the originators of Milroy baseball.


THE MEN WHO PLAYED

The men who played town team baseball came from different backgrounds, and had varying levels of skill, but they were all brought together by the game of baseball. These men and often their families, spent many of their summer days at the baseball field playing, practicing, and talking baseball.

One of the most vocal baseball players, and now supporter, is Bob Zwach Sr,. Zwach was born on a farm outside of Milroy, and growing up would practice playing ball in the yard until it was too dark to see. When Bob was twelve, his brothers would employ him as the ball chaser during their games and even allow him to ride to several games with them. When no room was available inside the car, he rode in the trunk. It was from these humble beginnings that Bob became attached to baseball. He became very sports minded and eventually played every sport he could.

In 1936, while a sophomore in Milroy High School, Zwach was the leading scorer on the football team that was undefeated, untied, and unscored upon. He also wrestled in the Minnesota State Wrestling Tournament in 1936 and 1937.

During a time in which Zwach felt the young men of the era were cheated, because they were away fighting in World War II. Zwach felt cheated as well, so gathered up all the men he could find, and put together one of the most fabled teams in Minnesota history, the Milroy Yankees. During his baseball career, Zwach played mostly outfield, but also pitched a two-hitter at the age of forty-six. The high point of his career was managing the 1954 Mythical State Championship team. Perhaps the only bashful moment of Zwach’s career occurred after the Class B Championship game. He was handed a microphone into which he promptly responded, “it’s damn cold and I’ve never talked in one of these damn things in my life.”

Zwach has a love for the game, and at times that seemed to be his top priority. His wife Doris recalls, “we were about to have our first child and the due date was June 1 which was a Sunday, and Bob said that’s the day we play Wanda. It wouldn’t be right on that day would it? Well, no, I said, but of course it was. We went in the night before and were done by about noon, so Bob had enough time and he made it to the game.”

As Milroy baseball went, invariably there was John Dolan Sr. leading the way. John Dolan began playing in 1906 for Lucan, which is seven miles east of Milroy, and did not quit being a baseball man until the day he passed away in 1988. There were many players that John would hear about and he and the Milroy manager would drive up to see him play. Dolan was the eyes, ears, and heart of Milroy baseball. He took care of the ball field, and the concessions stand well into his eighties.

Dolan had a passion for baseball to exist in Milroy and went the extra steps to ensure that it would. According to Bob Zwach, “when you talk Milroy baseball, you talk about John Dolan and Bob Zwach, we were there in the beginning, and we’ll be there in the end.”

Louis Dolan was the first of John Dolan’s seven sons, six of which played baseball for Milroy. He played in Lucan (1930), Seaforth (1931), Wanda (1932-1933), and Marshall (1939) before joining the Milroy team from 1945 to 1953. During this time the Dolan name loomed large in Minnesota. Louis Dolan was the eldest member of the famous all Dolan infield in 1947 and 1948. Louis played second base, Spike was at shortstop, Joe at third base, and Jack at first base, all were brothers.

Louis Dolan remembers, “even during the busy times, when we were thrashing and shocking, my dad used to pitch to us, pretty near every day. A big accomplishment would be to hit the red barn, which was about 350 feet away.” This dedication to the game produced an outstanding baseball family.

Spike Dolan, also one of John Dolan’s boys, was the youngest member of the Dolan infield. Spike played shortstop and became known for his terrific fielding. Dolan played on the state tournament teams from 1947 to 1950, but was drafted into the Korean War in 1952. While in the service he played on a regiment team that once played in a three game series against baseball Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks. He returned home in 1954 and became one of the leaders of the championship team, before eventually managing the team in 1969.

The best of the all Dolan infield was probably Joe Dolan. Joe came back from the service in 1946 and at age twenty-seven became the sparkplug for the Milroy team. Joe was acknowledged by most to be the best athlete of the Dolans. According to Louis Dolan, “Joe was a heckuva athlete, he was just so quick.” During the 1954 state tournament, Joe Dolan knocked out ten hits in fifteen at bats, and became known statewide for his blazing speed. Dolan and his wife, Evelyn, raised thirteen children, including eight boys, all which later played for the Milroy Yankees.

In 1946, as a member of the Seaforth town team, John Kagel played a talented young Milroy team. The impression it left led Kagel to Milroy, where he and his wife, Maureen, bought and operated Kagel’s Grocery from 1948 to 1978. Kagel played for Milroy from 1947 to 1951, managing the team in his last season. Kagel, a catcher for the team, later became treasurer for the baseball organization.

When Reed Lovsness was a young boy he remembered that, “I never owned a bicycle. I put up a square on our machine shed and threw, and threw, day after day. I was pretending that I was in the big leagues, and I was pitching seven innings.”

At age twenty Lovsness, living in rural Cottonwood, had his eye on a brochure for Joe Stripps Baseball School in Orlando, Florida. He took the chance, and that winter took a bus to Florida and participated in the school for the cost of seventy-five dollars. The gamble paid off and Lovsness was signed by the Pittsburgh Major League Baseball Organization for two thousand dollars.

Lovsness played three years of minor league baseball before entering the service. When his father passed away Lovsness decided to retire from Pittsburgh, move back home, and help on the farm. That winter Zwach signed Lovsness, and he played for the Milroy team from 1953 to 1955. Along the way he had eighteen wins and no losses during the 1954 season, including a twenty-strikeout performance in the state championship game. This is still a record today.

Probably the most notable Milroy Yankee of all-time would have to be Rich Kramer. Kramer is said to be the best hitter that Milroy has ever had. The left-handed hitter was a natural. His long fly ball would routinely land behind the wooden fences. Kramer it was said stood at the plate with a total blank look. According to Lovsness:

The pitcher looked in at Rich, and all he saw was a pair of big eyes, a crooked hat, and an easy out, he thought. Rich could hit them long flies that just seemed to keep going. In fact one time in Milroy the other team put an extra guy on the right side of the field (where a left hander like Kramer would hit) for Rich. Then someone in the Milroy crowd yelled that they better put him on the other side of the fence if they want a better chance of catching his ball.

Kramer may have been a natural, but he also was the source of many stories. Bob Zwach was said to carry two extra uniforms in case Kramer forgot something. It was not uncommon for Kramer to bring along two left shoes, wear argyle socks while playing, or even eat his lunch during the game. Spike Dolan recalls, “I was playing shortstop and Rich was in right field that day. And out of the corner of my eye I saw someone walk out into right field. Anyway, the next pitch was thrown and I looked out there (to right field) and saw Rich eating a sandwich in between pitches, funniest thing I ever saw.”

In 1967 an eighth grader named Pat Dolan signed a contract to play for the Milroy Yankees. Although he was only going to play in an emergency, this player would end up being the next in a long line of Dolans to sustain Milroy baseball. Dolan did many things on the field, and yet it was his off-the-field accomplishments that kept the team going. While growing up Pat remembers, “there was always a bat and a ball around, and it just seemed natural to play. Eventually I was able to play with my brothers (on the Milroy team) and that was really nice.” In 1975, Dolan became manager of the Milroy Yankees and would end up playing in four decades before retiring in 1990.

Pat Dolan and the baseball board, which consisted of Larry Zwach, Terry Ousky, Russ Sanow, Kenny Dolan, Jerry Edwards, and Greg Debbaut, put together some of the great fund-raisers that led to the various field improvements during the early 1980’s. One of the improvements that the baseball board made was the addition of lights, which still stand today. The lights added another dimension to Milroy baseball. Games could be played at night, letting the day open for other activities. “I think the lights were a nice draw, they (fans) would see them on at night and come to the field. Now they could go to the lake and come back at night to watch the game.” Said Pat Dolan.

Some of the players that played against Milroy during their careers were Art Marben, Bill Bolin, and Dean Tate. Marben was one of the best players to ever play in southwest Minnesota during the 1940’s. After playing several years of Class A ball, Marben moved to Tracy, Minnesota, where he played many games against Milroy. Bill Bolin came to Tracy in 1957, he also played baseball. “We both really respected Milroy, and I think they respected the teams that played hard. They’ve always had good baseball, they play to win and they play the game right,” recalls Marben. Dean Tate was drafted by Milroy for play-offs one season and remembers the dedication the players had, “It was hell playing in Milroy, they would practice after church, and all during the week.”

A long time local umpire, Sheridan “Shorty” Young, was impressed with the enormous amount of pride Milroy put into their team, “when I did a game in Milroy the whole gang (town) was there, that was entertainment on Sunday. They like their baseball in Milroy, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

Milroy’s baseball fans were notorious for being vocal in the support of the players. Opposing teams knew going into the game that Milroy’s manager Bob Zwach would make sure that the fans were intensely involved. “In fact I remember Bob Zwach before the game setting up a fight [between the two teams players] so the crowd would get into the game,” said Bolin.

Milroy baseball over the years has accumulated a rich and colorful history, built on the men who played, their families, and the town that sustained it.


THE DECLINE OF TOWN TEAM BASEBALL

By the late 1950s the attendance at town team baseball games was starting to decline as modern society caught up with the affordable form of entertainment. Before this time, Sunday baseball was the only thing in town. Television sets had not been readily accessible in the rural portions of the state and traveling long distances was not feasible.

Several different factors led to the declining town team crowds and teams. In 1961 major league baseball reached Minnesota, when the Washington Senators moved in state and became the Minnesota Twins. People were able to go further from home for entertainment, and recreation. Television sets were becoming commonplace in every home and now the family could watch games without leaving the house. Their idols changed to Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline, instead of the hometown sluggers.

Amateur baseball had lost its place in society. Today entertainment can be found anytime, and in anyplace. Town team baseball did not lose its following because of one specific thing. It lost out because of the variety of recreation options available. This is a story that is echoed all over rural Minnesota.


THE SURVIVAL OF BASEBALL IN MILROY

To this day, Milroy still has town team baseball, and as recently as 1994 participated in the State Amateur Baseball Tournament championship game, exactly 40 years since the Mythical State Title. Somehow Milroy has been able to support its team through the down years of town team ball and actually continue to hold a strong base of support.

When asked what has kept baseball in Milroy going, the former ball players gave a variety of answers, but they all pointed to tradition. The game has been passed on from one generation to the next without missing a beat. Milroy had had three constants throughout the years: an organizer, community support, and family.

Every player stated that John Dolan was Milroy’s biggest organizer. “I think he made each of them [his sons] take a vow that we were going to promote baseball and always have a team,” said John Kagel. Milroy has since passed on the role of organizer from one generation to the next, with someone always willing to take over.

The community support in Milroy has attracted players from many neighboring towns. “In Milroy they have people who are dedicated to baseball. It’s an honor to play for Milroy, it’s not a job. And the community is proud of it,” stated Dean Tate. When a job needs to be done at the field, the people come and help. “They aren’t afraid to work, they grab a shovel, they take tickets. They don’t have to wait for someone else to do something, they say let’s do it,” according the Shorty Young.

The Dolan family is long-lived in Milroy baseball folklore. That is where baseball began in Milroy and continues today. Baseball has always been a family tradition in Milroy, and there have been as many as five Dolans on virtually every team. According to Art Marben, “It’s a family tradition. The Dolans have always been talked about as a baseball family, they were all expected to play.”

The tradition was established long ago, by the first organizers, the community supporters, and families that loved baseball, and that is what makes baseball in Milroy continue today.