History and local baesball collided in Slayton on Friday
SLAYTON – Dozens of baseball fans and local history buffs came out to the Murray County Fairgrounds to attend a presentation about the first Night League Baseball Teams in southwest Minnesota. Former fans and a few players recollected some of their favorite pastimes of southwest Minnesota’s town ball glory days. Mike Springman, son of night league player Clair Springman, gave a presentation Friday afternoon about the region’s storied baseball history.
“Baseball has been around in Minnesota almost since baseball was invented,” Springman said. The first Minnesota town team was established in the now defunct Nininger City (near present-day Hastings) in 1857. By the 1880s many rural Minnesota towns had teams and in its most popular days, Minnesota had nearly 800 town ball teams, he said.
But the hay-day, Springman said, for town ball in southwest Minnesota, occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the return of young men from WWII, the inception of lighted ball fields and the state’s first night league.
“Small towns wanted semi-pro baseball,” Springman said. “The first night league brought an expanded schedule, more games and a higher level of play to satisfy fans’ desire for better baseball.” But the lure of fame and fortune was too much for some small towns that spent thousands of dollars on fields and player salaries for teams that no longer exist.
Night league was appealing in the middle of the 20th century because the game was usually only played on weekends and during the day. Farmers and laborers spent the day-light hours working, but with the conception of lighted ball fields, more people were able to watch and play games in the evening.
Southwest Minnesota’s first night league was started in 1949 and the inaugural teams included Iona, Marshall, Pipestone, Slayton, Wilmont and Worthington. Fulda joined the league the following year after the community passed a bonding bill to pay for a lighted field.
Fulda’s “Mr. Baseball,” Dick Reusse, promoted the team by placing Wall-Drug-like signs on major roads leading to town. One such sign outside of Omaha, Nebraska, read “200 Miles to the Home of the Fulda Giants – The Baseball Capital of the World.” Fulda also touted itself as being “the only ballpark in Minnesota sprayed for mosquitoes.”
Towns strived to have the best teams possible, Springman said. Managers would recruit players from all across the U.S., even though league rules stated that a team’s majority of players had to be local. Promoters skirted this rule, Springman said, by getting players local jobs and local housing along with payment for playing. Some players would get $20 a game; other teams paid between $200 an $500 a month. Fulda reportedly paid a famous recruit, Hilton Smith, $1,000 a month.
Iona was a little more thrifty with its spending early on. The team got its grandstand from an unused field north of Lake Shetek and asked local farmers for their unused windmills, which they outfitted with lights.
But after 1951 and spending more than $4,000 a month on player salaries, Iona had overextended itself and had to disband the team. The grandstand was once again dismantled and the windmill light towers were sold to a team in Sacred Heart.
Springman said that other forms of entertainment like television, movie theaters and weekends at the lake started to rise in accessibility and popularity, causing a diminished interest in baseball. Towns that had overspent on their nearly-pro-teams were hit hard and Minnesota’s first night league disbanded in 1956.
“The end came about because of unstable teams, and by 1956 there was just not enough towns, players and funds to keep going,” Springman said.
But fans can still relive town ball’s glory days at a new exhibit at the Murray County Museum. Along with Springman’s stories, the museum has collected numerous accounts and artifacts from local ballplayers. And Murray County baseball fans can still root for their remaining team in Minnesota’s current league, the Hadley Buttermakers.