Living with Babe’s memory

The 1993 film, “The Sandlot” is a humorous coming-of-age story about a group of boys learning life lessons playing pickup baseball games on a sandlot in Los Angeles. Through a series of misjudgments, a Babe Ruth autographed ball ends up in the yard of a fierce dog. That night, Babe appears to protagonist Benny Rodriquez in a dream, encouraging him to be a hero, face the “Beast,” and retrieve the ball.

I thought about that in October when I found myself living with Babe’s memory. He never did appear in a dream though.

Twenty-five years ago, some friends decided that Ruth’s visit to Sleepy Eye on Oct. 16, 1922, deserved attention. It was a stop on a barnstorming tour by Ruth and Yankee teammate Bob Meusel following the World Series. We began gathering on that date at the actual ballpark where Babe played, a rarity a century later.

Some years we promoted it, and a couple dozen people grilled hot dogs and chased our kids around. Other years, it was few of us having a beer in the grandstand at night after a day of farm work.

A few years ago, we could see the hundredth anniversary coming up. There are more important things in the world, global hunger and climate change come to mind. But having a fun commemoration didn’t seem like the dumbest idea. Dean Brinkman and I began assembling our “Babeophiles” to see what we could pull off.

Early, we met with Christina Andres, the chamber director. This would fit nicely with the 150th Anniversary of Sleepy Eye. Soon the Chamber and city were on board. Kurk Kramer from the EDA helped raise funds for a historic plaque. Brandon Streich was a contact with the Baseball Association. The owners of the Coffee Shop/Brewery and manager David Forster were excited to join. There were others, “too numerous to mention,” who took a piece of it.

Last spring, Dean and I met with Stew Thornley. Stew is a writer, Twins scorekeeper, and Minnesota sports historian. A few years ago, he came to a townball game in Sleepy Eye wanting to see the ballpark where Ruth played. Stew was glad to be part of our day.

Sue Nelson, Twins organist who was a Nicollet farm girl, has gotten to know us. We are part of her “Sleepy Eye boys” who visit with her at Target Field. She’s a Minnesota treasure and an incredibly sweet person. Sue became a headliner at the ballpark and at the Brewery.

David had worked in public relations out East before moving back to town with his family. He volunteered to do some publicity. It turned out David knew what he was doing, and our little event got lots of attention.

Newspapers statewide had our story. Christina and I were part of the Twins radio pregame show. Scott Surprenant and I did a WCCO Radio interview, part of their One Tank Trip series. KEYC-TV did a story with Christina, Tom Larson, and “Ryan” Krzmarzick.

Those were in addition to being on SAM 107 and in the Journal, Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch, and Mankato Free Press. For a guy who doesn’t get off the farm much, it was a lot. I joked to friends that I’d become a media whore.

Pat Reusse, Star Tribune columnist and small-town baseball aficionado got in touch. He was going to be in southern Minnesota as part of a birthday tour; Pat grew up in Fulda. He wanted to visit Sleepy Eye the Thursday before our celebration.

In the morning, the Babeophiles and other baseball nuts met with Pat in the grandstand. It spun into a fun conversation about baseball and small-town life.

Patrick had asked if any Western Minny players were still around. That semipro league attracted crowds in the thousands to games in Brown County after World War II. The league folded in 1956, so players are sparse. I assembled what I called my Old Guy Committee of men who remembered the Western Minny as kids and baseball in the Fifties and Sixties. (Sorry fellows, I should have called you my Mature Gentlemen Committee.)

That afternoon, Lefty Reynolds, Leon Tauer, Chisey Hanson, Larry Heiderschiedt, and Tom Hirsch gathered around a table at the Pix with Reusse. Soon they were off, telling stories about games and characters from sixty years ago. There was much laughter, some disputes about who was on third that one inning, and camaraderie among men who grew up in a similar time. Reusse enjoyed it, and bits of his day in Sleepy Eye appeared in three columns.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of our celebration. I hoped whoever came would have a little fun. We were fortunate to have pleasant weather after a week of cold and wind. There were a couple hundred-plus at the ballpark and a hundred for a program later at the Brewery.

Dean had asked his friend Dana Kiecker if he would pitch to would-be Babe Ruths. Dana is the only major leaguer born in Sleepy Eye. He grew up in Fairfax, but we claimed him this day. Dana was amazing, pitching to young, old, boy, girl, athlete, couch-potato. For little kids, he was on his knees tossing underhanded. For current ballplayers he could still bring it from the mound.

With a field full of shaggers and others playing catch, it was a joy-filled scene. Behind the cage, others had a 1919 root beer or a 2022 Grain Belt, standing around talking all things baseball. You could get your picture taken with a life-size Babe-in-Sleepy-Eye sign. Sue provided music. The high school band played, as they had 100 years ago. The mayor welcomed the crowd, as he had in 1922, Mayor Fialka then, Mayor Pelzel now.

If you were there, you know that it was also very much a day to remember Dean Brinkman, who we lost tragically September 5th. Brian Sieve marshalled friends to get a sign made with Dean’s number to go on the outfield fence. At the park and uptown, there were heartfelt remembrances of a great ballplayer and even better person.

A beautiful coda to this occurred the next week. Mike Max and a photographer from WCCO-TV were at the ballpark. Mike was another friend of Dean’s; there were many. He prepared a report that would appear on the 6:00 news the next week.

Word went out one day to watch for that. I was combining corn. I found a feed from WCCO on my phone. When “Maxie’s” story came on, I stopped the combine to watch. It was a well-done, with fun film from that day. It was also a tribute to Mike’s friend Dean, including a touching interview with Sandy Brinkman in the dugout.

As it concluded, I looked up from my phone to see a rainbow right in front of me in the east sky. It was a surprise and stunning. I smiled, while tears formed in my eyes. The rainbow was perfect.


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