NISSWA, Minn. — When Scott “Mike” Thurlow started the free Thurlow T-ball program in Nisswa nearly 50 years ago, he likely never imagined the program would continue long after he was gone, or that his three daughters would be responsible for the program’s continuity.
Thurlow started the program in the town north of Brainerd in 1970, long before daughters Maggie, Jackie and Lizzy were born. He bought about $100 worth of equipment — flimsy bases, bats, tees, balls and a few gloves for kids who might need them.
Those same bats, tees and balls have been used every summer ever since, including in the season that wrapped up July 11 at Nisswa City Park under Coach Maggie Thurlow, 28.
“This is what we grew up doing in our life and what our parents instilled in us - serving the community,” Maggie said as the reason the three sisters and their mom, Mimi Thurlow, continue to run the program for kids ages 2-8 each summer.
“It’s about the idea of keeping the honor of dad - to keep that tradition alive, be respectful to him and keep his legacy alive,” Jackie, 26, agreed. “If that meant still running the program he started when he was our age - why not? He gave so much, it’d be so hard to see the program diminish.”
And Lizzy, 22, said: “My reason is my dad. When he first started T-ball he wanted it to be a program for kids to come and for kids to connect and learn the basics. He made it available for all families. That’s what drives me to this day — growing up being in three different sports and seeing how expensive that was.”
Thurlow T-ball has always been offered for an hour one night a week during summer for free to any parents who want to bring their children to learn the basics of playing ball, including how to hold and swing a bat, how to run the bases and how to field a ball.
In the process, these youngsters learn about sharing and leadership.
And there’s no pressure for kids to attend every week; there’s no registration or fees. They can show up whenever their families’ schedules allow.
The program has remained basically the same since Mike Thurlow — who died unexpectedly in January 2007 at age 64 — started it.
“I remember this was my dad’s passion. Everyone knew Thurlow T-ball was his thing,” Lizzy said, recalling how the family would load her dad’s little Ford Escort with T-ball equipment, the girls would pile into the back seat, and then they’d unload everything at the park.
“My favorite experience was, if there weren’t many kids I could be part of the game,” Lizzy said. “Otherwise my dad needed my help coaching.”
At the last session July 11 at Nisswa City Park, most parents sat in the shade along the first baseline near the dugout while others stood near the pitcher’s mound to encourage the kids fielding balls. When a ball was hit, players in the field swarmed toward it, tumbling over each other to be the one to come up with the ball.
After hitting the ball, kids were told to drop the bat and run — hopefully down the first baseline. Most youngsters did just that with encouragement, or with mom or dad holding their hand along the way.
Maggie kept everyone organized, consulting a yellow notepad to announce whose turn it was to bat and at one point sweetly telling a girl playing in the sand near home plate, “Hey, you’re supposed to be in the outfield.”
The coach gave high fives to kids crossing home plate, telling them, “Good job.” She also encouraged batters: “Run, run, run. Put down your bat … Go, go, go, go. Drop your bat.”
Some parents who brought their young kids had participated in Thurlow T-ball when they were young.
“It’s a family tradition,” said Danae Blanck Anderson. “That they continued it when their dad passed away is nice.”
Tabitha Cutkay, the Thurlow girls’ cousin, also played as a youngster with Uncle Mike and now brings her three children.
Lizzy said it’s enlightening to watch the young players learn skills week to week. She taught a young player how to field a ground ball, and Maggie helped a boy hold a bat and connect with the ball.
“He lit up,” Lizzy said.
Back when Thurlow T-ball involved the whole family, Mike coached ages 6-8, Mimi and Jackie handled ages 4-5 and Maggie took kids 3 and under. Maggie started her T-ball coaching at age 9 with her dad.
The Thurlow family has more than Mike’s original T-ball equipment as a memory. They have the notepads he kept in his car with kids’ names and scores from T-ball games.
The Thurlow sisters and their mom plan to celebrate the 50th year of Thurlow T-ball next summer.
“Back when he was our age, he had the drive and motivation to give back and try something he loved. He was willing to start a free program,” Jackie said of her dad. “We understand it’s something that needs to happen so we’ll take turns stepping up. No matter what it takes, we’ll give back to the Nisswa community. It’s an area that helped raise us.”
“He Instilled that motivation and passion in all us girls growing up, the drive to impact Nisswa in any way he could,” Lizzy said, noting her dad wanted to impact the community while helping make community members a little bit healthier as well.
After the last at-bat of 2019, the young players huddled with all hands in and shouted “T-ball” before gathering around Coach Maggie, who doled out freeze pops to end another year of Thurlow T-ball.
“My biggest goal is having the opportunity to someday have my own children doing this and keeping the legacy going,” Maggie said.