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The early days of baseball in Beltrami County

Since the early days of Beltrami County, baseball has been a favorite summer pastime for family get-togethers, county fairs, small-town rivalries and other celebrations.

Kelliher baseball vs Red Lake, 1916.jpg
Kelliher plays against the Red Lake baseball team in 1916.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society
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Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on  a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area.  For more information about the Historical Society, visit  www.beltramihistory.org.

Since the early days of Beltrami County, baseball has been a favorite summer pastime for family get-togethers, county fairs, small-town rivalries and other celebrations.

The lure of a neighborhood baseball game could entice farm kids to finish chores early to fit in a game before dark. A makeshift diamond might have a barn as a backstop and stumps for bases.

Merchants and farmers from one community often challenged merchants from another community to a friendly exhibition game. Firemen groups held regular competitions with baseball often a part of the matchups.

Bemidji baseball team, 1905.jpg
A Bemidji baseball team is pictured in 1905.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

Small town teams and leagues were formed, and baseball was everywhere. Thanks to local newspapers and a few sports historians in the area, several area baseball stories have been preserved for posterity.

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In a story by Pat (McQuoid) Hanson in the Corman Township Centennial, 1902-2002, Hanson describes a “thrilling Sunday when we played the kids from Saum.” Lucille Dingman wrote, “Babe and Casey from the Firman team made some good plays … at Tom McQuoid’s field with Firman winning 19-12.”

The first mention of baseball in the Bemidji Pioneer — an invitation to help build a ball field — appeared on May 7, 1896: “All those interested in the welfare of the Bemidji baseball nine are requested to meet at the grounds next Saturday morning. Have your shovel and ax with you.”

Baseball park Kelliher 1912.jpg
The Kelliher baseball park is pictured in 1912.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

On May 3, 1904, the Pioneer introduced one of the earliest sponsored teams: Schneider's Bemidji, “made up of all home talent and (with) promise of being a very fast bunch.” Schneider Bros., a clothing store, outfitted and managed the team. Schneider ads in the Pioneer promised: “Baseball and bat, free with each boys suit.”

In "Blackduck’s First Hundred Years," Dwight Kalvig wrote: “Baseball in Blackduck has been embraced by our community throughout our history … The Blackduck American reported baseball being played as early as 1903.” The American, The Bemidji Pioneer, and other local papers of the time, often reported scores with colorful descriptions of games.

“By the early 1920s,” Kalvig wrote, “Blackduck officially joined the Northern Minnesota League, which included Cass Lake, Walker, Bemidji, Kelliher and Bagley.”

The Blackduck Tigers became part of the Land O’ Lakes League in 1930. Kalvig reports: “The championship game of 1932 featured Blackduck vs. Red Lake. The game ended in a 4-4 tie due to the 6:00 Sunday curfew law in Blackduck.”

Blackduck first baseball team.jpg
Blackduck's first baseball team is pictured around 1901 or 1902.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

Also in "Blackduck’s First Hundred Years," Ernie Crippen acknowledged a hometown hero, Willard Anderson, who played for Blackduck High School and for Blackduck’s Jr. American Legion Team in the 1937 and 1938 State Tournaments. The team finished second at state to a Minneapolis team.

Anderson signed on with the St. Louis Cardinals, went to Albany, Ga., for spring training, then played for the Duluth Dukes and for a Rochester, N.Y., team before he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World Ward II, ending his major league career.

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"Hagali History," a 100th anniversary book, described an early baseball field, which was “cleared off on land owned by Halvor O. Tronnes” and used by the Buzzle Township team.

Playing ball

In 1922-23, the Pinewood team played against Red Lake, Bemidji, Solway, Bagley and Leonard.

Just getting to a game was a challenge. For a Fourth of July celebration at Debs, the team went on foot or by team and wagon, then on to Leonard for another game and back to Pinewood, walking along the railroad tracks.

Sometimes an old Model T Ford was available and occasionally a few players splurged to ride the Soo Line.

Kelliher’s publication, "Down a Long Road: Kelliher Community’s 100-Year Journey," describes early to mid-century baseball in the east-most parts of Beltrami County: “We had no parks or real playgrounds but we played baseball and never could beat the Saum kids.”

Saum baseball team, 1935-37.jpg
The Saum baseball team is pictured around 1935-37.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

In that centennial publication, John Hand shared memories about playing league baseball: “Every Sunday afternoon we’d go in to Kelliher for ball games … the social event of the week.”

Benefit dances were held to support teams, to build fields and sometimes to help with medical expenses incurred on the field. Like one in the 1950s “at the Kelliher Auditorium … for Dick Skinner, who suffered injuries while playing in the All-Star game at Blackduck, … to help him in taking care of the doctor bill and to compensate him for the time he has lost on his farm by not being able to work.” Skinner was a key player for Kelliher for over 20 years.

Kelliher baseball team, 1917.jpg
The Kelliher baseball team is pictured in 1917.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

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Community competition

Some of the most enthusiastic and competitive teams from the 1910s to the 1960s came from Carr Lake, where the Fenske brothers played. Ed Fenske later recorded the history of the community’s teams, including rosters and color commentary about the teams and players.

Fenske said the Nary team was Carr Lake’s main rival in the 1920s, followed by the Nymore team in the 1930s.

Carr Lake baseball team.jpeg
Members of the championship Carr Lake ball club are pictured in 1959 from left, in back: Manager Ed Fenske, Bill Schultz, Harold Moen, Jerry Johnson, Pete Barthelemy, Terry Nelson, Harold Fenske, Bill Bleth, business manager Walk Fenske. Front row: George Carter, Gail Dow, Fred Swenson, Sid Nelson, Bob Fenske, Don Miller, Dale Lauderbaugh. Not pictured: Bill Collard and Jerry Moen.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society
Red Lake Ojibwe baseball team.jpg
The Red Lake Ojibwe team is pictured in this undated photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

“After WWII, Red Lake and Carr Lake became arch rivals,” Fenske wrote. “Carr Lake played teams from the Canadian border south to Hubbard and Perham, east to Cass Lake and west as far as Ada.”

Players often played for more than one team, sometimes for sport and sometimes to even the odds. In one game against Becida, Fenske wrote, “Becida catcher, Petrie, had to run home for something and had a flat tire getting back so I was loaned to Becida to catch two innings.”

In a school game, “Jack Boyer and I played under assumed grade school names because we were in high school," he wrote. "The Nary coach recognized me but to no avail. We won! The next week, we showed up at Nary and soothed their feelings by playing on their team. Nary won the game!”

Nymore baseball team, summer 1932.jpg
The Nymore baseball team is pictured in the summer of 1932.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

Many of Fenske’s recollections reflect the casual fun of the game: “My good friend, Buster Gunsalus, had a hunting dog that could find foul balls in the woods behind left field. We would get Buster’s goat by telling him the dog was a better left fielder than he was.”

Walter and Edwin Fenske helped keep Carr Lake baseball alive for decades. Eventually, Nymore and Carr Lake players were absorbed into Bemidji teams.

Fenske reminisced: “No longer the hurry after church to go to the ball game. No longer are evening milking chores delayed because of a long game and a long ride home from a distant opponent’s field. The diamond grows into weeds, the stands are falling down. Only nostalgic memories of many hard-fought games linger on.”

Complete stories from which quotes were taken can be found at the Beltrami County History Center. Names are welcomed for any unidentified people in photos.

Baseball grandstand, Kelliher.jpg
The Kelliher baseball grandstand is pictured in this undated photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society
Wilton Baseball team.jpg
The Wilton baseball team is pictured in this undated historical photo.
Courtesy / Beltrami County Historical Society

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