".....for Cokato, Anderson and Calgren. Play Ball!"
by Gordon W. Nelson
It could be any Sunday afternoon from May through August during the golden era of Cokato "town team" baseball from 1933 through 1939.
The locale for today's game is Legion Park, arguable the finest baseball facility in this part of the state, certainly among the very few with a grass infield and sunken dugouts. So what if left field slopes slightly away from the infield toward the tennis court. Credit and a sense of deep appreciation should go to Luther "Fisk" Peterson for the countless hours he spends each summer maintaining this community asset.
Preparation for today's game likely began on Friday when Bud Sandholm and Aldine Bengston hand-moved the grass for a total of $3.00. On Saturday, Fisk and I carried several buckets of water from Brooks Lake for the purpose of hardening the pitcher's mound and homeplate area. Also, the base lines extending to the fence were given a new coating of lime.
Arriving for the pre-game practice, Barney Mikkelson is in a rather foul mood for having again been awakened at seven from the golf course banter of Charlie Kleist, Bill Kreinbring and Victor Titrud as the threesome played out Lakeside's sixth hole whose green was situated no more than seventy-five feet from Lena Hammerlund's cottage which Barney rented for the summers.
Spectators are arriving through the tennis court entrance where Sam Redmond and Walter Hybbert are collecting the 25 cent admission charge
Getting to the park early was vital in order to secure the more favorable parking positions behind the fence down the base lines. Clamorous honking of the car horns will acknowledge great plays and encourage any needed late inning rally.
As game time approaches, Charlie Illstrup, Pete Holmberg and other residents of Brooks Lake Road are ensconcing themselves in lawn chairs as non-paying viewers on Hjalmer Anderson's back yard. And Tim Wicker, known for his interest in the game, but also for his fiery temper, is taking his place in the grandstand behind homeplate. There will be no derisive remarks for any misplay at third base by his son, Dennis, at least not within his hearing range.
The aroma of freshly popped corn from Wally Peterson's refreshment stand is starting to permeate the park as his son, Fisk, completes the last remaining task---smoothing the infield dirt by dragging a piece of carpet behind this Model A Ford. It is now 2:30 as the one and only umpire walks out to homeplate, turns to the grandstand, and (assuming today's opponent is our good neighbor to the east) announces to all: "batteries for today's game: for Howard Lake, Zander and Justus; for Cokato, Anderson and Calgren. Play ball!"
In 1933 Cokato joined the Wright County League which would thereafter be comprised of Maple Lake, Monticello, Delano, Waverly, Howard Lake and additional towns at different times and for various durations. Among these were Dassel, Darwin, Kingston, Kimball, Forest City, Annan-dale, Watertown and even Litchfield.
The preceding year marked the arrival of Harold Anderson has high school teacher and athletic coach. Andy, as he was known by all, left the St. Louis Cardinals in 1926 over a salary dispute with the team's general manager, Branch Rickey, who will forever be renowned for introducing the first Afro-American, Jackie Robinson, to major league baseball. At the age of thirty-two, Andy was among the best pitchers in the state, possessing a hard fastball, excellent curve and pin-point control.
Catching him was Clay Calgren, one of Cokato's and Macalester College's all-time great athletes. He and his twin brother, Cliff, likewise a talented athlete until seriously injured in an automobile accident in the mid-thirties, were known for their aggressive style of play. In those first years Andy and Clay received for each game $5.00 and $2.00 respectively, later to be increased for $10.00 and $5.00.
The remainder of the line-up for the 1933 opener, as I recall, included Barney Mikkelson, an awesome hitter, at first base, Carleton Breitholtz at second, Douglas Forsberg at third and Fisk Peterson at shortstop. Fisk was an exceptional fielder and content to merely hit singles for a high batting average using what was called a "bottle bat" shaped with a thin handle and thick, non-tapered barrel.
Playing left field was likely "Tang" Tanglin, a Hopkins school teacher who identified himself with Cokato by virtue of his marriage to a local Osterberg girl.
Shortly thereafter Russ Rustad played center field for one year before enlisting in the navy. Taking over the position was Wayne Larson who was to become the premier outfielder in the league. Clinton "Coot" Rustad become a valuable addition in left field as did his brother, Stan, at third base. Others preceding Stan at third were Ole Comer and Dennis Wicker. After Fisk moved to the second base position, shortstop was played by Donald Johnson and Alden Burkstrand, both of whom distinguished themselves as members of their college teams.
The original uniforms as well as their replacements were pin-striped with the name of the donor appearing on the back of the shirt, bearing the name, Leader Department Store.
Records will confirm the team was the most consistent winner and would, unquestionably, have been totally dominating had it done what several other teams did—hire one or the limit of two non-residents. Maple Lake hired players such as Louie Borman (former Cokatoite), Engelhardt and Salmonson, Waverly--Sowboda, Lopata and Keating. The classic example of this practice was Darwin's recruitment of Phil Gallivan, the St. Paul native, who one Sunday pitched for the Chicago White Sox in Comiskey Park and upon his release, pitched the following Sunday in what was likely the poorest playing field anywhere.
A few notable remembrances from this period were Barney's prodigious home run into the open field beyond the ice house road, Coot Rustad's vicious line drive that struck Delano pitcher Buzz Bernick, ending any aspiration of a professional career, and Andy's double-header shutouts of Kimball with the temp at 100 degrees.
One other incident never to be forgotten was Clay's "spiking" of Kingston first baseman, Don Waataja. For those unfamiliar with the term spiking, it means stepping on one's Achilles' tendon with the normally sharp cleats. The Kingston fans remembered well that provocation and exacted their retribution on Cokato's next visit which coincided with the celebration of their annual Harvest Festival. It was a frightening experience to witness empty beer bottles being hurled at Cokato players. Andy vowed to never again play there.
In December 1939 Andy submitted his resignation as a member of the school faculty and moved to Wheaton. Succeeding him on the mound the following year was Leonard Lillianthal who had recently moved to Cokato and was a good pitcher in his own right. But the announcement, "Lillianthal and Calgren, play ball" never evoked the same emotion. This colorful chapter of Cokato history had essentially ended.
P.S. Sincere apologies for inaccuracies, mis-spellings and the failure to include the many other participants who contributed to the success of the team during these years.
(Gordon Nelson is a Cokato native, long-time historical society member, and a previous contributor to In The Midst Of. He also loves baseball.)
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of In The Midst Of. ©1998, Cokato Historical Society.