BLAST FROM THE PAST: Des Moines River “Rats” had fun playing fast-pitch softballWESTBROOK — They gathered once again last Monday at the Westbrook Community Center to reminisce about the “good old days” when they were young farmers who spent many a summer evening playing ball — fast-pitch softball that is — at various fields throughout eastern Murray and western Cottonwood Counties.
By: Les Knutson, Worthington Daily Globe
WESTBROOK — They gathered once again last Monday at the Westbrook Community Center to reminisce about the “good old days” when they were young farmers who spent many a summer evening playing ball — fast-pitch softball that is — at various fields throughout eastern Murray and western Cottonwood Counties.
Sitting around the table were John Jans, LaVerne “Butch” Soll, Jim Bloch, Don Hansen, Henry “Heinie” Magnus, Duane Jans, Vernell “Mike” Kuehl and Robert “Buster” Chapman.
While some of the talk was about modern changes like car locks, hidden batteries and hidden — or no — spare tires, there were more stories about putting the chains on the “old pickup” and plowing through snowdrifts and about the fun they all had together playing fast-pitch softball, roller skating, square dancing and eating watermelon.
“We were an active bunch,” declared Duane Jans, a 1952 Fulda High School graduate, who played on an undefeated Raiders’ eight-man football team as a junior in the fall of 1950. “We created lots of great memories which we will never forget.”
“We just had so much fun playing softball together,” summed up Magnus, who pitched for a number of fast-pitch teams in the decades of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s — even a bit into the ‘70s — including stints with rival Avoca.
“We thought we were pretty good,” recalled Kuehl, who has a trio of grandsons — Stuart and Blake Rogers, along with Lucas Henning — who are each fine Worthington athletes. “Then we would go to Avoca and get beat.”
“They (Avoca) always had their own umpires,” chimed in Chapman, to the good-natured laughs of the others.
Yes, eight members of the Des Moines River Township fast-pitch softball team — which enjoyed much success on the diamond — were recounting their days growing up as farm kids in eastern Murray County in the area southwest of Westbrook, east of Avoca and northeast of Fulda.
“We worked hard all year long, especially in the summer,” remembered Duane Jans. “After doing chores, scooping manure, shelling corn and baling hay — football practice seemed easy.”
The Des Moines River
Originating farther north at Lake Shetek, the Des Moines River winds its way south and east all the way to Keokuk, Iowa before it empties its waters into the Mississippi.
In the rural township named after it, the river was a long time division line.
“At one time, that Des Moines was kind of like the Berlin Wall,” chuckled Duane Jans. “Nobody much crossed it. My speculation is that the threshing machine steam engines couldn’t get across any of the bridges and so for a long time, the river was a dividing line between two sides of the township.”
But, playing ball — first, baseball — got some of the future long-time friends together.
“We started out, back in 1949, playing baseball in G.W. Anderson’s pasture along Highway 6, which came east out of Avoca,” recalled Bloch, who graduated from Westbrook High School in 1954 and became the pitching ace for the “Rats” during many of their fast-pitch softball games, including the 1955 Westbrook League championship game.
“After a few years, we started playing more softball at the Pete Bass farm, which was a mile north of where he had been playing,” recapped Bloch about the team’s beginning. “I know that we played in a lot of leagues and a lot of tournaments.”
The Rats played in tournaments at Breezy Point (north of Currie) and in places like Lucan and Lake Wilson, but most of their playing was closer to Des Moines River Township — like Westbrook, Dovray, Currie, Avoca and Dundee.
1955 Westbrook City League Champions, 150 cars bring fans to game
A story in the Westbrook Sentinel from August of 1955 sums up that summer’s league playoff:
“Des Moines Wins Softball Title,” ran the headline.
“Pitcher Jim Bloch Throws One-Hitter,” was the sub head.
The brief game story followed:
“Lefty Jim Bloch pitched his team to the championship of the 1955 Men’s Softball Playoff. In his greatest game of the season, he struck out 13 of the opposing American Lutheran hitters. The score was 4-0.
Des Moines River scored their first two runs on a home run by big Duane Jans, who also had two other hits to lead his team at the plate.
The American Lutheran players showed their usual hustle in the field, but were unable to meet the ball squarely at the plate.
The preliminary game (third place?) was an easy victory for the American Legion team, beating St. Olaf by a score of 18 to 6.
The crowd for the Monday night game came in 150 cars — a record count for the year.
This closes a successful season of recreational softball. The community recreational committee wishes to express their greatest appreciation and thanks to the six teams and their managers for a cooperative and enjoyable season.
They also wish to thank the four great umpires; Harold Olson, Dick Anderson, Sherm Eckhardt and Emil Sell — these men made the program as smooth running and successful as it was.”
That article was topped by the picture which accompanies this feature.
Bloch told a few stories about some of the tough hitters he faced during league and tournament competition, including American Lutheran sluggers like the Gertner brothers — Darwin and Willis (the team’s pitcher) — Ron Comnick, Leon Mischke and Ed Huls.
“Ed Huls was really a long-ball hitter,” exclaimed Bloch. “In ’55, he had just come out of the service and was slugging lots of home runs, including several off of me. But in the championship game, I had good stuff that night and was able to strike him out three times.”
Bloch’s strikeout pitch was a rising fastball with a bit of a twist.
“When it (his best pitch) was on, it started low and finished high with a bit of backhand spin,” summed up Bloch. “The pitch had some speed and a bit of a twist and a lot of hitters would swing underneath it.”
Bloch also referred to some of the outstanding hitters who played for Rose Hill Township, their neighbors — across the county line — to the east in Cottonwood.
“Rose Hill had guys like Ray Burns, Walter Bloch, Floyd Grunig, Bill Eichner and Elmer ‘Beetle’ Brandt,” he recalled. “There were just a lot of good players back in those days.”
The River Rats included brother combinations
Duane Jans and Mike Kuehl did most of the catching for the “Rats,” while Bud Kuehl was a fixture at third base.
Hansen, who graduated from Heron Lake High School in 1952, played some shortstop for the Rats, while Chapman — who was a master at opposite-field hitting — played in the outfield, along with Kenny Jans and Stanley “Shorty” Jans, as four Jans’ brothers played on the team for several seasons.
“Shorty was quite a basketball player in high school, too,” recalled Duane Jans about his younger brother. “He scored 43 points one game during his senior year in 1954, which was the Fulda school record until Arvid Kramer broke in the 70s.”
Mike Kuehl, who never used a mask when he was catching, missed the 1955 season, but returned to play with the team later in the decade.
“I was working for the government (the U.S. Army),” joked Kuehl about missing the ’55 season.
“That was true of a lot of us,” recalled John Jans. “Most of us all missed a couple of seasons while serving in the military, including some guys who fought in the Korean War.”
When they were not in the military, it was not uncommon that there were four Jans’, two Bloch’s (Jim’s younger brother, Bob, started playing at age 13 in 1955) and at least two Kuehl’s on the Des Moines River roster.
“It was kind of a family thing there for many of the summers,” summed up John Jans. “It was neat playing with three of my brothers. My oldest brother, Alvin, was our umpire when we first starting playing pickup games in the pastures.”
Bob Bloch, who as a junior played for Storden High School’s 1959 District 7 championship baseball team and later played with several highly-successful Westbrook amateur baseball teams in the 1960s, got his start — at a young age — playing with the Rats.
“Bob was a very good athlete and was able to play at a high level when he was just 13,” recalled Jim Bloch. “He was a good baseball player in high school and later was invited back to the second day of a Minnesota Twins’ tryout camp.”
Magnus joins Rats, pitches in ’62 title game
So how did the Rats get Magnus — Avoca’s long-time ace — to join the team?
“We had better watermelon,” joked Duane Jans about luring Magnus to the Des Moines River squad.
Driving north to the Log Cabin in Dovray to enjoy some post-game watermelons was a ritual enjoyed by the Rats, but pitching softball was a stronger attraction for Magnus.
Starting at age 15 and pitching until 45, Magnus played fast-pitch softball for a full 30 years.
“I just loved playing softball,” Magnus exclaimed. “I would rather play softball than eat.”
After serving in the U.S. Army’s air defense program in the Boston area (1951-53) and pitching softball while stationed there, Magnus returned to live in Des Moines River Township and renewed some friendships.
“I was good friends with Bud Kuehl,” he said. “Bud and his wife Faye used to go square dancing with my wife Marlene and myself.
“Jim Bloch was injured and the Rats needed a pitcher. So, Bud convinced me to come over and play with them. When Jim recovered, we took turns doing the pitching.”
Magnus, who usually pitched without a glove, preferred throwing against the wind.
“I could locate the ball better, pitching into the wind,” he explained. “My drop ball worked better. I didn’t like wearing a glove because it seemed to throw me off balance.”
What about fielding the ball?
“I could field about anything that came my way,” he recalled. “I had some trouble with pop ups because of the spin, so I would much rather have a line drive come right at me — I could catch those bare-handed.”
No catcher’s masks, no pitcher’s gloves, no cash for playing — just the love of the game and the camaraderie of each other.
“We created our own recreation in those days,” summed up Duane Jans. “We had to get our work done first, but playing ball was what we loved to do.”
Jans remembers many times how quickly he scurried after putting the hay baler away.
“More than once, I backed the baler into the shed and in 20 minutes, I was playing softball.
“There wasn’t much time for showers,” chimed someone.
“I remember many times that I played a game, went home to milk the cows and then went back to the field for another game,” recalled Jim Bloch.
“But that was tough sometimes. I remember once after baling all day, I had no zip on my fastball the next day and someone asked me why I was ‘throwing all let up pitches?’
“I said, ‘I’m not throwing any let ups, those are all supposed to be fastballs.’”
John Jans, a steady and consistent first baseman
The players were complimentary of one another, as Bloch appreciated the steady play of first baseman John Jans, one of the original Des Moines River players.
“John was one fine first baseman,” praised Bloch. “Nothing much ever got past him. He was very reliable. John was like the Kent Hrbek of our softball team.”
So how did the team get its nickname?
“We were just a bunch of good guys until we won all the time,” joked Chapman. “Then, we became the ‘Rats.’”
“Those Des Moines River Rats, I remember them,” recalled Fulda’s Del Koopman, an avid golfer today and an outstanding amateur baseball pitcher during the decades of the ‘50s and ‘60s. “I played some softball against them and they had a very good all-around team.”
With Magnus pitching, the Rats won the Westbrook League championship again in 1962 — which may have been the last time the Des Moines River Township gang was together on the field.
None of the group was sure of the last game.
But Magnus brought the little trophy:
“Westbrook City Softball League Seasonal Champs, 1962” to Monday’s gathering.
“I got to keep this trophy,” said a smiling Magnus. “Bud Kuehl was the player-manager that year. I pitched the championship game and Bud told me to take the trophy home.”
A little trophy, a copy of an old newspaper clipping and an assortment of happy memories — about the on-the-field and off-the-field exploits of fast-pitch softball summers — from a simpler time, when car batteries and spare tires were easily found.
The Des Moines River Township Rats’ fast-pitch softball team was indeed a true “Blast from the Past.”