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Take me out the ballgame! Lismore -- and the region -- has storied baseball past

submitted photo John Donaldson won 378 games as a pitcher during his illustrious baseball career.1 / 2
file photo Lismore's baseball field, home to the sport since the early 1900s, is shown in this April 2004 photo.2 / 2

LISMORE -- Minnesota has always been baseball crazy.

There was a Minnesota town named Nininger. Nininger doesn't even exist any longer. In 1857, before Minnesota even was a state, Nininger had a baseball club.

Townball. That's what they have called it since -- oh, the 1920s. In 1950 ,there were 799 townball teams inside Minnesota's borders. (Maybe 800; who knows?) If every one of those teams had only nine players, if there was no one on a bench, that would mean 7,191 baseball players in one Minnesota league or another.

Everybody (well -- male) played baseball. Gene McCarthy, who became a U.S. senator from Minnesota and a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination against Robert Kennedy in 1968 -- Gene McCarthy played townball for the old hometown, Watkins, in the Great Soo league. The Great Soo league was named for the Great Northern and Soo Line railroads that served every league town. McCarthy played for Watkins from the time he was 16 until he was 20, and then once again for one season when he was 29.

Other Minnesota townball players include Herb Brooks, Paul Giel, Bud Grant, Moose Skowron, Terry Steinbach and Bert Blyleven -- Bert for just one game.

The coming of the Twins in 1961 inflated Minnesota's enthusiasm for baseball, although it put a dent in townball. It was hard to get a crowd in some places. People bought tickets for Twins games; they got excited for Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva and Kirby Puckett. But townball suffered only a dent, not a deep wound. There still is baseball from International Falls to Worthington, from Moorhead to Winona.

(George Fabel of Worthington, a Worthington Cubs manager, has been in the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame since 1964. Who knew? Other Hall of Famers include Maurice Potter of Windom and Ty Wacker of Jackson.)

Dick Reusse of Fulda drove to the 1950 College World Series at Omaha and signed Al Worthington of Alabama to pitch for the Fulda Giants in the First Night League for $500 a month, minus one-dollar a night for a room in a private home. In his book, "I Played and I Won," Worthington wrote he had no idea even where Minnesota was located on a U.S. map. Worthington pitched against Worthington, oh yes, and he married Reusse's daughter, Shirley, before he went on to pitch 16 seasons in the majors, including six seasons with the Twins.

The talent that historically has attended townball is suggested by Al Worthington's record: in his debut game he beat the Phillies, 6-0. Five days later he beat the Dodgers, 6-0.

The First Night League, which remains active right to the eve of this 2013 season, dates to a time when the Worthington Cubs played baseball on a diamond in front of a roofless grandstand on the Nobles County fairgrounds, which then was located on Clary Street, on the site of Worthington High School.

Ted Williams was 19 in 1938, his first season with professional baseball. He was signed by the Minneapolis Millers and hit 43 homers, drove in 142 runs and batted .366.

With their season ended, three Millers players agreed to go on a barnstorming tour. They persuaded Williams to come with them to Worthington. On the drive down Highway 60, Williams sat on the passenger side of the front seat with a shotgun between his legs taking potshots at jackrabbits and creatures he guessed were jackrabbits.

The foursome stopped at Mankato, and Williams told a radio reporter, "Well, we're going to some jerk water town called Worthington."

Worthington Cubs' fans were furious -- they filled the grandstand and booed. Williams' teammate, Otto Denning, remembered, "You know how he quieted them? He hit a home run his first time at bat that went out of the park and over some cow barns. It must have gone 500 feet. For the rest of the game they cheered every move he made."

As Worthington fans remembered, Williams' homerun ball landed on Smith Avenue.

Before the game was ended, Williams pounded out a triple and a single. The final score: Millers 11, Cubs 3. The game put $675 in the Cubs' bank account; tickets were 55 cents per spectator.

Having their grandstand filled in the years before World War II was not a novel experience for the Cubs. The Worthington team was made part of the St. Louis Cardinals farm system. Branch Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson and who devised baseball's farm system scheme -- St. Louis had professional baseball's first farm system -- Branch Rickey filled a seat in the Worthington grandstand for at least one game.

The area's close focus on baseball brought surprises and, sometimes, excitement. The Cubs engaged Satchel Paige for a night exhibition game. Daily Globe sports editor Don Trunk was driving around Lake Okabena when he spied Satchel on the site of what now is Slater Park, sitting and leaning against a tree trunk, enjoying the tranquility. Trunk stopped and got an interview.

Oh, yes -- why is it called First Night League? Because the league teams all had lighted ballparks, which still were a novelty in the 1930s. The claim, still not disputed, is that this league in Minnesota's southwest corner was the first league to have lights at every park and the first league to play night games routinely.

From all those players from all those towns -- from Al Worthington to Ted Williams' one-night stand, from Eugene McCarthy to Ty Wacker, the player who one day may be enrolled in the national Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY, is a black player, John Donaldson.

The town that one day may have a bronze plaque telling the world that it was home to a Hall of Famer is Lismore. John Wesley Donaldson played the 1926 season, chiefly as a pitcher, with the independent Lismore Gophers. Peter Gorton of Minneapolis is relentless. He has made a crusade of enlisting Donaldson in Cooperstown.

John Donaldson was born Feb. 20, 1891, in Glasgow, Mo. He played baseball for 30 years, but many of his games were never reported in local weekly newspapers. Gorton has uncovered a record of 522 of Donaldson's games. In those games he racked up 378 wins and 135 losses for a winning percentage of .737 and an ERA of 1.37. He is credited with 4,445 strikeouts, one perfect game and 13 no-hitters.

Peter Gorton has said, "I don't want anyone to think, 'Oh, here's another poor black ballplayer exploited by the Man or by the times he lived.' This is a story of a man who was covered by the media and adored by the fans and had an outstanding career on the baseball diamond."

John Donaldson played for the Bertha Fishermen in 1924 and 1925. Bertha paid their star $450 a month. Three days before the 1926 season was to begin, Lismore -- baseball-wild Lismore -- made its move. The Gophers offered Donaldson $450 a month plus a house at 370 First St. opposite the railroad tracks. Donaldson accepted the Lismore bid. He arrived on the Rock Island passenger car. He was told he would be captain of the Lismore team.

Donaldson and his wife, Eleanor, took up residence in their new home. The couple had no children, but Donaldson's young nephew, Clifford Watson, remembered later as an orphan, made his home with them. Lismore's Coletta Voss remembered that her mother did laundry for the Donaldson family.

Lismore's 1926 record -- 20-24-1 -- doesn't do justice to the drama and heroics of the season. John played in 43 of the 45 games that season, plus some exhibition games. He pitched for 37 games and 25 complete games.

The most famous pitcher in Nobles County in 1926 was Ellsworth's Doc Juel. The Juel-Donaldson encounters were classics. Lismore played Ellsworth seven times during 1926 and won the series 4-3. Donaldson won one game against Juel and then lost a second game. He also pitched one game against Smokey Joe Lutz, a game that stretched to 12 innings. Donaldson struck out 18 Ellsworth batters and won 6-3 in the 12th.

In addition to local league games, Donaldson was prevailed upon to pitch in a mid-summer Canadian tournament at Moose Jaw. He won the first game for Moose Jaw against Plentywood, 2-1. He lost the second game 10-9 in the 11th inning. He also went to Alexandria to pitch against the storied House of David independent team, a game which he lost 2-1.

Lismore signed a game at Fairmont with Gilkerson's Union Giants from Chicago. The crowd was estimated at 5,000. Donaldson went 4 for 5, including a double and a sacrifice fly. He pitched the last four innings and lost.

In that time Pipestone (remarkably) had an all-black team, the Minnesota Black Sox. Lismore's Gophers, with their black pitcher, defeated the Sox three times during the season. The Gophers split a two-game series with the all-black Tennessee Rats and they lost a two-game series with the all-black Chips All Stars of Lone Rock, Iowa. On July 29 they traveled to Slayton to play the Joliet, Ill., All-Star Champion prison team, a squad composed of trustees and players on parole. The game was tied 1-1 when it was called due to rain in the fifth inning.

Lismore seemed to take delight in its pitching hero and his family. On July 16 the Lismore Leader reported, "J.W. Donaldson, accompanied by his adopted son, Clifford, returned here late Tuesday. John was at Moose Jaw, Canada, where he pitched for Moose Jaw Friday and Saturday."

On Aug. 27: "Our pitcher, J.W. Donaldson, motored to Alexandria, Minn., Saturday where on Sunday Donaldson pitched for the Alexandria team against the House of David and was defeated before a crowd of 4,000 fans, the score being 2-1. He returned home Tuesday afternoon."

On Sept. 3: "Clifton Watson was honored at a farewell party last Friday afternoon at the John Donaldson home when a number of his friends pleasantly surprised him. The merrymakers enjoyed an afternoon of fun after which light refreshments were served. Clifton, who has been making his home with Mr. and Mrs. John Donaldson the past summer, departed Saturday evening via Adrian for Kansas City where he will attend school."

Again on Oct. 8: "Mr. and Mrs. John Donaldson, the latter who has been pitching ball for the Lismore Gophers the past season, departed Friday for Minneapolis where they will make their home this winter."

Although it paid close and complimentary attention to its black family, the Leader never published a feature or profile on Donaldson. It was the newspaper at Moose Jaw that took the closest look at Lismore's star:

"Donaldson Agrees to Throw for M.J. Big Tournament -- Sensation Of the 1925 Tournament, He Shut Out Locals In No-Hit No-Run Game."

"Weep over this, Fans! Mr. 'Darky' Donaldson, baseball campaigner of many parts, hurler de luxe, hero of the 1925 baseball tournament and personal producer of no-hit, no-run games, has agreed to be with Moose Jaw's All-Stars in the Kiwanis Club's feature tournament, July 7 to 10. For four days this year baseball games will hold interest, and in that time such teams as Scobey (1925 winners), Plentywood, Regina Balmorals, Climax, Moose Jaw All-Stars (featuring Mr. Donaldson), and three other teams battle for rewards well worth battle. Moose Jaw fans, nine players, and thousands of others, will readily recall the big blot, who, with ease and grace, genially whiffed 19 of 27 Moose Jaw batters, allowed no hits and no runs, to execute the smoothest shut-out in years and put Radville up where second money was a cinch as first possible. It was, indeed, a great piece of throwing, that memorable game, and equally great surprises are likely this year's."

Two days later the newspaper printed another Donaldson story:

"John Donaldson, Fifteen Years A Hurler of Note -- Major League Stars Of Years Ago Marveled At His Speed, Curves and Control -- This is a brief tale of a Negro hurler who for years has been pitching sensational baseball, and has been kept out of major leagues only on account of the color line. Donaldson is a left-hand thrower, with terrific speed. He supplied the feature attraction of the 1925 tournament here, pitching a no-hit, no run game against Moose Jaw, and this year has been secured to play with the local entry."

The article in the Moose Jaw paper quoted from an article written by Irvin Rudick for the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.

"Independent baseball in the northwest knows no bigger attraction than John Donaldson, the famous Negro pitcher. For wherever this flinger happens to toss his baseball glove, there thousands of fans gather where otherwise only a handful would turn out to see the town team play.

"Donaldson gained his large following in this neck of the woods not alone on his phenomenal performances of the last few years but through his brilliant exhibitions of years before, starting in 1912, when he first pitched independent baseball. During those early years when he twirled for the national Negro championship All-Nations team of Des Moines, Iowa, he was hailed as one of the pitching marvels of the era. Famous baseball managers, major league sluggers against whom he had occasion to pitch, hailed him as a wonder. He was considered better than most of the mound stars pitching in the big show in his best days, yet he had to remain on the 'outside looking in' simply because of organized baseball's discrimination against Negro ball players.... It was common for him to whiff from 10 to 15 batsmen a game and turn teams back with a few widely scattered hits. He has pitched a number of hitless and runless games during his 15 years of baseball.

"Yet in all those years, according to Donaldson, who was in Minneapolis Saturday, stopping over on his way to Lismore, Minn., where he will play with and captain an independent team this year, he never has enjoyed the huge following that he won in Minnesota. Bertha became baseball mad when Donaldson was hired to pitch for the town team in 1924. Spectators by the hundreds in close proximity to Bertha swelled the population of the town to five and 10 times its size on Sundays to see the noted Negro in action.

"He burned them over the plate while in Bertha uniform and the town got behind Donaldson and made him a lucrative offer to pitch the following season. Donaldson accepted and had another very successful year.

"This season, however, he transferred his services to Lismore, which town made him an exceedingly flattering offer to play and captain the team there. Just as Bertha became baseball mad with the coming of Donaldson, so is Lismore all excited."

Donaldson ended his playing career with a distinction. He was hired in 1949 as a scout by the Chicago White Sox, the first full-time black talent scout. Donaldson died in Chicago on April 12, 1970, at the age of 78. He is buried in Burr Oak Cemetery at Alsip, Ill.

A network of researchers continues to search newspapers for reports/accounts of games played by the man who may have the greatest record of any American baseball pitcher.