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Korby's Connections: Pull-hitter fondly recalls softball heyday

Cloquet and Carlton County have an impressive history of producing their own “legends,” but we’ve also imported some of our talent. Starting as far back as the sawmills, regional employers — including the schools, manufacturing facilities and the public sector — were known to recruit talented employees from across the country, and some of them could play ball.

This story is about Bill Powell, now in his 90s and living in Connecticut, a Northwest Paper mill recruit in the 1950s.

Powell grew up in Chicago. He played a lot of sandlot baseball and a softball game featuring a bigger ball (sometimes called a kitten ball) and no gloves used by the fielders. The limits of the field designs made being a dead-pull hitter advantageous to right-handed batters.

After completing high school, Powell studied forestry at Purdue University, concentrating in wood technology and utilization. His dad worked for a chemical producer in Chicago and he remembered him saying they shipped product to a paper mill in northern Minnesota. Working amongst the woods, lakes, and rivers sounded intriguing, and a few years later he got a job in the engineering department at Northwest Paper here.

Powell said he was quite nervous, but as a manufacturing management trainee he met many people in both the mill and office who became his friends. He measured cords of wood on the trains and became a pulpwood sealer. He eventually bought a house on Summit Avenue up by the Cloquet Country Club.

He also met his wife-to-be, Jane, at the mill. “In those days, back in the 1950s, husband and wife could not both work at Northwest Paper, so when we got married, Jane had to quit her mill job,” Powell said. “She was a pretty, Finnish gal who grew up in Kettle River. Our wedding reception was something else. Those Finns liked to party.”

When he came to Northwest Paper in 1954, the mill had both a “fun” softball league that pitted the different department teams (finishing room, machine shop, office, etc.) against each other. The company also had a more competitive team that played in the touted Pinehurst Park/Cloquet League.

Bill played in the fun league, but started getting a reputation as a good fielder and an excellent pull-hitter, developed from his Chicago playing days. In 1956, he went into the Army. He came back to work in Cloquet in 1957.

One of his fondest memories of returning to Cloquet was being asked to play on Northwest Paper’s competitive softball team.

“We had Bobo Johnson as a pitcher. Need I say more?” Powell said proudly. “He was one of the best fastpitch softball pitchers in the state and even the nation.”

The Cloquet League also included teams from Diamond Brands and Wood Conversion. Hundreds of fans would come to Pinehurst Park to watch these “grudge matches” on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

In 1958, the Northwest Paper fastpitch team won the Cloquet League, the Northern Regional (Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Twin Cities metro) tournament in Fargo, and thus qualified for the world tournament in the Twin Cities. Normally, the world tournament was held in California or Florida or Texas, but St. Paul was celebrating an incorporation anniversary, so the tourney was awarded to the Twin Cities. “It was the Super Bowl of fastpitch softball,” Bill said.

“We had a lot of backing from Northwest Paper and the fans of Cloquet,” Bill said. “The mill paid for our travel, food and accommodations, for players and spouses. Even though we won one game, but then lost two in the double-elimination tourney, the mill told us to enjoy ourselves and stay the whole weekend. It was a thrill.”

Bill worked in Cloquet for several more years and then got transferred to the Northwest facility in Brainerd. Powell eventually moved into the Northwest sales department and a job in Atlanta.

But he didn’t forget Cloquet.

“Since Northwest Paper sponsored the Cloquet Invitational for many years and sales people came from across the U.S. to participate, I tried to make it back to golf in the event. I always would, while in Cloquet, drive past the old home on Summit to check on things.”

Out of curiosity, I had to take a drive up to Summit “to check on things.” It looks good, Bill, thanks for the interview and the travels down memory lane.

Steve Korby’s interest in writing goes back to when he was in fourth grade and editor of the Scan-Satellite school newspaper in Scanlon. He welcomes ideas for human interest stories and tales regarding Carlton County residents, projects, history, and plans c/o [email protected].

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