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Korby's Connections: When town ball was king

The ghosts of the "Boys of Summer" still float around 14th Street, the skateboard rink, and Athletic Park in Cloquet. Town Baseball celebrated 100 years of championships in the state of Minnesota over the recent Labor Day weekend.

Cloquet has records of city organized baseball definitely originating before that date, with documented team photos dating back to the 1890s and early 1900s.

But they are no more. The Cloquet Foresters disbanded before 1980. They were the last Cloquet post-high-school amateur baseball "town" team. Forester players hailed from Cloquet, Moose Lake, Proctor, Esko and Hermantown.

Other teams in the Regional League included the Marble Mallards, Hibbing, Duluth Cubs, Sandstone, Virginia, Ely, Moose Lake (before they combined with Cloquet) and Grand Rapids.

Lyle Takkunen, who worked at Northwest Paper/Potlatch/Sappi in the Informational Services Department for many years, was one of the Foresters last player managers.

"We had some great players and made it to the state tournament in 1970," Takkunen said. "When I moved to Cloquet in the 1960s, Judd Fortune, who lived by Sather Park in Scanlon, asked me if I'd help him organize and coach the Cloquet town team," Takkunen said. "His son Mike played shortstop and pitched and he felt uncomfortable inserting him in the starting lineup or being looked upon as playing favorites."

Takkunen had experience playing shortstop for the Kettle River town team: the "Kilowatts."

"We had tremendous support for our Kettle River team with grudge matches and close games with Moose Lake and Sturgeon Lake," Takkunen said.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, the Foresters were responsible for funding their own balls, bats, uniforms, lighting, and even field maintenance for games.

"I got the idea in Kettle River, but we printed four-page scorecards and sold advertising on them. We went door to door to get advertising but, thankfully, most Cloquet businesses we called on supported us," Takkunen said.

He shared that he often used his own car to pull the drag around the infield to level it and then limed the batters boxes and foul lines.

Players from that era included Gary Himango (who did the bulk of the pitching) and Gary Ellefson from Esko, Terry Egerdahl and Jim Masterson from Proctor, the Fadness brothers from Moose Lake, and several Cloquet legends like Buck Carlson, Mike Dunphy, Orin Schuler, Rick Patton, Jerry Erickson and Frank Yetka. Carlson, Yetka, and Dunphy also coached the Foresters in the closing years.

Looking for Cloquet baseball history, I perused the files at the Carlton County Historical Society on Cloquet Avenue. There are team photos dating back to the early 1900s, about the time when one of my favorite research topics, pitcher William Cadreau, was throwing strikes in Carlton County.

Cadreau, a member of the Fond du Lac tribal community, was not initially accepted by the Cloquet team, but threw in the minors and town teams and eventually pitched for the MLB's Chicago White Sox in the last game of the 1910 season. Cadreau lost the game to the Detroit Tigers. In later years, Cadreau did pitch for Cloquet's town team and was a revered hitter as well. Many ball games, in the early part of the century, were played on the Church field on Reservation Road west of Cloquet.

In the 1920s and '30s, baseball (and Babe Ruth) was king in America.

Per newspaper records, "Appreciation Day" was held in Cloquet to honor the baseball town team. Service organizations - led by the Eagles Lodge, Central Labor Union, the Moose Lodge, and Rotary Club - gathered prizes for players and organized the welcoming parade.

For several years, Cloquet versus Carlton was the event, the premiere sandlot matchup. Harry Newby coached the Cloquet team and Glen "Snub" Pollard was his star catcher. Eddie Anderson was a legendary Cloquet pitcher. The parade ended at Athletic Park with fans for the respective teams filling the grandstand. The wooden grandstand was very large, mimicking Wade in Duluth and other minor league stadiums. It burned down in the 1960s.

In the early '20s, the Proctor and Cloquet town teams took competitive baseball games to the next level. Proctor fans loaded up a special train that took them to Saginaw. There, they changed trains and boarded for Cloquet. In this era, the Cloquet town team played their home games at Pinehurst Park. Train rides cost 25 cents.

Former Cloquet High School baseball coach Jerry Erickson moved to the city in the late '60s to teach and coach. He played baseball at UW-Superior while going to college and had played town ball in northwestern Wisconsin. Erickson joined and was a member of the Cloquet team that went to the state tournament in 1970.

"I remember playing at Marble. They had a beautiful field, loud and boisterous fans, and a habitually competitive team," said Erickson. "Another interesting contest was playing the Sandstone prison team. Of course, all of their games were home games, but they divided up the inmates, whereas, half of those observing the game cheered for the home team and half for the visitors."

Takkunen recalled that sometimes, with work shifts and other reasons, it could be difficult to field a team of nine players.

"We had a game up in Hibbing. Both of our catchers were unavailable," he said. "Pressed into service, I had to go behind the plate for the first time that season. Of course, the game went 15 innings ... but we won."

His legs paid for it the next day.

It's difficult to put a finger on why we don't have town ball in Cloquet or the region anymore. It's still popular with former high school and college players in other parts of the state, particularly in the southern two thirds of Minnesota.

It's probably the same reason we don't locally have fastpitch softball or church attendance. Service organization and union participation trends are lower nationally, we bow to computers, cell phones, TV and the internet. It's hard to get volunteers for almost all causes no matter how important or worthy. People's interests and habits change. Flag bearers for causes get old or tired. Sociologists, I'm sure, are constantly studying this movement.

I miss town baseball ... maybe if we build it, "they will come." Any former Carlton County baseball players that could champion this idea? Caution, it will take a lot of time and effort but the ghosts of Athletic Park will be there to lend a hand.

Send Steve your story ideas c/o [email protected].