Butter Up: Town ball thrives in southwest Minnesota hamlet of Hadley

This story appeared in the 2018 MBA state tournament program and is reprinted with permission

By Scott Mansch

Hadley, Minnesota is known for its grain bins, its beautiful little lake, its bar and its ballpark. Especially its ballpark.

Hadley’s Buttermakers, which in 2018 qualified for a fourth straight Minnesota Baseball Association state tournament, are the reason baseball season remains so satisfying in southwest Minnesota.

Alex (Tank) Petersen, 26, was born and raised there. A double’s distance from the lake. And the bar. And a home run away from the ballpark. Tank was a Buttermakers batboy 20 years ago. Now, he’s a utility infielder and hard-hitting homegrown ballplayer.

“I’ve been a Buttermaker pretty much my whole life,” Tank said. “I can remember helping Myron (Bennett) with the field when I was a little boy.”

Bennett, 58, a lifelong Hadley resident, is the manager of both the bar and the ballclub. It’s a labor of love for a man devoted to the only town he’s called home.

“I’ve always loved baseball, from the time I was little growing up,” Bennett said. “Managing is a way to stay in the game and stay involved. I’ve met a lot of good people and made a lot of good friends through baseball. And that means a lot to me.”

On a summer Sunday when the little village of 60 or so is filled with baseball fans, often swelling the population by several hundred, it’s especially meaningful for Myron.

“When you stand there on that line for the National Anthem and look over and see the hill packed with people, it’s just fantastic,” Bennett said. “It means a lot to me, it means a lot to the players and it means a lot to the community.”

Brent Johnson, 69, is president of the Hadley Baseball Association. His father, Wallace, was a Buttermaker back in the day. His son, Dan, also played for the team.

And now Brent has two grandsons, Garrett and Kellan, on the roster.

“Back when my dad was playing we had some pretty huge crowds,” Brent said. “But what we’ve got going on here now, it’s pretty special.

“I don’t know what it is for sure. But folks just love baseball here.”

Sixty years or so ago, Brent was a little boy chasing foul balls when his father played for the Buttermakers. He remembers the rivalries and how fierce they were.

“I actually think the fans would get into it with each other more back then,” Brent laughed. “ The fans from Holland and Woodstock and Hadley.

“Years ago, we had a beer truck come in and sold beer and pop and candy out of that.”

Now there’s a full concession stand operated by Kathy Herding and other volunteers that offers grilled brats, hot dogs, burgers and plenty of cold beer.

Herding is one of several dedicated Hadley baseball fans who work behind the scenes to ensure the success of the Buttermakers. Rick Like, the Hadley mayor, who has also been known to pinch hit as an umpire, if needed — a most unbiased arbiter at that — is another. Like is also a bit of an artist, painting the dozens of promotional signs that hang in the outfield, each purchased by baseball fans and businesses in Murray County in support of the ballclub.

“There’s an awful lot of people here who love baseball and the Buttermakers,” Brent said. “Everyone works together pretty well.”

Decades ago, it’s said an entire Buttermakers lineup could be filled with Johnsons. Today, there are players from Slayton, Edgerton and Wilmont on the Hadley roster. No matter. The Buttermaker brotherhood continues.

“Family is the thing that means the most to everybody,” Petersen said. “Hadley is one of those communities that is always home. Knowing I am in the same jersey as my grandpa means the world to me. I know he’s watching me in heaven. I always try to cherish those moments. It’s been a blessing to play for this team.”

The Buttermakers first played baseball in 1882 and thrived from the 1920s to the early 1970s, earning several state tournament appearances in the 1940s. Among the team’s managers were Joe Buddee, Ben Wagner, Leon Johnson, Herb Johnson, Ole Olson, Doug Johnson and Allan Johnson. In 1925, the Buttermakers took on Linsmore in a late-season game. According to newspaper reports, Hadley featured a right-hander from the Slayton area named George Pipgras, certainly the most famous ballplayer in Hadley history.Pipgras had made the major leagues a few years before and in 1925 was a minor leaguer in the New York Yankees organization. Pipgras went on to pitch for the Yankees and Boston Red Sox from 1927-35. He was on the mound for the Yankees during the 1932 World Series game in Chicago when Babe Ruth famously called his shot against the Cubs.

The only period since 1882 when Hadley did not have a ball team was from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. Most of the Buttermakers joined teams in Slayton or Lake Wilson. Then in 1986, after a 15-year period when the ballpark fell into disrepair, Hadley got back in the town ball game.

“We played for 20 years without dugouts,” Bennett said. “We had benches behind a chainlink fence. A lot of the players sat along the hillside between innings. You could really interact with the fans during the games then.”

Year by year, little by little, improvements were made to Laurie Mahon Field.

“We had wooden dugouts above ground, which were OK for the players but not for the fans because they blocked the view of the field,” Bennett said. “So in 2017 they built new dugouts into the ground. Now the view is fantastic. There’s not a bad seat in the house for the fans.”

When the team was resurrected 30 years ago, success did not come readily. But the fans were there.

“The first year we didn’t win a game until the playoffs,” said Bennett, who played second base at the time. “That’s the only time we won all year.”

The Buttermakers that season were led by a host of three managers — all at the same time.

“That was pretty interesting,” Bennett grinned, referring to Brent Johnson, Bob Wornson and Larry Plantz.

The Hadley Baseball Association has always funded the team.

“We raised all the money ourselves,” Bennett said. “And we’ve had some great sponsors here in town.”

The field had been mainly used for softball and Little League baseball, with 275-foot fences. Now the quaint ballpark with an all-dirt infield features a left field wall reminiscent of Fenway Park’s Green Monster.

“We moved it back in left as far as we possibly could and then just raised the fence as high as we could,” Bennett said. “It gets pretty deep out in left-center and center. It’s a unique field.”

In 1992, Bennett and Andy Monson were co-managers of the Buttermakers. The next year, Bennett took over himself in a role he fulfills to this day.

“I take it year by year,” Bennett said. “But I still enjoy it.”

While the Buttermakers franchise has endured, sorrow is part of its legacy. Laurie Mahon, for whom the field is named, was a popular young woman from Hadley who was struck by lightning while she played in a softball game in nearby Tracy in 1980. Her brother, Dale, played for the Buttermakers for years. Tony Krant, a popular baseball backer whose home on the banks of Summit Lake is on the site of the creamery for which the ball team is named and whos woodcarving skill is displayed on a sign that greets all visitors to Hadley, died of cancer at 61 last spring.

The team lost perhaps its most charismatic figure in an auto collision about 10 years ago when Luke Beers, a hard-hitting outfielder with an especially soft heart was killed.

“That was hard,” Bennett said. “He was very popular in the community, a very popular teammate and a good player. You could always count on Luke, and then all of a sudden he wasn’t there.”

The team honors Beers’ memory in various ways. The left field fence is marked with a huge sign that displays his No. 4.

“We miss him always,” Bennett said.

The spirit of Hadley baseball remains very much alive.

“We’ve only had four batboys who came up and ended up playing for the Buttermakers,” Bennett said. “Chris Johnson, Taylor Rignell, Tank Peterson and Jaden Bloemendaal.”

Tank’s grandfather, Dick Johnson, played for the Buttermakers.

In recent years the roster has included Josh Onken, a grandson of the late Delbert Zinnel, among the greatest of all Buttermakers. One of Delbert’s sons, Mark, is the former fantastic cross-country and track champion at Slayton High, who for years served as the Buttermakers’ public address announcer. Mark’s “Baseball Bafflers,” a cerebral contest that tests the knowledge of baseball fans with historical questions is a particular fan favorite.

And then there are the “Grassy Knoll Girls,” a group of dedicated female Buttermakers fans who sit on a little hill behind the home dugout and serenade the crowd with a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” To be sure, they root, root, root for the Buttermakers.

It’s all part of a Sunday afternoon scene in Hadley.

Many brothers have played for the franchise, both in the old days and the modern day of Buttermakers ball. Among them are the familiar Murray County names like Beers, Wieneke, Wajer, Rignell and — of course — Johnson.

“There’s a lot of neat family connections with us,” Bennett said.

The whole town is a little family. A family that shares a connection with baseball.

“Sunday afternoons here are great,” Bennett said. “I’ve had players leave and play elsewhere and when they come back, they always say, ‘There’s nothing better like playing in Hadley.’”

And there’s nothing better like the team’s annual Fan Appreciation Day, when hot dogs, corn on the cob and root beer floats — all free — are handed out during the game. Prizes are given to dozens of fans during that special Sunday. The Buttermakers’ all-time attendance record? There were officially 299 counted during a playoff game last year — swelling the town five-fold. It’s estimated even more showed up following one afternoon months after Beers’ death, when the team retired his jersey in special dedication. Greg Rossow is the regional commissioner for town ball in southwest Minnesota.

“Myron deserves a lot of the credit for the Buttermakers,” said Rossow, a former star player for the Windom Pirates of the First Nite League. “But so does the entire town. Their ballpark continues to get better for fans. The concessions are always great. And the team is real good. When Hadley gets in the playoffs we always make a little money.

The Buttermakers are known in Murray County and beyond. Indeed, the area has always been about baseball. Once there were thriving ball teams in the county in Slayton, Fulda, Lake Wilson, Iona and Currie.

Thanks to Hadley, baseball is alive and well in southwest Minnesota.

“We’ve had years when we haven’t been real good,” Bennett said. “But we still get the fans. It’s just a real neat thing we’ve got going on down here.”

Scott Mansch is a former Slayton Rocket and St. Cloud State ballplayer. Mansch writes for the Great Falls Tribune as a sports reporter in Montana. Photos courtesy of Jim Busch and Beep Prahm.

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