End of an era: Winthrop town ball done after 84 seasons

Posted on January 23, 2013 by CJ Siewert

In the changing landscape of Minnesota amateur baseball, rural town teams often find themselves in a constant battle to recruit young players and generate a strong interest in playing town team baseball. The unfortunate consequence of this battle holds the potential to force a team to fold and that circumstance reared its ugly head for a small community in south-central Minnesota this offseason.

After 84 seasons of town team baseball, Winthrop no longer has a team following a merger with Fairfax on January 21. The River Valley League unanimously accepted the merger at its annual scheduling meeting and the MBA Board will place the final stamp at its February meeting.

The merger between the two towns had been in discussions for the past three seasons, but Fairfax’ State-qualifying season in 2011 set those talks back a couple years. Long-time Winthrop manager and player Dana Melius acknowledged, “With moves and retirements on both rosters expected for the 2013 season, the merger finally seemed inevitable.”

Strong factors that are competing against many small rural town teams include demographics and the economy. The GFW school district now consists of four communities (Gibbon, Fairfax, Winthrop and Brownton) with a population of just over 4,000. Neighboring Sibley East district caters to a population of just over 5,000, while the entire Sibley County supports six town teams.

“The stagnant economics of rural Minnesota continues to present tough choices for ball players,” Melius said. “The past two seasons it has seemed to peak, with young players who are facing massive student loan debt and limited job opportunities in western Minnesota often having to miss more games due to work commitments. It’s the new reality for many.”

Losing a club is tough to deal with in itself, but when you factor in the recent success of that club, it makes it even tougher. Although Winthrop had its struggles in the regular season, the Eagles always proved to be a regenerated team when playoffs came around.

Over the past 10 seasons, Winthrop posted a mediocre .361 win percentage during the regular season, but went 19-16 in the RVL playoffs over that same span. The Eagles reached regional play six times in their final 10 seasons, starting with a State Tournament berth in 2003 where they won their first game 1-0 over Perham, followed by a 7-3 loss to Austin-Hayfield.

“My favorite memory has to be the amazing, unexpected State tourney run in 2003, along with the 1-0 first-round upset of Perham, then one of the favorites in the Class C field,” Melius recalled.  

The MBA granted Winthrop’s region an additional team to State when it increased the Class C tourney field from 32 teams to 48 teams last season. Had that been the case over the past nine seasons, the Eagles would have also reached the State tourney in 2004, 2008 and 2010, where they finished third in the region.

“Our on-going regional runs and performances are equally cherished,” Melius added. “In 2004, we came one game away from a repeat berth in the State, losing out in a classic 2-1 game in Winthrop to Arlington. And our 2008 team that first beat Le Sueur 5-4, then Loretto 4-3, before losing two one-run State-qualifying games (2-1 to Belle Plaine and 6-5 to Maple Plaine), entered playoffs on a 1-10 skid.”

Although town ball is no longer in the small community of Winthrop, the Eagles’ roster from last season is grandfathered in to play for Fairfax. But newcomers to the team will need to reside within a 30-mile radius of Fairfax, per MBA rules. The two rural towns are separated by a 17-mile stretch on Highway 19.

Rich history

The Winthrop News documented the first town ball game in 1909 when the team was nicknamed the Greys. In 1937 and 1938, the Greys claimed the Tomahawk League championship.

After 34 seasons as the Greys, Winthrop reorganized as the Orioles and won another Tomahawk League title in 1946. Two years later, Winthrop installed lights at its field.

In 1951, the budget peaked at $12,264 during the bidding wars of the Western Minny League. The net profit came out to a whopping $4 after compensating players, buying advertisements and paying taxes. The revenues came through scoreboard ads, donations and admissions/concessions.

Winthrop folded from the Western Minny in 1953 and reorganized the following year in the Indian Trails League. During their third season in the Indian Trails, the Orioles captured their first State tourney berth in 1956. They defeated Godahl 9-8 and Walnut Grove 21-19 in regions before dropping a 5-0 decision to Halstad in their first game at State – held in Little Falls. During their 18 seasons as the Orioles, Winthrop played in four different leagues – Tomahawk, Twin Trails, Western Minny and Indian Trails.

The decade of the 1970s was a transition period for town ball in Winthrop. The club was reformed as the Redbirds in 1973 where they joined the Ara Wilson League. That lasted just two seasons before Winthrop teamed up with Gibbon to form the Gibbon-Winthrop Orioles.

“I helped my father, Louis ‘Pud’ Melius, get the Winthrop Redbirds going in 1973-74,” Melius said. “My dad, who managed Winthrop’s 1956 State Tournament team, managed those two years. Pud was inducted in the MBA Hall of Fame in 2004. He died in 2009.”

Gibbon and Winthrop lasted as a two-town squad for four seasons in the Ara Wilson (1975-1978). Dana took over managing in 1976 at the young age of 19 and continued through three more seasons of the merger. In 1977, the team finished 9-7 and captured a regional berth. The Orioles defeated a strong Arlington A’s team and then upset the regular season champion New Ulm Kaiserhoff in the second round to advance to regionals before losing to Stark. 

In 1979, Gibbon broke ties with Winthrop, forcing them to return to a one-town squad once again as the Redbirds in the Ara Wilson. The Redbirds played in the league for another seven seasons before folding in 1985. 

After an eight-year hiatus without a town team, Winthrop formed the Eagles in 1994, joining the Ara Wilson once again.

“Pat Hallahan, interestingly enough, was the driving force behind the ’94 start-up,” Melius said. “He managed the first year, and I had originally planned to simply help organize and raise funds. But after seeing his initial tryouts, I knew immediately we had no pitching and little talent, so I came out of retirement to pitch. I took over the Eagles’ managing in ’95 and continued through 2001, when my son, Ben, took over. My youngest son, Andy, managed the past four seasons.”

In 1997, the Eagles moved to the Tomahawk East where they played until the 2002 season. The ensuing season the Eagles made the transition to the Carver Central – now the River Valley – until last year. In 2004, Louis “Pud” Melius Field at Veterans Memorial Park reinstalled new Musco lights.

The Eagles ended their 19-year run as a town team with an overall record of 169-373. They reached regions six times during their 10 years in the Carver Central/River Valley with one State tourney berth (2003).

Town ball in Winthrop may be gone for now, but the memories are sure to be reminisced in the rural farm community – especially with the Melius family. 

“Being in uniform with my sons, actually catching all three of them over the past 19 years, as Ben, Billy and Andy all logged innings for the Eagles, were the highlights,” Dana noted. “My father loved Winthrop, serving as Mayor and City Councilman for over 30 years. But he really loved baseball and watching his sons and grandsons play.”

As for what the future of town team baseball in Winthrop holds, nobody can be certain. But if history tells us anything, its that town ball in Winthrop may just be dormant – not dead – as the community has revived its amateur club multiple times. 

“I do feel that Winthrop will put a team together in the future,” Melius said. “I expect some young dad and son to set a goal down the road, like we did more than once, to re-start a town baseball team. It might be three to five years or so. But for the first time since the ’40s, it won’t include a Melius… I don’t think…”

Winthrop records – courtesy of Dana Melius

Seasons/Eagles

17       Kris Swenson

17       Dan Anderson

17       Ben Melius

Redbirds (’74, ‘79-85)

8          Dana Melius

Orioles (’75-78)

4          Dana Melius, Kevin Lindstrand, Joe Wylie, Tim Beltz, Steve Shult, Youngblom, Jon Spaude

Batting Average/Eagles

.376    Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

.306       Larry Hopp (1 season)

On-Base Percentage/Eagles

.475    Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

.421+     Jim Youngblom

Slugging Percentage/Eagles

.605    Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

.385       Dave Schlueter

RBI/Eagles

277     Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

57       Joe Wylie

Home runs/Eagles

58       Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

9          Joe Wylie

Hits/Eagles

466     Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

74       Joe Wylie

Walk-offs

3          Ben Melius (’02, ’05, 2011)

Runs/Eagles

266     Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

58       Jim Youngblom         

Games/Eagles

427     Kris Swenson

GW Orioles

85       Dana Melius

At-bats/Eagles

1402   Ben Melius

GW Orioles

317        Joe Wylie

Doubles/Eagles

89       Dan Anderson

89       Ben Melius

GW Orioles

13       Dana Melius

Triples/Eagles

12       Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

2          Jon Spaude

Sacrifices/Eagles

34       Ben Melius

GW Orioles

11       Kevin Lindstrand

Strikeouts/Eagles

320     Kris Swenson

GW Orioles

79       Jim Youngblom

Base on Balls/Eagles

186     Kris Swenson

GW Orioles

83       Jim Youngblom

Base on balls/HBP vs. Strikeouts Ratio

1.34    Scott Erdal (.638 HBP/K)

GW Orioles

1.25    Larry Hopp (1 season)

Hit by Pitch

31       Logan Schweiss

31       Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

3          Jim Aufderheide

Stolen Bases/Eagles

83       James Panning

GW Orioles

36       Dana Melius

FIELDING

Fielding Percentage/Eagles

.968    Pat O’Malley

.968    Eric Waldron

GW Orioles

.987+  Jim Youngblom

Put Outs/Eagles

1650   Kris Swenson

GW Orioles (missing 1975)

692     Jim Youngblom

Assists/Eagles

682     Dan Anderson

GW Orioles (missing ’75)

103     Don Gieseke

Errors/Eagles

167     Dan Anderson

GW Orioles

28       Joe Wylie

PITCHING

Earned Run Average/Eagles

2.00    Mitch Nachreiner (1 season)

Opponents’ Batting Average/Eagles

.240    Andy Melius

Innings Pitched/Eagles

499     Dan Anderson

GW Orioles (missing ’78)

178.2+            Steve Shult

Wins/Eagles

24       Dan Anderson

GW Orioles (’76 & ’77)

9+       Steve Shult

Losses/Eagles

48       Logan Schweiss

Saves/Eagles

9          Dan Anderson

GW Orioles (’76-’77)

2          Joe Wylie, Steve Shult

Complete Games/Eagles

20       Dan Anderson

GW Orioles (’76-’77)

11       Steve Shult

Shutouts/Eagles

3          Ben Melius, Dan Anderson

GW Orioles (’76-’77)

1          Joe Wylie

Strikeouts/Eagles

403     Dan Anderson

GW Orioles (missing ’78)

226+   Steve Shult

Base on balls/Eagles

261     Bill Melius

Strikeout/Base on Balls Ratio

2.47    Mitch Nachreiner (1 season)

Strikeout per 9 innings Ratio

9.86    Jeff Peterson (1 season)

GW Orioles (missing ’78)

11.38  Steve Shult

Winning Percentage

1.000  Mitch Nachreiner (4-0; 1 season)

Total Games Pitched

117     Dan Anderson

Total Games Started

66       Ben Melius, Bill Melius

Total Games Relieved

61       Dan Anderson

At-Bats Against

2070   Dan Anderson

Hits Allowed

679     Logan Schweiss

Doubles Allowed

133     Logan Schweiss

Triples Allowed

14       Ben Melius

Home Runs Allowed

72       Logan Schweiss

Runs Allowed

547     Logan Schweiss

Earned Runs Allowed

372     Logan Schweiss

Hit Batsmen

75       Bill Melius

Wild Pitches

45       Mark McCarthy

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