Former town ball player chronicles its history

This continues a series of news stories, human interest pieces, or general information, all pertaining to the 2018 MBA State Tournament host site communities.

By Bob Greeley

2018 MBA State Tournament

Shakopee Tri-Chairperson

Do you remember the scene of the first “Back to the Future” movie where Marty McFly goes from Nov. 5, 1985, to 1955? “Mr. Sandman” music is the soundtrack. We are in downtown Hill Valley, Calif. at the Courthouse Square. The Essex movie theatre marque has “Cattle Queen of Montana” as the feature movie, co-starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. Town ball in Minnesota was king after WWII and before the arrival of the Minnesota Twins in 1961.

Tom Melchior completed playing his third summer of Minnesota town team baseball as an 18-year-old for the Belle Plaine Tigers. As a 16-year-old in 1953, he played one summer with the Carver Black Sox. He played with Belle Plaine from 1954 to 1956, Benson in 1957, Le Sueur in 1958 and New Prague in 1959. In 1960, he taught in Puerto Rico and played a couple of games for Humacao. From 1961 to 1962, he played for Montgomery and finished up playing town ball for Shakopee in 1963 (state tournament entry) and 1967.

Melchior’s baseball memory goes back to 1946 in Gaylord, listening to Cleveland beat his beloved Red Sox in a playoff game. He was the batboy for the Gaylord town team in 1947 and 1948. He also vividly remembers getting out of washing the dishes following dinner because he needed to hop on his bike and get to the ballpark – love it!

The first night game he played was during the summer following eighth grade in a midget game at Winthrop. Later in that 1948 summer, his grandparents took him to the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament held in Shakopee to watch Belle Plaine take on Winsted. Fans stood in the outfield inside the fence and behind the ropes because of the overflowing attendance. Melchior and his grandparents watched the game from behind the left fielders.

If you want to know anything about the history of baseball in Scott County, this Shakopee resident is one of your top guys. In fact, he wrote a book on this topic in 2007, “Scott County Baseball.” Born and raised in Gaylord until age 13, his family moved to Garden City and then to Belle Plaine in 1952, his junior year in high school. He was a St. John’s University 1958 graduate (B.A. English) and four-year baseball team starter in left field. St. John’s won the conference title three out of his four years playing there.

He was a high school and middle school English teacher in New Prague, Montgomery, Puerto Rico and Burnsville (34 years). Melchior received one of the premier accolades for teaching professionals in Minnesota when he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 1971 by the Minnesota Education Association. He retired from full-time teaching in 1993, and was one of only five teachers inducted into the inaugural class of the Burnsville Senior High School Hall of Fame in 2006.

Melchior coached the Burnsville High School baseball team from 1962 to 1971. The team played its home games in Savage. He prepared the game field those early spring mornings before going into school to teach English.

“I used our 1961 Pontiac to pull the chain-link fence to drag the field. Then I put down the base lines and batter’s box, and then off to school,” he said.

He also coached the Savage American Legion team during the summer for many years. He remembers coaching a 21-inning tie game at Red Wing that went into the wee hours of the morning.

When he taught at Burnsville’s Nicollet Junior High School, one of his teaching cohorts was Dennis Lorsung, my college baseball coach at St. Cloud State University from 1978-1980.

One of Melchior’s heroes was Warren Stemmer, one of Shakopee’s great players.

“In 1953, Belle Plaine schools hired Warren to teach and play baseball,” Melchior said. “I was a junior in high school, probably 16 at the time. I knew nothing about Mr. Stemmer. I didn’t have him as a teacher. He and the principal were walking down the stairs as I was walking up. We had played a basketball game the night before. ‘Nice game last night,’ he said as he passed me.

A teacher said something that sent my spirits soaring! I never forgot what he did. It was one of the greatest lessons in teacher education I ever received. Later, Warren lived across the street from us when we moved to Shakopee. He taught in Burnsville so we rode together for years. I was honored to give the eulogy at his funeral.”

Warren passed away in October 2005.  The baseball field at Shakopee High School bears Warren Stemmer’s name.

For Melchior in 1954 at the age of 17 playing town ball in Belle Plaine was a dream come true. “Many of the players I played with and against in Belle Plaine had played in either the major or minor leagues,” Melchior said.

Can you imagine this young 17- year-old kid soaking all this in?

“We were playing Class A ball with two hired players,” Melchior said. “Pitchers got $40 to $50 per game. Hometown pitchers got a dollar an out.”

In a game against St. Peter, he pitched seven innings.

“Can you even think what $21 meant to a 17-year-old then? The next day I stopped at Keup’s Garage and Fred Keup would write a check. Sometimes it was a little as $3,” he said.

“I played some third and shortstop for Belle Plaine, but mostly I played the outfield. Gene O’Brien was our player-manager in 1954. I really looked up to him. He played in the Yankees farm system with Yogi Berra and wore Joe DiMaggio’s old pants. He told me, ‘Don’t worry; just go out there and play.’ I played with Howie Schultz at Le Sueur in 1957. That was a thrill. I loved talking with him about his professional career. Howie had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and taught Jackie Robinson how to play first base at spring training in Havana. Howie hit moon shots like Joe Schleper.”

At age 20 in the summer of 1957, Melchior played shortstop for the Benson Braves. Teams could hire two players each summer then, also. He was paid $15 per game and an additional $15 per game to finish the majority of the season as the team’s player-manager. The Benson team was young with many 16-18 year olds in the lineup. The league included Hector, Litchfield, Clara City, Hutchinson, Willmar, Olivia, and Benson.

Melchior played that summer with Benson because his college baseball teammate at St. John’s was from Benson and they needed a shortstop, plus he could make some money. He had no vehicle in Benson. He did a lot of walking and lived a couple of blocks away from his summer job and the ballpark. His parents drove out to Hector to watch him play one game that summer. He made $300 during the league playoffs, making enough that summer to handle most of his tuition costs at St. John’s the coming school year. A typical summer meal at the local Benson cafe included peaches, pears and cottage cheese. Total meal cost was $1.

Melchior quotes Bart Giamatti, who said, “Baseball is a game that is meant to break your heart.” Melchior loves the poetry of baseball, which he didn’t realize until he got older.

“I loved the competition, the sights and sounds, the smell of the grass, and seeing my grandfather standing behind the dugout with his buddies, drinking beer and hollering for the Tigers,” he said. “The list goes on and on.”

In 1963 he worked and stayed that summer in Faribault with his father-in- law while playing for Shakopee. He never missed a practice or a game.

“It’s the camaraderie” was his answer when asked about why he played baseball.

He liked Ted Williams. He religiously followed the newspaper box scores. He thought Rox Stadium in St. Cloud and the Jordan Mini Met were the two nicest ball fields he ever played on.

Melchior’s first book, “They Called Me Teacher,” was published in 1996.  The book is an oral history of country school teachers from throughout Minnesota during the early 20th century. Melchior interviewed approximately 200 former one-room school teachers and students from all over Minnesota. The book was awarded honorable mention in 1997 by the Minnesota Independent Publishers Association. In 2002, he published his teaching memoir, “From Both Sides of the Desk,” which recounts his life and experiences as both a student and a teacher.

Since 2002, he has written extensively about the history of men’s amateur baseball in the Minnesota River Valley. He also wrote “Belle Plaine Baseball 1884-1960.”

Melchior wrote and edited “Never Forgotten: Stories by Scott County World War II Veterans” in 2007. It took him 2 ½ years to write and publish the book. He received a grant through the Scott County Historical Society to publish it and he ended up interviewing 73 Scott County veterans.

Today, Melchior is writing a brief history of Shakopee town baseball from 1890-2017 to be included in the state tournament program later this summer. We are indebted to Melchior’s many talents that he is bringing to us as we co-host the 2018 state tournament. Thank you!

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