Waverly, a great baseball town
July 20, 2009
by Jim O'Leary

If you know anything at all about Waverly, you will know that it was, and is a great town for baseball and softball.

In fact, “Waverly Daze” itself started out as a softball tournament, drawing teams from all over the state.

How many town teams were there that could identify a home run as “putting one in the lake?” How many town teams could draw huge crowds Sunday after Sunday when World War II came to an end and we got to watch our young men back from the war playing for their home town again?

Nothing is more fun than watching a baseball game where you know all the players, and are often related to some of them.

There were many families who could claim to be a baseball dynasty in Waverly: the Ogles, the Quinns, the Jolicoeurs. But if I had to pick a family that stood for Waverly baseball more than any other, it would have to be the Litfins: George, Tom and Jackie.

Recently Tom Litfin, of Milaca, who is in the Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame, sent me some photos of the Waverly Junior Legion Team of 1940, which went to the state finals and lost to the Minneapolis Fire and Police team.

I had asked Tom for this because my brother John had the photo and wanted to know the names of all the players. There were three on the picture he couldn’t identify.

Tom is now 86 and retired, but still does all his own yard and garden work. He was probably the best pitcher ever to come out of Waverly, but unfortunately, was overused to the point of hurting his throwing arm. He pitched back in the days when we weren’t careful of such things, in those days before pitch counts and kinesiology.

Remember the year 1940? That was before all, all was changed, utterly changed, before the horror of World War II, when “a terrible beauty was born.” I was 9 years old at the time and like all the other little kids in Waverly, knew every one of the players. Thank God our guys came home.

Waverly jumped right in to Minnesota baseball after the war and there were many, many leagues formed. On a Sunday afternoon, the stands out the ball park on the lake were always full.

(Check out a photo related to this column of an old time baseball team on the HJ blog.)

In addition, cars surrounded the fences and honked their insides out for the home team every time we got a hit. The bowling alley had a scoreboard up over the bar with the names of all our heroes and their batting order.

Some of the players, like Jack Reinert, got into the Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame.

St. Mary’s High School, in my time, always had good baseball teams, with the likes of Bobby Decker and Don Smith starring. Both of them later played for the Waverly Town Team during its glory years.

I can remember Bobby Decker, who played first base, going down to the ball park after early Mass on game days and taking one grounder after another, practicing for hours, and it showed in his playing. I think he later played for army teams in Korea.

Bobby was left-handed, as are many first basemen, and batted left as well. Ches Ogle was our coach, volunteering his time in a way seldom seen, giving us hours and hours. He and his family were all graduates of St. Mary’s.

And did he ever know baseball. In fact, it was he who had coached the Junior Legion team to the state finals. Our St. Mary’s High School team had to go to all the Waverly businesses for donations in order to buy equipment, even though we wore the old uniforms from the Junior Legion team. Our baseball team was so good, we went undefeated in my senior year.

I graduated from high school in 1949. By that time we were playing some games “under the lights.” I can remember one time when we were playing against Buffalo and the Buffalo pitcher was wisely trying to walk Don Smith. Sooner than take the walk and go to first base, Don reached out over the plate and hit a home run over the right field fence into the lake.

I didn’t make the team even in my senior year, but tried out for shortstop. Jack McHale, down in the seventh grade, played shortstop instead. I did write up the games for The Waverly Star and brought my copy, always written in pencil on an Indian Chief notebook, to Marks McDonnell, who never changed a word, but never gave me a byline either.

I remember playing baseball on Waverly Lake when it was still frozen over. Our St. Mary’s team practiced catching fly balls out on the ice. I remember baseball games in the summertime at the Joe Borrell farm, where Gerald, Clayton and Marion Borrell lived. We also practiced on the field that served as a skating rink every winter when Tom O’Connell flooded it for us.

It was right across from St. Mary’s convent. Ches Ogle dug some sliding pits there so we could practice our base stealing, and he taught us how to slide.

After growing up in Waverly where the Monday talk all over town was always going over Sunday’s game, it has been hard for me to understand people who don’t like baseball.

These people don’t seem to know that every time a player is at bat, it is a contest between one person and nine, not just between the pitcher and the batter. The players, either in the infield or the outfield, have to be students of both the pitcher and the batter, so they can anticipate where the ball will go.

To know that this right handed batter often pulls an inside curve ball gives the shortstop an extra lean on his step if the ball zooms his way. To know also that the hitter’s strategy and the pitcher’s strategy changes with the pitch count is also more excitement.

When the announcer says, “The count is even at 2 and 2,” he is wrong. That count isn’t even. That count definitely favors the pitcher. Very few hitters will swing at a 3-0 pitch, and for good reason.

For a bat a few inches in diameter to hit a ball a few inches in diameter going maybe ninety miles an hour, or curving crazily out of eyesight, is a near miracle. No wonder Ted Williams was the last of the .400 hitters. Well, maybe Joe Mauer will do it again someday.

Meanwhile, I am happy to have been in a generation which got to see the strong young men of our town play their hearts out – and all for free.