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Baseball and Nicollet County

More than just a game

“This is truly a transcendent sport.”

~ Senator John McCain, 2005

While Senator McCain was speaking on a national level those of us in Nicollet County should realize that the statement has held true throughout the area’s history as well. For example, over a century ago Hinckley, MN was devastated by a fire that still ranks as one of the worst in US history. In an attempt to help St. Peter community leaders organized a charity baseball game and donated the proceeds to the relief efforts. Decades later, during the Great Depression, residents of Nicollet County rallied around the success of the area’s amateur teams. The St. Peter team, only a year and a half old, rode this support to the 1933 Class A title. By 1947 the area was well known throughout the state for its superb play and great fans and was rewarded with the right to host the State Tournament. Many baseball fans may remember this year as the year Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues, becoming the first black player in the league. In that same year the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Tournament saw its first African-American participant, Gread “Lefty” McKinnis, star pitcher for the Rochester Queens.

September 7, 1894

This photograph shows baseball players from the Fats versus the Leans game in St. Peter in 1894. This game was played as a charitable event in order to raise money for the victims of the Hinckley fire. Future Gov. John A. Johnson is shown as the man in white standing at the far right.
This photograph shows baseball players from the Fats versus the Leans game in St. Peter in 1894. This game was played as a charitable event in order to raise money for the victims of the Hinckley fire. Future Gov. John A. Johnson is shown as the man in white standing at the far right.

Important men from St. Peter and the surrounding areas came together to hold a charity game for the victims of the Hinckley Fire. The game between the Fats and the Leans raised $261.20 and was attended by an estimated 1,000 people. The editor for the St. Peter Herald was in attendance and called it the “greatest event within the history of St. Peter.”

Many of the men involved in the game were either immigrants or sons of immigrants, not surprising considering the amount of immigration America was experiencing around this time. Between 1850 and 1900 the number of people living in the US that were foreign-born increased fivefold. These men became amazing success stories, despite having been born to parents who rode to the US in boats or having made the journey themselves. Among the ball players that day were local business owners, judges, and politicians. Even John A. Johnson, future Governor of Minnesota participated in the game.

The larger issue for these men was the tragic Hinckley Fire. In killing 418 people and destroying 160,000 acres of land the Hinckley Fire still ranks as the 3rd most deadly wildfire and the 24th worst disaster in US history. We see traces of the men’s humanity even today; despite sometimes poor public images contemporary athletes often volunteer time or give money to charities. Even recently a number of NBA players donated $1,000 to the tsunami relief effort for each point they scored in a game.

Aftermath of the Hinkley Fire.

1932-34 Nicollet County Amateur Teams

During the middle years of the Great Depression amateur teams from Nicollet County made a combined 5 trips to the State Tournament. Both St. Peter and Lafayette made consecutive trips in ’32 and ’33 while in ’34 Nicollet County’s lone representative was the town of Nicollet. The St. Peter team had the most success of the bunch, taking 3rd in ’32 and winning the class A crown the following year.

This was made all the more remarkable by the fact that the St. Peter team hadn’t been around for years before 1932. But midway through the summer that year, with the nation in the grips of the Great Depression, a team was created and accepted into the 5-County League. That team was made up mostly of Gustavus students around still in the summer because of the jobs they could find in town, while the teams in Lafayette and Nicollet consisted usually of men from the community.

Most of us probably have thoughts or images that come to mind when thinking of the Great Depression. We’ve probably seen images of abandoned farmhouses from the dust bowl or read some part of Steinbeck’s Depression classic The Grapes of Wrath. But its important to remember that life didn’t simply stop during those tough times, and the amateur teams from Nicollet County in this period are an excellent example of how real people (students, farmers, etc) found time to enjoy life.

1947 State Baseball Tournament

The ’47 Tournament was hosted by the city of North Mankato at historic Tanley Field. Extra bleachers had to be brought in as tournament time neared to handle all the anticipated crowds. The decision proved to be a good one as the tournament easily broke previous attendance records. Fans were not disappointed either, seeing Albert Lea defeat New Ulm 4-3 for the Class AA crown and watching Chaska beat McKinnis and his Rochester team 10-6 in the Class A championship game.

Pitcher Gread “Lefty” McKinnis became the first black participant in the Minnesota State Baseball Tournament and was named Tournament MVP. Pitching for the Rochester Queens McKinnis won each of his team’s game, compiling a 3-1 record with 39 K’s. His lone loss came to Chaska in the championship game in which he struck out 16. McKinnis was well known in Negro baseball circles as one of the few men to ever beat Satchel Page, but was blacklisted by Major League teams because of his race and his decision to play in the Mexican League.

Jackie Robinson

1947 is often pointed to as the start of the Civil Rights movement in the US. In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in the major leagues, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers and breaking down the barrier for other stars of the Negro Leagues. Within a decade the armed forces were integrated, Brown v the Board of Education had desegregated schools, and Americans had been introduced to Rosa Parks, and entertainers Nat King Cole, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry.

“The National Pastime.” “America’s Game.”

Baseball has a long and storied tradition in America. Tracing itself all the way back to the 1840s and ’50s, it was spread to the southern states by northern soldiers during the Civil War; it blossomed during later waves of immigration, survived world wars, and trying times for the economy and society. It could be said then, that perhaps part of the reason baseball held such a revered place in Americans’ hearts and was given these labels was because baseball seemed to always be there when people needed it.

It was there for the people of St. Peter that wanted a way to help victims of the Hinckley Fire; in the form of amateur (town team) baseball it was there for people during the Great Depression, providing an entertaining escape; and it was there at the start of the Civil Rights movement, showing that right in our backyard black athletes were excelling like Jackie Robinson was in the major leagues.

Well put Mr. McCain.

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