Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball
The sandwich-board sign set up in the center of Springfield, Minnesota, announcing Baseball Tonight, gave citizens something to look forward to at the end of a hot summer day. In the early darkness, lights went on over a field tended with care by volunteers. Bugs swarmed near the bulbs as the home team took the field in defense of the town. Both teams wore uniforms stitched with the names that appear on green strip signs at the city limits of the prairie towns: Springfield, Sleepy Eye, New Ulm, Leavenworth, Searles. Baseball stories and a pantheon of legendary players were and are proud possessions of each town.
Farm boys and town boys, hired veterans from out-of-state and local stars just off the high school team carried the town’s pride into the American pastoral battles of baseball. In the early to mid years of the twentieth century barnstorming teams of old pros rolled into town to challenge the honor of the local players. Fortunate town teams took that honor on the road, to the state tournament in some suburb of Minneapolis, where rural life and city life competed for the state title.
Eddie Albertson played high school sports for Sanborn, Minnesota High School, six miles from Springfield, then for Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. In 1934, his senior year at Luther, Eddie was drafted by the Detroit Tigers. That same year he began his off-season career as a high school math and science teacher, and principal of the high school in Lansing, Iowa. The summer of his graduation from Luther he began his pro career as an infielder for Duluth in the Northern League. That same year he moved on to Sioux City, Iowa in the Western League, the next year to Beaumont, Texas in the Texas League and to Henderson, Texas in the East Dixie League. In 1936 he played for Charleston, West Virginia. That year his knee, injured playing varsity football at Luther, required surgery. He was released from the club.
From 1938 through 1942 Eddie played baseball in the Canadian Provencial League and in the American Northern League, for teams in the towns of Sorel and Sherbrooke, Quebec, and in Montpelier, Vermont. In 1943, when his contract, which barely covered his modest expenses, was sold to the club in Memphis, Tennessee, Eddie retired from professional baseball.
In the 1940’s Springfield was a baseball town. Players were recruited by the town fathers for the Springfield Tigers of the Western Minnesota League. In the off-season these players taught in the public school or were given jobs in Main Street businesses or on local farms. The year Eddie retired from his Tennessee club he signed a contract to teach math and science at Springfield High School. He played third base for the Tigers and managed the team until 1954.Baseball was public glory, but teaching was Eddie’s vocation. To the great benefit of his students he carried the game of baseball with him into the classroom. Like a manager in the dugout or in place as a player at third base, he was wide-awake, encouraging his students through their daily assignments, sitting with them, cheerfully challenging and advising. As he guided generations of students through advanced mathematics, he told baseball road stories. In the long run those stories probably served the kids as well as the algebra and calculus. Eddie brought a wider world into view for farm-town students. He opened a window on a colorful corner of North American culture.
When he told about having been served muskrat in a boarding house in Quebec, or about defending himself and his teammates against rabid fans with bats issued by his team’s manager following a controversial win, or about hitting big league pitching with his own autograph Louisville Slugger, there was a flush of near greatness in the classroom, a smell of dreams chased and therefore, in retrospect, fulfilled. In Albertson there was neither melancholy nor regret about his injury-shortened career. His memories were recited with the stand-up good humor of a player who had made a hard run at the game, then turned fulltime to the ordinary honor of teaching and coaching a community’s young people.