EDITOR’S NOTE: The Minnesota Baseball Association’s 2021 State Amateur Tournament wrapped up this past weekend in Chaska, Hamburg and Waconia. Litchfield, along with Dassel and Delano, will play host to the tournament on its 100th anniversary in 2023. Amateur baseball, or “town ball,” has a long history, and many colorful characters have played in small towns throughout Minnesota. Eric Kraushar, sports editor at our sister paper, the Chaska Herald, wrote the following story about one of those characters.
Bernice Grant found her son, Bud, upstairs in their Superior, Wisconsin, home. Three gentlemen had knocked on the front door looking for him. Bernice wondered what her son had done the day before.
The time was 7 a.m. and the three men were dressed in overalls. Cow farmers.
“I thought I was going to get arrested for something. But it was three guys in bib overalls. They had driven up from a small dairy town, Ridgeland. You can’t get there from here. It’s that small. It’s in central Wisconsin. They had a good baseball team. Good tradition of baseball. They had seen me pitch and they came all the way to ask if I would pitch for them,” Grant remembered.
Grant, a hired gun on the mound, pitched 10 times over four years for Ridgeland. He won nine times. Offered $50 a game, Grant doubled that, offering to take nothing if the team lost.
“No one was getting $100 a game. And here I made $900 in 10 games,” Grant said.
Grant is most known as the former Minnesota Vikings head coach for 18 seasons, leading the team to four Super Bowl appearances, 11 division titles, one league championship, and three NFC conference championships.
He finished with 283 career wins between 10 seasons as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League and the NFL; third-most ever behind Don Shula and George Halas.
Grant also had a two-year stint as a professional basketball player with the Minneapolis Lakers and was a three-sport athlete at the University of Minnesota.
“I had summers off, so I played baseball. Those were the times of no TV. Sunday afternoon was picnic time. Grandstands were full in every town. I made more money playing baseball than I did playing with the World Champion Minneapolis Lakers for a year,” Grant said.
Grant’s final game with Ridgeland was a night game at Rice Lake. At this time, many ball fields were adding lights to be able to host night games to complement Sunday afternoon contests. Grant lost count how many times he was asked to pitch in these lighting ceremonial games.
On this night in Rice Lake, the town had two other special guests, Halsey Hall and Cedric Adams from WCCO Radio. Grant said the game was halted at one point in the sixth or seventh inning to allow for the two gentlemen to broadcast the news.
Here was the catch. Grant had already pitched nine innings in a playoff game for Gordon, Wisconsin, that afternoon.
“I get done pitching, take a shower, and then I drove to Rice Lake for the night game. I pitched two games in one day. I remember Halsey saying something like ‘I’ve never seen a guy throw so many change-ups and get the win,’” Grant said. “I never came out of a game. All those rocks I threw as a kid. I could throw all day. It wasn’t as fast as the innings went on, but luckily I had good accuracy and could always throw strikes.”
MAKING HIS NAME
Baseball was something everyone played in the 1940s. All it took was a bat and a ball. Grant, like many boys at the time, gravitated through the sport at a young age.
Grant fondly remembers all the games of catch. He just needed two other guys for a game of pepper.
“Whatever you could do with a baseball, we did it. We’d organize ourselves. I’d call a buddy across town and we’d pick a day or night and each of us would come up with nine guys to make a team,” Grant said.
American Legion was the organization anyone under 18 years of age played in. Grant was on the Superior squad, with frequent trips across the state border to Duluth and Two Harbors.
Grant was selected to play in a Legion Baseball All-Star Game in Chicago when he was 16 years old. An East versus West match-up with the Mississippi River the dividing line.
“I had barely been out of town, probably no more than 30 miles, and all of sudden I’ve been selected to go to Chicago. My folks had barely been out of town, too. I slept in a berth (a bunk on a train car) with my mom to get there. My dad stayed up all night. I got to play at Comiskey Park,” Grant said.
A pitcher, Grant said players went through three days of tryouts to see who would start in the game. He eventually won the job, but after firing around 30 innings in the tryouts, he was limited to three innings in the All-Star Game.
“From that point on I wanted to be a hitter, where I would get to play nine innings. When I wasn’t pitching, I could still play center field and hit,” Grant said.
The highlight of the trip?
“I got to stay in a hotel for the first time. I’m taking a shower in a tub for the first time. I didn’t know to put the curtain in the tub. All of a sudden there’s a knock on the door; water was running out,” laughed Grant. “Baseball was bigger then than it has been ever since. And here I was in Chicago. Do you know how big Chicago felt to a kid like me? Pretty big.”
Grant recalled hitting a ball over the fence at Comiskey in batting practice.
When Legion baseball was done, players then transitioned onto town teams.
“Baseball was the No. 1 sport in the country. It was No. 1 for many, many years. I have 4- or 5-year-old great-grandkids that understand baseball. You hit the ball, you run to the base, you run all the way around,” Grant said. “Every town had a baseball team.”
After being in service for one year in the Navy — much of that spent at Great Lakes Naval Academy in Illinois, playing sports — Grant moved on to the University of Minnesota, where he played football, basketball and baseball.
But it was that one year in the service where Grant learned more than any other time in his life.
“I learned my status, I learned my place, how to get along with people. You know, living with 160 guys in barracks, you have to figure how to get along. I went into the service the day after I turned 18 and I came out 24,” Grant said.
It was during his time at the University when Grant began pitching for teams — yes, teams.
With summers off from Gopher teams, Grant took the opportunity to make some money by pitching for teams.
He remembers signing an actual contract with Osceola in western Wisconsin. One time he was brought on to pitch in Maple Lake. With no transportation, Grant’s services required a car escort to and from ballparks.
“My girlfriend (Pat) and I (they would later marry), they picked us up and drove us to the game in Maple Lake. Well, after the game, I go to look for the ride back and the driver wasn’t around. There was some sort of family emergency. No one else could drive us home, so they bused us to St. Cloud and then to downtown Minneapolis where we could take a streetcar home. I didn’t drop Pat off until after 2 a.m. I bet. Her mom was not too happy. It almost ended our relationship. Her mom didn’t think it was a very likely story. Safe to say, I never went back to Maple Lake,” Grant said.
Grant played for many teams throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. Scorebook records found in a museum a few years back in the town of Gordon show Grant had a record of 60-2 over four years.
Grant remembered his second loss with Gordon vividly. It came in International Falls; a team full of contract players working in the pulp mill. After a Saturday evening game, the Gordon players and fans — a burger or gas fill-up were not available back in town because everyone made the trip to follow the team — indulged just a bit too much.
“We lost 2-1 or 1-0. The shortstop made an error that cost us the game. They partied all night. I was playing with a bunch of Wisconsin guys. What could you expect?” Grant said.
Another time with Ridgeland, neighboring Prairie Farm brought in their own hired arm, a pitcher from the Minneapolis Millers, a minor league professional team in the American Association.
“We were up 6-0 in the fourth or fifth inning. They couldn’t hit. Or at least I was better than them. And they fired their pitcher. The crowd was a hooting and a hollering. They were yelling to get rid of him. Don’t pay him. They were crazy, Grant said.
“But that’s what town ball meant to these communities. Town ball was your identity,” he added.
That’s why when Grant played in Chaska one time, a league game with Hastings, he remembers coming away impressed.
“Chaska was the shrine. They had a nice ball park. Fenced in field, nice grandstand. I played there. I remember being impressed. How it was kept up. It was really a showplace for a town ball game. Still is today. I’ve been back a couple of times for my own kids. It’s the best town ball stadium in the state. And I’ve been in every town in this state,” Grant said.
A first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League, and fourth-round pick of the Minneapolis Lakers in professional basketball, baseball became third fiddle for Grant.
He remained in the game, but never considered anything more than being a hired arm on summer nights.
After college, Grant played two seasons of professional basketball with the Minneapolis Lakers, signed by close personal friend, Sid Hartman. He was a part of the 1950 world champion team with George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen.
He left basketball, signing with Philadelphia in 1951. A defensive end one season, leading the league in sacks, Grant switched to receiver in his second year, and was second in the league in yards with 997 and seven touchdowns.
A contract dispute sent Grant packing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League where he continued his success as an offensive end, leading the league in pass receptions in three of four years. He also recorded five interceptions in a playoff game in 1953.
At the age of 30, Grant shifted from player to coach. He would lead Winnipeg to four Grey Cup championships in a decade before moving back to Minnesota where he led the Vikings from 1967 to 1983, and again in 1985. At the time of his retirement, he had the eighth-most career NFL coaching wins with 166.
Grant was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1994.
ONE MORE TIME
Before taking the job in Winnipeg, Grant said he was able to pitch one more time. With the car packed up, a boat used as storage, four kids, his wife and two dogs in tow, Grant took the mound for league champion Hastings on a Sunday.
“I told Bob McNamara and his brother Pinky (Gopher football greats), who were running the team, I could stick around. They offered me $50. I said, well, I could stay around maybe for a $100. They laughed. They came up with something for me to get me to stay and pitch against this all-star team,” Grant said.
Grant and Hastings won the game. Grant, though not his best on the mound, came through with a home run in the seventh inning, saving more heroics for the ninth. With two outs, down a run, Grant found an outside pitch to his liking, hitting the ball over the short right-field fence for a walk-off winner.
His last at-bat. His last game.
And by Monday morning he was in Winnipeg, the start of 28 seasons as a head football coach.
“Of all of the sports I belonged in, pro football to pro basketball, town ball was the most fun sporting activity I think I’ve ever done,” Grant said.