Rails Baseball Began 70 Years Ago
by Anthony Bush
Seventy years ago, Proctor hosted, and won, the first Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) baseball game played in the Duluth area.
In 1947, the MSHSL created a comprehensive summer sports program that included baseball and a few local schools, including Proctor, approved funding for it. Duluth, for example, secured $1,200 ($13,350 today) on June 9 for summer sports programs for its three high schools—Central, Denfeld, and Morgan Park.
District 26 officials and coaches met at Denfeld on June 24 to create a baseball schedule. Teams represented at the meeting included the three Duluth schools, Proctor, and Two Harbors. Carlton, Esko, and Floodwood, mentioned as possible additions, ended up not fielding teams for District 26 competition. Proctor and Two Harbors drew the first game on the schedule, to be played at Proctor’s Missabe Athletic Park on June 26.
Henry Chapman (1915–2006) coached the Rails. A WWII veteran, Chapman started teaching at Proctor in 1946.
Evidence exists of Rails baseball prior to 1947. There’s a 1939 District 26 championship trophy on display at PHS. Duluth Central hosted a District 26 “diamond ball” (likely fast-pitch softball) tournament in 1937 and ’38. Central won both, and Proctor did not participate in either one. Besides the trophy, this writer has yet to find any other record of a 1939 tournament. Also, Victor Dryden is listed as a baseball coach, along with Chapman and Jim McIntire—hired when Chapman served in the Korean War—in the program for the 1958 Proctor athletic banquet that commemorates 25 years of the banquets’ honoring all PHS sports coaches during that span. Dryden coached PHS football, track, and girls’ tennis in the 1930s.
Central had baseball teams in the 1890s and early 1900s, but the MSHSL did not exist until 1916. Two Harbors already played a game in 1947, when the Agates took down Carlton on June 13 behind pitcher Leon LaCasse’s 18 strikeouts. But since Carlton did not participate in District 26 play, the game essentially became one of the exhibition variety.
Therefore, the June 26 game goes down in history as the first MSHSL baseball game in the region. Proctor won, 8–6. Winning pitcher Charley Main had just two strikeouts but he walked only one batter in a complete game effort. The Rails’ Ron Main had two hits and Don “Red” Fontaine scored three runs. LaCasse pitched for the Agates. He struck out nine batters but he issued 13 walks.
The game was a part of a “Field Day,” in which Two Harbors students, seventh grade through 12th grade, also competed against Proctor’s students in archery, golf, swimming and diving, tennis, boys’ junior baseball, and girls’ softball and volleyball.
The baseball team did not see much success after that first win.
Knuckleball pitcher Bob Rukavina tossed a three-hitter with 16 strikeouts as Morgan Park topped Proctor, 9–0, on July 2 at Proctor.
Two Harbors returned the favor and hosted Proctor athletes for a “Field Day,” featuring the same sports plus track events, on July 15. The Agates beat the Rails in baseball, 14–6, at Horace Johnson Field.
Proctor lost to Denfeld at home, 7–1, on July 18. Hunters relief pitcher Ken “Lefty” Taylor had 11 strikeouts. Future minor-league player Larry Tessier put Denfeld ahead 2–0 with a two-run double in the fourth inning.
Duluth Central pounded Proctor, 11–1, at Ordean Field on July 23. Merle Johnson and John Arthur combined on a three-hitter for Troy.
The second known win of the season came on July 25, by a 7–2 score at Esko. Al Trottier, called “Proctor’s No. 1 left-handed hurler” by the Duluth News Tribune, notched 13 strikeouts in the non-District 26 game.
The Rails traveled to Morgan Park’s Blackmer Park on July 28 and lost, 9–5. Wildcats pitchers Pat Christie, Rukavina, and Ed Westerhaus combined on a three-hitter.
Duluth Central came to Proctor on July 30 to wrap up the regular season. This time the Trojans won, 17–4. If it was any consolation to the Rails, they stopped Pete Henrickson’s three-game-long streak for consecutive times on base at 13.
Playoffs games acted as preludes for Duluth Dukes minor-league games at Duluth’s Municipal Stadium, renamed for Dukes owner Frank Wade in 1954. Proctor and Two Harbors again drew the first card of the first District 26 baseball tournament ever played, with the winner advancing to face Central in the semifinals.
The teams met for the third time that season on Fri., Aug. 1. With the score knotted at 1–1 through four innings, Proctor broke it open with a five-run top of the fifth and a six-run sixth frame. The final score: Proctor 14, Two Harbors 3. Tom Bernard pitched the whole game for the win. Charley Main got three hits and Ron Main and Dave Ward had two hits apiece.
If fans stayed to watch “The Pride of Proctor,” Dukes center fielder Peanuts Peterson, they were disappointed. “…The lineup was further patched in the absence of Gerald ‘Peanuts’ Peterson, who was kayoed in a fall Thursday in the outfield and will be given a couple days’ rest,” stated the News Tribune. It was of no consequence as Duluth ripped Aberdeen, 16–5. Also not in the lineup that day: Aberdeen pitcher Don Larsen of 1956 World Series perfect-game fame. However, future major-leaguer Don “Footsie” Lenhardt played left field for the Pheasants.
Back at the stadium on Aug. 5, Central’s six-run fifth inning made the score 9–0. Central won, 9–2. Henrickson led Troy’s 11-hit attack with three hits. Bernard took the loss while John Arthur and Wayne Johnson combined on a five-hitter. Norm Kragseth, a 1949 Central graduate, did the catching. Kragseth went on to play football, basketball, and golf for Northwestern University and later became the first NFL official from Minnesota.
Those who stayed at the park got to see Peanuts Peterson make two diving catches in center field. He had a hit and scored a run, but the Dukes fell to Grand Forks, 7–6 in 10 innings. While Grand Forks did not feature any future MLB players, Duluth used pitcher Cloyd Boyer—one of three big-league Boyer brothers—as a pinch runner.
Denfeld beat Central for the district championship. The Hunters went on to win the Region 7 Tournament to reach the first state tournament, played in Minneapolis on Aug. 21-23. They lost to eventual state champion St. Cloud Tech in the semifinals.
High school summer baseball continued for two more years before the state tournament moved to its current June placement on the calendar in 1950. Proctor won its District 26 quarterfinals game in all three years of the summer season, but lost in the semifinals each time. Chisholm won the 1948 state tournament, played at Glencoe, despite not playing a regular season. Duluth hosted the 1949 state tournament—won by Minneapolis Edison—which featured a Region 7 champion Eveleth team consisting of players such as John Mayasich and Willard Ikola, better known for their hockey exploits than their baseball careers.
Chapman coached PHS baseball until 1959, minus the two years he spent in the Navy during the Korean War (during which time he coached baseball in Japan). He spent 31 years coaching Rails sports and 19 years as athletic director; he helped found Proctor’s Little League in the early 1960s and he ushered in PHS girls’ sports in the 1970s before retiring in 1977. A 1983 Augsburg College Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, he died in 2006 at age 91, just months after being inducted into the Proctor Hall of Fame.
These players appeared in local newspapers’ coverage of the season: Tom Bernard, Dale Erickson, Bob Erickson, Don Fontaine, Wayne Johnston, Jim Lowe, Charley Main, Ron Main, John Miller, Bob Spearman, Al Trottier, and Dave Ward.
Upon Bernard’s death in 2003, the obituary for the Korean War veteran and DM&IR Railway machinist noted that he was a star pitcher in high school.
Dale Erickson, who died in 1969, played semi-pro baseball in southern Minnesota before securing a job as an accountant for the DM&IR. His brother, Army veteran and DM&IR locomotive engineer Bob “Rubber Belly” Erickson, died in 2004.
Fontaine served in the Navy during the Korean War and worked as a real estate manager for the DM&IR. His 2012 obituary noted that he lettered in football, basketball, and baseball for Proctor.
Decorated Vietnam War veteran Wayne Johnston, a nephew of minor-league baseball player Karl Condon of Proctor, died in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1981. Johnston retired from the Air Force after 23 years of service.
Jim Lowe received a silver money clip as the star catcher on the Battery I Artillery fast-pitch softball team that came in second place in the “Little World Series,” a servicemen’s tournament in South Korea in October 1953. He lives in Connecticut.
Charley Main served in the Army in both WWII and the Korean War. A Duluth Business University graduate, he worked as a stenographer for the DM&IR and was a well-known Duluth-area professional drummer. He died in 1997.
Ron Main, Charley’s brother, attended Augsburg College and played baseball and basketball for the Auggies. He interrupted his studies to serve in Army during the Korean War. He later earned a doctorate from the University of Minnesota and retired as principal of Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minn. He lives in the Twin Cities.
According to Ron Main, Miller played American Legion baseball for Proctor but did not attend PHS. It is entirely possible that the Legion team lived a double life as the high school team since their seasons ran concurrent of each other. In fact, a team photograph in the 1948 Proctorian yearbook is labeled “Legion Baseball.”
Spearman served in the Navy, worked for AT&T in Columbus, Ohio, and then opened a travel agency in Redmond, Wash., where he died in 1991.
Trottier, a retired dentist, served in the Army during the Korean War. He lives in Philadelphia.
Ward worked as a machinist for Tractomotive in Highland Park, Ill. He died in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2013.
This photo, labeled "Legion Baseball" in the 1948 Proctorian yearbook, features: "Front row, left to right: Tom Bernard, Dale Erickson, Jim Lowe, Tom Ward, John Miller, Ron Main. Back row: Coach Chapman, Earl Gursky, Bob Spearman, Dale Bentz, Bob Erickson, Albert Trottier, Don Fontaine, Bob Norton."
Anthony Bush (PHS Class of ‘94) is an assistant baseball coach for the Rails, a member of the Society For American Baseball Research, and a board member of the Proctor Area Historical Society. He compiled a 112-page Record Book on the history of Rails baseball, available on the team’s website, railsbaseball.atomicleagues.com. He regrets any omissions or errors in the biographical summaries of the 1947 Rails and welcomes any feedback and/or information regarding the past, present, or future of Proctor baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (218) 393-9687.
(This piece originally appeared in the Proctor Journal on Aug. 31, 2017)