by Anthony Bush
The 2020 Minnesota high school baseball season would have concluded with the 74th annual state tournament. Instead, schools are closed and ball fields are empty in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the inception of the state tournament in 1947, there was one other year in which PHS did not have baseball: 1953. Why? Factors included a war, a coaching change, the lack of a conference schedule, and coaching and participating in multiple sports at the same time.
Back in 1947, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) sanctioned a package of summer sports, including baseball. For three years, 1947-49, Rails baseball took place over the summer months, concurrent with the American Legion team’s schedule. The high school team played about a dozen games a season and won its District 26 tournament quarterfinals game but lost in the semifinals each of those first three years of MSHSL baseball.
PHS had a baseball team before 1947. The first Rails team assembled in 1938. Coached by Victor Dryden, the team lost the District 26 championship game to Cloquet. There’s a 1939 District 26 championship trophy in the case at PHS, but as of yet no details have emerged from that season. It might be an American Legion team trophy.
Knowing what happened to area high school baseball between 1938 and America’s entry into WWII is dependent upon further research, but there was no Rails baseball in the war years (this includes Duluth Dukes player Peanuts Peterson’s school years—he did not play baseball for PHS because there was no team).
With baseball’s return as a varsity sport in '47, PHS turned to its recently-hired teacher and multi-sport coach Henry Chapman to lead the team.
Born in Minneapolis in 1915, Chapman was a star swimmer at South High School. He also played multiple sports for Pillsbury House, a community center rooted in the international settlement house movement. He took three years off from his studies due to financial hardship caused by the Great Depression before attending Minneapolis’s Augsburg College, where he swam and played basketball. At five-feet-six-inches tall and 132 pounds, he was known as the “Mighty Mite.” He scored 18 points in Augsburg’s 41–32 loss to the Harlem Globetrotters on December 8, 1938.
Chapman taught and coached football, baseball, and track in McVille, North Dakota, and Pine River, Minnesota, prior to his Navy service in World War II. According to the St. Louis County Historical Society’s Veterans Memorial Hall website, “[He] … entered … in 1942, working as a Phm. 3/C recruiter in Minneapolis … He received an Ensign commission and was sent to Guam. Active Duty included staff duty on Guam during the duration of WWII.”
Proctor hired Chapman in 1946. He coached baseball, basketball, football, golf, swimming, and track in his early years at PHS.
Starting in 1950, the state baseball tournament was moved from August to June. This change set the PHS program back a few paces in the 1950s. The difference was that there wasn’t a regular season for several years—Denfeld won the 1950 state championship with a season’s record of 7–0, all playoffs games—and Proctor won just one playoff game in the entire decade.
In 1950, Proctor lost to Esko in the first round of the playoffs, 12-5, on June 13. Mel Koivisto earned the pitching win for the Eskomos. (After his career as a basketball player at UMD, Koivisto began a teaching and coaching career at Proctor. He coached the basketball team to a state tournament appearance in 1964.) Losing pitcher Dale Erickson had 13 strikeouts but he walked 10 batters. And there were seven Proctor errors. The Proctor Journal reported afterward, “Although no schedule has been drawn up as yet, it is believed that the high school nine will play one or two games yet this summer with the Esko, Cloquet [or] Two Harbors teams.” The 1951 Proctorian yearbook listed the loss to Esko along with a win versus Cloquet and one win and one loss against Hibbing.
The Rails played two games in 1951. First, they beat Koivisto and the Eskomos, 4–2, in the first round of the district playoffs on June 11. This time they did not commit any errors. Winning pitcher Wayne Johanson and Koivisto each allowed just four hits. Jim Norton collected two hits for Proctor. They then lost their quarterfinal game to Duluth Central, 8–2, on June 12. Troy’s Bill Vale struck out 18 batters. Central went on to win the Region 7 title and made the only state baseball tournament appearance in the school’s history.
Chapman was called back to active duty during the Korean War. He served from November 12, 1951, to July 18, 1953, “on staff duty in Japan,” according to the Veterans Memorial Hall. While in Japan, he coached a baseball team to a league championship. According to the Journal, among his players were Gayle “Curly” Morrison from Morgan Park and Dick Varichak, future long-time instructor, coach, and athletic director at Hibbing Community College and namesake of the press box at Hibbing’s Al Nyberg Field.
Proctor hired Jim McIntire in Chapman’s absence. McIntire, born in 1923 and raised in Carlton, briefly attended Iowa State before graduating from UMD in 1947. He taught and coached at Madelia, Minnesota, from 1948 until coming to Proctor in November of ‘51.
There is only one PHS baseball game on record in which McIntire coached. Proctor lost its first-round playoffs game to Denfeld, 11–4, on June 6, 1952. Jim Norton got the lone hit off Hunters hurler Bill Nelson.
For whatever the ultimate reason, Proctor did not participate in baseball in 1953. No letters were awarded for the sport.
Considering that so few games were played in those days and there was undoubtedly an American Legion season in the summer of ‘53, the circumstances are hardly comparable to 2020. Nevertheless, these returning letter winners did not get to don the green and white on the diamond for their senior year: Myron Case, Jim Cleary, Lloyd Envall, Richard Hessevick, John Hulten, Larry LeBlanc, Jim Norton, and Tom Stark.
Upon Chapman’s return, he took back the reins of the baseball program from 1954-59. Chapman also resumed coaching basketball and swimming while McIntire retained football, track, and golf. Among McIntire’s coaching successes were back-to-back undefeated football seasons in 1956 and ‘57.
When Rails baseball returned to action in 1954, they beat Hermantown, 3–1, and, despite a three-hit pitching performance by Paul Sandstrom, lost to Denfeld, 2–0, in the two regular-season games on record. They then got walloped by Denfeld, 18–0, in the playoffs on June 1. Denfeld went on to become the state runner-up that year.
Chapman was a founding member of Proctor Little League in 1964 and he retired as a Lt. Sr. Grade after 21 years of service with the Naval Reserve. When he started working for Proctor, he coached the six boys sports that the school offered. When he retired from his post as PHS athletic director in 1977, he oversaw 21 programs offered to boys and girls. A 1983 Augsburg Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, he died in 2006, just months after being inducted into the Proctor Hall of Fame.
McIntire, who also died in 2006, left Proctor in 1968 to take on a new line of work at C.Z. Wilson Sporting Goods in Duluth. He was inducted into the Proctor Hall of Fame in 1994. His plaque states, “Coaching three sports in the spring required Jim to be more than a little creative with baseball practicing or playing on Tuesday and Thursday; golf on Friday, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, the track team either practiced or had a meet.”
The overlapping of sports affected PHS baseball for years. Even after the Big Nine Conference (later called the Big 10 and eventually the Lake Superior Conference) schedule was adopted in 1960, when Proctor lost in the second round of the 1961 playoffs it was reported that three starters were absent due to participating in the Region 7 track meet.
It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that Rails baseball emerged as a regional powerhouse, for in that era they achieved their first state tournament appearance in 1976, six sub-region titles in nine years, and conference championships in 1977, ‘80, and ‘81—the last two being a part of the 22-conference-game win streak.