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If you build it, they will come..for a while

In 1928, a magnificent grandstand was built in Melrose’s Legion Park (now City Park), complete with refreshment stand, office, dressing rooms and seating for 800. The cost was $2000, and the purpose was, according to the Melrose Beacon, to “aid in the success of the coming baseball season when an all-star all-salaried team will represent Melrose.” Players had been paid before, but never on such a scale. Never mind that these “pros” also held jobs such as driving the town bread wagon to supplement their salaries. The first game was on May 6, when 2,000 spectators (not sure where they all sat), saw Melrose fall to Scobey, Montana, three-zip. Local pitcher Rube Schauer was no match for Scobey’s black whiz, John Donaldson. Less than two weeks later, Donaldson was signed up to play for Melrose. Long before Jackie Robinson, there was John Donaldson. When he signed with Melrose, it was said that he was known over the whole nation as “one of the greatest colored pitchers that ever stepped into the box.” Born in Missouri in 1891, his African- American heritage kept him out of the big leagues, but he played for semi-pro teams such as Melrose and for the Negro Leagues. He came to Minnesota in 1912 as a member of the barnstorming “All Nations” baseball team. A varied and colorful career followed, as he traveled with other barnstorming clubs, including John Donaldson’s All-Stars out of Fairmont. He ended his career in 1934. There is a move afoot to get him into the baseball Hall of Fame. A mixed bag of wins and losses followed against teams such as the House of David, The Colored Giants of Minneapolis and the Navy Cabs. At the Bertha game, a scout spotted Benny Held, a Minneapolis man catching for Melrose, and signed him with the St. Louis Cardinals farm team. A pitcher from Avon, George Fischer, had once played for “the Washington team of the American League,” also known as the Senators. Donaldson was not around for the 1929 season. By June attendance was down, and eventually only visiting teams used the field. In September the House of David played the Colored Whiskered Giants (the world’s only colored, whiskered team.) Although baseball is practically synonymous with rural American life, the first fields of dreams were New York City parks in the 1800s, and its players were merchants, bankers and insurance clerks. The first organized league to have left a record was the Knickerbocker Club, established in 1845. Early teams had no set number of players or field dimensions. The first to score 21 aces (runs) won. Pitchers threw stiff armed and underhanded until 1882, when they were allowed to raise the arm to hip level. The true overhand pitch was not allowed until 1884, in the major leagues at least. Batters could show the pitcher exactly where they wanted the ball thrown to them. After as many as nine inaccurate pitches, the single umpire could call a walk. Basemen seldom left their bases, and nobody wore a glove. In 1930, the Melrose Legion sponsored a “fast semi-professional team rather than an amateur league.” Fans were assured of “some very high class base ball attractions.” The season could be summed up, “They built it, nobody came, and they finished in the cellar.” On May 17 the Melrose Semi-pros played their first pre-season game against the American Canadian Clowns, a comic ball club who do not “resort to clownish antics to the extent that they forget base ball.” Melrose “put up a fine battle,” but the Clowns proved that they had indeed not forgotten base ball and won. Melrose played another exhibition next at St. Cloud. Pitching for St. Cloud was “Big John” Donaldson, the “well-known colored twirler who has been a big attraction in the state baseball circles the past several years.” Melrose lost 6-7, although Donaldson was touched up for 14 bingles. The Melrose team proceeded to lose a few more pre-season games until the day of the big season opener. The Melrose city band played, Paul Schaefer, who had tried out for the big leagues, pitched, and Melrose lost. More losses followed. The Melrose Semi-pros won their eighth and final game, against Cold Spring, and played no more. Melrose Beacon sports reporter Wilfred Hetzel attempted to bring the games to life. “Pellets were caught right on the nose. Players were commended for exceptional flinging, two-ply wallops and phenomenal twirling. Slab artists named Jiggs, Ippy and Click threw apples and toiled on the hill.” Of a Melrose loss to St. Cloud, Hetzel wrote, “The Saintly sluggers pounced on the local pitcher in the last canto and subjected him to merciless hitting.” Some interesting questions are raised: People remember underhand pitching in the major leagues as late as the 1930s. Is it possible that the 1928-1929 seasons were pitched underhand and the “fast” baseball referred to was pitched overhand? The Melrose Area Historical Society has been asked what players were paid in those days. Does anyone know? And what’s a bingle?

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