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One-man baseball museum a big hit

No matter what season of the year, Donald “Duke” Cook’s one-man baseball museum is a home run when it comes to preserving the rich history of the sport for those who have played the game or are fans of regional teams surrounding the small village of Leavenworth in Brown County.

The midwinter month of February can be cold, and ball diamonds are covered under a blanket of snow and ice but step inside a classroom of a former grade school at Japanese Martyrs Catholic Church, and warm memories prevail through several decades of memorabilia collected by Cook for the museum.

The museum’s collection features many artifacts, including numerous uniforms, jackets, caps, bats, gloves, catcher masks, hundreds of photos, programs, newspaper clippings, autographs and dozens of trophies which fill the display cases that go the length of four walls and down the center of the room.

The assorted items come from ball clubs that once played or are still active in area towns like Leavenworth, Sleepy Eye, Hanska, Wanda, Comfrey, New Ulm, Springfield, St. James, Fairfax and townships in Stark and Mulligan along with other neighboring community teams.

Also scattered throughout the museum are photos of major league baseball stars, programs, buttons, baseball cards and Babe Ruth material, since Babe is part of the lore of area history having once played in an exhibition game held at Sleepy Eye one cold October day in 1922.

Donald “Duke” Cook with part of the museum collection of regional amateur baseball and major league exhibits plus softball team memorabilia located in a former school building at Leavenworth.

Donald “Duke” Cook with part of the museum collection of regional amateur baseball and major league exhibits plus softball team memorabilia located in a former school building at Leavenworth.

Cook, 87, is a lifelong farmer who lives five miles south of Leavenworth and has worked his own land up until this year. It was over 70 years ago when, at age 16, along with his brother Mel, who was 14, began playing baseball for Mulligan Township in the Brown County Jr. League of 1944.

Later, Duke joined the Leavenworth amateur baseball team in 1948. The next year the team advanced to the state tournament played at Detroit Lakes. Duke’s hot bat led the way for Leavenworth in the regional playoffs and at state, getting 14 hits in 19 trips to the plate.

One of those hits came in a playoff game at the strangely configured ball park in Bellingham that had a ditch running through part of right field. “Any ball hit in the ditch was considered a double,” Duke explained. “I hit one in there, and a teammate had three hits go in the ditch, and we won the game 15-3.”

In 1950-51 Duke played baseball for Sleepy Eye in the highly regarded semi-pro Western Minny League but then returned to Leavenworth for another year before entering the military and serving as a Marine from 1953-56.

During 1954 he was stationed in Japan and had the opportunity to play on the Marines baseball team. “I was at Camp Mt. Fuji, and it was usually pretty windy there, so all of the buildings had rocks sitting on the rooftops to help keep them from blowing off,” Duke recalled.

But it also was a beautiful place. “We were so high up that when the sun rose in the morning it was always shining down below us,” Duke said.

He played second base and remembered splitting a pair of games played against a Japanese college-age team by identical 11-9 scores. “It was a lot of fun to play against them. They had spectators that stood all along the left field foul line and cheered as much for us as their own team,” he stated. Hitting a home run in one of the games also was a highlight for Duke.

Although he played for Comfrey one year in 1961, Duke was mostly associated with the Leavenworth organization, playing ball, promoting the game and helping raise funds for the team until 1975.

He also shared his knowledge of the game as a coach helping the girls’ softball teams that played on Leavenworth’s diamond located next door to the school/museum building. For his contributions to the game, Duke joined his brother Mel in the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. Mel was inducted in 1987, Duke in 1996 and cousin Jeff Cook in 2006. They are among more than a half dozen Cooks in the area who played generations of baseball for the better part of 100 years.

Duke said the idea for a Leavenworth baseball museum originated about 25 years ago when it was founded by Richard Mathiowetz and Phyllis Augustin.

“They moved into a room in the school and got things going,” Duke recalled. Display cases were built and collection items organized by volunteers with most of the material coming from what Duke had gathered over the years starting back in 1939.

Among the oldest exhibits in the collection is the baseball glove used by Duke’s dad, George Cook, who played for Prairieville Township from 1906-1912. Also in the museum is a 1905 photo of his dad and four uncles who played on the 1905 Mulligan Township team.

Duke’s interest in baseball memorabilia was ignited by his aunt, Minnie Duncan, who sent him a scorecard from a 1939 Cincinnati Reds vs. New York Yankees World Series game that she attended and which is now in the museum.

In those early years Duke and Mel would sometimes get picked up from school by their dad after attending classes in a rural Mulligan Township building located just a few miles down the road from the Cook farm. “We’d go to the old Albin Country Store where Mel and I would each get a box of Wheaties and cut out the baseball card printed on the cereal box,” Duke noted.

The museum’s collection includes Duke’s first baseball glove when he was 11 years old and a tattered baseball from the first game that he played in with Mel. “I remember my mom stitching the seams together on that old ball many different times,” Duke said. The ball is sitting next to a row of several other baseballs signed by Minnesota Hall of Famers.

Duke says a lot of items in the museum have been donated too. “Some players’ wives get tired of having their closets filled up with old uniforms or jackets so I end up with them, and now they’re in here,” Duke explained.

One of the more unusual items that has a place in the trophy case portion of the museum is the engraved metal band that once wrapped around Leavenworth’s 1939 league title award.

“The manager, Cletus Huiras, brought it in and said the band was all that was left as termites had eaten the wooden part of the trophy,” laughed Duke. “I don’t know where that trophy had been kept all those years to get eaten up by termites.”

Another interesting museum exhibit is a 1956 Fulda Giants program from the only year the team played in the Western Minny League. “Those Western Minny League years during the ‘40s and ‘50s were really great,” Duke recalled. “You’d have 1,500 fans in the stands just watching batting practice before some games between teams that had bitter rivalries,” he added.

Placed in a far corner of the museum is a 1946 KSTP Sunset Valley Barn Dance poster advertising a fundraiser for the Mulligan Baseball Club. In another cabinet are photos of the All-American Girls professional baseball teams from 1943-46 and a rare 1934 Dizzy and Paul Dean St. Louis Cardinals box top print.

Duke tells of his brush with baseball greatness when pointing to the ticket stub and program in a glass case from a game he saw at Japan’s Korakuen Stadium when he was serving with the Marines. “There was 55,000 people attending the game between the Tokyo Giants and New York Yankees. I was fortunate to be able to shake hands with Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra,” he said.

Duke said he’s played with and watched many talented players over the years and noted some of them might have made it to the big leagues. “Except there was only 16 major league teams back then, and it was hard getting that opportunity,” he said.

The museum is generally open just twice a year during the annual Leavenworth baseball benefit held each winter with a meal served to supporters and a softball game played outside despite the weather conditions. Then in July it’s open again during the Japanese Martyrs Catholic Church fundraiser dinner.

Other times the free-of-charge museum can be opened by Duke to visitors by appointment by calling him on the phone to come into Leavenworth from the home place farm where he lives in the same house that he grew up.

“Then I just have to remember which keys I need to use to open the school doors for the museum,” he joked.

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