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Playing with some of the all time greats

Little did he know at the time, but Albany resident Elmer Kohorst of Albany was rubbing elbows with some of the greatest players in Major League Baseball history when he was at spring training with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers organization from 1957-59.

Elmer Kohorst of Albany when he was playing with the Pueblo Dodgers, Class A, in the late 1950s. Contributed photo

At that time, all the various levels within the Dodgers’ organization held spring training in Vero Beach, allowing Kohorst and other minor league players to practice with the big leaguers.

Kohorst was a two-time All-American catcher for Notre Dame, where his roommate was Heisman Trophy winner and future Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung.

Kohorst was captain of the 1957 Fighting Irish baseball team that advanced to the College World Series for the first time in the school’s history.

He was then signed by the Dodgers for $4,000 following his collegiate career and assigned to play for their AAA affiliate St. Paul Saints for three home games since he was from Minnesota.

“My dad (Clem) got to see me play my first professional game,” said Kohorst. “He was tickled pink because he got a box seat right behind home plate.”

Kohorst caught one of the three games and pinch hit in another during his brief stint with the Saints. And his father also got to see his son notch his first hit as a professional in his very first plate appearance.

“I took the first pitch, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, they’re really quick here. I heard the ball hit the catcher’s mitt, but I’m not sure I even saw it,” he laughed. “So I choked up on the bat a little, and I swung at the next pitch.”

And even though it wasn’t a line drive to center field, a hit is a hit.

“I hit the ball, and it bounced off the plate, and it went 45 feet straight up in the air,” Kohorst revealed. “By the time it finally came down, I had crossed first base.”

While Kohorst was in spring training camp with the Dodgers, he found himself squatting behind home plate and receiving pitches from future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, among others.

“Drysdale was the one of the nicest guys I ever met when he wasn’t in uniform, but he was ornery once he stepped on the field,” said Kohorst.

When Drysdale, a hard-throwing right-hander, skipped a few pitches in the dirt that Kohorst was unable to handle cleanly, he snapped at the young backstop.

The mask and mitt Kohorst wore when he caught Sandy Koufax in training camp. Contributed photos

“He would yell at me ‘Hey rookie, catch the damn ball. You’re making me look bad’,” Kohorst remembers.

“Koufax was just the opposite. If he threw a pitch in the dirt and I blocked it, he would come over and ask if I was okay. I caught those two pitchers and others about two or three times a week.”

Kohorst’s grandson, John Ghyzel, now has the catcher’s mitt that his grandfather wore to catch Koufax. Ghyzel is now a flame-throwing right-handed pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds’ minor league chain.

Kohorst also had a conversation in camp with Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, a former Dodger standout whose career was tragically cut short after being paralyzed in a car accident.

“Campanella would come around on a golf cart and watch me catch when I was first with the Dodgers,” Kohorst recalled. “And he said that I had a pretty good arm, but wondered if I could hit. I told him that remains to be seen.”

Kohorst was surrounded by legendary players wearing Dodgers blue – Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo and Frank Howard, to name a few.

The path to professional baseball had its up and downs, though, for Kohorst. He was the fourth oldest of 12 children of a farm family in Albany.

Because of the workload on the farm, Kohorst stopped going to school for two years to help out at his father’s request.

“When I started going to school again as a freshman, I was two years older than my classmates,” Kohorst said. “I was 20 years old when I graduated.”

Elmer at his home in Albany with some of memorabilia from the Dodgers and Notre Dame. Contributed photo

Kohorst was a standout prep athlete in football, baseball, basketball and track at Albany High School, where he graduated in 1953. He was inducted into the Albany Huskies Athletic Hall of Fame in 1996.

Kohorst had caught the eye of at least one major league scout when he was in high school. But he was told that his chance of making it to the major leagues was 650 to 1.

“I don’t know who came up with those odds,” Kohorst said. “The scout thought it might be better to see if I could get a college scholarship first. I was a good old Catholic boy, so I wanted to get into Notre Dame.”

Although Notre Dame didn’t give out scholarships for baseball at that time, Kohorst was considered a “hardship” case, and his room and board were paid for at the school located in South Bend, Ind. He majored in physical education.

From there, Kohorst’s career took off. He batted over .300 in his three years (freshmen weren’t allowed to play then) at Notre Dame. He was an All-American in his junior and seniors seasons; the first baseball player from Notre Dame to be named All-American.

Before his senior year at Notre Dame, Kohorst met his future wife, Aurelia, on a blind date. The date worked out well and they have now been married for 62 years. The Kohorts have four children – Gary, Joe, Kevin and Therese.

After signing his pro contract and playing three games with the St. Paul Saints, Kohorst was assigned to the Class A Pueblo (Colorado) Dodgers where he batted .248 with three home runs. After one season there, he was assigned to Des Moines, a higher Class A team, for one season, and then an even higher Class A team in Macon, Georgia, the following season.

But Kohorst soon found his playing time limited by then manager Danny Ozark, who later managed the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I went to him and asked why I wasn’t playing more,” Kohorst said. “He told me I only signed for $4,000 and I was 27 years, and that the other catcher was 19 years old and had signed for $20,000. He told me baseball is a business. The next day, I was assigned to Class B Green Bay.”

Kohorst thrived in “B” ball, batting a robust .327, but he realized the odds of climbing back up the organization’s ladder at his age were against him.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” he said. “After that season, I wrote them a letter to inform them I was no longer playing.”

Elmer Kohorst at a two-time All American catcher at Notre Dame.

Kohorst then accepted a job as head baseball coach and assistant basketball coach at St. John’s Prep in Collegeville, Minn. He taught biology there from 1959-1971. He was also head baseball coach at St. John’s University for three years on the same campus.

And he managed a Basin League collegiate baseball team in Rapid City for three summers.

After leaving the teaching profession, Kohorst went into the insurance business until his retirement in 1999.

Today, Elmer, 85, and Aurelia, 84, reside in Albany and enjoy a quiet life. He still attends Notre Dame football games at South Bend. And although he still has an interest in how the Dodgers are doing each season, he is more of a Minnesota Twins fan and attends games each year at Target Field.

The pro games Kohorst watches today are vastly different than those was he accustomed to playing.

“For one thing, pitchers are on a pitch count, which is ridiculous,” he said. “And they don’t go nine innings anymore. In my day, if a pitcher didn’t go nine innings, he had a bad day.”

And Kohorst feels agents and money have marred the game today.

“The salaries are much different,” he said. “It’s all about the money now and their agents don’t want them to play hurt. We played for the love of the game.”

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