First played in cow pastures,
baseball is still a game of passion in Lake Henry

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 8/23/00.

1948 Lake Henry team That Lake Henry-one of the smallest, if not the smallest, communities entered in this year's Class C State Amateur Baseball Tournament- brought the largest, most vocal contingent of fans to watch the opening round of state play in Fairfax on Sunday should surprise no one familiar with the passion baseball arouses in the Stearns County League, and in Lake Henry in particular.

The town has a population of 90, leaving one Fairfax official wondering who was left in town. The huge contingent dressed in Laker red, white, and blue had that official rooting for the Lakers, too, just so the Laker fans would come back to Fairfax next weekend.

The 1948 Lake Henry Baseball Team: (front, L to R) Jim Mueller, Nic Fischbach, Jerry Fischbach, Rob Mueller, Erwin Meyer and Flip Jaeger; (back) Norm Jaeger, Ray Hess, Lester Fuchs, Vern Fischbach, Junior Gruber, Herb Hess and Ray Hess.

The Laker faithful showed up in force Sunday, had the Fairfax organizers scrambling for provisions, and cheered so loudly, even when the game turned in Luverne's favor, that the players from another team resorted to jeers after hearing the sustained enthusiasm from the red and blue section.

They obviously aren't used to the passion of Stearns County League baseball, where opponents on the field might be neighbors on the farm, where a regular season game can attract 300 fans, and where the local priest needs three hats to show proper support to the each of his parishes.

Baseball, according to Dave Hess, a former Laker player and manager, is "the heart and soul of Lake Henry."

"If baseball in Lake Henry would fold, the town would struggle," he added. "Baseball keeps the town together."

The origin of the Lakers
It's been that way for 60 years now. The Lakers joined the Stearns County League in 1939.

Even prior to that, baseball was a popular pastime around Lake Henry. Before the town had an organized team, they would invite opposing towns to come and play against the Lake Henry boys in a cow pasture.

Some Lake Henry men played for other towns, like Regal or St. Martin, before Lake Henry had their own town team.

The first Lake Henry team included Floyd Hess's dad, six of his uncles, and two cousins. These Hesses played for Regal before Lake Henry had a team.

These were Flip Jaeger's uncles and cousins, too. Jaeger and Hess would later combine to play 37 seasons for the Lakers, 22 for Jaeger and 15 for Hess.

Floyd Hess likes to note that there was a Hess on every Laker team for the first 55 years, until a year ago.

In 1939, the Lakers opened in the reformed Stearns County League against teams from Elrosa, New Munich, Roscoe, and St. Martin. Only St. Martin had a team in the league before that year, according to a history of the league by the Melrose Area Historical Society.

For three years, the Lakers played their home games in a diamond in a pasture behind where the Sportsman's Den now stands. The league was suspended for World War II after 1941. Lake Henry had a team in the league again in 1946 when amateur baseball resumed after the war.

This time, the field was located in its present spot, on open land donated to the team by Werner Kraemer, in exchange for the players clearing another three acres of wooded land to replace the field on the farm.

At first, the field was reversed, with the players batting in what is now center field, and the outfielders in today's bleachers. "Before, if the ball went by you, you had to chase that ball across Highway 4," recalled Jaeger last week, "and the runners could keep running."

By the early 1950s, according to Hess and Jaeger, the field was switched to its present alignment, probably so they wouldn't have to run across the highway chasing live balls any more, Jaeger joked.

A first trip to state
In 1959, the Lakers made their first trip to the state amateur baseball tournament. According to records kept by the Melrose Beacon, they were the second area team to advance that far. (Regal advanced to state in 1933.)

Already playing the 13th of his 22 seasons for the Lakers, Flip Jaeger was the starting shortstop, Floyd Hess was the starting catcher, and Dennis Lieser, 15 years old at the time, was the starting second baseman.

Facing elimination against St. Martin in the league playoffs, Flip's brother, Jim, pitched the Lakers to victory over St. Martin 11-3 on Saturday and then again 5-4 on Wednesday.

Jim Jaeger saved his best for the league championship the next Sunday against Meire Grove, who in their first year in the league had already beaten the Lakers three times. But Jaeger threw a one-hit shutout as the Lakers entered the regions with a 12-0 win.

Against Meire Grove, Jaeger allowed one hit and one walk, but the Lakers' defense erased both runners by turning double plays, so Jaeger faced the minimum of 27 batters. Jaeger won three games in eight days.

In the regions, Jaeger threw a three-hit shutout as the Lakers beat Waite Park 7-0, and the Lakers won again 11-10 to advance to state.

There they faced Shakopee in the first round, but not before tragedy struck the team. The starting left fielder, John Lieser, Dennis's cousin, was electrocuted before the state tournament began. That story found its way into the metropolitan daily papers, which printed more about amateur sports before the Twins and Vikings arrived in the 1960s.

Playing in front of thousands of fans at the Rox Stadium in St. Cloud was a new experience for the men from Lake Henry. "Shaking," Flip Jaeger said of playing at state. " 'Til we got the first ball. Then a guy calmed down. There were a lot of people there."

Shakopee's Fulton "Lefty" Weckman never let the Lakers get comfortable in the batter's box, though. Weckman later was drafted and signed for $25,000 (big money in those days) by the New York Yankees. He limited the Lakers to two hits and one run.

The Lakers did manage to tie the score at 1-1 in the seventh inning, but Shakopee scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh and won 4-1. Shakopee went on to win the state title that year.

The manager of the Laker squad in 1959 was Mike Ludwig, who is the uncle of current Laker manager Tom Ludwig.

Other state trips
The Lakers didn't return to state for 10 years, until 1969. By then, Jaeger and Hess had retired, though Jaeger would manage the Lakers the next year.

Dennis Lieser was playing for St. Martin by then. His brothers, though, formed the heart of the Laker teams that went to state in 1969, 1970, and 1971. Six Lieser brothers played on those teams: Dave, Mike, Sam, Steve, Terry, and Vernon. Drafted from St. Martin, Dennis played with his brothers at state. Two years in a row the team lost to Prior Lake at state. Prior Lake had a number of players who played for the University of Minnesota.

Family loyalty in the Dennis Lieser family remains torn between St. Martin and Lake Henry. One son, Lenny, played for St. Martin, and two, Tim and Jon, played for Lake Henry. This year, Jon, who will be a senior at Paynesville Area High School this fall, matched his father's feat of playing in a state amateur baseball tournament while in his teens. Jon Lieser started at second base for the Lakers Sunday, the same position Dennis played in 1959 for the Lakers.

At least two other father-son connections connect the 1959 Lakers with the 2000 version. Art Wuertz, the father of Roger Wuertz and stepfather of Tom Ludwig, and Art Hopfer, father of assistant coach Tom Hopfer, played on the 1959 Lakers.

"It's funny," said Dennis Lieser last week. "There are certain plays you just don't forget."

This summer he attended an alumni golf outing for former Stearns County League players, when he was asked about a pick-off play he had done in the playoffs 41 years ago. Lieser remembered, and the man asking him was Ed Tonnes, who was drafted by the Lakers to catch in 1959.

"He said, 'You watch. When I throw dirt to the side, the next pitch is coming down,' " Lieser recalled. Sure enough, it did, and Lieser tagged the runner out at second.

"There are some things you remember," agreed Floyd Hess, "and some things you want to forget. Like that error (against Shakopee, when he was forced to play third base in the make-shift lineup due to the death of the team's left fielder). I remember that like it was yesterday. It went right through my legs."

Long memories and lots of stories about the game keep baseball a hot topic around Lake Henry, no matter if the season is coming, going, or done.

"It's in our blood," explained Flip Jaeger. "We can't wait for spring, and we don't want fall to come."

"After the season, they replay the games until January," agreed Dave Hess. "Then, in January, they start talking about the next season. They talk about baseball year round."

Floyd Hess and Flip Jaeger can't remember the last time they've missed a Lakers' game. It might have been 20 years, they speculate, but attending all the games isn't considered out of the ordinary by the Laker faithful.

In addition to advancing to state amateur tournament, Lake Henry won the Stearns County League titles in Little League and American Legion this year. "It looks like we'll have a good team for a couple of years," said Floyd Hess, of the town's baseball prospects. "I'm not going to quit yet."

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