Barnstormers always a draw

SOUTH RANGE – The arrival of barnstorming baseball teams to the Copper Country was always a special event.

In bygone days, major league baseball players would often get together after the season and play exhibition games around the country.

Late Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer George Kell said it was strictly a matter of economics for the players.

“We weren’t making big money,” Kell said in an interview in 1998. “Heck, the most I ever made in a season was around $20,000 a year. And that was late in my career.”

Kell, a career .306 hitter, was just one several major leaguers who traveled to South Range in 1947, 1948 and 1949 as members of the Dizzy Trout All-Stars.

Trout – one of the most colorful players of his era – started up his team in the mid-1940s.

While the all-stars blended in some comic relief, they played to win.

“When push came to shove, they (big leaguers) played hard,” recalled the late Jack “Zeke” Hornick. “They knew when to push down on the gas pedal.”

Trout and Kell were among several Detroit players who made the trip. Also present were Virgil “Fire” Trucks, Don Lund, Roy Cullenbine and Mike Tresh.

Also on hand were Bob Kuzava, Cass Michaels and Sherman Lollar of the Chicago White Sox; Roy Sievers of the Washington Senators and Elmer Valo and Pete Suder of the Philadelphia Athletics.

The late Jack Pastore was the manager of the South Range Rangers, and he was largely responsible for bringing in the big leaguers.

The late Merv Klemett, who served as batboy that day for the hometown team, said that Pastore was a top promoter.

“He (Pastore) was behind most of the promotions around here,” Klemett recalled a few years ago. “He also brought in the “Colored Ghosts” and the “Texas Redheads” (a team of female fast-pitch players) team.

The big leaguers were paid $4,500 for the exhibition, which meant each player would make around $400.

The host team had a strong team. Ikka Hahka and Hornick did most of the pitching, while Bob “Buckshot” Jurmu was the catcher.

There were strong hitters in the lineup in Buddo Lishinski, Owen O’Brien, Paul Siira and speedy Hubie Chopp. Michigan Tech hockey coach Amo Bessone was another member of the team. MTU students Jack Razmus and Ray Pladner added depth.

While the 1947 game had attracted a crowd estimated at 4,500, the latter two games saw less people show up.

The weather played a role in the Oct. 12, 1949 game, according to Chopp, who turned 95 this year.

“It had snowed a little the night before and there some doubts whether the game would be played,” he said. “But they (barnstormers) played in Bessemer the night before … and they decided to come up here.”

The temperatures were in the low 40s on an overcast day when the game started at the old South Range ball diamond. Some 2,000 fans were on hand.

Trucks and Kuzava did much of the hurling that day, holding the locals to just a handful of hits in a 4-2 win.

But it was Trout who stole the show. Late in the game, he bet local car dealer Waino Komula $5 that he would hit a homer in his next at bat.

“He (Trout) came up to bat and pointed to the outfield fence,” Klemett recalled. “Then, he hit it into the seats. He came over to where Komula was sitting … and held his hand out for the money. The crowd loved it.”

The 4-2 decision was the closest a local team ever came to beating a barnstorming team.

“There was no way we were going to beat them,” Hornick said. “They were major league players.”

Only one barnstorming baseball team ever made it to the Copper Country after that. Trucks brought a team to Hancock in October of 1956 to play the Hancock Merchants.

The barnstorming team scored an 8-3 victory as Charlie Maxwell of the Detroit Tigers socked two tape measure homers.

Chopp said the games against the big leaguers was the highlight of a long career.

“Those games were something I’ll always remember,” he said recently.