Town ball baseball used to thrive

Published 8:39am Thursday, July 7, 2011

Column: Second Thoughts

For those who grew up with Hayek Field in last decade, we’re used to modest crowds and mediocre ball clubs. So when I read that in the summer of 1950, over 46,000 fans were admitted into the stadium, I had to do a double take.

If you’re over the age of 70, go ahead and read this column for nostalgia, but if you’re not listen up, because town ball baseball used to be big in Albert Lea.

When researching the Albert Lea Colonels for the front page story in today’s Tribune, I came across plenty on the Albert Lea Packers, a town ball team that thrived during the 1940s and 50s.

Now I had heard some folklore of the Packers growing up but never fully grasped how important the team was to this town, how it was the center of the community’s social life or how successful they were. To put it all into perspective, in the book “Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amatuer Baseball,” Albert Lea and Hayek Field are mention in the first paragraph.

The Packers formed in 1938 when two Albert Lea business men, Len Kelly and Ray Moulton, offered Shanty Donlan, a member of the Emmons team, the role of manager. Donlan took it and the Packers finished 13-10 in its first season in the Southern Minnesota League.

The Packers played at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds until Hayek Field opened in 1941. After that the Packers won seven state championships, including five consecutive from 1944 through 1948. In 1944, the Packers also became the first team in the state tournament’s 22-year history to successful defend a state title.

One of the most impressive things about the Packers’ history is the crowds they drew. During the summer of 1950, the Tribune reported the Packers admitted over 46,000 fans into Hayek Field, and in 1955, the average fan attendance was 1,500 and reached as high as 3,200.

The Packers were one of the main attractions in Albert Lea. In a May 1956 issue of “Community Magazine,” a story titled “The Packer Story” states, “Industry looking at the town recreation always asks ‘What is there for recreation?’ And are always impressed with the answer ‘We have the Packers.’”

Unfortunately today, with the collapse of the Colonels, Albert Lea doesn’t have any town ball team. While amateur baseball isn’t what it used to be, and no team could draw 46,000 fans throughout a summer, a town with baseball history as rich as our’s deserves one. Let’s hope the Colonels, or any team, will someday surface at historic Hayek Field.

Andrew Dyrdal’s column appears each Thursday in the Tribune. He can be heard at 12:35 p.m. Thursdays on KATE Radio.