As old time music played and the early evening sun shone down on the Dassel ballpark on July 8, more than 350 local baseball fans witnessed something no one had seen since 1957: a man playing baseball in a Darwin baseball jersey.
It was ceremonial and only lasted one inning, but there was no denying it. Dassel-Cokato pitcher Tyler Zwibohmer donned a “throwback” Darwin uniform, the first time a player had done so since the town team disbanded nearly 60 years ago.
The replica Darwin jerseys were just one of the features of the third annual Darwin Night at the Ballpark, a celebration of the erstwhile town team and an exhibition game between the Dassel-Cokato Saints and Litchfield Blues, which the Saints won 6-1.
Dave Kelly, 76, who played for the last Darwin team in 1957 and has spearheaded Darwin Night through his dogged historical research, thinks it’s important to remember the area’s deep baseball roots.
“We don’t have a team now,” Kelly said, “but we can keep baseball alive a little bit and support the teams we do have.”
Darwin Mayor Josh Johnson echoed Kelly’s sentiments and acknowledged the central role Kelly has played in keeping Darwin baseball alive.
“There are a lot of things that are lost to time without the hard work of people like Dave Kelly,” Johnson said. “And once they’re gone, they’re gone. There are a lot of things about the original Darwin that I would like to know that are forgotten.”
Some memories remain, of course, including why the team disbanded in 1957 in the first place.
According to Kelly, with many Darwin men leaving for school, employment or the military, the team just couldn’t muster the numbers.
Darwin’s numbers were also hurt by that eternal extracurricular diversion.
“Some guys found girls — I think girls can be a big distraction,” Kelly said with a laugh.
From farm to field
Minnesota embraced baseball in its infancy: the first officially documented organized baseball in the Minnesota territory occurred on Aug. 3, 1857, when, according to the Minnesota State Historical Society, “the citizens of Nininger decided to organize a baseball club.”
In Nininger, which no longer exists but was near present-day Hastings, the team’s founders hoped the club would “stimulate the young men of neighboring towns to organize clubs so that ‘matches and return matches’ could be played for ‘assembled thousands.'”
Though it’s unclear if the Nininger team’s formulation had its desired effect, this much is clear: by the 1880s, baseball was being played in Darwin, according to Kelly.
“There were a lot of ball games, especially in the 1880s and 1890s, that were played out in the country,” Kelly said. “… People then, they found places to play ball.”
Before official fields were built, families made due on their own property: Kelly said he knows of one ball field near Dunn Lake owned by the Hannan family and used in the late 19th century, and another south of Darwin from the same era that was fixed up by a farmer for his family to use.
Nininger and Darwin also share a more contemporary link: both are featured on Minnesota artist Craig David’s eight foot by 30 foot porcelain-and-stone mural, “A History of Minnesota Baseball,” which is located near the light rail station at Target Field.
In fact, Kelly provided the artist with much of the information for the mural, and, according to Kelly, a child depicted in the mural is modeled after Kelly’s grandson.
Meet the Millers
The most famous family of early Darwin baseball was surely the Millers.
In 1880, John W. Miller left Pennsylvania and headed west, ultimately settling in Meeker County, where he met and married Catherine Dunn, whose family also farmed on Dunn Lake north of Darwin.
Between 1882 and 1907, Catherine Dunn gave birth to 13 children — 10 boys and three girls, and according to Kelly, the Miller patriarch quickly set to work teaching them the game of baseball that which he had learned back east.
Perhaps the most famous single game the Millers played occurred on Sept. 18, 1921, when Joe, Roy, William, Henry, Tim, Fred, Victor, Raymond, Howard and Earle Miller — who ranged from age 13 to 37 — challenged the Litchfield town ball team to a game in Litchfield.
The Millers were victorious, beating Litchfield 4-3 in front of 750 fans at the Litchfield Ball Park.
One Miller in particular, Fred “Lefty” Miller, had a fascinating story that led Kelly on a years-long journey through archives, microfilm and across the country to learn more about arguably the best player in Darwin’s history.
“I’ve looked at newspaper accounts of every full game that he played,” Kelly said.
Miller attended St. Thomas College, where he pitched from 1906 to 1908, allowing only 49 hits and 31 walks and striking out 195 batters in 131 career innings.
After completing his undergraduate degree, Miller began medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During the summer, Miller pitched professionally in St. Paul, Seattle, Vancouver, Oakland and Tacoma.
After the 1910 season, Miller was selected in the major league draft by the Philadelphia A’s, whose general manager, the legendary Connie Mack, wanted Miller to quit his medical studies to commit to baseball.
Miller declined, and ultimately earned his degree in medicine and surgery in 1912 and returned to the area to begin his medical career.
As Kelly kept researching, he found Miller’s story continually compelling.
“It was one of those stories that the deeper you got into it, the more you wanted to know,” Kelly said.
Miller was sought after by many area teams, who in those days could pay barnstorming players, which was a boon for a poor kid from Darwin.
“He was getting paid to play ball all through college,” Kelly said. “Miller didn’t come from any money — he was a farm kid with a big family.”
Teams’ consistent desire to pay Miller also proves a maxim that still holds true today.
“If you were a left-handed pitcher and you were pretty good, you were in demand,” Kelly said. “And that’s never changed.”
Coming full circle
On July 8, under the lights in Dassel, Kelly’s words rung especially true: Dassel-Cokato started the left-handed Zwibohmer, who wore the ceremonial Darwin jersey, and Litchfield started lefty Brady Smith, the only member of the Blues from Darwin.
And, on Darwin Night at the Ballpark, the lefties Zwibohmer and Smith did “Lefty” Miller proud, trading scoreless innings until Smith tired in the sixth; the two left-handers were near-unhittable, combining for 13 strikeouts and four hits allowed in 12 innings of work.
For Dave Kelly, it was yet another reminder of town ball’s staying power.
“One thing that’s unique about Minnesota baseball,” Kelly said, “is that it’s kept going.”