Ever since he can remember, Larry Stenmark has worked hard to find a softball game.
Stenmark, 74, of Dassel, started working for the airlines in Chicago in May of 1960 and was itching to find a regular game.
“I started driving around the area around O’Hare Airport looking for some place to play softball,” Stenmark said. “So, one Sunday I’m driving around and I see these guys playing so I stop my car and walk up there to the field.”
The men that day were playing “kitten ball,” a version of softball that featured a smaller ball and no gloves for fielders.
But that was fine by Stenmark, who played one summer of “kitten ball” before he and two coworkers at the airline got a regular game of fast-pitch softball going in the nearby suburb of Des Plaines, Illinois.
In a lot of ways, 55 years later, Larry Stenmark is still that same 19-year-old kid driving around the outskirts of O’Hare Airport looking to play some softball.
Larry Stenmark is still looking for a game.
A lifelong passion
Larry Stenmark grew up on a farm just north of Litchfield and learned to love baseball at an early age from his grandfather, who would take Stenmark to go see the Litchfield Optimists in the early ‘50s.
Stenmark wasn’t able to parlay that passion for baseball into a high school career, however, because of the tricky transportation issues of living on a farm.
“I didn’t get to play baseball when I got to high school because there were no activity buses at that time,” he said. “Baseball practice was always after school got out and I had to ride the bus home.”
Though Stenmark couldn’t play high school baseball, he did find an alternative in church league fast-pitch softball, which he started playing around 1954 in Litchfield.
“We went to a small church in Forest City, so they needed all the bodies they could get to get a team together,” Stenmark said. “That’s when I got into more competitive softball. I played there until I graduated high school.”
After graduation, Stenmark got a job in Chicago — where he first found out about “kitten ball” — before finding a new position with Northwest Airlines and moving back to Minnesota in the early ‘60s.
Stenmark worked afternoons at Northwest and found a mechanic who also worked afternoons and happened to be a good fast-pitch pitcher. Once again, Stenmark had found a game.
Fast-pitch began to peter out in Litchfield around 1975, Stenmark said, as fewer young men learned to pitch in the fast-pitch style and preferred baseball or slow-pitch softball.
“All the old-timers retired and there was no one to teach the young guys how to pitch,” Stenmark said.
As fast-pitch waned, Stenmark transitioned to playing slow-pitch softball, which he has been playing in Litchfield on Thursday nights for years.
Stenmark has been a fixture at Thursday night softball in Litchfield, where he’s played with the late Red Jones and Red’s son Brian.
When Stenmark is out at the diamond on Thursday nights, it’s easy to see just how long he’s been playing softball.
“I’m playing with the grandkids of the kids I first played against when I was young,” he said with a laugh.
150 games a year
Even at age 74, Stenmark still plays a formidable schedule of games: more than 150 per year, he estimates, down from more than 200 per year from 2009 to 2011.
Softball sends Stenmark all over the area, depending on the season: since 2005, Stenmark has played in a senior softball league in Edina that runs from the end of April to the end of August; from September until the end of October — weather permitting — he plays outdoors at Big Willow Park near Ridgedale; and during the winter, Stenmark plays at Holy Angels High School in Richfield, which has a dome over their football facility.
“We don’t take any breaks,” Stenmark said. “Twice a week all year.”
Stenmark has played softball for more than 60 years, about as long as his other abiding passion: collecting sports memorabilia.
Three different rooms in Stenmark’s Dassel home are dedicated to his collection of memorabilia, which runs the gamut, from signed jerseys and balls to countless sports biographies and collectible photographs.
Stenmark cheers for the Vikings and the Gophers, of course, but also the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Yankees — the Lakers because they were the Minneapolis Lakers in Stenmark’s youth, and the Yankees because the Twins weren’t around when he was growing up on the farm.
Stenmark’s house features many totems of his Yankee pride — including commemorative plaques honoring Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, multiple pennants and numerous photos of Yankee greats — but his proudest Yankee items are the jersey he received from his 1989 stint at Yankee Fantasy Camp in Fort Meyers and an autographed photo of him with Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford taken that same year.
The memorabilia and the countless miles traveled to continue playing softball both reflect Stenmark’s deep passion for sports — a passion he returns to, year after year, because of the physical activity, the competition and the camaraderie.
“I like to stay in shape — I work out three days a week, and mainly because I was the one farm boy in probably a thousand that wasn’t strong,” Stenmark said with a laugh. “I had these little skinny arms and wrists … so, in order to compete with these guys I have to stay in shape. And it’s the camaraderie: everybody is really fun to play with, even the guys who are a lot better.
“It’s just fun to play every day that we go to play,” Stenmark continued. “… I’ve still got that competitive spirit.”