History of Fitzgerald Stadium

Below is an article written in the Rapid City Journal in 2003 regarding the history of Fitzgerald Stadium.

Journal Article written Aug. 16, 2003 by Darrell Shoemaker.

In 1953, Sigurd Anderson governed the state, B-36 aircraft ruled the skies, the Korean War was ending and Queen Elizabeth was being crowned.

Meanwhile, seven cities in South Dakota and one town in Nebraska came together to form a summer baseball league to provide entertainment to local fans and give young players their first chance at playing professional baseball.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the inception of the Basin League, a summer circuit that operated for 21 seasons. A dozen cities, including 11 communities in South Dakota, embraced the circuit and its mission at times during the league’s run. This August also marks the 30th anniversary of the league’s final season.

“It was a wonderful league for a feeder system for the majors and, as fans, you got the chance to see some great players,” said John Quinn, son of the late Jim Quinn, a long-time official with the Rapid City Chiefs and Basin League. “It was a league where, as a player, you could retain your amateur status and for scouts to come and take a good look at you.”

The league was established in 1953 with teams in Mitchell, Watertown, Winner, Chamberlain, Yankton, Huron, Pierre and Valentine, Neb. The circuit was called the Basin League to reflect the number of teams situated along the Missouri River Basin.

Pierre was the only franchise to complete all 21 seasons. Rapid City came into the league in 1957 after Chamberlain folded. Sturgis rejuvenated the league with its entry in 1961.

“I remember watching all the Basin League teams when they came through Rapid City,” said Dave Collins, a 16-year major league veteran and currently a Colorado Rockies coach. “There were a lot of players that came through the League that ended up playing in the major leagues.

“It was a great brand of baseball and it had the great support from the different cities in South Dakota.”

Organizers of the Basin League clubs have fond memories of the circuit.

“It was a good league,” said Sturgis’ Bob Regan. “People still talk about it thirty years after it ended. For a long time, it was the best summer league in the country.”

Small towns, big stars

The league produced numerous stars, including three Hall of Famers in pitchers Bob Gibson (Chamberlain), Jim Palmer (Winner) and Don Sutton (Sioux Falls). Rapid City’s stable of stars over the years included big Frank Howard, an outfielder that made heads turn from the Chiefs’ home-opener in 1957 when he drove in five runs.

“It was one of the best things to ever happen to Sturgis and Rapid City,” says Ernie Conway of Sturgis. “The people really enjoyed it. The league had a good run in Rapid City and Sturgis. I remember seeing guys like Jim Palmer and Frank Howard. It was just great to see these young players develop, see some of them go to the major leagues and see some good baseball.”

MLB farm teams

When the league started in 1953, teams were comprised of college athletes and some minor leaguers. As the league grew, Basin League teams were assigned a ‘parent’ major league club with the Rapid City Chiefs assigned to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Sturgis Titans assigned to the Boston Red Sox. The Pierre Cowboys were assigned to the Cleveland Indians.

“The Dodgers just loved Rapid City as Boston did us,” said Morris Hallock of Sturgis. Hallock, along with Regan and the late Russ Molstad were instrumental in establishing the Titans franchise.

“The Red Sox told us they wanted every player to have a steak dinner once a day and they’d pay for it,” Hallock said. “They sent down uniforms, two sets for home and one for travel. We must have had four or five catchers’ mitts.”

In Rapid City, a group of interested businessmen applied for the city’s admission into the Western League in 1956. The application was turned down and the businessmen formed Black Hills Sports, Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to the promotion of amateur and semi-professional athletics in the Black Hills area.

Black Hills Sports, Inc., filed for admission into the Basin League and organizers were informed Rapid City would receive consideration when one of the founding teams dropped out of the league. Within months, the Chamberlain Chiefs withdrew and in January 1957, Rapid City was admitted.

Organizers such as Floyd Fitzgerald were faced with two challenges in 1957. Within five months, a baseball team had to be compiled and a field developed. An ad was placed in the ‘Sporting News’ and applications from 200 players were received. Former Basin League all-star catcher Guy Wellman, who played in the circuit in 1953 and 1954 and managed the Mitchell Kernels in the 1955 season, was tabbed as coach.

Developing a ballpark was a bigger challenge. Black Hills Sports received permission to build a stadium on city property at Sioux Park. Al Steinmetz chaired the Sioux Park Stadium Association and a fund drive produced $35,000. Combined with generous donations of time, equipment and materials from the business community, Sioux Park Stadium was completed by the spring of 1957.

Heading north

As the 1961 season approached, the league was in danger of folding. The circuit went from eight teams in 1957 to six teams in the 1960 season. When Mitchell ended its eight-year association in late 1960, the Basin League faced an uncertain future with only five teams.

Steinmetz approached Hallock and Sturgis officials about the possibility of a northern hills team. Hallock says Steinmetz was skeptical that Sturgis could field a team in time for the 1961 season.

“Al told me that Sturgis is a little town and thought that perhaps the northern hills could have a team, perhaps playing five games in Spearfish, five in Lead, five in Sturgis and so forth. I said to heck with that, we’re not a northern hills team. He didn’t think we could have a ball park ready in time and we showed him we could.”

Hallock credits the work of Clarence Glover and Jim Dickson, two developers, and the Titan Missile crews from Ellsworth Air Force Base for helping to get the Titan Field ready for the 1961 season.

The Titan Field became known as Strong Field in 1967, dedicated to the memory and work of contractor Bob Strong. Strong’s son Dean, now owner of Belle Fourche Livestock Exchange, came home on military furlough to help in the field’s construction.

“We didn’t have the money to go and scout talent,” recalls Lloyd Keszler of Sturgis. “I took over for Bob Regan in player procurement. Fitzgerald would go to Arizona for spring training and watch teams and talk to players. We’d get on the phone to college coaches at Michigan State, University of Georgia and several other colleges to see what we could get.”

Keszler says it took the Titans a season to realize they were asking college coaches the wrong questions. “That first year, we took coaches at their word on their own kids,” said Keszler. “We stopped doing that after one year. All I’d get was a rosy picture.”

Hallock credits the work of Pierre’s Gordon Stout for keeping Pierre in the Basin League for all 21 seasons. “Gordon deserves a lot of the credit for the success of the Basin League and especially the Pierre team,” said Hallock. “He was in it from the inception. He was not only a devout fan, he helped the team financially, with hard work and support in every way.”

Vern McKee, Pat Morrison and Parker Knox of Pierre also helped promote the Cowboys and served on the Basin League board of directors. R.M. ‘Bus’ Walseth of Pierre served as long-time commissioner of the league.

As the league entered its final season in 1973, Pierre officials turned duties of general manager of the Cowboys to a young, impressionable radio broadcaster, Jim Thompson.

“Someone called me and indicated they needed somebody to run the team,” recalls Thompson, who followed the Basin League as a fan in Sturgis then went to Pierre to begin his broadcasting career after a stint in the Army.

Movers and shakers

In Rapid City, Steinmetz served as president of Black Hills Sports, Inc., from 1956-60 and was followed by Cal Ackerman in 1961, Bill Baumgartner in 1962, Milo Brekhus in 1963 and Neil Simpson in 1964.

Fitzgerald then took over the reigns of the organization in 1965 and continued until the league folded in 1973.

“There were a lot of good men involved,” remembers attorney Tom Foye, who spent several years on the board of Black Hills Sports, Inc. “Al Steinmetz, Cal Ackerman, Floyd Fitzgerald, Neil Simpson and others, they were all successful business people dedicated to the Chiefs, dedicated to the Basin League and dedicated to baseball.

“They were incredibly busy people but as the saying goes, if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person.”

Sioux Park Stadium now bears Fitzgerald’s name as a tribute to his Basin League work and work with sports in the Rapid City community.

“Floyd was a good leader, able to keep things together and a good organizer,” said Jan Laitos, who served on the Black Hills Sports, Inc., board with Fitzgerald. “He was all for the young people. He went all out.”

Retired Rapid City attorney Homer Kandaras, another board member, agreed.

“He was a paint salesman and he loved baseball,” said Kandaras. “The Fitzgeralds were all athletic. Floyd was passionate about baseball, the Rapid City Chiefs and the Basin League.”

Kandaras and Fitzgerald were teammates on a successful Rapid City amateur league team in 1950. Floyd and his four brothers were part of the team. Hallock says that every team from Wall to the Homestake Gold Mine team in Lead had a Fitzgerald playing on it for many years.

Team support for the Chiefs was garnered within the community and fan bases were developed in the southern hills and Ellsworth Air Force Base.

“People from Ellsworth used to play in the Basin League and they enjoyed coming to the games and supporting the Rapid City team,” said Laitos, who spent four years at Ellsworth Air Force Base before retiring in 1970.

“Back in the 1950’s especially, it was the ‘thing’ to do,” said Foye. “If you weren’t seen at the Ball Park, then you weren’t in the right place. Back then, the Basin League was the only major thing going on in the summer. People came out to the Ball Park.”

The same held true in Sturgis. “We had big crowds,” said Hallock, recalling the Titans attracted Gov. Archie Gubbrud and over 4,000 people to the team’s first game in 1961. He noted the work of Bernie Eveleth of Union Center for building support in rural areas, indicating people came from 150 miles to see the Titans.

“We had a ton of people from Union Center who would come in for the games and support was great in the rural areas,” added Keszler.

Special promotions

Special promotions such as watermelon night and military appreciation night helped promote interest. Other promotions included cow-milking contests and exhibition contests featuring Basin Leaguers, residents and business sponsors between double-headers.

Early Chiefs programs contained ad sponsors from long-departed businesses such as the Harney Hotel, Zesto Drive Inn and Lehr Drug as well as mainstays still going strong after 50 years such as Black Hills Power and Light, Rosenbaum’s Signs, Pete Lien & Sons, Wall Drug, Reptile Gardens and Rapid City Laundry and Dry Cleaners. Many of the yearly programs featured the artistic work of long-time Rapid City Journal sports cartoonist Vern Anthony.

The greatest benefactors of the Basin League were the youth of the two communities.

“One of the things the Basin League did was develop our kids baseball program,” said Kandaras. “There was no children’s baseball leagues in the 1940’s. We didn’t have a field for kids to play on.”

That all changed as the league developed and received more support from the communities. Young people were attracted to the players and businesses helped sponsor clinics.

Retired South Dakota highway patrol official Terry Mayes recalls the impact the Basin League had on the state’s youth.

“Growing up in Pierre, we lived about two blocks from the stadium. From the age of six or seven, I can recall going to see the Cowboys play,” recalls Mayes. “My dad loved baseball. It was a big event to go to Basin League games and, back in the 1950’s, it was great to see players who were either actively playing professional ball or coaching as well as some great college players.”

Catch 22

Keszler says the Basin League’s impact on development of youth baseball programs was very positive but did produce one drawback.

“Ultimately it hurt us,” said Keszler. “Parents and families would be over watching their kids play baseball until dark and they were unable to get to the Basin League games some nights. We were trying to build a kids baseball program and ended up hurting our own attendance.”

Keszler says players got approximately $500 for the summer and the pay was for ‘odd jobs’ the players did in the communities. Many of them worked for the city recreation departments cleaning up parks, swimming pools and baseball fields.

Bob Apodaca and Gary Morgan fondly remember their ‘summer jobs’ while playing in the Basin League.

“I really had a horseshoe over my head,” said Apodaca, who played with the Chamberlain Mallards in the 1969 and 1970 seasons and who spent 30 of 33 professional seasons in the New York Mets organization. He is now the pitching coach for the Colorado Rockies. “I was recreation director in Chamberlain for two years. I played tennis in the morning, took a coffee break, then played softball. It was the best job I ever had.”

Morgan, who played with the Chiefs and Mobridge Lakers in the early 1970’s, agreed.

“Our job was cleaning up the ball park after the game,” said Morgan, who now manages the Eden Prairie (Minn.) American Legion baseball program. “We’d sleep in, go to the park and work, or get up, head up into the Hills or go up the river and float down. What a life!”

Keszler said the Basin League even impacted players whose career in baseball wouldn’t go far. He remembers getting contacted by the FBI about former Titan Pat Sullivan. He went on to become an agent with the Secret Service protecting presidents.

For many years, the Basin League was touted as the best summer college league in the country. Rivals included the Cape Cod League and a circuit in Alaska.

Hallock says the Basin League was preferred over the Cape Cod League by major league scouts, who made numerous trips to South Dakota each summer to review talent.

“The major league teams and the scouts loved the Basin League,” said Hallock, who attended numerous major league meetings. “The majors loved South Dakota because their scouts could get off a plane, rent a car, go into the ball parks and watch the daily conduct of the guys. They couldn’t do that in the heavily populated areas. The benefit of the Basin League to the pros was not finding the stars and heroes, but weeding out the liabilities.”

As the Basin League entered the 1970’s, support for the circuit began to wane. Major League teams put more emphasis on the player draft and more resources were devoted to development of players through the farm system.

Some blame the NCAA for placing restrictions on the league and players. “They were the ones that killed us,” Keszler said of the NCAA. “They were the ones that closed it down. They’d come up here and say you can’t pay as much as the Cape Cod League because of the standard of living was different.

“They wanted us to have a commissioner. So we got a commissioner. They wanted more and more and finally we couldn’t live up to what all they wanted and demanded.”

Cost of equipment and travel also took its toll on teams.

“The cost to travel became much higher with gas prices taking a considerable leap,” said Mayes. “And the cost of bats was extremely high. A bat cost $20 which was extremely high back in those days and against a great breaking-ball pitcher, you could go through a few bats each game.”

By the 1973 season, the league was down to Rapid City, Sturgis, Pierre and Chamberlain.