ROCK RIVER LEAGUE
BASEBALL HALL OF FAME
2nd Floor - North (Room 1)
The Baseball Hall of Fame is an exhibit of many baseball trophies and other bits of baseball memorabilia from area teams and players in the Rock River League. The teams included are: Mayville, Theresa, Slinger, Clyman, Hustisford, Lebanon, LeRoy, Long Lake, Lomira, Brownsville, Rubicon, Randolph, Beaver Dam, and Ashippun. Also represented are the Rock River "Old Timers." Championship banners dating back to 1935 adorn the walls. Pictures, news clippings, and trophies, some as far back as the early 1900's, sing the praises of baseball. Yearly photos honoring Hall of Fame inductees are displayed on a large tri-panel.
Three men from the Rock River League have made the major leagues: Jim Gantner [Long Lake] played 2nd base for the Milwaukee Brewers; Jay Hook [Ashippun] was a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds; and Lyman Linde [Beaver Dam] was a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians.
From the June 8, 2003 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Rock River League's players keep swinging for love of the game
By DAN BENSON
It's a family affair for the Hartford Hawks, where manager Ken Kluck, in his fourth year as skipper of the Rock River League team, puts out an infield that is three-fourths related to him.
At first is son Ben, 24, at second is son Tom, 21, and at shortstop is son Jim, 23.
Ken's wife, Mary, isn't far away, running the concession stand.
"We used to do a lot of camping, but once the kids got to college and took this over it's pretty much every weekend," said Kluck, a Hartford police officer and former Hartford High junior varsity coach.
With three sons on the roster, all living at home, the Hawks are a constant topic in the Kluck household.
"Basically it's the conversation at home in the evening, around the dinner table and to and from church on Sunday because we usually have a game that afternoon.
"My wife always wants us to talk about something else. But she hasn't gone on strike, yet," Kluck, 46, said.
It's a story not so different from May through July for hundreds of other men and their families in Slinger, Kewaskum, Ashippun, Horicon and 15 other towns that host teams in Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Jefferson and Washington counties, all members of the Rock River Baseball League.
And it's pretty much been the story since 1930 when the league was founded with six teams.
The Juneau Independent newspaper heralded the event, which was held at City Hall.
"Towns entering the league appear to be very enthusiastic this year in an effort to perfect a league in this section of the state that will tend to bring out the best of home baseball talent," read one paragraph.
The inaugural league consisted of teams from Horicon, Lowell, Burnett, Hustisford, Oakfield and Juneau.
Today, the league has 20 teams in two divisions. The top four finishers in each division make the playoffs.
The Rock River League isn't as old or as large as the Land O'Lakes League, which was formed in 1922 and includes teams in Ozaukee and Washington counties, but the Rock River League has had its share of history.
It has helped produce three major-leaguers, most notably Jim Gantner, who earned the league's most valuable player honors in 1973 before going on to a career with the Milwaukee Brewers.
The other two are Lyman Linde from Beaver Dam, who pitched 10 innings for the Cleveland Indians in 1947 and 1948, and Jay Hook, who pitched one season for Ashippun in 1956 and then was signed the next year by the Cincinnati Reds.
Linde died in 1995.
Hook's major league career spanned eight seasons with the Reds and the New York Mets.
He was the winning pitcher in the Mets' first-ever victory on April 23, 1962. He also earned a famous skewering from Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel after Hook, an engineering student, wrote an article on the physics of what makes a curveball curve.
"He's the smartest pitcher in the world until he goes to the mound," Stengel said of Hook.
"Another time, I got knocked out of the game early and was talking to a writer about the curveball, and Casey walks by and says, 'If Hook could only do what he knows,' " Hook said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his home in Michigan.
Hook lost 19 games for the 1962 Mets, which finished with the worst record in modern-era baseball, and 14 games in 1963.
But he remembers his single season in the Rock River League as a winning experience.
"I was attending engineering school at Northwestern (University in Evanston, Ill.) and got a job for the summer at Carnation in Oconomowoc," said Hook, who grew up in Grayslake, Ill.
"It was a lot of fun. The amazing thing is that Ashippun had, what, 500 people living in it. We'd play on Sundays and have a thousand people there. It was really a lot of fun," he said.
Hook went 5-1, as Ashippun finished with a 14-6 record and finished tied for third in the league's Northern Division.
"They should have done better than that," said Will Eske, noting that Hook shared the pitching duties with another local pitching legend, Dave Kuehl.
Eske, who now lives in Watertown, is a legend in his own right in the league, managing the Lebanon team to seven league titles over eight seasons in the 1970s.
His Lebanon team won five straight championships from 1972-'76 and two more in 1978 and 1979.
"In two years we played 50 games and won 48 of them," including non-league games, said Eske, during an interview with other members of the league's Old Timers Association at the league's Hall of Fame in the Mayville Limestone School Museum.
The championship string was interrupted in 1977 when Lebanon lost to Hustisford in the championship game.
Well, sort of lost.
Lebanon outscored Hustisford 5-0 behind the shutout pitching of Donnie Held. But Lebanon was forced to forfeit because Held had pitched that morning in a tournament in Madison, violating a Rock River League rule.
Held is another local legend and often was hired by other teams to pitch in regional and national tournaments, Eske said.
"In one game, we were ahead 20-0 and just to make things interesting, Donnie walked the bases full on purpose and then struck out the next three," Eske said.
"I hit a home run off him once and the next time I came up to bat he gave me one right in the ribs. He was old school, boy," Phil Nehls said of Held, who went on to teach and coach in the Slinger school system.
Nehls is president of the 250-member Old Timers Association, which holds awards banquets and other functions in support of the league.
In the 1970s, games used to draw 400 to 500 people, with playoff games attracting crowds of more than a thousand, Nehls and Eske said.
No longer a big draw
Today, the regular season games are lucky to draw a few dozen fans, Kluck and others said.
Steve Salter has been president of the league since 2001, but he's in his 27th year as a player and manager of the Slinger Stingers.
He took over the managing chores in 1986 and promptly planted himself in the dugout.
"I figure my job is to put the best players on the field and put the not-so-good ones on the bench," he said. He counts himself among the latter.
"I have a lot of other ways to humiliate myself" than by playing baseball, he said.
Salter said being commissioner takes up most of his time - scheduling games, finding umpires, keeping stats, organizing meetings and awards banquets, advertising and posting box scores in area newspapers.
"I take all of that kind of seriously and hopefully, when Sunday comes around, everything's ready to roll so the guys just have to play ball," he said.
The Stingers made the playoffs every year from the late '70s until 1995 and didn't make it back until last year, when they went 12-6 in the regular season, Salter said.
"It was all worth it after last year. We have some talented ballplayers who started out young and they've been playing real well. I think last year has carried over to this year," with the team starting out 4-0, Salter said.
Salter, 45, said he has never worried about job security as manager.
"They'd have to find someone else to do all the work," he said.
Salter said it helps that he's single.
"Maybe that's why I've been involved so long. Or maybe that's why I've been single so long," he said.
He can sense that some players' wives aren't that thrilled with the Stingers, he said.
"When I call up, you can hear the woman's voice kind of tense up, like they're not sure they want to tell me their husband is home," he said.
Ken Kluck, in Hartford, wants to make the playoffs, too. It's not something that's happened in Hartford in recent memory.
"I couldn't tell you how long it's been. I don't think anybody can remember that far back," he said.
The Hawks didn't win a game the year before Kluck, 46, took over. Nor did they in his first year.
Last year was the team's first winning season in memory, going 11-7 and finishing fifth, and earning most improved team honors for the second year in a row.
After opening this season with two losses, the Hawks have won three straight, including a 10-8 win last Sunday over Hustisford.
So five nights a week after work, Hawks players gather around the batting cage at Westside Park in Hartford for an hour or so of batting practice, helping each other hone their swings. It's a motivated, but relaxed, collegial group.
"I think the fun part of it for me is seeing all the players having fun and sitting around afterward and just enjoying the game, even if we lost. Just enjoying it all," Kluck said.