From the June 8, 2003 edition of
the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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.
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.
sons on the roster, all living at home, the Hawks are a constant topic in
the Kluck household.
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.
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.
pretty much been the story since 1930 when the league was founded with six
Independent newspaper heralded the event, which was held at City Hall.
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.
league consisted of teams from Horicon, Lowell, Burnett, Hustisford,
Oakfield and Juneau.
league has 20 teams in two divisions. The top four finishers in each
division make the playoffs.
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
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.
smartest pitcher in the world until he goes to the mound," Stengel said of
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
Hook lost 19
games for the 1962 Mets, which finished with the worst record in modern-era
baseball, and 14 games in 1963.
remembers his single season in the Rock River League as a winning
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.
5-1, as Ashippun finished with a 14-6 record and finished tied for third in
the league's Northern Division.
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.
team won five straight championships from 1972-'76 and two more in 1978 and
"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
championship string was interrupted in 1977 when Lebanon lost to Hustisford
in the championship game.
Well, sort of
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.
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.
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
regular season games are lucky to draw a few dozen fans, Kluck and others
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.
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.
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
"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.
said he has never worried about job security as manager.
to find someone else to do all the work," he said.
it helps that he's single.
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.
tell you how long it's been. I don't think anybody can remember that far
back," he said.
didn't win a game the year before Kluck, 46, took over. Nor did they in his
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.
this season with two losses, the Hawks have won three straight, including a
10-8 win last Sunday over Hustisford.
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
"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.