Stepping back on Redfield's diamond

"The Pheasant Capitol of the World."

That is Redfield, a small town of fewer than 3,000 people on the flat plains of eastern South Dakota, where they grow corn, wheat, sunflowers, soybeans, oats and other crops.

It's where Henry Aaron would go hunting and give a baseball clinic to residents of The Redfield State Hospital and School (originally called the State School and Home for the Feeble Minded in less politically correct times) when he played for the Milwaukee Brewers.

It's also my dad's hometown. When I was a kid, every few years, my parents would pack me and my three sisters in our station wagon and we'd head off to Redfield from Seattle. What do I remember about those trips? My grandparents' big garden in their backyard behind the small white house with green trim; me and my sisters arguing to see who slept in the screened-in front porch -- cooled by the evening breeze -- instead of one of the hot, stuffy bedrooms; the time I went golfing with my grandfather and he nearly sliced a ball off my forehead; old family stories like when my grandfather ran the local creamery and would hire women during pheasant season to de-feather and clean the birds, pack them in ice and ship them around the country.

And the baseball field. I've never forgotten that field. When I played baseball as a kid, all our fields had dirt infields, so I thought that field in Redfield, with its grass infield a dark shade of emerald, was the most wonderful place in town, the perfect place for a kid obsessed with baseball to pass a few minutes of his summer vacation.

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When my dad was growing up there in the 1940s and '50s, the Redfield diamond had a grandstand that wrapped around the field from first base to third base, with bleachers extending down the foul lines. It sat around 2,500 people -- nearly the entire population of the town at the time -- and was often packed when the Redfield town team played games. Before television exploded, the local baseball team was a primary source of entertainment in small towns across the Midwest.

When my dad's family moved from nearby Watertown when he was seven years old, he remembers rooting for the Watertown team that summer, but he eventually switched his allegiance. He sold peanuts and popcorn at games as a kid and can still reel off many names of the players on the 1949 team that won the state amateur championship.

Ed Carter was the star of that team, a right-handed pitcher. In 1950, Watertown picked him up after winning the state tournament and went on to win the national amateur championship. (I googled Ed Carter and discovered he died in 2010 at age 86, still living in Redfield, a member of the South Dakota Baseball Hall of Fame and a veteran of World War II while serving in the Air Force.)

South Dakota has a rich baseball history for a sparsely populated state that currently has no minor league baseball teams. Besides the town teams, the Class C Northern League operated from 1946 to 1971 and Aberdeen, 42 miles north of Redfield, fielded a team each year -- the Aberdeen Pheasants.

My dad's grandfather loved baseball and often took my dad and his older brother, Ray, to games. My dad says the Aberdeen park was even better than Redfield's and he remembers seeing Don Larsen and Bob Turley pitch. Larsen pitched for Aberdeen in 1947 and 1948, winning 17 games in 1948. Turley went 23-5 with a 2.31 ERA as an 18-year-old for Aberdeen in 1949 -- throwing 230 innings back when nobody worried about burning out a young arm. The team was then a farm club of the St. Louis Browns; both were later traded to the Yankees and became World Series heroes.

Terry Francona was born in Aberdeen in 1959 -- his father had played there in 1953 and married a local girl. Maybe the greatest Aberdeen team was the 1964 club, managed by Cal Ripken Sr. That team featured eight future major leaguers -- an astonishing number for a Class C team -- including Jim Palmer (who walked 130 batters in 129 innings), Mark Belanger, Lou Piniella and Eddie Watt. Not surprisingly, the team won the league that year with an 80-37 record.

Palmer had also played in South Dakota the previous summer, joining a team in Winner after graduating from high school in Arizona. Winner was part of the Basin League, a summer league for primarily college players and locals that operated in various South Dakota towns (and one in Nebraska) from 1953 to 1973. Over 130 future major leaguers played in the league, including Bob Gibson, Don Sutton, Frank Howard, Jim Lonborg and Dan Quisenberry.

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My dad got to play on the field at Redfield one summer when he played for the American Legion team. But he also worked at the garage across the street from his house and during a particularly busy time of the summer he had to miss some games. "Dale," said the owner of the shop, "I'd let you play if you were any good, but we both know that isn't the case."

By then, my dad had other interests besides baseball. He'd known since he was 13 that he wanted to be an engineer, which would eventually mean leaving Redfield. Besides working on cars in high school, he also learned to fly, getting lessons from old Doc Perry, who ran the local airstrip when he wasn't fixing up patients. My dad worked there one summer and on one slow day, Doc turned to my dad and told him, "Dale, go ahead and take a plane and get up there."

My dad wanted to build airplanes. After getting his degree from South Dakota Tech, he got a job at North American Aviation in Los Angeles. He likes telling the story of driving to work for his first day and being nervous about navigating around the big city. Sure enough, he was in a right-hand turn lane -- something that didn't then exist in South Dakota -- and went straight instead of turning. He got a ticket.

He later got a job at Boeing and worked on the second-stage Saturn rocket for the Apollo space program. A few years ago, he was at Cape Canaveral in Florida with my sisters and their kids and got to show his grandchildren the rocket he had helped to build.

While I was growing up, he coached my sisters' softball teams or my basketball teams. He gave up flying but still worked on cars -- I can remember the maroon Corvair he fixed up, as shiny new as the day it had originally left the Chevrolet factory, winning a trophy at a car show for it. We went to Mariners games and stopped on the way to get a bag of peanuts, parked in the alley next to the train tracks and saw Gaylord Perry win his 300th game.

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Last December, my dad had surgery for thyroid cancer. He's doing well, especially after another recent procedure that has helped him talk above a whisper after the first surgery paralyzed a vocal chord. But all of it added more meaning to our latest trip to South Dakota.

It was my parents' 50th wedding anniversary earlier this month and they wanted to make one last trip to celebrate (my mom is from Rapid City). Before meeting up with my sisters and their families and other relatives in the Black Hills, my wife and I flew out a few days early to meet my parents and drive across the state to Redfield. There, we met up with my dad's sister, who lives in Rapid, and his brother, who drove over from Illinois with his wife and son.

We had dinner at Terry's Bar, still there after all these years, steak dinner and salad bar for $9.95. We ran into two old high school classmates of my dad's, which is what happens in small towns. The garage across the street from the house my dad grew up in was still there, now called Schroeder's Motors. The little warehouse my grandfather built to store the beer when he owned the Pabst Blue Ribbon distributorship was still there as well.

But the J.C. Penney downtown had long since closed, the name still etched in the bricks in front of the store. My dad's old house was in need of a paint job and the garden was gone. There were two sheds back there, surrounded by a lot of junk and other stuff and I think that made my dad a little sad. Like a lot of small towns, Redfield is struggling; the average income of $23,000 is barely half of the South Dakota average.

We drove out to the baseball field. The light standards, looking like they were from the 1950s, stood high above the field. The grandstands were no longer there but there was a newly constructed wooden platform along the third-base line to sit down your lawn chair. Maybe they don't draw crowds of 2,500 any longer, but a woman at the coffee shop said two amateur teams and the American Legion team still play there.

The field? The field was beautiful, exactly as I remembered it, with thick, dark green grass.

I walked out to the pitcher's mound and I could hear my dad and his brother talking about Ed Carter and Kenny Phillips and Barney Clemens. And I could smell the popcorn, and see the people of Redfield and a young kid selling them bags of peanuts.