Denfeld baseball began 70 years ago

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On June 9, 1947, the Duluth school board appropriated $1,200 (equivalent to $12,750 today) to fund a summer athletics program. The three public high schools (Central, Denfeld and Morgan Park; East was not established until 1950) fielded squads for baseball, golf and tennis, which were all sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League for summer competition.

Central's coach John Swain and Morgan Park's coach Harold Chinn began baseball practices on June 16, but at that time coach Walter Hunting had not yet set a date for Denfeld's first practice.

On June 24, representatives from the three Duluth schools, Proctor and Two Harbors, drew up the District 26 baseball schedule. It was uncertain at that time if Floodwood, Esko and Carlton would also be a part of District 26. The schedule called for eight games, two against each team present at the meeting, to be played between June 26 and Aug. 1.

Born in Iron Mountain, Mich. in 1897, Hunting graduated from Marinette High School in Marinette, Wis. He attended Lawrence College in Appleton, where he played football. His studies were interrupted by military service in World War I. After a stint as a teacher and coach in Stevens Point, he moved to Duluth, his wife's hometown, in 1927 to teach and coach at Denfeld.

Under Hunting, Denfeld's football teams were so successful that the fans began calling them “Hunting's Hunters” in the 1930s, and the name stuck. Hunting coached Denfeld football for 28 seasons for an overall record of 152-63-15. He also coached Hunters basketball and golf and later served as the athletic director.

Denfeld, featuring first baseman Ken Sunnarborg and pitcher/outfielder Lawrence “Larry” Tessier, two of the starting five from the 1947 state basketball championship team, completed an undefeated regular season, with one tie. The Hunters also featured pitchers Cliff Berggren and Ken “Lefty” Taylor, catchers Carl Paczinski and Richard Palmer, second basemen Robert Boyat and Howard Tucker, shortstops Lyle Lutzka and Norman Sundeen, third baseman Steve Vekich, and outfielders Don Bordeau, Ron Hammer, Ron Mayville and James Aldrich.

In their first game, played at Morgan Park’s Blackmer Field on June 30, the Wildcats erased an 8–2 deficit with five runs in the sixth inning and one in the seventh to tie the score at 8–8 before the game was called due to darkness. Starting pitcher Taylor was chased in the sixth and reliever Tessier could not stem the tide.

Denfeld’s first win came on July 2 at Wheeler Field, a 13-6 victory over Two Harbors. Wayne Johnson and Ofsthun (neither of which appeared in the team photo) did the pitching. Then Tessier tossed a three-hitter with 22 strikeouts as Denfeld beat Central 6-2 on July 3 at the Duluth All-Sports Municipal Stadium, built in 1941 and renamed Wade Stadium in 1954. Berggren threw another three-hitter as Denfeld crushed Morgan Park, 13-1, at Wheeler Field on July 7. On July 11, Taylor stymied Two Harbors on a two-hitter with 12 strikeouts as the Hunters won, 7-2, at Horace Johnson Field in Two Harbors.

A crowd of nearly 800 fans gathered at Municipal Stadium on July 15 as the game against Central served as a fundraiser for both fledgling teams to purchase additional equipment. A five-run fifth inning gave Denfeld a 7-1 lead, and Tessier came on in relief of starter Berggren in the sixth to preserve a 7-4 win in nine innings. Central’s Norm Kragseth was 3-for-4 with two doubles. (Kragseth later competed in football, basketball, and golf for Northwestern University, where he was all-Big Ten honorable mention in football. He became the first NFL official from Minnesota. Kragseth is a DECC Athletic Hall of Fame inductee.)

Aldrich and Taylor combined on a three-hitter at Proctor’s Missabe Athletic Park on July 18, as Denfeld won again, 7-1, against the host Rails. Taylor had 11 strikeouts in relief.

The first Duluth city tournament took place at Municipal Stadium on July 24-25. In semifinals action, Morgan Park defeated Cathedral, 14-8, and Denfeld again beat Central, 4-0. Tessier, who threw a no-hitter for the Duluth Steelers amateur team at Ely on July 20, worked all nine shutout innings against Central and allowed just three hits. Central downed Cathedral, 5-1, for third place and Denfeld once again pounced on the Wildcats as Berggren tossed a three-hitter in the title tilt, a 12-1 win.

With an 8-0-1 regular-season record, the Hunters drew Esko in the first round of the six-team District 26 tournament. The winner would face Morgan Park, which was granted a first-round bye. The other bracket saw Two Harbors versus Proctor, with the winner advancing to face Central. The games of the 1947 District 26 tournament were played at Duluth's Municipal Stadium as preludes before Duluth Dukes minor league games. On Aug. 1, Proctor defeated Two Harbors, 14-3, in the first District 26 tournament game ever played. Denfeld followed suit on Aug. 4 by beating Esko, 10-2. Berggren tossed a three-hitter and Denfeld batters connected for 12 hits. Central advanced to the championship game with a 9-2 win over Proctor on Aug. 5, and on the following day Taylor threw a one-hitter with 15 strikeouts as Denfeld pounded Morgan Park, 12-1, to also get a chance to play for the first District 26 championship. Denfeld had 14 hits against Morgan Park.

The District 26 championship game was played on Aug. 9. Like all of the tournament games before it, it was no contest. Tessier was one out away from a no-hitter before allowing a single to Central's Mike Peterson in the seventh inning. Denfeld secured the shutout, 15-0. Tessier had 15 strikeouts; he allowed one hit and one walk. Boyat, Sunnarborg and Tessier all had three hits to lead the 15-hit attack. Peterson, Central's starting pitcher, was chased in the fifth inning after a bases-clearing triple by Sunnarborg.

Denfeld advanced to the three-team Region 7 tournament, also played at the Duluth Municipal Stadium. District 27 champion Eveleth received a bye in the first round since District 28 did not send a participant. Denfeld clashed with District 25 champion Lindstrom-Center City on Aug. 13, and it was a laugher. The Hunters scored 19 runs in the first inning and “took it easy after that,” according to the Duluth News Tribune. The final score was 21-1. Denfeld had 18 hits, including a Tessier home run that cleared the left-field wall, 340 feet away from home plate, by almost 20 feet. Berggren and Taylor combined on a three-hitter.

Denfeld and Eveleth met before a crowd of 500 fans on Aug. 16. Denfeld jumped on Eveleth starting pitcher Don Voce for five runs in the first inning, which included a triple by Tessier. It was more than enough as once again the Hunters proved to be too much for their regional adversaries. The final score was 12-2. Sunnarborg also hit a triple and tallied four RBIs, and Tessier had three RBIs. Denfeld had 10 hits in all. Tessier allowed five hits and three walks while racking up 10 strikeouts.

The first Minnesota high school baseball tournament was held in Minneapolis on Aug. 21, 22 and 23. Denfeld faced Melrose at University Parade Ground Field in the quarterfinals. Starting pitcher Berggren was relieved by Tessier with one out in the bottom of the first inning after allowing three runs on two hits. Tessier dominated Melrose the rest of the way by giving up only one hit and notching 10 strikeouts. The Hunters scratched across single runs in the second and fourth innings but, trailing 3-2, were down their last out in the seventh inning before Taylor singled and Bourdeau reached base on a fielder's choice, putting two runners on base. Sunnarborg then hit a two-run triple to put Denfeld ahead, 4-3. Melrose got the potential tying run to third base in the bottom of the seventh, but Tessier induced a groundout to end the game and send Denfeld into the semifinals against St. Cloud Tech, an 18-0 winner over Crookston.

At Northrop Field on the University of Minnesota campus, St. Cloud Tech's first three batters singled off of Taylor en route to a three-run first inning. Taylor settled down following the shaky start to throw a complete-game five-hitter to hold his own against Tech's side-arm pitcher, Gene Cashman. Cashman held Denfeld hitless until Paczynski's single in the fourth inning. Paczynski then scored on a triple by Tessier. Tessier bumped into the third baseman while attempting an inside-the-park home run and was tagged for the third out while retreating to third base. The Hunters threatened in the bottom of the seventh with Vekich, who reached base on an error, on third and Tessier on first after a fielder's choice. Vekich scored when Tessier was out at second on a steal attempt that squelched the rally. Denfeld suffered its first loss of the season, 3-2. Cashman allowed just the two fourth-inning hits and had seven strikeouts.

St. Cloud Tech went on to defeat Glencoe, 6-5, for the first state high school baseball championship. Prior to that game, Denfeld squared off against St. Paul Washington for third place. Hunting, showing a high degree of sportsmanship, used many of his reserve players in the starting lineup. Paczynski started on the mound but left after a four-run second inning that had the Hunters trailing 5-1. Denfeld lost 7-2.

Tessier, who did not register an official at bat in the third game, hit two triples against Melrose and one against St. Cloud Tech. His three triples in the state tournament is still the record as of 2016, and Denfeld's five triples (Sunnarborg hit two) is also still the state tournament record for a team. Tessier signed with the Detroit Tigers and played for farm teams in Thomasville, Ga.; Jamestown, NY; and Butler, Pa., between 1948 and 1950. He played for the Duluth Dukes in 1951 but had to take the 1952 season off due to an arm injury. He played for the Dukes again in 1953 and 1954. A work injury — he was a switchman for the Burlington Northern railroad — permanently sidelined his professional baseball career but he remained committed to sports in West Duluth, where he raised his family. When his daughter, Diane, and her softball teammate, Chris Waltman, were killed in a car accident in 1973, the community created the Tessier Waltman girls softball tournament that the Tessier family ran for 35 years. Larry Tessier died in 2012.

Berggren became the subject of a manhunt after fatally shooting a West Duluth service station attendant named Arnold Floyd Johnson on the evening of March 18, 1958. The two men were acquaintances on the same bowling team. Berggren shot Johnson outside of Sullivan’s service station, on the corner of Grand and Central Avenues, following an argument inside. Berggren fled the scene. A warrant for first-degree murder was issued and Berggren was found on March 20 by sheriff’s deputies near his cabin on Comstock Lake, 25 miles north of Duluth. Berggren shot himself in the head rather than face arrest. He died at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth later that day.

Steve Vekich played baseball and football for Duluth Junior College and for Augustana College. His undefeated 1948 DJC football team played in the Little Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Cal. Vekich served as a referee or umpire in local high school and college football, basketball, baseball and softball games for decades. The Minnesota State High School League honored him with its Distinguished Service Award for his 50 years of service as a sports official, as he mentored countless officials along the way. Vekich died in Minneapolis in January 2017.

Hunting guided his Hunters all the way to the state championship in 1950, the only baseball state championship in Denfeld’s history to date. He retired from Denfeld in 1956 and died the following year from lung cancer. He was 60 years old.

Society For American Baseball Research member Anthony Bush is working on books covering Minnesota’s high school Region 7 baseball championship teams and the history of professional baseball in the Northland. He is an assistant baseball coach at Proctor High School, and he recently completed a booklet detailing 70 years of Rails baseball which can be found by clicking on the Record Book menu option on the Proctor Rails baseball website, railsbaseball.atomicleagues.com.

1947 Duluth Denfeld Baseball Schedule and Results (14-2-1)

6/30 @ Duluth Morgan Park          T       8–8 Blackmer Field

7/02 Two Harbors                         W     13–6 Wheeler Field

7/03 Duluth Central                      W      6–2 Municipal Stadium

7/07 Duluth Morgan Park              W     13–1 Wheeler Field

7/11 @ Two Harbors                     W      7–2 Horace Johnson Field

7/15 @ Duluth Central                  W      7–4 Municipal Stadium

7/18 @ Proctor                             W      7–1 Missabe Athletic Park

7/24 Duluth Central                      W      4–0 Duluth City Tournament, Municipal Stadium

7/25 Duluth Morgan Park              W     12–1 Duluth City Tournament, Municipal Stadium

8/04 @ Esko                                 W     10–2 District 26 Quarterfinals, Municipal Stadium

8/06 @ Duluth Morgan Park         W     12–1 District 26 Semifinals, Municipal Stadium

8/09 Duluth Central                     W     15–0 District 26 Championship, Municipal Stadium

8/13 Lindstrom-Center City         W     21–1 Region 7 Semifinals, Municipal Stadium

8/16 Eveleth                                 W     12–2 Region 7 Championship, Municipal Stadium

8/21 Melrose                                W      4–3 State Quarterfinals, U. Parade Ground

8/22 St. Cloud Tech                      L        2–3 State Semifinals, Northrop Field

8/23 @ St. Paul Washington          L        2–7 State Third-Place Championship, Mpls.