Minor League Sports

Town-team baseball is a way of life for Dubuque County

It's 2 leagues, 18 teams and a whole lot of tradition

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RICKARDSVILLE — St. Joseph’s Catholic Church sits majestically atop one of the hills in this small town of about 175 people, located just off Highway 52 in Dubuque County.

Next to it is a cemetery. Next to that, at the bottom of the hill, is a baseball diamond.

That’s Rickardsville’s other church.

Not flashy, by any means, it has an all-dirt infield, except for small patches of grass on the sides of the pitching mound they call a “mullet.” There are no dugouts, per se, just team benches down each base line, confined by chain-link fencing.

It’s a short porch to right field, under 300 feet for a home run. Not too far past left field is literally a farm field.

A rudimentary electronic scoreboard in left-center gives you the basics: home and visitor team scores, balls, strikes and outs. That’s really all you need.

A small press box containing a public-address system and announcer is tucked just a few feet behind home plate, with a concession stand adjacent to it, where a can of Busch Light costs you $2.50. No one sits in the couple sections of small bleachers, instead opting for lawn chairs on a grass slope down the right-field line that gives you some shade and a perfect view of the action.

This is quintessential Midwest. This is Dubuque County semi-pro baseball.

A team for almost every town

So many towns here have teams: Rickardsville, Holy Cross, Balltown, Worthington, Zwingle. There’s a team called the Placid Pirates, though Placid may or may not actually be a town, depending on whom you ask.

“All it is is a church and four or five houses,” said Gary Langel, the mayor of Worthington and a self-described semi-pro baseball enthusiast.

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“Thirty years ago, you had to remove the cattle before the game,” added Paul Scherrman, manager of the Farley Hawks and president of the Eastern Iowa Hawkeye League, one of two leagues in the area. “Some of the games there ... in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the left-field fence was open, and there was a creek that was in play. If you wanted to go in after it and get wet, the ball was in play. If not, the guy was going to round the bases. Those are great memories. They have still preserved that (field), it’s still owned by the same farmer. But it’s enclosed now, and they have done a nice job of making that a quaint baseball field.”

By the way, the rumor is savvy players would hide a dry ball in grass somewhere near the creek, go pick it up and throw it back toward the infield instead of having to jump in and get soaked. The stories you hear from guys like Langel and Scherrman are endless.

They have played in, coached and viewed a ton of games over the years.

Semi-pro ball, or town-team ball, is a tradition unlike any other around these parts. Everyone in Cedar Rapids and Benton County knows about the history of the Iowa Valley League, but the scene here is kind of like the IVL on steroids.

The 12-team Prairie League originally formed in the 1940s, the eight-team Eastern Iowa Hawkeye League in 1979. There are 18 total teams this season, with Farley and the Dubuque Budweisers playing in both leagues.

There used to be more than 18 teams. Way more.

“When I started, there were 36 up here,” said Pat Weber, as well-known a pitcher historically in Dubuque County as you’ll get.

He graduated from Cascade High School, pitched at Mount Mercy and played 35 years for the Cascade Reds, including a magical 2004 season that was written about in the Los Angeles Times and nearly inspired a movie. Weber even signed a contract with a group that wanted to write and produce the movie about a club that went 64-1, its only loss coming by the score of 1-0.

 
 

Weber finally hung up his cleats last season, but was coaxed out of retirement recently and threw for Rickardsville, which was in desperate need of a pitcher for a tournament game. Nolan Weber, Pat’s son, was his catcher.

“Petersburg used to have a team,” Pat Weber said. “Strawberry Point, New Vienna, Sherrill, Lowden, Kieler (Wis.) had a team that was in the league. Anamosa was in and out.

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“Everybody always wants to talk and compare the Iowa Valley League and us. I played for Eddie Sawvell and Walford when I was at Mount Mercy. I always give the perspective of there is a lot of talent there, but just the home-town, competitive nature of things up here ... It’s like a traveling circus. It goes from town to town with these tournaments, and that’s what I like about it. It’s blood. Between the lines, you want to win. But when the game’s over, it’s like I always tell (Rickardsville Manager) Lenny (Tekippe) ‘Buy me a beer.’”

This year, the Prairie League also includes Placid, the Zwingle Suns, Epworth Orioles, Bellevue Braves, Bernard Indians, Peosta Cubs, Dubuque Packers, East Dubuque (Ill.) Braves and nickname-less teams from Balltown and Holy Cross.

The Eastern Iowa Hawkeye League also includes Cascade, the Dyersville Whitehawks, Key West Ramblers, Rickardsville A’s, Worthington Cardinals and Monticello Cubs.

“I even still have the minutes of our first meeting,” said Scherrman, the EIHL’s first and so far only president. “The driving force behind it ... the proposal was to start a league that had lights. It was a league that wasn’t going to play all of its games on Sunday afternoons through the summer. That was one of the prerequisites for the league. You had to have lights.”

A game is always nearby

Virtually every day or night during the summer, there will be a game somewhere around these parts, whether it’s league play or part of a tournament. Rickardsville just completed its annual tourney, with the Key West Ramblers winning.

Key West is a small unincorporated area on the south edge of Dubuque.

Cascade’s annual tournament – its 74th, the oldest in Iowa – is ongoing. It’s $500 to the winner of the 16-team event, just enough money to buy some equipment (they use wood bats in these leagues), help maintain fields, pay umpires and maybe buy a couple of beers for each player.

Did we mention they sell that at these games?

“I think we probably have some teams that spend more money on beer than equipment,” kidded Scherrman.

“Every town in Dubuque County takes pride in their baseball team,” said Prairie League President Paul Dardis. “It’s a generational thing, passes down from father to son. I had three sons who played with me in the Prairie League. My dad played Prairie League baseball before me. That’s just kind of the way it works in Dubuque County.”

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They gather in February each year to hash out league schedules. Bellevue usually has the first tournament of the season, then it’s Farley, Worthington, Zwingle, Rickardsville, Cascade, Dyersville, Peosta, Holy Cross and Bernard, in that order.

Bernard’s tournament is Labor Day weekend.

“It’s like a traveling road show, basically, because most all of them are 16-team tournaments. A couple are 18,” said Langel, who has run Worthington’s tourney for 34 years. “It’s really quite a deal. I’ve been involved with this since 1987, and it’s something how the leagues come together for these tournaments. You usually have the same group of umpires, you have a lot of the same fans that go to all the games. It’s really just pretty amazing how this whole thing goes on auto pilot once the season starts. Everything falls into place without a lot of controversy or commotion. Everybody has to work together to make this work every year.”

Meet the players

Managers of each team are so important. They don’t just make out game lineups and maintain their fields, they put their clubs together by finding players, retaining the ones they’ve already got and locating guys who can be used as fill-ins from time to time.

Those players are of many ages: the occasional high-school kid, current college players from the area, former college players, league veterans. They don’t get more veteran than Rickardsville’s Dan Dupont, who will be 59 in August and is believed to be the oldest guy to have played in games this season.

As a catcher, no less. A mail carrier by day, Dupont began with now-defunct Sherrill in 1979, meaning he is a six-decade player.

That’s amazing.

“Love of the game, I guess,” Dupont said, when asked why he continues donning the gear. “My dad (Dick) played probably into his early 40s until he gave it up. I guess that love of the game was passed on to me. My dad, he still goes to games (as a fan).

“It’s just great being around it. It kind of keeps me going. And I’ve got a good wife who has been really patient with me about baseball.”

Scherrman mentioned how it’s his goal to get Scott Harris into a game before summer ends for his Farley team. Harris’ son, Calvin, was The Gazette’s 2020 male prep athlete of the year at Western Dubuque, will play college baseball at the University of Mississippi and played his first semi-pro game for the Hawks at the tender age of 14.

Scott Harris is 59 and still fills in whenever Farley needs him.

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“The town teams were basically kids from those towns, when we first started playing,” Dupont said. “You’d pick up guys from here and there, maybe from Dubuque. Now a days, you have to pick up kids from Dubuque and other areas. I don’t know, this is just something that’s unique, I guess. You go to different places, and you hear ‘You’ve got that many teams around?’ Well, yeah.”

 
 

“Back in the day, pretty much everybody played for their hometown,” Dardis said. “It was unusual for guys to even know players from other teams. So I’d say back about 50 or 60 years ago, almost exclusively, it was players playing for their town team. They were legitimate town teams. Now, it’s a lot of college kids, a lot of kids from Dubuque will come out and play for different teams. This year, because of the coronavirus, a lot of kids who weren’t seeing action anywhere else have kind of made their way to Dubuque County and been picked up by different teams.”

That includes three guys who play for the University of Iowa. Izaya Fullard, Lorenzo Elion and Matthew Sosa are members of the Worthington Cardinals. Their college seasons, of course, were shortened by COVID-19, and they were looking for someplace close to Iowa City they could play and continue to sharpen and improve their skills.

Worthington was that place.

“It’s been really fun,” Fullard said. “I didn’t expect it to be as fun as it has been. It was nice to have a little break from baseball, this is the first time I’ve ever really had a break. It’s been kind of nice, you have games a couple times a week at night and be able to have a summer during the day. Honestly, the competition has been a lot better than I expected. I think that’s because with this pandemic there are a lot of guys who don’t have summer ball, so they are just trying to find a place where they can play.”

The season ended up being delayed for about a month by COVID-19. Bellevue’s tournament kicked things off at the end of May and early June.

As Fullard mentioned, there are a few more college guys around this summer, guys who play at the D-I, D-II, D-III, NAIA and junior college levels. One of Key West’s players is Dan Spain, who is head coach at Clarke University.

Parity defines these leagues

Ask around, and most say Key West, Farley, Cascade, Dyersville and Peosta are five of the top teams this year.

“Key West is a good team,” Dardis said. “I’d say legitimately a D-III level type of team.”

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Everyone also says the difference in the quality of the teams top to bottom is as negligible as it’s ever been. Parity is good.

It also makes figuring out pairings for the tournaments quite a bit tougher. The host of each event comes up with brackets, doing what it can to allow its team to advance as far as it can.

They play for money (college guys excluded), even if it’s not that much. The more important thing is hoisting a first-place trophy.

“I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn by saying the Iowa Valley League has more D-I players, probably, but we’re competitive,” Scherrman said. “We’ve got two leagues that are trying to win, and every game is the last game in that tournament if you don’t win. There are traditions and rivalries that are unmatched. I think that’s pretty cool, and it’s pretty unique ... Guys are competitive, we have rivalries, and it’s pretty unique that we have so many towns in the area that have teams.”

“It really hit me this year with COVID shutting pretty much everything down,” Langel said. “I think our two baseball leagues were two of the first organizations to push to get things going. Obviously we had to wait on the governor’s guidelines and everything. But as soon as it was cleared, and you could have more than 10 people in one gathering, we were pretty much full speed ahead on games. Worthington had a practice that first night, and we had 60 fans show up to watch. For a practice. They brought beer, were cheering and having a good time. That really hit me then how much people around here missed and really need baseball.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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