What a reunion it was for about a dozen old-time baseball players at the Gays Mills Public Library last Saturday!
Inspired by Paul Lagan’s recently released book, ‘The Amazing Journey of The Kickapoo Kids,’ players from the original teams of the late 40s and early 50s gathered to commemorate the highly successful youth and later Gays Mills High School teams.
Lagan’s book starts with a group of rural farm kids living near Mt. Sterling, who form a team known as the Orioles with the help of parents and other interested adults. Those players joined others on the high school team and went to the state tournament three out of four years between 1950 and 1953.
The accomplishment was even more stunning when one considers the small school was competing against every other high school in the state regardless of its size. This all happened before state tournaments were broken down into divisions based on enrollments.
How good was the Gays Mills High School team in 1952 and 1953?
Well, their combined record was 32-2 for those two years. Each year, their only loss was in the state tournament.
The book-signing event was introduced by librarian Maura Otis, who referenced the popularity of Lagan’s book here.
“I have not read the book,” Otis said. “I’ve wanted to read it, but it’s always checked out.”
Lagan began by saying the book was about “the memories of young men, who are now old men, who achieved something many people living in the area now don’t even know about.”
Research showed Lagan that what the Gays Mills High School team achieved in the early 50s was indeed unique and that it had never been done before and now, because the schools play in different divisions based on enrollments, it could never be done again.
The Kickapoo Kids book is based on true facts with some alterations to increase excitement, according to Lagan.
The author compares the book to movies like Hoosiers and Field of Dreams. However, he believes the popular movies are not as unique as what happened in “your own Kickapoo Valley.”
While sales of the book have been going very well in southwestern Wisconsin, the author is try to get sales to pick up outside of the area.
Lagan noted that the book is always checked out of the Middleton Public Library, even though there are three copies there. He said the last time he was at the suburban Madison library; there were five people on waiting list to check out the book.
Although the book is based on a true story, Lagan felt compelled to change some names to avoid creating controversy. However, based on the positive reaction to the book, Lagan was comfortable matching up some of the real names of the players to the fictitious names used in the book.
One acknowledgement, the author made immediately was the Contribution Albert Nederlo, called Preacher in the book, had made by creating a baseball field on his farm to be used by the youth team known as the Orioles. He likened building that field to the one built in ‘Field of Dreams.’
Lagan recalled the Gays Mills High School team’s three trips to state. Starting with a 1950 3-1 win over LaCrosse Logan to propel the team into the state tournament where they would ultimately lose to Fort Atkinson High School. Lagan, who played on that team, was joined by Eli Crogan and Bob ‘Dean’ Martin.
In 1952, the gays Mills High School team beat Prairie du Chien 10-0 to make it into the state tournament where they were eventually beaten by LaCrosse Central. Brogan and Lagan were joined in three-man pitching rotation by Ronnie Helgerson.
Lagan was full of praise for his fellow players and Eli Crogan and Ronnie Helgerson came in for a lot of it.
Lagan recalled the 1953 game, where Eli pitched in a game against Colfax and won. Lagan pitched against Birnamwood and the team got behind but rallied late in the game. However, a celebration of a tying homerun got a little out of hand and the place was never tagged. Gays Mills would eventually lose that game—their only loss of the 1953 season.
Lagan also talked about pro contracts taken and rebuffed by the local players.
Eli Crogan was offered a contract to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, but ultimately rejected the contract, check a train ride back to St. Louis much to the chagrin of the man trying to sign him. Eli eventually accepted a full scholarship to play for UW-Madison, but left that school to attend Luther College in Decorah where his sweetheart and future wife went to school.
There was also plenty of praise for Pete Gordinier a legendary pitcher older than the Kickapoo Kids, who ran a store in Mt. Sterling, but could’ve played major league baseball in most everyone’s opinion.
The author recalled a legendary town baseball game featuring Gordinier pitching against Oty Clark. Clark who grew up in Crawford County near Boscobel pitched for the Boston Red Sox that summer.
The game played in Viroqua was a scoreless tie in extra innings, when Gordinier connected on a pitch from Clark for a towering homerun shot to win the game.
Bobby ‘Dean’ Martin’s brothers played for the Detroit Tigers.
Lagan recalled accompanying Eli Crogan to a tryout with Milwaukee Braves at County Stadium, where they met Eddie Matthews and other players.
Lagan also recalled Eli Crogan throwing four no hitters in one year. He also recalled a game, where the local pitching legend threw just 45 pitches. Each and every one of them for a strike, either called or swinging, and no batter ever touched the ball.
Lagan also talked about the baseball talent of some of other Kickapoo Kids like Tom O’Donnell called Tim in the book or Steve Kvgine called Stan or Larry McGinley.
McGinley, like O’Donnell and Kvigne, was present for the even at the library on Saturday.
Lagan pointed out that McGinley was “no small piece of potatoes,” as he went on to play baseball and basketball at UW-Platteville and eventually coach the Platteville High School baseball team.
Unfortunately, Eli Crogan was unable to attend, but Richard Crogan, his younger brother and a player on the 1953 team, was in attendance.
So how good was this team?
Lagan noted toward the end of the presentation that another player Bob L. Martin, not Bobby ‘Dean’ Martin, couldn’t make the Gays Mills High School team, but loved the game. He served as the team’s batboy and warmed up pitchers like Crogan and Lagan before games. However, upon graduation, Bob L. Martin signed with the St. Louis Browns, who would became the Baltimore Orioles. He went on to play in their minor league farm system for four years, but wasn’t judged to be good enough to play for the high school team.