NEW ULM - When Donald "Red" Roiger agreed to sponsor a women's fastpitch softball team back in the early 1960s, all he was hoping for was to gain some publicity for his shoe store, Harolld's Shoes.
The 1962 season began pretty much as expected for the Harolld's Saints, but it ended in a fashion that no-one affiliated with the team saw coming.
Charles "Chuck" Raabe, a 16-year-old student at New Ulm High School at the time, took over as manager of the team near the season's end.
Courtesy of Bea Hanson
The Harolld’s Saints fastpitch softball team earned this headline in an Owatonna newspaper after winning the Women’s State Softball Tournament in Owatonna on August 5, 1962. The members of the team pictured are, front row, left to right: Diane Zupfer (utility), Bea Hanson (left field), Jane Polta (outfield), Elaine Brunner (shortstop), Vi Hauptli (third base), Kathy Zangel (first base) and Joyce Cordes (second base). Back row, left to right: Barbara Filzen (outfield), Annette Knudson (catcher), Dilly Krumweide (center field), Sandy Johnson (utility), Mary Ann Brandt (utility) Sherry Ogle (right field) and Jan Beckius (pitcher). Not pictured: manager Chuck Raabe.
"You know, when I took over the team I don't remember exactly what their record was, it probably was no better than fifty-fifty," Raabe said. "By any means, I don't think anybody, all the gals included, really gave any thought to the fact that we were going to go out and do what we did."
The team gathered steam at the end of the season, entering the Women's State Softball Tournament in Owatonna with a 10-8 record. Without any expectations to do well at the tournament, the Saints went 4-0 and captured the state title on Sunday, August 5.
Saints outfielder Bea Hanson remembers it as being a particularly special day, since it was also her 22nd birthday.
"Most of the players I'm sure are never going to remember that it was my birthday, because it was never mentioned I don't think that day," Hanson said. "I was just too happy to be at the state tournament."
Hanson - who turns 72 today, the exact 50th anniversary of the Saints' state title victory - currently lives in New Ulm, but has lost touch with most of her teammates over the past 50 years, during which she spent 12 years away in Arizona, returning to New Ulm only a year ago.
Originally from Norseland, Hanson was working in St. Peter when she first heard about Harolld's Saints. While at a choir practice, she happened upon her old friend Joyce Cordes, whom she had played softball against while growing up. Cordes told her about the Saints and urged her to join the team.
"Joyce and I played together, she remembered I played ball, and she met me at choir practice one night going out for Christmas caroling, because we both belonged to the same church," Hanson said. "I hadn't seen her in maybe 10 years, and she said, 'Hey, I remember you played ball, we're starting a fast-pitch team, come on over to the meeting.' That's how I got in on it."
Although the Saints were based out of New Ulm, the team included players like Hanson who were from further afield, with players from places such as Le Sueur, St. Peter, Springfield and Godahl.
Hanson said that perhaps the two best players on the team were catcher Annette Knudson and pitcher Jan Beckius, who both hailed from Godahl.
"I never did get a hit off of her in batting practice - she hit me in the elbow one time and that's as close as I got," Hanson said of Beckius.
The players were known to play the game tough, a style of play that was deemed too dirty to allow the team entry to any leagues - quite fittingly, the team's mascot was a white angel about two-feet high with a huge black eye that sat on the end of the players bench. Thus the Saints existed as a travelling team, making trips to places as far away as the Twin Cities and northern Iowa.
"It was a very unique situation truthfully at the time, there weren't a whole lot of people that really even knew that this team existed," Raabe said. "We had our followers, but not a big fan base. It was a very unusual situation to have a bunch of women playing fastpitch ball at a time where there really were no fastpitch women's teams in the area. We had to travel a long ways to find other teams that played fastpitch."
The team had a hard time even reserving a field to play at in New Ulm. The job of scheduling and arranging all of the team's logistics fell to Dorothy Voltin, who recently passed away on August 21, 2011.
Voltin sometimes had to beg for the opportunity to reserve Diamond 1 in New Ulm. The Saints usually had to play Sunday afternoons, hosting teams for doubleheaders so that their opponents could get the most out of the long journey they had to make to New Ulm.
Raabe had been assisting with the Saints throughout the 1962 season, but only took over as manager when Roiger fired the team's original manager.
"I was helping out, and Red Roiger called me and asked me if I would take over the team on a regular basis," Raabe said. "It was one of those things where I did it, I didn't know what I was getting into... it worked for him and it worked for them. It was a great experience, there was no question about it."
Raabe insists that to this day he doesn't know exactly why the team's original manager was fired, but Hanson recounts that he had become unpopular among the players based on his demeanor.
"He was using bad language around us," Hanson said. "There were a few that were very offensive to it. We had some people of different religions and everything on there that really did not like that at all. They went to Roiger, and he dismissed him. Then Chuck took over, and I think he took over about five or six games before we went to the state tournament."
Although taken by surprise with his new role, Raabe proved to be a very effective manager. He saw that the team's main strength was its rough-and-tough nature, so he emphasized a style of play that relied on hustle, a strategy that paid immediate dividends.
"We had been taught really well, and Chuck was really good at this," Hanson said. "We did a lot of bunting, we did a lot of hit and run and we did a lot of stealing of bases and stuff, and that's where we got a lot of our runs."
Even when Raabe arranged for the Saints to play against men's teams, the team couldn't be slowed down. Raabe remembers a particular game that the Saints played against a men's team from St. Peter, where he had to take his players off of the field since the men "started not acting the way they should have" after the Saints started running up the score on them.
"We would play some men's teams, they were slow-pitch softball teams," Raabe said. "At first it was kind of a, 'Here's these women coming in, the men are just going to take care of them and show them up,' and it didn't work out that way."
Before they knew it, the Saints were piling up wins right before heading into the state tournament.
"We started a string of victories, and when we got to state we started bunting it in the first inning and doing a lot of stealing and moving players up and we got the momentum," Raabe said. "After we got the momentum there was no stopping us, plain and simple... It all started jelling and they started believing in themselves. When you believe in yourself, you can do a lot of things that you normally can't do. That's exactly what happened to that team - all of a sudden they started believing in themselves, and then we started playing men's teams and we started beating men's teams, and then they really believed in themselves."
When they arrived in Owatonna on Saturday, August 4, none of the other teams took much notice of the Saints. Playing in blue and gold uniforms with bell-bottomed pants as opposed to the silk shorts of the more well-funded teams, Hanson recalls that the team was regarded as "scrub."
"At the state tournament we all laid around by our cars on the ground in the grass between ball games, because we couldn't afford to go take our uniforms some place and dry them all out and everything," Hanson said. "It was hotter than all get out. A lot of us took our shirts off and put another shirt on and put our shirts over the antenna on the car to dry. That's why everybody thought we were just a rag-tag bunch of junk. They didn't respect us, let's put it that way."
The Saints received an unexpected bye in their first game when their opponent from Hopkins didn't show up. It turned out that the Hopkins team had run off of the road in foggy conditions while driving to the tournament, though Hanson mentioned that none of the players were hurt and that they eventually arrived in Owatonna to watch the other games.
In the second round, the Saints provided their first big upset by vanquishing Cloquet by a score of 3-0. Cloquet had entered the tournament as one of the favorites and had earned a first-round bye.
To round out their Saturday slate of games, the Saints handed defending state champion Duluth a 6-1 loss, setting up a championship tilt with Bloomington the next day.
Against Bloomington on Sunday, the Saints scored four runs in the bottom of the first and four more in the bottom of the third in an 8-4 win that clinched the championship.
The victory qualified the Saints for the five-state Northern Regional Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., something that caught Roiger completely by surprise.
"When we won the state championship, Red kind of panicked, because that was going to cost money for us to go out to the regional," Raabe said. "He was in it to get some publicity for his shoe store, but I don't think at the time he really planned on the fact that we would end up being state champions. So now we've got to head other places, out of state to play other teams, with travelling expenses and motel expenses and stuff like that."
Raabe mentioned that finding money to head to the regional tournament was a short-lived concern, as the town of New Ulm had taken notice of the Saints' state championship and starting rallying around the team.
The Saints ended up finishing second at regionals, losing twice to the Minneapolis Comets, a team with strong financial backing that featured ace pitcher Jan Berkland. The Comets finished their season with a perfect 20-0 record.
Four Saints were named to the All-Regional team - Knudson, Beckius, Cordes and Kathy Zangel.
Raabe's tenure with the team ended after the season as he focused on his own baseball and football careers in following summers. The Saints continued to play for a couple more seasons - playing as the Brand Bus Saints after losing its sponsorship from Harolld's Shoes - but Hanson mentioned that the Saints didn't experience the same level of success again.
Hanson remains a close friend of one of her former teammates, Mary Ann (Brandt) Wagner, who now lives in St. James. When contacted by Hanson recently, Wagner described herself as the team's best bench-warmer, but Hanson says "She was the best cheerleader you could ever have."
In addition to Voltin, Hanson knows of three other people from the team who are now deceased - Roiger, Cordes and Dilly Krumweide.
Raabe worked in law enforcement in New Ulm for 24 years before moving to North Branch, where he still lives in his retirement. Looking back on the Saints' 1962 season, Raabe is still amazed at the way things turned out.
"It was a unique situation, that I think if you'd ever put it all together again it probably would never have happened," Raabe said. "Just all of a sudden it was a bunch of gals that believed in themselves, and once they believed in themselves, they never looked back. We just kept winning, and before we knew it we were state champions. Then we kind of thought, 'My gosh, how did we do this?' But we did it."