Will to win boosts Craig Brown into Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame

Written by Bob on November 26th, 2016
Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame members, Dan Nessler, left, and Craig Brown, who were inducted in 2016, and Jeff Nessler, Dan's brother, who was inducted in 2004. Courtesy Photo

Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame members, Dan Nessler, left, and Craig Brown, who were inducted in 2016, and Jeff Nessler, Dan’s brother, who was inducted in 2004. Courtesy Photo

St. James, Minn. – His speed wind-milling a softball? Average. His spin to make it rise, drop or curve? Good but not great. His physical stature? Not imposing.

Craig Brown may not have had all the physical tools to become a great fastpitch pitcher. But what Brown did have speaks to the internal rather than the external.

Call it what you may: guts, drive, intense desire. As his former teammates would attest, Brown possessed the one quality all great athletes have: a relentless will to win.

No one knew Brown any better than Dennis Johnson, St. James’ softball statistician, historian, and devoted fan of the town’s fastpitch teams.

“He was an intense competitor,” said Johnson, who holds memberships in the International Softball Congress and Minnesota Softball Federation hall of fames. “He wanted to prove that he could beat the good teams and prove his skeptics wrong. That motivated him. He just hated to lose.”

    GREAT TEAMS, GREAT CAREER

Brown pitched for such powerful ASA and ISC-caliber teams such as Mankato Happy Chef, Mettler’s Bar and Circle Inn; Clear Lake, Iowa, Buttertop Bread, and his hometown teams, the St. James VFW, the Band Box, Super Sound Tapes, and the James Gang.

Over his 22-year career that began in 1966, Brown amassed a 450-160 (approximate) record with an ERA hovering around 1.00, along with over 4,000 strikeouts.

Brown helped his Minnesota teams win seven ASA and ISC state championships, four regional titles, and qualify for two ISC World Tournaments. In 1980, Brown (26-5) and Leroy Jolstad (31-8) pitched Happy Chef to fifth place (4-2) in the ISC World Tournament.

    HALL OF FAME STAR-STUDDED CAST

Those kinds of results will boost a ball player on to the top rung of fastpitch honors. In October, Brown was inducted into the Minnesota Sports Federation Softball Hall of Fame.

“It is a humbling honor,” said Brown, 67, now retired in Florida. “It’s the pinnacle of playing a sport. I never dreamed I would have such an experience.”

Joining Brown in the fastpitch category were Marlin Bloom, Dave Gilbertson, Darrell Goring, Ward Halvorson, Stuart Morrison, Dan Nessler, Howie Schaber, Doug Sorenson and Everett Wright.

“It was a first class ordeal and very emotional for me,” Brown said of the ceremony held Oct. 29 at the Monterey Ballroom in Owatonna. “I’m just so grateful.”

The 2016 Minnesota Sports Federation Softball Hall of Fame class includes front row from left: Donald Carruth (Minnetonka), Ward Halvorson (Austin), Darrell Goring (St. James), Nancy Anderson (Anoka), Danielle Lombardi (Anoka), Craig Brown (St. James), Marlin Boom (Ellsworth), Stuart Morrison (Cloquet). Back Row from left: Howie Schaber (Hamel), Doug Sorenson (Mankato), Dave Gilbertson (Albert Lea), Everett Wright (Minneapolis), Dave Rowe (Minneapolis), Jessie Adamez (Minneapolis), David “Davey J” Johnson (Mankato). Not Pictured: Dan Nessler (Mankato). Courtesy Photo, Minnesota Sports Federation

The 2016 Minnesota Sports Federation Softball Hall of Fame class includes front row from left: Donald Carruth (Minnetonka), Ward Halvorson (Austin), Darrell Goring (St. James), Nancy Anderson (Anoka), Danielle Lombardi (Anoka), Craig Brown (St. James), Marlin Boom (Ellsworth), Stuart Morrison (Cloquet).
Back Row from left: Howie Schaber (Hamel), Doug Sorenson (Mankato), Dave Gilbertson (Albert Lea), Everett Wright (Minneapolis), Dave Rowe (Minneapolis), Jessie Adamez (Minneapolis), David “Davey J” Johnson (Mankato). Not Pictured: Dan Nessler (Mankato). Courtesy Photo, Minnesota Sports Federation

    WONDERFUL FASTPITCH MEMORIES

His memories are many over a career that began as a 12-year-old filling in when the St James Merchants were shorthanded. But some stand out, timeless, as if it was just yesterday that he was pitching against some of the sport’s greatest teams.

Brown rolls the tape back to 1981 at the ASA Major national tournament in St. Joseph, Missouri. The St. James James Gang drew the opening night game against defending champion Seattle Peterbilt that came into the tournament with a 110-10 record.

Brown held Seattle scoreless into the seventh, when Bob Miller slugged a solo home run to give Seattle the win.

“I remember Jay Ness (third baseman) telling me, ‘keep the ball away from Miller,’” Brown said. “I threw him a change-up that he golfed over the fence. The ball never went over 10 feet off the ground and we lost 1-0.”

    OUTDUELS TODD AND JETS

And he recalls the 1978 ISC World Tournament in Kimberly, Wisc. and a game he rates the most satisfying of his career. The Lakewood (Calif.) Jets came in to the tournament as one of the favorites with the likes of sluggers Bob Aguilar and Hice Stiles, and pitcher Bob Todd on its star-studded lineup.

And Brown was handed the ball.

“Todd struck out 12 of the first 13 batters and was breezing along,” said Brown, who was with Happy Chef at the time. “They stranded eight runners in the first three innings, and had the bases loaded twice. They scored their only run when I hit a batter with the bases loaded. We scored two runs in the fifth to beat them. We were diving and knocking down balls.

“It was the most amazing and emotional game I was ever involved in. If you ask the Jets, I bet they never forgot that game.”

    QUINN, LYNCH AND CLEARWATER

“Brownie” as he was known, remembers Mankato’s trips to Florida to face the fabled Clearwater Bombers, and legendary pitchers Bob Quinn and Joe Lynch.

“In 1974, they were like 92-6,” Brown said. “We beat Joe Lynch 4-3 in the ASA Major National Tournament. Dale Root was pitching for us. Then in 1975 we played a four-game series (in Clearwater) and they kicked our butt. But in the (1975) ASA nationals in Hayward, we beat Bob Quinn 1-0 (Root getting the win). And in 1976 we split a four-game series with them. They were great, loaded with good pitchers and players.”

    MINNESOTA’S DIAMOND DANDIES

Looking back at some of Minnesota’s all-time great players, Brown ranks Mankato’s Vern Schoolmeester (second base) and Jeff Nessler (shortstop) among the best infielders protecting his backside.

“Mankato in general was so solid defensively,” he added, “and St James was as complete a team as I’ve ever played on with Don Rotert catching, Darrel Goring (second base), Trevor Nau in right, and pitching with Charlie Enlger…”

Engler, a MSF Softball Hall of Famer, and Brown made for a powerful one-two combo in the circle.

“Charlie threw a hard down ball and got a lot of ground balls,” Brown said. “I had the rise ball and change-up and got a lot of strikeouts and pop ups. We worked good together and won a lot of games.”

The James Gang was filled with stars, Brown says. He lauds first baseman Steve Olson, third baseman Jay Ness, along with Lee Patten, Bob Renne, Mark Samlaska, Gary Theisen, and Leigh Swanson, for making the James Gang a feared opponent.

    TOP OF THE PYRAMID

As for the state’s top teams during his era, Brown votes St. Paul Whitaker Buick at the top. But Byerlys Foods of Minneapolis with Ev Wright and Dave Bakke pitching, is near the top too, along with the Mankato and St. James ball clubs.

But the best Minnesota pitcher he pitched with and against?

He acknowledges that Leroy Jolstad deserves consideration, and that Gary Watland was a tough competitor with an outstanding drop ball. But when pressed, he says, “Dale Root was as good as any of the pitchers I ever saw in the Midwest. He had a great drop and change-up. He was very difficult to beat.”

So what drove Brown to rise from a small town class A pitcher to reach the elite class with the likes of Jolstad, Watland and Root?

“I had this drive to win and I worked so hard to prove myself,” he said. “I spent hundreds of hours of practice to overcome my lack of speed. Second place was never an option for me.”

    MASTER OF THE CHANGE UP

The left-handed Brown was known for a rise ball that broke away from left-handed batters, and up and in to right-handers. But it was his off-speed that set him a part from many of the state’s best pitchers.

“He had that outstanding change-up,” said Don Rotert, 69, who caught Brown at St. James. “That was his out pitch and every batter got it. He could throw it on any count, and he was not afraid to use it.”

Johnson, the historian, says that Brown’s best season came in 1981 when he was 41-10 with an incredible 0.649 ERA, 20 shutouts, along with 373 strikeouts, while holding batters to a .173 average.

“I would bet money that he has more wins against AA (Open level) teams than any left-hander in Minnesota history,” Johnson said. “Craig wanted to be one of the best, and no doubt about it he was.”

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