Dutch Elbers helped drive St. Paul to fastpitch greatness

Written by Bob on April 18th, 2018

Ben Maloney, left, Ed Mathias, and Dutch Elbers hold the 1963 ASA Northern Regional Tournament championship trophy.

(Sadly Dutch Elbers passed away on April 5, 2018. See obituary in which condolences and tributes are welcome)

Dutch Elbers served the International Softball Congress for over 20 years in several capacities, including the organization’s president. In 1988, he was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame. Photo By BOB OTTO / 1995 ISC World Tournament

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Strong armed, with a lanky athletic build, Dries (Dutch) Elbers mostly likely could have stared at baseball, but fortunately for fastpitch softball, he never got the chance.

“My dad played baseball, but he steered me into softball,” said Elbers. “I have never played a game of baseball in my life.”

Elbers, who grew up in Steen in southwestern Minnesota, began playing fastpitch in the 4-H League in 1945 as a 15-year-old. It wasn’t long, though, that he graduated from the boys’ league into the Steen men’s league.

Steen might have been small in numbers with its 185 citizens, but they and the farm families surrounding the little village located 25 miles east of Sioux Falls, kept the six team-league healthy with numbers and talent.

“As kids, we wanted to get a uniform and play with the big boys,” Elbers said. Soon enough Elbers would be playing with the ‘big boys’ of fastpitch – worldwide.

After graduating from high school in 1948, Elbers played basketball at Central College in Pella, Iowa. But when he turned 20 he joined the Air Force, which turned out to be a critical juncture in his pitching career.

It also triggered a chance meeting with Milt Stark, Elbers’ Air Force catcher, who also became a lifelong friend. The two made a good tandem.

“Dutch had that great drop and change-up,” said Stark, in an earlier interview.

When their service time came to an end, Stark returned to Southern California, while Elbers headed to Memphis to pitch for Standard Parts where he and Buck Miller led the team to third place in the 1955 ASA Major National Tournament.

“Buck was one helluva thrower,” Elbers said adding, “He’s in the ASA Hall of Fame.”

After the stint with Memphis, Elbers returned to Minnesota and pitched for St. Paul teams such as the Belmont Club and Seven-Up, which won several ASA regional championships and in 1957 finished third in the ASA Major National Tournament.

“We won three games, but lost 1-0 in eight innings to the Aurora Sealmasters and Charlie Richard,” Elbers said, “and 1-0 in 11 innings to Detroit and Bonnie Jones.”

But in 1962, Decatur, IL, Alyco was assembling a ball club capable of beating the best in the world, and they wanted Elbers to anchor the pitching staff. He accepted the challenge and led the team to a regional championship and fifth place in the ASA national tournament.

He finished the season with a 36-8 record. But his stay was short-lived. Alyco pulled its sponsorship, so Elbers headed back to St. Paul where he joined Whitaker Buick and remained for the rest of his playing days.

Al DeWall, left, and Dutch Elbers pitched St. Paul Whitaker Buick through a fine 1963 season including hurling the team to the ASA Men’s Major National Tournament in Clearwater, Fl. where Whitaker finished in the top-five.

Elbers united with Al DeWall to form perhaps the best one-two pitching staff in Minnesota softball history, and one that could beat any team in the country.

“Al had the good drop and pretty good raise,” said manager Jim Rubbelke. “Dutch had that good change-up and great control. When we had the two of them going, we could compete nationally from 1962 and on.”

Elbers could pitch with the best of them, no doubt. But he swung a pretty powerful bat too. For example, in the 1960 ASA Northern Regional, he picked up three wins and beat Cloquet in the final, helping his own cause with a double and a single.

And in the 1963 regional championship, he pitched a five-hitter with nine strikeouts, and clubbed a pair of two-run homers to lead the hitting barrage.

But it was his pitching that his teammates counted on. And he had one pitch that devastated hitters: the knee buckler.

“Dutch was a competitor, number one,” said outfielder Tom Niederkorn, who played for Whitaker in the early 1970s. “He threw all three pitches, but it’s that great change-up that made him great.”

But in 1975 after a 30-year career, Elbers decided to retire. But maybe one year too soon, as All-American Bar which assumed the Whitaker sponsorship, went on to win the 1976 International Softball Congress World Tournament.

“I kind of wish I’d hung on another year,” said Elbers with a chuckle.

Though his playing days were over, Elbers didn’t leave the sport behind. He became Minnesota’s first ISC commissioner and later was promoted to ISC President.

Remember his friendship with Milt Stark? The two men had stayed close after their Air Force service. Except in one area: Stark became entrenched with the International Softball Congress, while Elbers spent his entire playing career with the ASA.

But in 1976 that changed through a most unusual circumstance. All-American Bar had expected to play in the ASA national tournament, but they had signed a Southern California pitcher by the name of Darwin Tolzin, who the ASA ruled ineligible due to residency requirements.

After the ASA ruling, Rubbelke asked his team, should we fold up the season or search for alternatives?

“We had a team meeting,” said Rubbelke. “We said, ‘we’re all going together, or we’re not going at all.’ Is there another option?’”

There was. Rubbelke reached an agreement with the ISC to play in the World Tournament, but with a caveat.

“We got a one-year bye into that tournament with the idea of starting an ISC league the following year,” Rubbelke said.

And who would take the reins as the state’s first ISC League Commissioner? Dutch Elbers.

That began another long and wonderful working relationship with his friend Stark. Both men rose through the ranks, with Stark becoming the Executive Director, and Elbers the president.

Both men held those posts for over 20 years, and both were subsequently inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame, Elbers in 1988 and Stark in 1981.

But more fastpitch honors have come Elbers’ way. He holds memberships in the Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame and the St. Paul Softball Old Timers Hall of Fame.

It’s been a great career for Elbers. Remembering the good times, he recalls the 3 to 4,000 fans that packed into Dunning Field to watch the rivalry with New Bar and legendary pitcher Johnny Volmer.

Over the years, Elbers played with and against the sport’s finest players, but he says that teammates Ed Mathias, and brothers Dan O’Conner and Jerry O’Conner, “were as tough and good as anyone.”

As for in-state rivals, he lists Mankato Happy Chef to the south, Duluth to the north, and later on St. James as tough competition.

It’s estimated that Elbers won over 1,100 games in his 30-year career, along with hundreds of strike outs, shutouts and no-hitters.

His highest individual honor came in 1961, when he was selected an ASA second-team All-American pitcher with Seven-Up. Elbers won 42 of 45 games that year according to the Minneapolis Star newspaper.

But it’s not the stats or the awards or the championships that the mean the most to Elbers.

“I loved the competition,” he said. “We played top notch teams and super players across the country. It was a pleasure to play against them, and at times win a ball game. But after it was all over, it’s the continuing friendships that’s important to me.”

4 Comments so far ↓

  1. John Younger says:

    Bob, thanks for the post, I enjoy them all !

  2. Bob says:

    You are very welcome John, I’m glad you enjoy them.

  3. Ferdi Nelissen says:

    Great article Bob as usual.

  4. Bob says:

    Thanks Ferdie, Dutch was one of the best on and off the field.

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