Jim Rubbelke put Minnesota on the fastpitch map

Written by Bob on March 25th, 2010


St. Paul All American Bar entered the 1976 ISC World Tournament in Long Beach, Calif. for the very first time, and won the only World Tournament in Minnesota men’s fastpitch history with a double-knockout of the Lakewood, Calif. Jets. But if not for manager, Jim Rubbelke, it never would have happened. Rubbelke pictured third from right, second row in St. Paul team photo.

“We came ready to play for Jim. We were dedicated to him, reluctant to let him down…” – Jerry O’Conner, 1976 ISC World Tournament Most Valuable Player

By BOB OTTO
First printed July 3, 2003
botto3@verizon.net

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ST. PAUL, MN – For Jim Rubbelke the memory remains crystal clear. Shiny new Buicks lined up with ball players behind the wheel ready to begin another long distance softball road trip.

From St. Paul the motorcade wound its way to the softball diamonds of the Clearwater, Florida Bombers, Aurora, Illinois Sealmasters, and ASA National Tournaments.

Those memorable road trips ended 40-some years a go. But August of 2003, Rubbelke made one final road trip – right into the International Softball Congress Hall of Fame in Kimberly, Wisconsin, where he took his place among the greatest in men’s fastpitch softball history.

The 71-year-old Rubbelke along with Johnny Appell, Bill Boyer, and Mark Smith, comprised the 2003 class of ISC Hall of Famers. Rubbelke was inducted in the Managers category. In the 63-year history of the ISC, only 12 managers have been so honored.

TWO-CAREER MAN

Rubbelke really has two chapters in his 32-year fastpitch career. In chapter one (1957-1970), he played the hardnosed third baseman and lead off batter. His St. Paul clubs included the Clover Softball Club, 7-Up Softball Club, and Whitaker Buick.

In 1964 he was lured away by the Raybestos Cardinals of Stratford, Conn. where he spent the next four years earning ASA All American honors.

“He could run like a deer, good bunter, good defense,” said Mike Payton who played with and for Rubbelke from 1961 to 1975. “He had amazing power for a little guy. He would bunt and run during the season, but somehow he hit the long ball in the (ASA Regional Playoffs). There was seldom a regional where he didn’t hit a home run.”

In chapter two (1971-1990), Rubbelke shed his uniform for the manager’s cap. And that’s when his career reached new heights. His teams soon joined the elite class of ball clubs in North America. Under the banners of Whitaker Buick, Arctic Cat, All-American Bar, and Stroh’s Gatsby, St. Paul fastpitch rose to new heights.

“Jim was the backbone of fastpitch softball in the St. Paul area for more than 30 years, ” said Tom Rubbelke who pitched for his brother from the late 1970s through the final 1990 season. “It never would have happened without him.”

TIRELESS WORKER

Rubbelke worked hard for his teams – scheduling, organizing, making hotel accommodations – even the family barbeques, fell on his willing shoulders. On top of that, he raised over $60,000 yearly to keep the team a float. His teams played the best. He scheduled games with clubs from Florida to California, and brought top-flight teams to St. Paul.

“We had home and aways with Aurora and Decatur,” said Jim Rubbelke. “We got involved with (Ty) Stofflet and Reading, Pennsylvania. He was getting the ink around the country then. As soon as we brought him in here we had big crowds of 3,000.”

“Rube arranged the home and aways,” said Payton. “All of a sudden that put us on a different level, way up there.”

After taking the reins of Whitaker in 1971, Rubbelke never let go. But arguably, his St. Paul All American club stood above the rest. Only because it claimed Minnesota’s one and only ISC World Tournament title in 1976 (along with several top-ten finishes) in its first-ever appearance at the World Tournament in Long Beach, California.

ST. PAUL CLAIMS ISC TITLE

In the 30-team double elimination format, St. Paul won its first three games before being knocked off by Prescott, AZ, 3-0. But All American marched through the losers bracket, knocking off Nevada, 9-1, and Oshkosh, WI, 6-3.

And then St. Paul avenged its loss to Prescott with a 4-0 victory on Al DeWall’s two-hit shutout. That set up a showdown with the undefeated Lakewood, Calif. Jets. The All American squad would need to knock off the Jets twice to claim the title.

In the first game, Darwin Tolzin, a Jet the prior season, relieved DeWall and threw six scoreless innings to win the opener, 5-2. But Tolzin wasn’t finished. He came right back, scattering nine hits as All American pulled off a 6-0 victory – claiming the only ISC World Tournament championship to date in Minnesota fastpitch history.

But if not for an ASA residency dispute involving Tolzin, the ISC championship may never have come about.

FROM ASA TO ISC

Tolzin worked for the National Weather Service and was transferred to Minnesota in 1975 from Southern California where he had played for the Jets. His Minnesota residency came under scrutiny of the ASA and it ruled him ineligible for post-season play.

After the ASA ruling, Rubbelke turned to his team. Should we fold up the season or search for alternatives?

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

Rubbelke made some calls and reached an agreement with the ISC to play in the World Tournament. And St. Paul pulled off the shocker – at least in the eyes of established ISC teams.

The reaction among many Minnesota fastpitch folks: “What is the ISC?”

ISC TAKES ROOT IN MINNESOTA

“There was no ISC around here,” said Jim Rubbelke. “No one had ever heard of the ISC. We got a one-year bye into that tournament with the idea of starting an ISC league the following year. That winter we got six teams and Dutch (Elbers) became our commissioner.”

Soon other teams followed Rubbelke’s lead. The ISC spread like a wildfire throughout the state. Open-level teams from St. Paul and Minneapolis, Duluth, Winona, and Mankato wanted in.

Marley Lloyd managed Mankato from 1976 to 1990. Without Rubbelke’s foray into this foreign tournament, the ISC might never have spawned in Minnesota, he said.

NO ISC WITHOUT RUBBELKE

“No question, there never would have been an ISC in Minnesota at that time,” he said. “Jim’s the reason the ISC started here and in Wisconsin, Iowa, Sioux Falls and Fargo. We didn’t think it (ISC) amounted to much until we went, but found out it was harder (than ASA) because it had the foreign pitchers.”

Mankato clubs, such as Happy Chef, made 14 consecutive World Tournament appearances. And Lloyd credits Rubbelke for raising the bar, dangling the carrot a little higher for his Mankato clubs.

“He made us play up to his level,” said Lloyd. “That took us from the minor leagues to the major leagues of softball.”

Rising up to meet the St. Paul juggernaut created intense and sometimes bitter battles between the two clubs. And Rubbelke was the one to zero in on, said Lloyd.

“You had to know what you were doing or he would tear you up,” said Lloyd. “He was a fierce competitor always looking for the edge.”

And often unconventional.

“When you thought he would bunt, he hit away. When you thought he would hit away, he would bunt,” said Lloyd. “You had to be at the top of your game when you played him.”

TITANIC BATTLES

That St. Paul – Mankato rivalry produced epic battles that Lloyd remembers fondly today. Lloyd recalls the time and place where Mankato finally toppled Rubbelke. And reached the “major leagues.”

“It was in the (ASA) regionals in 1974 in Grand Forks and they beat us (Mankato Circle Inn) 2-1 in the first game,” said Lloyd. “ We came back and beat them 1-0 and 4-3. It was the first time they didn’t go to the (ASA) nationals. That pushed us up to their level. I’m not sure they liked that, ” said Lloyd with a chuckle.

Even with stiff threats from in-state rivals, Rubbelke-led teams remained top dog. And during those great years, DeWall anchored the pitching staff.

“Scandia, Mankato, Austin were good competition,” said DeWall. “They were good teams, but we always won. We had a little more pride in keeping our tradition going. We had a bunch of good players that just liked to play.”

Amongst a slew of players from the 1950s to the final 1990 season, a few stood above the rest.

For Rubbelke, pitchers DeWall and Dutch Elbers were tough to beat. “Al had the good drop, pretty good raise,” said Rubbelke. “Dutch had that good change up, great control. When we had the two of them going, we could compete nationally from 1962 and on.”

In the Whitaker Buick years (1962-1973) John Sheehan caught. “John was a teacher. He took pride in calling a game,” said DeWall. “He was one of the top three or four catchers in the country.”

MANY OUTSTANDING PLAYERS

Other greats included Jack Chlebeck, Bob Whaley, Mike Payton, Eddie Mathias, Doc O’Connor, Gerry Duffey, Don Terwedo, Dan and Jerry O’Connor, Herb Brooks, Jerry Schaber and Terry Muck.

Joining DeWall and Elbers, were pitchers Bob Trapp Jr. and Randy Walker, said Tom Rubbelke.

“Dan O’Connor, no doubt he was the best. He was great,” said DeWall. “He wanted to win.”

After Arctic Cat sponsored the team 1974 -1975, All American Bar and Earl Montpetit took over in 1976. That spurred an incredible 10-year run that also produced great names in the annals of Minnesota fastpitch.

“Around the field we had a bunch of great athletes,” said Tom Rubbelke. “Tim Egan at first; Jim McDonald at second; Danny O’Connor at third and Jerry O’Connor at shortstop. In the outfield we had Dennis Denning in center, Greg Alford in left, and Randy Henry in right.

“We used Gerry Duffey as DH and Steve Schmid caught with Jerry Sobaski backing (him) up.”

That line up claimed the 1976 ISC World Tournament title, with DeWall and Jerry O’Connor selected as the Most Valuable Pitcher and Most Valuable Player. DeWall finished with a 5-1 record, while O’Connor clipped the world’s best pitching for a .444 batting average and seven RBI.

But the ISC championship, the individual awards, the accolades wouldn’t have been possible without Rubbelke’s leadership.

“We came ready to play for Jim,” said Jerry O’Connor. “We were dedicated to him, reluctant to let him down. He put Minnesota on the softball map.”

For more great fastpitch news, visit these websites:
Al’s Fastball
Fastpitch West
International Softball Congress
North American Fastpitch Association
2010 ISC World Tournament, Midland, Mich.

5 Comments so far ↓

  1. Doug Gardner- Keg Bar- La Crosse, WI says:

    Our La Crosse team tangled with Jim Rubbelke’s St. Paul teams many times from 1970 through 1979. We always knew we were in for a battle, but Jim teams were always first class, not only as competitors, but also as gentlemen. I’m sure Jim had something to do with their attitudes and character. They were all winners as far as we were concerned, regardles of who won our games.

  2. BOB THURMES - HASTINGS , MN. says:

    GREAT STORY BOB , JIM , AL, JERRY , JOHNNY AND GANG WERE WHAT FASTPITCH WAS , MANY TIMES GROWING UP WATCH LEOSCH BAR GO HEAD TO HEAD WARS WITH WHITAKER,7-UP COZEY , PETER MEATS – EAU CLAIRE,WI , MANKATO , DRACKS . LEOSCH’S AMY BROTHERS DAVE AND DON , JACK + TOM SWANSON , WEED , WALLY NELSON AND NIC P. AND LARRY MAC ALL NEED TO BE PLACED IN MINNESTOA’S SOFTBALL HALL OF FAME I PLAYED ON FIVE NATIONAL RATED TEAMS AND THESE GUYS FROM LEOSCH BAR TEAM WERE WINNERS THANKS JIM FOR PLAYING SUCH A BIG PART IN MINNESOTA’S SOFTBALL HISTORY BEST WISHES TO ALL THE FASTPITCH PLAYERS

  3. Bob says:

    Thanks for the input Bob. Great comments about some of the legendary teams and players in Minnesota history. And you’re one of them, too.

  4. Tom Stasik says:

    That sounds similar to what Art Gillis did in Michigan. He took his first team to Wisconsin and loosened it up for several MI teams to play in the ISC. First Owen “Fog” Walford, then Kevin Herlihy and Saginaw and other teams from around the state followed.

  5. Bob says:

    I would have liked to have seen that great Saginaw team with Herlihy and Walford pitching.

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