Reconnecting with “Brownie”

Written by Bob on June 19th, 2012

FLORIDA – I met Craig Brown in the fall of 1973, while we were both freshmen at Mankato State University (now Minnesota State). We were in our early 20s and fastpitch fanatics. Pitching was our passion.

But Craig was much more talented than I.

His left-handed risers, drops and his great change-up far exceeded my much slower “junk pitches” from the right side. Craig went on to become one of the greatest pitchers in Minnesota fastpitch history. I challenge anyone to say he wasn’t.

(And I question why he hasn’t been inducted into the Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame? He’s rightfully earned his place with the state’s greatest fastpitch stars.)

He pitched for the great Mankato teams of the mid-to-late 70s and finished his career where it started, in his hometown of St. James, pitching for the James Gang, which became a state ISC powerhouse. He along with right-handed pitcher Charlie Engler led the James Gang to a few ISC World Tournaments in the 80s.

During our college years, our wives became good friends. We eventually had children of about the same ages. After I moved to California, Craig and his family came to visit.

But as the years went by, we lost touch. No more phone calls. No more talkin’ softball.

But after about 12 years of silence, Craig suddenly reentered my life. He called me in May. Said he moved to Florida after his divorce to begin life anew.

We caught up on family and friends. But as in years past, our conversation quickly turned to fastpitch, reliving fond memories of the 1970s to ‘80s. Back when Minnesota men’s fastpitch was as popular as an ice-cold beer quenching a dusty throat on a hot, muggy summer’s day.

We talked about those great Mankato teams of the 70s with Jeff Nessler at shortstop; Les Dietrich behind the plate; Lefty Hafner in right field; Gary Lunz at first base; Vern Schoolmeister covering second base; Jerry Flanagan at shortstop or third base; Dick Lyons, coaching; Dale Root pitching along with Craig…

Craig’s name will never appear in the ISC Hall of Fame. And he won’t be remembered as a pitcher with impressive “stuff.” But one thing Craig Brown will be remembered for is his guts.

Fearless, with unshakable confidence, “Brownie,” as he was known, beat some of the best teams in the Midwest and in ASA and ISC national tournaments. And most of it through sheer determination and an abundance of confidence in his ability. He was one tough SOB in the circle.

A memory sticks in my mind that defines Brownie’s toughness. It was about 1973 or ‘74, I believe, during the Mankato tournament held in Sibley Park. Brownie got the call to pitch against St. Paul Arctic Cat or maybe they were still known as Whitaker Buick, I’m not sure.

Anyway, Brownie got his butt kicked. I mean St. Paul punched him around the park like he was a featherweight going toe-to-toe with the great Ali. The score was something like 8-1. It was ugly. And I was embarrassed for my friend. But Brownie said St. Paul had gotten some “lucky hits” and that there would be a “next time.”

Fighting back through the loser’s bracket, Mankato met St. Paul again in the finals. Brownie got the ball. I thought it was a mistake. But if you knew Brownie, you also know that Mankato manager Les Dietrich would have had to tie up and gag Brownie to keep him off the rubber.

He believed he could beat anyone in the world and that he deserved to be in a straight rotation with Minnesota Hall of Fame pitcher, Dale Root. (Root’s in the Hall, why not Brownie?)

Anyway, Brownie comes back and beats St. Paul. The score was something like 2-1. If I had to pick a pitcher on guts and determination alone, Brownie’s my man.

During our phone talk, Brownie also recalled some great games against the Clearwater (FL) Bombers and the Long Beach (CA) Nitehawks. He got the call against the Nitehawks in a mid-to-late 70s ISC World Tournament – not sure about the year. He was matched up against ISC Hall of Fame pitcher, Bob Todd.

“Todd struck out 12 of the first 13 batters,” Brownie said. “The Nitehawks loaded the bases in the first inning with no outs, but we got out of it without them scoring. Then in the second inning, they had runners on second and third with no outs, and we got out of that. We scratched together a couple of runs and beat them.”

“I doubt if any of the Nitehawks ever forgot that game,” Brownie added with a chuckle. “They were one of the favorites to win it.”

Brownie fondly recalls two softball trips to Clearwater to play the Bombers in the mid-70s. The Bombers flew teams in for a four-game series. Mankato went 0-4 in the first trip, but split 2-2 on their next trip.

But they got to Clearwater in the nationals. “We drew them the first game and beat them,” he said, adding that he believed Joe Lynch was toeing the rubber for the Bombers.

Brownie moved on from Mankato, and returned to pitch for the James Gang of St. James in the early 80s – his hometown where he got his start as a teenager in the early ‘60s.

“Fastpitch was popular back then, and it was something kids wanted to do,” he said. “We were always at the ball park watching the teams play.”

I mentioned some of the St. James players who went on to make big names for themselves playing for the likes of Mankato, the James Gang, and the great St. Paul team – under various banners as Whitaker Buick, Arctic Cat, Stroh’s Gatsby, and All-American Bar.

Great players such as Trevor Nau, first base and outfield; Donny “Fox” Rotert, catcher; Jay Ness, third base; Jeff Nessler, shortstop; Jimmy Chalin, second base; the versatile Darryl Goring – played every position; and ISC Hall of Fame administrator, Dennis Johnson, the dean of men’s fastpitch in that small community of 4,300. And also the late Paul Sandmeyer (with his waxed black and gray, handle-bar mustache), who managed several of the Band Box ASA Class A teams in the 70s and 80s.

“We were lucky to play in those great times,” Brownie said. “Players today wouldn’t believe how popular fastpitch was back then.”

Great times indeed, Brownie. Thanks for reconnecting and sharing great fastpitch memories once again.

Leave a Comment