Craig Brown

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Ultimate competitor Dan Nessler twice a Hall of Famer

Sunday, December 11th, 2016
DAN NESSLER of Happy Chef covers second base during the 1995 ISC World Tournament in which Happy Chef finished fifth. Nessler was selected an All-World player four times and was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2009. Photo By BOB OTTO

DAN NESSLER of Happy Chef covers second base during the 1995 ISC World Tournament in which Happy Chef finished fifth. Nessler was selected an All-World player four times and was inducted into the ISC Hall of Fame in 2009. Photo By BOB OTTO

MANKATO, Minn. – With a grunt and a leap, the pitcher hurls the softball from 46 feet, causing the violently spinning missile to jump or plunge a foot just before crossing home plate and slamming into the catcher’s mitt at 85 miles per hour.

The degree of difficulty of hitting such a frustratingly elusive projectile?

Nearly impossible for batsmen of modest ability. But for the very best, an improbability they handle with great aplomb.

Mark Sorenson was one of the best, as was Bill Boyer, Shawn Rychcik and Colin Abbott. This esteemed class also includes Dan Nessler of Mankato, Minnesota.

Nessler was a magician with the bat from the left-side batters box. He played small-ball as well as anyone, said pitcher Pete Sandman, a teammate with Nessler on the world championship Penn Corp teams of Sioux City, Iowa.

“Dan was a great hitter,” said Sandman, who pitched for Penn Corp and later National Health Care Discount (NHCD) from 1981 to 1991. “He was smart, could slap, drag bunt, hit balls to left, center or right. He was gifted with the bat.”

    ACCLAIMED PLAYER AND LEADER

With the likes of Sandman, Nessler, Sorenson and Boyer leading a stable of stars, Penn Corp / NHCD won four (1988, ’89, ’91, ’92) International Softball Congress World Tournament championships. During that reign, Nessler made ISC All-World twice.

Interspersed in those Penn Corp years, Nessler also played for Happy Chef of Mankato, helping the team finish fifth in the 1995 ISC World Tournament, and claiming the ASA Class A National Championship the same year.

During the Happy Chef years, Nessler earned two ISC All-World honors (1985, 1992), along with being selected ASA Second-Team, All-American.

Nessler took over as player / manager in 1992. A post he held for 10 years. He was a leader and an example to the younger players, said former infielder Scott Christensen, a three-time ISC All-World player with Happy Chef.

“He was always thinking about game situations and our strengths and what the other team might do,” said Christensen. “He was a very intelligent player who could anticipate and be in the right place to make a play. You can’t teach that. He could adapt (at bat) and bunt or hit the other way.”

DAN NESSLER played in 16 ISC World Tournaments. In the four world tournaments in which he was selected All-World, he batted .407 with 15 runs and nine RBI. Photo By BOB OTTO / 1995 ISC World Tournament

DAN NESSLER played in 16 ISC World Tournaments. In the four world tournaments in which he was selected All-World, he batted .407 with 15 runs and nine RBI. Photo By BOB OTTO / 1995 ISC World Tournament

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Memories of 1970s Mankato State Men’s Intramural Fastpitch League

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

1998-StPaulHofF.1lr

1998 St. Paul Oldtimers Fastpitch Hall of Fame Inductees
Front row, from left, Gene Berglund, Jerry O’Connor Jr., George “Buzz” Connor, Jack Clemens, Kathleen Gallagher Schmidt. Back row, from left, Russell Hansen, Norm Thurmer, Whitey Schaffer, Randy Walker, Dan Gallagher and Pat Gallagher.

MANKATO, Minn. – In the fall of 1972, I enrolled at Mankato State University in Mankato, Minnesota (since changed to Minnesota State University).

I didn’t know at the time, but I was about to meet and compete against some of the best young fastpitch pitching talent in the state and upper midwest.

Starting their college educational journey with me at the time were Craig Brown, Bob Chicos, Dave Cummings and Randy Walker. We were all in our early 20s and very passionate about our chosen sport.

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Happy Chef in Mankato for sale, full of fastpitch softball memories

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015
Leroy Jolstad was a mainstay for the Mankato Happy Chef men's fastpitch softball team.

Leroy Jolstad was a mainstay for the Mankato Happy Chef men’s fastpitch softball team.

By Patrick Reusse AUGUST 23, 2015 — 3:38PM

MANKATO, Minn. – The Happy Chef restaurant and adjoining property are for sale. It’s the original and surviving restaurant from a collection of 63 that were once operated in the Midwest by the Fredrick brothers.

“We’re still in business,” said Tom Fredrick, 81. “We’re going to stay in business.”

Mention Happy Chef and many people think of the towering, round Happy Chef figure that stood in front of numerous restaurants — and remains smiling today next to Hwy. 169 as you enter Mankato. Mention Happy Chef to others and they think of something else near extinction: men’s fastpitch softball.

There was a group of fast-pitchers that played out of Mankato starting in the late 1960s. They played Class AA (major) fastpitch through 1990. You could bring in players from anywhere and pay outsiders, if necessary.

The team had a variety of sponsors in the 1970s. Happy Chef took over sponsorship for the Class AA team from 1980 through 1990, and then for five more years with a Class A team.

“You could never work with a better sponsor than Tom,” said Marley Lloyd, an outstanding center fielder and promoter for Happy Chef. “We could fly to national tournaments while other teams took a bus.”

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Will to win drove Craig Brown to become one of Minnesota’s all-time great fastpitch pitchers

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

1982-Craig Brown.1web Craig Brown, a left-handed pitcher from St. James, Minn. carved out a great pitching career for the James Gang of St. James, and Mankato Happy Chef. Photo BY BOB OTTO / 1982 St. James Dennis Johnson Field

SEMINOLE, FLORIDA – His speed was good, but not great. The movement on his pitches likewise.

But as for his intestinal fortitude, his work ethic, his will to win? Now that was great.

Craig Brown threw a fast-pitched softball in the 75 mph range. That wouldn’t put him in the high velocity class with ISC Hall of Famers Peter Meredith, Darren Zack and Michael White.

Or even with Minnesota Hall of Fame pitchers Leroy Jolstad, Al DeWall or Dale Root. All these aforementioned pitchers threw in the high 70s to 80s mph.

    BIG TIME GAMER

But the left-handed “Brownie” as he was known in his playing days, certainly is in the same class when it comes to the bottom line:

Winning.

He was all about that in his 27-year career. A career that began as a 12 year old in 1960 and ended in 1987 at the still young pitching age of 39.

During that span, he didn’t stray too far from his roots in St. James, Minn., where he grew up pitching at Memorial Park for the Merchants and VFW.

And later at the peak of his career, for the best team ever to come from the small town of 5,000 – the James Gang.

Comprised of mostly locally grown athletes, the James Gang was one of the best “small town” teams ever to play in the ISC and ASA Major divisions.

    TOUGH LEFTY AND RIGHTY COMBO

With lefty Brown and right-handed Charlie Engler toeing the rubber, the James Gang was always a threat to win state and regional tournaments. And they were always a threat in the ISC World Tournament and the ASA Major National Tournament.

No big-budgeted team dared take Engler or Brown lightly or the duo would knock them off their lofty perch.

St. James native Dennis Johnson watched Brown mature as a skinny 12-year-old into one of the state’s all-time great hurlers.

“Craig wasn’t scared of anybody,” said Johnson, who helped direct the state ISC travel league for about 20 years, and is an ISC Hall of Fame member. “And he had that change-up as his big pitch. It gave a lot of teams trouble, especially home-run hitting teams.”

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Long Lost Fastpitch Friends Reunite

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

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YUCAIPA, Calif. – Reuniting with old friends is such a wonderful feeling. 1995 marks the last time I had seen or heard from Craig Brown. And shortly after the 2000 ISC World Tournament in St. Joseph, MO, Merle Brendeland fell off my radar as well.

But thankfully we three have revived our friendship through a phone call from Craig, and my email to Merle a few years a go.

I found out that a lot had changed in their lives. Not all pleasant. Both had divorced. Both had lost extremely successful careers when the economy tanked, and so on.

But both have bounced back in fine fashion, which hales the toughness of their backbone.

Craig, now remarried, is semi-retired and living in Florida, and Merle is back to his roots, farming in Iowa.

As for fastpitch, Craig is one of the best pitchers in Minnesota history, and maybe the state’s best lefthander all-time. And Merle – like myself – was of average ability, but loves the game like I do.

More importantly, both men are my two best friends.

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Fastpitch connections lead to three good careers

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

otto.bob.9webThrough two chance meetings threaded to fastpitch softball, Bob Otto has enjoyed three careers in insurance, newspaper and freelance reporting, and photography.

YUCAIPA, CA – While out covering ball games I sometimes run into former insurance clients who ask, “How did you ever get into newspaper work?”

The better question would be, “how did someone like you ever get into the insurance business?”

It all started when I walked into the field house at Minnesota State University (then Mankato State) in 1973. In the far corner I spotted a left-hander windmilling a softball.

In the dead of winter – December – with the season five months away.

So I stopped to watch. I could tell he was pretty good. “Whap! The ball exploded into the catcher’s glove.

“Who do you pitch for?” I asked.

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Wrapping up the 2013 California Classic Men’s Fastpitch Tournament

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

SANTEE, CA – If you’re a men’s fastpitch fan living in southern California, there’s not much in the way of top-flight tournaments to watch. Except the California Classic. It’s the only big-time tourney being offered south of Santa Barbara where Clyde Bennett hosts the Best of The West.

Now concluding its fourth consecutive year, the Classic offers good competition. This year the Sooke Loggers of British Columbia, CA stopped the California A’s from claiming its fourth consecutive title with a 9-6 victory on Sunday.

Some thought California was heavily favored. That the A’s – loaded with international stars – were a superior team. Especially with Argentine and ISC All-World pitcher Lucas Mata toeing the rubber.

Schellenberg.Kevin.CalifA's.430web Shortstop Kevin Schellenberg is one of several international stars who play for the California A’s. He’s been a member of Team Canada that finished fifth in the 2013 ISF World Championships.

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Reconnecting with “Brownie”

Tuesday, 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.

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