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A Step Back In Time: Root and Lunz lead Mankato Players Lounge to Winona softball title

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Winona Daily News
June 28, 1971

WINONA, Minn. – Players Lounge jumped on a faltering Carl Aegler for four home runs and coasted to a 9-1 triumph over Club Midway of Fountain City in Sunday’s title game of the 1971 Winona Invitational Softball Tournament.

Aegler, starting his fifth game in sweltering heat, was greeted by Mankato’s Gary Lunz, who belted a homer deep over the left-field fence in the first inning. Then after a single by Les Dittrich, Jerry Flanagan clouted another round-tripper over the deepest part of the centerfield to make it 3-0.

DALE ROOT, picked up the win after earlier shutting out Ronnie’s Bar of Ettrick, Wisc., 5-0, in the quarterfinals earlier in the afternoon. He apparently was at full strength throughout the championship tilt.

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Bob Thurmes Relives Memories of Loesch’s Bar and Its Roster of Fastpitch Stars

Friday, January 6th, 2017

BOB THURMES circa 1970s when Thurmes played for The King and His Court that featured fabled pitcher Eddie Feigner, who barnstomed throughout the world for 55 years, before he died Feb. 9, 2007. Thurmes played for the four-man team in 1971 and again 1974-’75. Bob Thurmes / Courtesy Photo

HASTINGS, Minn. – Bob Thurmes’ fastpitch travels have taken him far during a career that started as a teenager in the early 1960s and lasted until 1980. He played for such legendary teams as the Clearwater, Florida, Bombers – 10-time Amateur Softball Association national champions.

And he played for the fabled King and His Court, one of the great barnstorming softball teams that featured the incomparable pitcher Eddie Feigner, who much like the Harlam Globetrotters thrilled fans with his skill and showmanship that included pitching behind his back, through his legs and even blindfolded.

No doubt, Thurmes once pitched and played for some great fastpitch teams.

But Thurmes, who grew up in Hastings, also pitched for Loesch’s Bar, the hometown team that won two Amateur Softball Association (ASA) Class A state championships in 1964 and ’65, along with second, third and fourth place finishes during the ball club’s reign from the early 1960s into the 1970s, when the team disbanded.

NELSON AND LOESCH’S PUT HASTINGS ON FASTPITCH MAP

Loesch’s featured primarily local talent. However, the team came into prominence when talented pitcher, Walt Nelson, moved to Hastings from Ohio in 1962.

Nelson’s prowess soon made an impact in the Minnesota state fastpitch tournament.

The powerful right-hander led the Hastings American Legion to runner-up in the 1962 state tournament, and in 1964 and 1965, he hurled Loesch’s Bar to back-to-back titles. Thurmes got a close-up look at Nelson in his formative years.

“Walt Nelson was one of my fastpitch heroes,” said Thurmes. “I grew up across the street from Wilson Park and I would watch Loesch’s Bar play for years and beat the best teams from the Twin Cities (such as) Whitaker Buick and Al DeWall, 7-Up, and Peter’s Meats from Eau Claire.”

Thurmes briefly teamed-up with Nelson to form one of the stronger pitching staffs in the state: a young, up-and-coming star, along with a proven veteran in his prime.

STAR STUDDED ROSTER

“I was a senior in high school when they took a look at me,” Thurmes said. “I was young and the first tournament I pitched for them in was in Rochester. Walt and I were the pitchers and in my first game, I went up against last year’s champs and we won 2-1 in 15 innings. The Amy brothers (Don and Dave) had at least six double plays. They were really great players.”

Thurmes also got the nod when Loesch’s had to face Mankato, rated in the top-three of Minnesota elite teams with Dale Root in the circle, one of the up and coming young pitchers in the Midwest.

“(The manager) asked Walt about me pitching and Walt said, ‘let the kid pitch,’” Thurmes said. “I went five innings and it was 0-0, but Root hit a two-run home run off me.”

Thurmes says Loesch’s was loaded with talented ball players back in the 1960s, including the likes catcher Kurt Johnson, Don and Dave Amy, Kurt Thalburg, Jim Beattie, Pat Orman, Larry McNamara, Gene Hageman, Tom Swanson and Tom Niederkorn.

“Niederkorn was a great player and ended up with Whitaker Buick,” Thurmes said, “and Swanson, a shortstop, was one of the best.”

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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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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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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