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Text prepared by Donna Rae Eilts
After World War II ended in 1945 folks all over America were ready to have some fun after four long years of anxiety and sacrifice. This desire manifested itself in a myriad of ways.
In Minonk a men's softball league was formed in 1947. This was a popular form of entertainment after the Second World War and along with the Minonk Theater made Minonk one of the places to be during the summer evenings.
The first year had six teams, all from Minonk. They were: Iowealth, managed by "Stogie" Cunningham, American Legion, Turley's Farm Supply, The Minonk News-Dispatch (all three Denson brothers, John, Bill and Bob played), Walter Implement, and The Presbyterians. It might be noted that at least three Catholic boys played for the Presbyterians indicating that some of the Minonk folks knew a bit about diversity long before it became politically correct.
Clarence Block warms up for Benson
Play began in late June and due to rainouts and a mid-season break it extended into early September. Walkers, who began the season 0-2 tied Iowealth for first place with 9-2 records. A team called the Independents entered the league in mid-season (flexibility was a virtue) and finished 1-4 in last place.
The 1948 season began with Charles Hayes as the chairman of the league. Others involved in the operations were Herman "Coon" Defries, Dr. H. T. Barrett, Ernie Moran, and Tom Livingston.
A new lighting system for the high school football program was installed. Experts advised the News-Dispatch that the Minonk field would be one of the most brightly lighted fields in the territory. The cost to operate for three and a half to four hours was estimated to be approximately $3.00 to $4.00 a night. Fans were advised that 15¢ to 25¢ donations were considered adequate to pay for each evening's expenses.
Umpires for the games were "Red" Dishinger and Elmer Hampton. Groundskeepers were Gary Antons and Cal Gaisford.
There were nine teams in the 1948 league. They were with managers in parentheses:
Walker Implement (Ken Cunningham)
Turley Farm Supply (Bob Camelin)
Kents (Max Hill)
Granerts (Chris Aimone)
Minonk American Legion (Jim Sample)
Benson Legion (Ernie Garrells)
Minonk Dairy (Pattonsburg Stags) (Harry Iliff)
Rutland (Art Oldenburg)
Iowealth (Noble Cunningham)
Granerts was the league champion in 1948.
A sixteen-team tournament was implemented at the end of the 1948 season, which ended July 30. Six teams from the league entered along with four teams from Pontiac, and one each from Bloomington, El Paso, LaSalle, Ottawa, Peoria, and Roanoke. LaSalle merchants led by pitcher Leo Nosalik and a powerful hitter, Manicki, won the first tournament. Prize was $100. Iowealth was second ($50); Roanoke was third ($35); and Pontiac Lehmans was fourth ($15).
The 1949 season saw the league reduce to six teams: The Witte, Kents, Turleys, Sanitary Bakery, Minonk Dairy, and Iowealth.
The umpires this year were Roy Wire, Allen Pope, and the old reliable Virgil "Red" Dishinger.
Witte's won the league as they had a number of former Granert's players.
The tournament which had quickly evolved into one of the area's foremost, was entered by all of the local teams except Turley's, two teams from Streator, three teams from Pontiac, and one each from Peru, Peoria, Fairbury, Clinton, Lexington, and Ottawa. Will-Walt of Peru won the 1949 tourney; Benson was fourth.
In 1950 the league was comprised of B&G Tap of Minonk, St. Pat's of Minonk, Iowealth, Benson, Dana, and Toluca. Benson won the league in a playoff with B&G Tap.
The tournament was composed of four league teams (Kents, B&G Tap, Benson, and Dana) three teams from Streator, two teams from Pontiac, two from Peru, and one each from Clinton, DePue, Lexington, LaSalle, and Fairbury. Green Front of Peru was the champion, Silver Dome of DePue was second, Hurts of Fairbury was third; and Ficek's Lodge of LaSalle was fourth. Prize money was same as 1949.
The league in 1951 saw the implementation of a ten-team league with a two-division format. The National Division was made up of Kents (Minonk), St. Pat's, Dana, El Paso, and Wenona. The American Division consisted of the Homestead, Benson, Flanagan, Toluca, and Minonk Dairy.
Dana defeated Flanagan in the playoff championship game.
Another feature of the 1951 season saw the advent of a four-team boys junior league, ages 13 to 17. The junior league games were played twice a week before the regular league events. Kents, Ketchy's Tap, St. Pat's, and Flanagan sponsored the teams.
A chance for the ladies to perform was limited to a few exhibition games during the season. Helen Mueller was an outstanding pitcher on women's teams during that time.
The 1951 tournament saw five teams from the league, three teams from Pontiac, two teams from Streator, two teams from Bloomington, and one each from Peru, Ottawa, LaSalle, and Forrest. Pontiac Stone led by Bill Jenkins' pitching and Denny Bassett's hitting won the tournament. Will-Walt of Peru was runner-up; Ottawa Farm Bureau was third followed by ever-competitive Benson. Clarence Block of Benson held Will-Walt and Ottawa to three runs in each of the last two games. That is just one example of the outstanding pitching that Minonk fans witnessed every summer in the tournament. Block had out pitched two of the areas best in Gale Plowman (Jim's Place of Pontiac) and Leo Nosalik (Ficek's Lodge of LaSalle) to bring Benson to the semifinals.
An added feature to this tournament was that Max Hill offered a free chicken dinner at his Homestead Restaurant to every player hitting a home run during the tournament. In the 15 games played, Max had to dish out 23 dinners.
In February of 1952, Charles Hayes resigned as executive secretary of the Softball Association. Jack Pierce succeeded him. Mr. Hayes passed away in August that year at age 44.
The 1952 season saw six-teams, with only one Minonk entry appearing. The Homestead carried Minonk's banner and Dana, Benson, Flanagan, Toluca, and El Paso completed the field. The umpires were "Red" Dishinger, Allen Pope, and Joe Kasha.
The Junior League continued.
The schedule was supplemented with exhibition games of teams from Pontiac, Streator, and other towns playing league teams. Minonk fans continued to view outstanding softball all summer.
The Homestead was the regular season champion.
The tournament of 1952 was again as fine a field as any of the previous. Dana, Flanagan, and the Homestead were the local entries. Three teams from Streator, three from Pontiac, two from Bloomington, two from LaSalle and Carlock, Ottawa and Morris Moose (which should have received a prize for most interesting name) completed the field.
Pontiac Stone defended the championship against Ottawa Farm Bureau. LaSalle Office Supply was third and Jim's place of Pontiac was fourth. Prize money was $100 first, $75 second, $50 third, and $10 fourth.
The exceedingly generous donations for this tournament; helped pay off the expenses for the regular league and junior league, which had both lost money.
The season of 1953 saw six teams appear: Davis Brothers, and Granerts of Minonk, Benson, Flanagan, Dana, and Toluca Bank were the entrants. Benson won the regular season.
During the course of this season fans saw a game between the Farmers and the City Slickers and later a contest pitting the "Fat Guys" against the "Skinny Guys." Those games proved to have great entertainment value if not so much skill involved.
The 1953 tournament had four local teams (Benson, Granerts, Davis Brothers, and Flanagan) two teams from LaSalle, two teams from Streator, two teams from Ottawa, and a team each from Mendota, Carlock, Fairbury, Marseilles, Pontiac, and our alliterative favorite, Morris Moose. Denny's of Pontiac won it all $100), Ottawa Farm Bureau second ($70), Morris Moose (YAY!!!) third ($40), and Lipton Tea of Streator fourth ($20).
Admission for all tournaments had been 50¢ for adults (the same for admission to a movie) and 25¢ for high school students. Grade school kids and younger were admitted free. As was the case for the last several years, the tournament had paid for the regular season as well.
In April of 1954 the athletic field was completely plowed like a regular farm field. It was then harrowed, leveled, and seeded with grass different from what had previously grown on the field. That meant that the 1954 softball season was abandoned. It also meant the end of "The Old Softball League" as many of us referred to it.
How long it may have lasted had not the field been redone is anyone's guess. With the increased availability of television sets, it may have withered away in a few years anyway, the same fate as the small town movie theaters.
The memories evoked by these wonderful summer events would be as varied and numerous as the people who relate them.
Some folks might recall the numerous brothers who played; the Hartzlers, the Cunninghams, the Eigstis, the McNamaras, the O'Connells, the Kolbs, the Sanders, the Densons, the Lohrs ― to mention a few.
Some of us would recall with sadness, two players who were killed in the Korean War - Bill White of Minonk and Bert Cinkovish of Toluca. (There may have been others, if so, please advise).
Others might recall the great power of Eldred "Chop" Jacek, the speed of a Bob Mann, and we have already alluded to the pitching prowess of Clarence Block (who never used a glove, many of the outstanding softball pitchers of that era eschewed a glove).
We each have our own memories of that time when everyone was glad that WAR was over; it was time to "Play Ball."