Reusse goes to Cooperstown: Tales of Minnesota’s anti-Sid Hartman

Follow along this weekend as Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse makes his way, eventually, to the heavily Minnesota-flavored National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sunday in Cooperstown, NY Reusse’s trip won’t be like the ones that others are making. For one thing, there’s a detour through Canada. For another, there will be characters that you won’t meet elsewhere.

. . .

Friday night: In Utica, (former) home of the Blue Sox

Reusse gets a nickname

Bob Fowler was a risk-taker. He had arrived at the Minneapolis Tribune in 1965 from the Royal Oak Tribune in suburban Detroit. One of his sports writing heroes was Pete Waldmeir, a Detroit columnist known as a wordsmith with an acerbic style.

The risk for Fowler was trying to insert a touch of Pete into his coverage of Twin Cities pro teams while working for Sid Hartman as the Tribune’s sports editor. Sid was not wont to “ripping” home teams in his columns of numerous items, and he certainly did not want younger reporters to exercise that freedom.

I have cited Nov. 27, 1966 as the day Fowler broke free from those chains of restraint and gave the Vikings a bashing of which Mr. Waldmeier would’ve been proud.

The Vikings lost 28-16 to the Packers, a third straight loss dropping what would be Norm Van Brocklin’s final team to 3-7-1.

Next up would be Atlanta’s terrible expansion team.

“Bring on the Falcons!” read Fowler’s opening paragraph. And also his conclusion, and several times in between.

There were many other razor cuts in those paragraphs. My tenure as a Tribune sports copy boy had ended 11 months earlier, but I would’ve given a couple of bucks from a paltry St. Cloud Times salary to be there to hear Sid’s reaction to “Bring on the Falcons!”

Fowler’s next risk was leaving the Tribune to become the PR director for the ill-fated Minnesota Muskies of the ABA.

That’s supposed to be a year. We wound up as teammates at the St. Paul newspapers, before he returned to Minneapolis and the afternoon Star.

His departure allowed me to move to St. Paul’s Twins beat.

Those were quite the five years, traveling much of the time with Fowler.

Fowler went to the Orlando Sentinel to cover golf in 1980. Those long spring trainings in that city with the Twins had planted the seed.

He took the real risk in 1984, teaming with Greg Larson from the Florida Times-Union to put together a group to purchase the Class A independent Utica (NY) Blue Sox for $70,000.

Sharkman and I had dinner on Friday night with Rob Fowler, Bob’s son, in Utica. The Blue Sox became a family operation, with Rob running the team the last few years after his father became leader of the Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“When Dad was getting ready to buy the team from Roger Kahn, the league president took him aside,” Rob said.

Not for encouragement.

Rob: “He said to Dad, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Utica doesn’t have an affiliate. And that’s because it has the worst facility, not just in the New York-Penn League, but in all of minor baseball leagues.”

Bob Fowler’s answer: “Bring on the Blue Sox!”

Fowler led the charge to fix the ballpark. He put the roster together with big-league GMs that he knew giving him a two, three players apiece on loan.

“The first year, we had Larry Walker playing third base,” Rob said. “Much later, when we were a Marlins’ affiliate, we had 17-year-old Miguel Cabrera playing shortstop. Quite a few terrific players came through here.”

The Fowlers sold the team to Cal Ripken Jr. in February 2002 for $3 million (Cal moved the franchise to Aberdeen, Md.).

The Fowlers paid off some bills and then Bob started sending checks to his investors.

Gerry Fraley, the late, outstanding baseball writer, told me that he invested $5,000 with Fowler and, 18 years later, opened the mail to find a check for $90,000.

Rob has remained in Utica, raised his family and now leads fundraising for Herkimer College Foundation.

This would be a great weekend for his dad. Bob wrote the first book on Tony Oliva in 1969. He wouldn’t miss his guy Tony O. finally going into the Hall of Fame.

Fate destroyed that.

As Fowler was settling into a comfortable, golf-filled life in Clermont, Fla. with his wife Pat, he was diagnosed with ALS. He died on Jan. 16, 2009 at 69.

Rob, in his 50s now looks exactly like his dad and has the same voice.

This reunion left me with many smiles in recollection of those days on the road with the Twins.

There was this one:

I walked into the press room at Fenway Park for the first time with Fowler next to me.

Clif Keane, the famous ball writer for the Boston Globe, looked at the stout frame of the rookie and said:

“Hey, Fowl-ah, where’d you get the bear? You better put a muzzle on that guy.”

That greeting spread so rapidly that several ball writers around the AL adopted “Bear” as an official nickname for life.

Friday noon: Was this a good idea?

A tale in two (or three) Tweets

Meanwhile, when John Sharkman leaves home, stuff happens.

Thursday night detour: Dinner in Toronto

Super with a Canadian baseball legend

Three of us arrived at the Barrio restaurant on Thursday night in Toronto’s Leslieville neighborhood. This was down the block from home for travel companion John Sharkman and his sainted bride, Danica.

Bob Elliott was making a heroic drive in from Mississauga, the massive Toronto suburb, to fill the table for four.

The young woman greeting dinners and assigning tables was given this request by me:

“A senior citizen soon will be arriving. He will be detected by his head of gray hair and a gray mustache. Please say, ‘Excuse me, sir, but you’re Bob Elliott, the famous baseball writer, are you not?’ ”

She offered assurance of doing precisely.

Ten minutes later, Elliott arrived, there were hale and hearty greetings and then the 5-foot-10 (perhaps) septuagenarian revealed that the woman at front said to him: “Oh, you’re that famous basketball player.”

Hard to find reliable help these days.

This was the first time I had seen Elliott since mid-May in 2016, when the Blue Jays were in town and we had lunch outside at Rojo’s at the West End.

It was uplifting to obverse Thursday that Elliott was looking very good for a guy who had left this vale of tears for a couple of minutes since we had last seen one another.

Elliott had hinted at Rojo that retirement was near for him at the Toronto Sun — and it became official a week later.

Always a promoter of Canadian baseball, while also covering first the Expos for the Ottawa Citizen and then the Blue Jays (as primary subject) in Toronto for three decades, that now became his emphasis:

Writing about Canadian players at all levels for what he calls the Canadian Baseball Network.

In true Canadian style, where athletes and personalities from ocean to ocean are the home team, it had been a national event when Elliott became the first Canadian to win the annual Hall of Fame honor for baseball writing in 2012.

Wife Claire put him on a diet for that one. I had to watch on TV, but he was wearing a nice suit and made a great speech.

Then came retirement, and devotion to Canadian baseball, and to young grandkids, and then the heart attack in February 2019 — while giving a speech at the 12th annual banquet for Ohotoks Dawgs senior team in Alberta.

He excused himself, sat down, crumpled and he was gone … until a couple of heroes at the banquet, Savannah and Angela, got him going again before the EMS team arrived.

Baseball writing friends have called him “Boxer” for decades. It comes from the guys at the French-language newspapers with whom he shared the Expos beat. Somehow a wrestling event in a bar (I think) turned him into Boxer.

He’s down a couple of weight classes from peak. And it’s not a devotion to Diet Coke that’s done it — I can attest to that.

So what’s the post-heart episode diet?

“Not much,” he said. “Except I can’t eat greens.”

What in the name of Martha Stewart are you talking about Boxer?

“Lettuce, green beans, none of it,” Elliott said. “There’s a common trait in the greens that could mess with my fibrillation and cause another episode.”

I love Boxers. Sharkman and St. Danica calls him “Uncle Bob.” Ball writers through decades love Boxer. Even players he covered love Boxer.

One reason is the wonderful quirkiness, and now he’s added this medical update to that resume:

“Go ahead and keep pounding the Diet Cokes, but for the love of God, Mr. Elliott, stay away from asparagus.”

Thursday morning: At the airport

I need a plan… and a wingman

My February visit to Cooperstown for Tony Oliva’s orientation to the Hall of Fame was notable for Tony’s enthusiasm for all corners of the baseball paradise, and the absolute mid-winter quietness of the rest of the hamlet.

I spent two nights at a train depot that has been restored into a hotel. The activity was such that I could have been auditioning for the role of Jack Torrance, the Jack Nicholson character, in a remake of “The Shining.”

On the second day, I asked the lonely young clerk if there were still rooms available for the Hall of Fame induction weekend. She thought so, and promised to have top management contact me.

A week later, I received a call. There were a few rooms available — starting at $800 per night, plus taxes, with a minimum of two nights (or perhaps three) … it didn’t make much difference. A direct assault on Cooperstown for the weekend was not possible at those prices. A diversion would be required.

My mind became a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought: “Toronto can’t be that far from Cooperstown. I always liked Toronto and haven’t been there in a while. … That’s it. I’ll call Sharkman, my adopted Stearns County nephew living in Toronto, and find out if he’s game for an attack from the west on Leatherstocking Country.”

Of course he was. He’s Sharkman.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *