I know one South Dakotan who lives all year in anticipation of the Turner County Fair. Others yearn for the first Forestburg melon stand to open, or for the leaves in Spearfish Canyon to turn color, or the state capitol to be decked out in its Christmas glory. My favorite time of the South Dakota year is the 12 days in August during which the state amateur baseball tournament is played. For about 50 years after its inception in 1933, the tournament moved to different ballparks around the state, but since 1981 it has mostly been played at Mitchell’s Cadwell Park. This year, for the first time, the event was moved to Ronken Field at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, but Cadwell is the environment that I most closely associate with the State Am.
Allowing it to remain in one place for so long has allowed traditions to grow, and I look forward to them just as much as the baseball games. The Mitchell Exchange Club has become famous for its grilled hamburgers and onions. It’s one of the first aromas you detect when you wander into the ballpark, and very few spectators leave without eating one or two.
Every year, the same group of fans sets up lawn chairs on the lower levels of the concrete grandstand, or watches the game while standing directly behind each team’s dugout, a perspective that also offers an opportunity to catch in-game strategy or witty banter between players. The State Am is often the only time all year that these folks see each other.
For years, I kept an eye out for the guy wearing a blue T-shirt that read “Official Tamper,” who ran onto the field between games, filled the holes on the pitching mound and pounded them smooth. I always thought he must have been good at his job if they made him his own T-shirt.
Buying a state tournament program is often the first thing I do when I get to the park. The first six pages are packed with regular season and tournament records that delight anyone interested in baseball and history — Lefty Grosshuesch’s 62 strikeouts in a 28-inning game for Bonesteel in 1952, Wessington Springs collecting 36 hits in one game in 1988, Kevin Leighton’s whopping 501 career home runs.
I began attending the tournament regularly in 1991, when my hometown Lake Norden Lakers fell in the championship to Dell Rapids. Lake Norden is one of a handful of towns in South Dakota that is synonymous with baseball. Games have been played there nearly as long as there has been a town. It’s also home to the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. Growing up immersed in baseball, it was impossible not to fall in love with the small-town version of our national pastime, which is why I love going to the State Am every year, whether the hometown Lakers are in the field or not. I suspect there are other South Dakotans who feel the same way.
Maybe one of these years, I’ll witness something that becomes part of South Dakota sports legend. The State Am already produced one of our most treasured baseball stories. Claremont and Aberdeen were tied 4-4 heading into extra innings of the 1938 championship game in Aberdeen. It was getting dark, so umpire Tommy Collins ruled that if no one scored in the 10th inning the game would be replayed the next day. Aberdeen went scoreless in the top of the 10th. In the bottom, Claremont’s Bill Prunty stepped to the plate. He worked the count to 3-2, and then crushed a home run over the center field fence, giving Claremont the championship. The ball was recovered the next day and is now exhibited at the Hall of Fame in Lake Norden.
I don’t know where the rest of the year will take me in my travels for South Dakota Magazine, but I know where I’ll be in early August of 2019. I can already taste the onions.
John Andrews is the managing editor of South Dakota Magazine, a bi-monthly publication that explores the people and places of our great state. For more information, visit www.southdakotamagazine.com.