Waconia Baseball – “One eye in the past, one eye in the present…both eyes on the future”
The Early Years – Late 1800s-1950s
(Story printed with permission from the Waconia Heritage Association)
Baseball is said to have originated before the American Civil War as “Rounders”, a game played on sandlots. As early as 1889, it was reported that the Waconia baseball team, known as the Waconia Blues, played scheduled games with other surrounding town teams.
The Carver County News April 11, 1890, noted that the baseball team had rented a block of Albert Kohler’s property, near the Catholic Church, to be used for a playground. Every Sunday throughout the summer there were games set up by the Blues manager with another opponent. Although the games were intended to be “matched” sometimes the games ended with hugely lopsided scores.
Waconia, Watertown, Chaska, Carver, and Cologne formed a County Baseball League. Elected officers were: President – Stanley Moor from Chaska and Otto Roepke of Chaska was the Secretary. While the original object in forming a league centered on game schedules and ball fields, early on the leagues became the voice of local baseball. Soon, admission prices, spectator behavior rules, the source for local umpires, and generally a rules council became the purpose for local leagues.
In June of 1916, it was reported that the Waconia High School team never lost a game.
During the late summer and early fall months of 1930, “kittenball” became an organized sport. The game was popular among the athletic young townsmen as well as at the local high school level. In an article dated September 23, 1930, the swimming Waconia High School team over a Schaska High School rout was headed up by pitcher, Max Kusserow. The remaining lineup read: Jos. Kunze C; Jos Wagener LF; Wostrel 1B; Karl Kiessner 2B; John Strong 3B; Carl Maiser RSS; H. Wagener LSS; Kermit Lohmar CF; Charles Cermak RF.
Each spring, there was an organizational meeting called by the team manager. In April of 1936, the man selected was Ray Hundt replacing Harold Kuntz, who led the team to the championship in ‘35. Ted Schneider was elected secretary-treasurer, replacing Herbert Seltz. This local team leadership successfully returned the team to a championship win, praised as three years in a row, gaining the silver cup as a permanent possession.
That same spring, Waconia answered a call for the formation of a baseball team to enter into a local league, known as the Crow River Baseball League. The following men were anticipated to bring winning status to the newly founded group; Thom, Graff, Wagener, and Kaufhold were noted: “to have plenty of pepper left in their arms to take over the mound duties”. Once again, local fan attendance was urgently requested. The Waconia team chose Wm. Graff as the manager, and Howard Luebke as Secretary, Kermit Lohmar became the Treasurer.
The city fathers and the managers of the local nine were always looking for ways to promote the team and community. Arrangements were made for “Waconia Day” at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis on July 15, 1936. Over 400 residents attended the event led by a 39-piece Waconia Community band and their famous 12-instrument Deutsche Kapelle (German) band. The Waconia delegation poured into the city in a cavalcade of 100 automobiles, met at the Calhoun Beach Club, and continued, police escort and all to Nicollet Avenue and on to the baseball park. At the ballpark, Howard Luebke astounded the crowd by setting a new ball throwing record in the contest by tossing the ball 319 feet, 21 feet further than Ed Poppitz from Chaska, the previous record holder.
Local Waconia merchants closed their store doors at noon. Reuben W. Aretz, publicity chairman for the event, said, “We locked up the whole town and came, leaving our promised land, flowing with milk and honey to take care of itself for the day.” Waconia was praised as a famous resort center highlighting Lake Waconia as a favorite fishing spot. The Minneapolis Daily Star agreed to send a copy of the July 15th issue, to any person outside the state of Minnesota, to advertise Waconia.
The Patriot edition of April 7, 1938, noted the upcoming High School baseball team had four pitchers ready to take the mound; Andrew Scheuble, southpaw, Willis Gramith, Orle Lenz, and Roland Seltz, right-handers.
The spring baseball season for the Crow River Valley Baseball League found Dan Bleedorn, of Mayer, as the newly elected president. Kermit Lohmar of Waconia was re-elected as secretary-treasurer. Eight teams representing the league were: Mayer, Waconia, Chaska, Young America, St. Bonifacius, Northwood, Watertown, and Delano. At the opening game for the season, Waconia traveled to Chaska, where the opening ceremony was spirited by Behrens German Band and the Chaska Legion Post Drum Corps. The Chaska mayor pitched the first ball to open the game. “Admission fees remain the same as last year, 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.”
In 1939, the first reported organized play with women teams we recorded. The summer months of this year found the Silver Creek 4-H girls kittenball team playing Colognes’ team.
The Waconia Hexagon League boasted Harry Graff as the teams’ pitching ace. In a game with Cologne, Harry was scheduled to hurl against his brother, Milo, who was their star pitcher. “Fans will have an opportunity to see the Graff brothers in what may develop into a pitching duel.” A late August evening of fun and games was reported as Donkey Baseball came to town, highlighted as a side-splitting evening not to be missed. PLayers rode on donkeys named after such notables as Mae West, Al Smith, or Hitler.
In 1940, at an advertised Baseball Benefit Dance to be held May 4th, all persons donating two dollars or more to the baseball team received a season pass to all home games.
April 9, 1942 headlines of a Patriot article glared, “Baseball meeting is to be held Friday…will Waconia have a baseball team this season?” The reason for the dramatics was that the majority of last season’s team members were away in the army and the navy serving in WWII. Locals suggested that the team make-up could be Waconia youths. A good turnout at the meeting resoundingly agreed the youth of Waconia could and should represent Waconia in the Crow River League. The team name became the Waconia Cubs. The season record read: Wins 8 Losses 7 Tie 1 for the ‘42 season. Ray Fischer led in the batting department and rich Wessbecker led in pitching with five wins and three losses. 1943 repeated the same team composition.
Later, there was a match-up between the old-timers and the local “young ones”. The stellar event heralded the line-up for the old-timers: Ted Fischer, Ray Ess, Alphonse (Preno) Hartmann, Tony Wagener, Alfred Harms, Pollack Slitzke, Charley Gorres, Alfred Wagener, Philip Radde, Walter Wagener, John Kunze, Hank Scheuble, Al Ruby, Ferdinand Wagener, Ozzie Erhard,” all history makers in their own time, aptly named “Has-Beens”. The successful meet ended with the score, Has-Beens 7, Regulars 5. A rematch was a certainty, which occurred one month later and the results just flip-flopped: Has Beens 4, Regulars 14.
In 1945 American Legion Baseball organized the team known as the Waconia Midgets. All members of the team were 13 and under. Some of the first to show up to play including Dennis Wildermuth, Pete Linder, George Wemeier, Don Graff, Buth Willems, Donald Stahlke, Robert Splettstoeser, M. Lenz, and Fred Rudloff. In July of that same year, several Waconia and Victoria players formed a team to take to the Minneapolis Aquatennial. The result of this entry was winning two games against Albert Lea, but faltering to the stronger Anoka team in the final game.
In 1946 a news item read, “With the war veterans back in the community and the Waconia boys who have been playing baseball the past several years, Waconia should enter a formidable team in the Crown River league this year.: In a subsequent article, Coach Graff was quoted as, “The boys who show fire and ability will be on the team. To assure good field playing conditions, a committee named by the Waconia Lions Club, Fufinus Wagener, John A. Kunze, Ray Allmann, Tony Wagener, and Arnold Westphal, will maintain the ball diamond.:
During the late 1940s, the Waconia Town Team was named the Waconia Millers, because they had hand-me-down jerseys from the Minneapolis Millers.
In 1950, a new baseball league was formed when several communities voted to leave the Crown River Baseball League; the new group was known as Carver Hennepin Baseball League. Bob Mayer was Waconia’s first manager under the newly formed organization, known locally as the Lakers. In 1952, the opener was graced with the city and civic leaders participating in the festivities. Mayor Ray Erhard, Joe Graff of the Fire Department, and Art Laufenberger of the Lions Club were the headliners for the pre-game activities. Managers for Waconia’s Nine were Richard Wagener and Ed Weinzierl.
In August of that year, the Waconia Midgets won the league championship. The Midgets, coached by Bob Mayer, continued to focus on allowing Waconia’s youth to play organized baseball to prepare them to advance to the big league team as they came of age. The following boys made up the Midget squad: Willie Meuwissen, Paul Wagener, Bob Leivermann, Basil Henne, Clifford Stahlke, Lee Stahlke, Kenneth Nimmer, Don Rolf, Lee Munkelqitz, Adrian Erhard, Maurice Oestrich, and Dale Ratzlaff.
In the late 1950s and through the 60s baseball in Waconia was the local favorite pastime. The fairgrounds field was well-groomed with pride. The team roster had a winning combination of the young players trained through the midget program and veteran older players. Bob Leivermann was one of these lead players, and as many have said was one of the best players to play for Waconia, was a force on the mound and at the plate. He once struck out 27 straight batters in a game against the Monks at the St. Paul Bible College. It is also rumored he hit a ball into Lake Waconia from Waconia High School (Richie Wagener Playground is currently located).
A Patriot article dated May 9, 1957, noted, “It’s been a good many years since Waconia has been so baseball minded as with this year’s aggregation of players representing the town on the baseball diamond.” Local stars Bob Leivermann, Champ Fahse, Dick Mingo, and Lowell MacMillen joined the established regulars and made the game of baseball come alive when they took the field
Milo “Champ” Fahse played baseball for the University of Minnesota until 1944, after his time at the U of M he also spent some time in the minor leagues playing for the Marion Diggers and Omaha Cardinals in the 1940s.
The Waconia High School baseball team was coached by Dick Mingo from 1958-1968. In those 10 years, Dick had a record of 104-52-2. Dick Mingo is not only important to baseball in Waconia but he was important to baseball in the state of Minnesota. He coached for over 30 years at St. James, Waconia, Bloomington Kennedy, Lincoln, and Jefferson where he totaled almost 300 victories. He also started the Minnesota Lions High School All-Star baseball tournament, now known as Play Ball, Minnesota!
The Ups and Downs – the 1960s-1980s
In the 1960s 3 new baseball fields were built behind Waconia High School (currently Bayview Elementary School, 2021). The development of these baseball fields was led by Bob Wyhttenhove, who was a teacher and baseball coach within the Waconia School District from 1957 – 1974. In 1962, Bob started a traveling T-ball team and later a traveling little league team in Waconia.
During the 1960s baseball was a popular pastime in Waconia, a town with just over 2,000 people, and you could easily find 200-300 people at a baseball game being played at the “Fairgrounds” baseball field located inside the Carver County Fair facility. Beer and food were distributed from a couple of shacks that still stand today, one is the Waconia Lions Brat Stand and the other Ozzies food service stand.
Bob Leivermann ended his Laker career in 1966, during his 10 years he had a batting average that ranged from .348 to .563 with many highlighted games throughout his career.
In the late 70s and early 80s the Lakers on the verge of folding again, Richie Wagener gathered baseball players from Mound to have enough players, he also managed the team during this time.
And then they folded…the Lakers baseball season of 1984 was the last town team season for many years to come. At this time the baseball players in Waconia went on to play modified fastpitch softball. A team was created and they held their games at the Fairgrounds where the Lakers used to play.
This was also a time in which youth baseball had slowed down and there were very few opportunities for kids to play baseball in Waconia besides the VFW or Legion programs. To continue playing baseball after high school they had to go to other local towns to be part of a Town Team.
A Return to Glory – 1990’s-present
1994 a year that changed baseball in Waconia! A group of baseball dad’s and enthusiasts led by John Marsden, Tom Rietsma, Gary Brandenburg, Dean Dalen, Todd Dreier, Mike Bullis, Brad Gulden, Mike Leivermann, John Chrest, Howard Lake, and Dave Bergmann headed an organization, Waconia Baseball Association to bring baseball back to Waconia. Their goals are to build a new baseball field and restart the Waconia Lakers Amateur baseball team. Also at this time was the addition of a new Waconia High School being built on the west edge of town.
The Waconia Lions Club has been a contributor to Waconia baseball in the past and was very excited and willing to help fund the new baseball field in Waconia. Criteria to be met for the donation of $30,000 was 2 officers on the Waconia Baseball Association Board of Directors would be Lions members and the field was to be named Waconia Lions Stadium, currently known as Waconia Lions Field.
How else was money raised to make this possible? Donations from Waconia Rotary, Waconia Fire Department, basketball halftime shooting contests to name a few. They even got a $50,000 donation from the Minnesota state lottery/MN DNR, after they escorted Mike Bullis to the elevator for not leaving when they told him NO multiple times, they ended up calling, and instead of giving $10,000, we received the max amount donation possible.
After many years of work designing, planning, and building (mostly by volunteers) Waconia Baseball could finally call Lions Field their home forever.
Not only was legion and town team baseball coming back to Waconia, but a team made up of over-35-year-olds was started. In 1995 John “JC” Chrest started a team made up of guys that had to be over 35 years old to be a part of, this team known as the Islanders (named after Coney Island) would also call Lions Field home. The Islanders were part of the Minnesota Sr. Men’s Amateur Baseball League.
Mike Bullis helped bring youth baseball back at this time as well, in 1995, Waconia fielded a team that was going to be part of the Metro Baseball League made up the best 12-15 baseball players in Waconia, well they only had 11 kids show up to tryouts. They played their first year in the top division playing the best teams in Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Edina, Burnsville, and Apple Valley to name a few. This team consisted of players such as Ben Smothers, Chris Bullis, Jeff Chrest, Andy Bongard, Matt Polding, and Lucas Radde.
The Legion program is back in 1996, made up of high school-aged baseball players who played their games on the field used by the high school team with the brick backstop located at what was Bayview Middle School for 1 year. They played at that field because Lions Field grass had not fully grown in yet at this time.
Baseball was coming back and it was noticeable, in 1994 from age 5-over 35 there were 581 baseball players, in 1996 that number grew to 691 after adding legion and the over-35 team. And at this point, the Waconia Lakers still have not started a team.
In 1996, Mark Grundhofer, a math teacher at Waconia High School, took over as head coach for the Waconia High School Varsity Baseball team.
The Lakers town team finally played their first game in over 13 years, the gap of town team baseball was over in Waconia in 1998. The Lakers took the field in 1998, as part of the Minnesota River Valley League. Teams in this league consisted of Arlington, Chaska, Belle Plaine, Gaylord, Le Seuer, Victoria, Prior Lake, Shakopee, Winthrop, Carver, and Brownton.
Although the Lakers were not very successful in the early years, they had a consistent core group of guys made up of young Waconia High School graduates like Jared Dreier, Josh Brandenburg, Dan Chrest, Jeremy Salden, Andy Acosta, and Brady Bussler. The ace of the staff was not a Waconia grad but had a connection to a local legend and Waconia staple, Rob Wagener, was the grandson of Richie Wagener. The Lakers were coached by Jeff Hayes.
A Waconia Baseball Association tradition was started in 2000 to honor the people who made an impact on the Waconia baseball community, the Wall of Fame, and its 1st inductee was longtime Waconia baseball and local hero Richie Wagener. Richie was not just a good baseball player he was also dedicated to the development and growth of baseball in Waconia in the latter half of the 20th century.
The Waconia Lakers went many seasons without a winning record but the momentum was going in the right direction as the core group of players continued to grow. A young group of players mixed with the slightly older group started to show success and the Waconia Lakers won the River Valley League division 3 straight years in 2002, 2003, 2004. These teams were led by Rob Wagener, Dan Chrest, Josh Brandenburg, Josh Sell, Jeremy Salden, Travis VanDoran, Noah and Tryg Waterhouse, Ben Anderson, Andrew Fredericksen, Mike Groschen, Ben Smothers, Jeff Chrest and Chris Bullis.
In 2003 and 2004 the Waconia Wildcats High School team was seeing success as well, with 2 straight trips to the Minnesota State High School League State Tournament. In 2003 the team was led to the AA tournament by Andrew Fredericksen, Mike Groschen, Nate Koch, Jim Berg, Ben Smothers, Jeff Chrest,Andy Bongard, Pat Timmers and Chris Bullis. In 2004 the team was bumped up to AAA and made the state tournament again behind Chris Bullis, Ben Smothers, Pat Timmers, Andy Bongard, Jeff Chrest, Brady Gibbs, Nick Matheson, and Jake Stanton. Mark Grundhofer recorded a career win 100 in 2003.
The success of Waconia baseball was starting to grow as was the town of Waconia with a population of just under 7,000, the support of Waconia Lions Field also started to show with the addition of lights in 2005 from an advertising campaign headed up by John “JC” Chrest and donations from the local business.
The Lakers town team’s success never accumulated to any trips to the Minnesota Amateur State Baseball Tournament, but they were close to losing in the Region tournament a few times. Rob Wagener was a consistent draftee by teams from the region who qualified for the state tournament.
In the late 2000s, the team had lost many of the core group of players, some citing too far to drive for games. The wins and success started to fade until 2011.
In 2011 some key players returned to the Waconia Lakers headed up by Mike Bullis and a switch from the River Valley League to the more local Crow River Valley League. Teams in this league consisted of towns closer to Waconia like Cologne, St. Boni, New Germany, Hamburg, Norwood, and Young America.
The return of Waconia High School graduates Chris Bullis, Ben Smothers, Andrew Frederickson, Craig LaPlante helped Waconia on the field and they even brought some friends they played baseball with in college, Ronnie Olson and Peter Brown. Not only was it a return of some old names but also the addition of a young hard-throwing left hander who showed a bright future, Dalton Sawyer, who went to play baseball at the University of Minnesota.
Success in 2011 was an understatement, this team made history, not only did they win the Crow River Valley League regular season, they won the Region 7C tournament, which earned them their 1st State Amateur Baseball appearance since 1931. The Lakers drafted Tony Wischnack, an experienced pitcher from Plato to help boost the already strong pitching staff. They ended up with a 2nd place finish in the double-elimination tournament. They started with a 6-2 win over Pipestone and then a 2-1 14 inning thriller against Prior Lake. They then beat New Prague and Big Lake before losing to Isanti. They weren’t done though they beat the Mankato Mets 6-3 to earn a spot in the state finals against Isanti. The Lakers faced off against the Isanti Redbirds for the championship in which they needed to beat them 2 times to become State Champs, it was a 13 inning 4-3 loss that would end the historic season and paved the success of Waconia baseball for many years to come.
Mark Grundhofer recorded career win 200 during the 2012 high school season.
The Lakers returned to the state tournament again in 2012, a new format, single elimination. The success wasn’t as good this time around. The Lakers ended up finishing their season as one of the sixteen remaining teams.
In 2014 the Waconia Baseball Association started the Raise the Grandstand campaign with hopes of building a grandstand addition to Lions Field. With the help of a committed group, led by Duane Sawyer, they began a partnership with the city, school, and a lot of private donors. The Waconia Lions Club who have always shown support for baseball in Waconia as well as Lions Field donated $125,000.
In 2015 the Lakers had their next biggest season with a back-to-back trip to the state tournament after missing the state tournament in 2013, the Lakers were one of the final 8 teams remaining. The 2015 tournament was highlighted by a 2-1 walk-off bases loaded “single” against Kimball on a late Saturday night in Watkins to advance to the quarterfinals where they eventually lost to Howard Lake 2-1. The walk-off home run hit by Craig LaPlante should have been a grand slam but not all the runners touched the bases so it was only counted as a single in the book and the Lakers still won.
The Waconia Lakers success continued and they returned to the state tournament in 2016 but did not advance past the round of 16. At this time the Waconia Lakers started to add some younger talent to the core group of players, Josh Lenz a 2013 graduate of Waconia High School started to make his way into the lineup more, and the last couple of years.
With a successful grandstand campaign, the Waconia Baseball Association was proud to open the stadium to everyone in spring 2017. That same year, the Waconia High School team captured the MSHSL AAA State Championship defeating Hibbing. The team, coached by Mark Grundhofer, went an unprecedented 26-0 while reinvigorating the baseball spirit of a baseball community. This team was led by seniors AJ Friedrich, Dillon Whittaker, Alex Logelin, Justin Schultz, Jack Stoddard, and Jake Hendricks.
The success was not only great for the players on the field but Head Coach Mark Grundhofer was rewarded as the 2017 Class AAA Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Association Coach of the Year. In 2018, Mark Grundhofer achieved his 300th coaching win.
The opportunity to show off the state-of-the-art facility at Lions Field and what Waconia can offer as a community was a reason for our application to host the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball Tournament in 2021 with co-hosts Chaska and Hamburg. In June of 2018, Waconia was awarded the opportunity to host the 2021 state tournament.
The Waconia Baseball Association got a small taste of what it would be like to host a big tournament at Lions Field when they hosted the Region 7C Amateur Baseball Tournament in 2018. All went well including a rain delay in which Lions Field took on almost 5 inches of rain in under an hour. The grounds crew had the field ready and play resumed an hour later. As of 2021, the Waconia Region Tournament was the highest-paid attendance in 7C Region history.
After not being allowed to continue the season and play in the state tournament again in 2019 the Waconia Lakers returned to the state tournament in 2020. On-field contributions from Chris Bullis, Ben Smothers, Ronnie Olson, AJ Friedrich, Derek Martin, Jake Hendricks, and Kodey Simon the Lakers lost in the 2nd round to eventual State Champions Fairmont Martins. The game was a hard-fought game in which the Lakers lost 2-1.
2021 is a banner year for the Waconia Baseball Association. That summer will see the Minnesota State Amateur Baseball tournament being hosted in the communities of Waconia, Chaska, and Hamburg. This event, known as WCH2021, will bring thousands of baseball enthusiasts into the heart of Carver County. Along with this major tournament the association hosts events like the Gopher Classic and the WBA Legion tournament every year.
Entering the 2021high school season, Mark Grundhofer returns to the diamond for his 26th season and a 316-216 coaching record. He is the all-time leader in victories in Waconia High School history.
As Waconia continues to grow so does the sport of baseball. Since 2010, Waconia has seen numbers well over 1000 participants ranging from age 5 to over 35 in a town of about 12,000 people. This number has doubled that of participation since before 2000. The numbers have modeled the increase of population and are projected to remain steady with growth. As history shows us, baseball has a strong foundation in the Waconia community. While there have been ups and downs, baseball is the constant. The timeline of Waconia’s baseball history has also shown a need to have a main field to play on. The addition and expansion of Waconia Lions Field have provided not only that place for Waconia Baseball but the region. The future of baseball looks bright in Waconia.
- Jeff Chrest
- John Chrest
- Mike Leivermann
- Todd Dreier
- John Marsden
- Waconia Heritage Association (Paul Melchert)