How I Helped the Gophers Win the Big Ten Title . . .
And How I Almost Helped Them Lose It

By Stew Thornley

Superstitious? Not me. Although there was a time in my life when I actually thought I could alter fate merely by avoiding black cats, knocking on wood, or even by talking to baseball bats. The latter practice occurred in the spring of 1968, when I was twelve years old and bat boy for the Minnesota Gopher baseball team.

The date was Saturday, May 25—the final day of the Big Ten baseball season. The Gophers were about to face the Michigan State Spartans in a pair of seven-inning games that would determine the conference champion. Entering the doubleheader, the Gophers were in second place, one-half game behind the Spartans. To wrestle the crown from State, the Gophers would have to sweep the twinbill.

Tiny Bierman Field was packed; fans were huddled together to combat the cold, blustery weather. One could almost feel the tension upon entering the grounds, and the atmosphere in the Gophers’ dugout was definitely different. Only Dick Siebert—the Chief—in his 22nd year as head coach, seemed unaffected by the task facing his team. He sat in his usual corner of the dugout, scorebook in lap, saying very little—but, then, he was always like that before and during a game. For the players, though, the somber mood was antithetical to the usual horsing around that took place prior to a game. They were well aware of the challenge facing them.

Michigan State had saved its top southpaw, Mel Behney, for the Gophers, and the Spartan hitters staked Behney to an early lead. Three walks and two singles off Gopher ace Dave Carey gave State a 2-0 advantage. But Minnesota came back with a pair of runs in their half of the inning, thanks in part to a fit of wildness by Behney, who, in that frame, surrendered three of the nine walks he would allow in the game.

Goose eggs prevailed from there, and, at the end of the regulation seven innings, the score remained knotted. As the Gophers took the field in the top of the eighth, one of the players in the dugout, D. J. Morehead, asked me to give the bats some magic words when the team came back up to hit. Asked to elaborate on exactly what he wanted, D. J. replied, “Bats, you can hit this guy and you can do it now.”

Being a loyal part of the team, I was happy to oblige. But when I stepped out of the dugout for the bottom of the eighth, I discovered a snag. The Gopher bat rack, unlike that of the visitors, was outside the dugout. With Bierman Field packed beyond capacity, fans were seated right up against the backstop, on which the bat rack was attached—not an ideal setting for an oratorical performance. I attended junior high only a few blocks away; as a result, a number of my friends were in that crowd. I had a reputation to maintain, and, in the eighth grade, it was not considered cool to be seen talking to a pile of hickory. But in the eighth inning of a tie game, I was also aware of the importance of delivering those magic words. If I didn’t, and the Gophers lost, I would hold myself personally responsible.

I finally solved the dilemma by moving down to the end of the bat rack and muttering out of the side of my mouth (just like I had seen gangsters talk in a Jimmy Cagney film), “Bats you can hit this guy and you can do it now.” Moving over a foot, I repeated the words. I made five stops down that bat rack, making sure each bat heard and understood my instructions. I picked up the bat for the leadoff hitter and whispered into its knob.

The Gophers rallied. Three walks filled the sacks with one out, bringing up Bill Kendall. Kendall was hitless in four at-bats and had struck out three times. But this time Bill and his bat, with a fresh injection of advice from me, picked on a fastball and drilled it through the hole into left, bringing home Greg Wasick with the winning run.

As the Gophers charged out of the dugout to congratulate Kendall, D. J. Morehead slapped me on the back and hollered, “Way to go. You’re magic words did it.” As I grew older and presumably more mature, I came to realize that my magic words had very little to do with the victorious rally. At that time, however, no one could have convinced me that I was not responsible for the win that vaulted the Gophers back into first place. To capture the championship, however, the Gophers would have to take the second game, as well; otherwise, Michigan State would sneak back into the top spot as the season ended.

The Spartans again scored first in the second game, but the Gophers countered with runs in the fourth and fifth and held a 2-1 lead after five.

While sitting in the dugout in the top of the sixth, I recalled a similar situation Minnesota had faced one year before. Needing a doubleheader sweep against Ohio State on the final weekend of the season, the Gophers took the opener and carried a one-run lead into the sixth inning of the nightcap, only to have the Buckeyes explode for eight runs to win the game and the title.

As I wondered if history would repeat itself, I turned to the student manager, “Lightning” Gary James, and said (innocently enough, I thought), “I remember what Ohio State did at this time last year.” Gary apparently remembered, too, because he suddenly looked as if he had been struck by his nickname. “Stew,” he blurted out, “you can’t say that in the dugout. You’ll jinx the team.”

I have rarely, if ever, squirmed as I did that inning, convinced that all the good my magic words had done in the first game was about to be wiped out by my big mouth in the second. Ironically, eight runs were scored that inning; fortunately, all eight runs were scored by the Gophers, giving them a comfortable cushion, only three outs away from the Big Ten championship.

Those three outs did not come easily, though. Michigan State rallied, knocking starter Al Hoffman from the box. Bob Fisher relieved, but could not stop the Spartan stampede. The call went to the bullpen for Jack Palmer, who had pitched the final two innings and picked up the win in the first game. Palmer fanned the first man he faced, but an error and a walk followed, loading the bases with one out. Even though the Gophers still had a six-run lead, the tension had returned to the Minnesota dugout as into the batter’s box stepped Steve Garvey—the same Steve Garvey who would win the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1974. But this was still 1968, and all Garvey could manage was a hard two-hopper to Kendall at third. Bill scooped up the ball, stepped on the bag, and fired onto Mike Walseth at first.

Double Play. End of game. Big Ten title.

Things have changed over the years. Some of the participants of that day in May are no longer around. Bob Fisher, D. J. Morehead, and the Chief have passed on. The Gophers have since abandoned Bierman Field for a steel and concrete structure a block away. The diamond of the old field remains for use by the junior varsity and university intra-mural teams. The maroon backstop still stands, with numerous gaps in its chicken wire, some of them nearly large enough to drive a bullpen car through. The dugouts have been torn out, and even the rickety, manually-operated scoreboard down the left-field line has been ripped down. As for the bat rack, it stayed for awhile, but a couple of years ago it disappeared, too—the last vestige of the day I helped the Gophers win the Big Ten title.

May 13, 1985
Revised March 1994

Related: Ebook on the 1968-70 teams

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