Larry Harsch fondly remembers when Ottumwa was a haven for semi-professional baseball teams.
“Back in those days, there were some really good ball players in Ottumwa,” Harsch, who lives in Ottumwa, said. “Ottumwa was quite a baseball town.”
The semi-professional teams that inhabited Ottumwa during the 1940s and 1950s included teams put together by the Woodmen of the World Club, a John Deere-sponsored squad and a Ottumwa Motors team sponsored by auto dealers in town. There also was Ottumwa Merchants, Stewart Advertisers and a team sponsored by Wapello Dairies. He said some people in town will still remember those teams.
But semi-pro teams weren’t solely confined to Ottumwa; they were nestled in nearly every town in Iowa — and throughout the Midwest. Some teams were made up of farmers, while others were thick with coal miners — Harsch’s older brother Kenny Harsch, who played semi-professional ball, told him coal miners could really hit.
“Agency, Libertyville, Bloomfield,” Larry Harsch said, “Every place had a team.”
And watching the Ottumwa teams compete was one of Larry’s favorite activities. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his dad was involved with some of the teams.
“My dad [Lloyd Harsch], drove some of the players to games and I got to go with them and I got to know them really well,” Larry said. “They were my idols and gave me an incentive to play baseball.”
Many of the teams enjoyed making a trip to Fort Madison where they would compete against a team of prisoners in the Iowa State Penitentiary — the other prisoners were allowed to watch the game.
“You would go into the gate and the guard would close the gate behind you,” Larry said. “They [the prisoners] would usually be for the visiting team because it was a privilege to play on the team and prisoners got off work to practice so the other prisoners were a little bit jealous,” he said. “A man told me he was there when my brother hit a line drive so hard to the prison third baseman that he took off his glove and held his hand and kind of danced around, and they thought it might have broken his hand. One prisoner said ‘take him out and let one of us play.’ so they really weren’t for the prisoners much.”
Larry’s mother, Mable Harsch, was born in the town of Buxton, a town in Monroe County that is now extinct. The mining town, however, was home to Buxton Wonders, a talented baseball team made up of white and black players. The team — and town — were ahead of most of the country on integration issues.
Larry said his brother, who played shortstop, was a power hitter who was good enough — and probably could have — played professional ball if he hadn’t lost an eye to shrapnel from a mortar shell while serving as an Army Ranger in World War II.
“I’ve had a guy that played with him that said ‘people used to come out early just to see him take batting practice,’” Larry said.
Kenny returned to semi-professional ball after the war and went on to coach Ottumwa’s American Legion baseball team — he was one of two head coaches Larry had when he played legion ball.
When he was young, Larry said he enjoyed being around his brother and his friends when they played baseball, but the feeling wasn’t always mutual.
“Mom would say ‘you take him on the bike and put him on bike like you did before,’” Harsch said, “he [Kenny] said ‘then he [Larry] tries to guide the bike.’ So you know I was too young for them, I was always getting in their way. So he would do everything to get out of taking me, but I was with him as much as I could be.”
He said Kenny and company would frequent baseball diamonds like one on 13 Acres Park, which was located at the corner of Mary and Milner street; and another placed they called the Crackerbox, which was east of the old swimming pool building [it’s an apartment building today] at the corner of Keota and Milner street. In addition, they also played ball at the Joe Jones Field. Kenny and company’s enthusiasm for baseball rubbed off on Larry, who played the game when he could.
“We just played in the neighborhood,” Larry said. “We didn’t have a league or anything.”
Larry said it’s great that the young people who live in Ottumwa today have so many opportunities to get involved in sports.
“Ottumwa has really good sports programs through their schools and through their organizations that contribute to them and the YMCA and all the people who volunteer and do the work,” Larry said. “We’ve been fortunate not to lose any programs.”
Larry began to play organized baseball when he was 14 years old. He played for three different teams: The Ottumwa American Legion squad, Dewey Baker’s — a one-armed man who fielded a team — and a team sponsored by the now-defunct Eaton’s Sports Shop. Larry played a solid second base, but he wouldn’t have played at the college level without the encouragement of Kenny Reid, who served as head coach of the American Legion team for a time. Reid had played for the University of Iowa earlier in his life.
Larry said one day, Reid told him, “I think you could play college ball and I will take you to Iowa City to see the coach.”
So Larry made the trip to Iowa City and eventually became a member of the Hawkeye roster. During one season, he led Iowa in RBI and struck out the least amount of times on the team. His college exploits attracted enough attention to get him a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1956; although he didn’t make the team.
“I was never a power hitter like my brother was,” said Larry, who played for the Hawkeyes from 1954-1958. “I was more of a finesse hitter.”