By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
BANCROFT, Iowa, June 16, 2017 — So Carla Offenburger and I, devoted baseball fans that we are, had seriously been considering taking our fold-up touring bicycles out to Cape Cod in Massachusetts. We’d stay for a week, pedaling our bikes into the nearby resort towns, which have teams of college all-stars playing in the Cape Cod Baseball League, the oldest amateur league in America.
Then Carla checked the costs, and what the hell were we thinking?
That’s when we got serious about an intriguing invitation we’d received from Bancroft bankers Charlie Kennedy and his sister Teresa Kennedy, respectively the CEO/president and executive vice-president of Farmers & Traders Savings Bank. Would we Offenburgers want to come to the north central Iowa town of 732 in the early summer, and help the bank host a home game of the Bancroft Bandits?
That’s a team of college all-stars, who’ve come to Bancroft for the summer from 14 states, playing in the new Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League, along with similar teams in Carroll and Storm Lake in Iowa, Albert Lea in Minnesota, and Sioux Falls in South Dakota.
The Offenburgers on hallowed baseball ground in Iowa.
If you are a baseball fan in Iowa, and know just a little history of the game in this state, you don’t need to be begged to accept an invitation to visit Bancroft, especially for a ball game. Come throw out the ceremonial first pitch, did they say? Overnight stay, on the bank’s tab, at the tremendous Sisters Inn? (That’s the beautiful and comfortable former convent for nuns who taught in the old Bancroft St. John School; after the school closed, the convent was purchased and converted by two of the Bernhard sisters into a 12-room boutique hotel. ) And would I speak at a luncheon at the Main Street Pub & Grill the day after the game to a crowd of business and community leaders, with the players and coaches of the Bandits attending, too?
“You get on that, and I mean right now,” Carla had directed me.
We’d both been in Bancroft before, for me many times, going back to my first visit in 1962 or ’63; for Carla, several times in more recent years. Eight years ago, we came with two other couples, stayed at the Sisters Inn and celebrated Carla’s 50th birthday.
So we were guessing our baseball visit June 7-8 would be fun. We didn’t realize just how special it would be. Consider:
I didn’t bounce my ceremonial first pitch. Free hotdogs and popcorn at the game were great. City Director Crysti Neuman, the MVP of the Bandits even being placed here the last two years, also serves as “host” of the games. She meanders through the crowd with a microphone between innings, asking trivia questions (she slips you the correct answer before she asks the question), and awarding prizes for the right answer. She asked Carla one of those questions and awarded her a paperback edition of the novel “Shoeless Joe,” by W.P. Kinsella, the book that inspired the smash-hit Iowa movie “Field of Dreams.” And the Bandits delivered a thrilling 9-7 victory over the visiting Storm Lake Whitecaps.
The view from the press box at Bancroft Memorial Park in the north central Iowa town.
Yes, it was a dreamy kind of experience we had at classic Bancroft Memorial Park and around the community.
We didn’t just find a town and team to adopt as our own, we found a whole league!
We’re now considering this Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League as our own Cape Cod Baseball League. Here the ball players can indeed walk right out of cornfields. Who ever heard of ball players walking out of an ocean and across a beach, like they might be able to do on Cape Cod?
Our plans our coming together now to take our fold-up bicycles, visit all the Pioneer League franchises for a game, meet new people and discover new places in a much more accessible and affordable way. And yes, we’ll be back in Bancroft. We’re now Bandit fans, after all!
“Let’s talk about this Pioneer League,” I began, in my day-after-the-game luncheon speech, which I really directed to the young guys who have come from colleges and universities across the U.S. “We have Carroll, a nice Iowa town of 10,000 people. Ditto for Storm Lake, another Iowa town of 10,000. We have Albert Lea, Minnesota, with 17,000 people. We have Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with 175,000 in the actual city and with 250,000 in its metro area. And we have Bancroft, Iowa, with a population of 732 people. You’ve got to be wondering how does this little town do it?”
Bancroft Bandits baseball games draw crowds of several hundred in the small town.
Why does the city government commit so much time and effort by Neuman, its already-busy City Director, to baseball? Why do a dozen different Bancroft-area businesses step up to sponsor games, some of them buying all the tickets and giving them away, others buying hotdogs or popcorn, others giving away souvenirs for fans? Why are the crowds at Bancroft games usually bigger than the crowds for games in those other league towns? How is it that Bancroft families are so quick to provide host homes for the players for two months?
Since, at that point, these players had only been in town a week, I followed Neuman’s example and provided the players with the answers to the questions I was asking.
“I’ve been making stops in Bancroft for 55 years,” I explained. “And I can tell you that this little town has always thought and acted bigger than it is.”
I went on to explain that there are three “genuinely big deals” in Bancroft, three things that are out-of-place big for such a small town, three things that no matter who you are or where you’re from, when you experience them, you’ll go, “Wow!” At least under your breath, you will. They’re still standing today as testaments of what big things have happened here in the past, and as reminders & challenges that small towns wanting to survive must be bold now and in the future, too.
Those three things are:
–St. John The Baptist Catholic Church, the magnificent 102-year-old tabernacle of faith. I urged the players that, no matter what their own faith is, or even if they don’t have any, to make a visit to the church in the early-morning when it’s usually empty and quiet . Just stop, walk-in, then sit or stand or kneel, and listen to their breathing and their hearts. They’ll feel and understand something about Bancroft that they need to know.
–“Pork Chooooooop!” I told the story of how the late Paul Bernhard, a pork producer from Bancroft, had invented the Iowa Chop, then took it to the statewide bicycle ride RAGBRAI, grilled hundreds of thousands of the chops over the years along the ride’s route across the state, got the bicycle riders all doing that “Pork Chooooooop!” yell with him, and his memory is now revered around the world. In the last decade, Paul’s son Matt Bernhard, of Bancroft, has succeeded his dad as “Mr. Pork Chop Jr.” and the tradition continues.
–Bancroft baseball is a bigger tradition than the players could possibly know this early in their stay. But by the end of July, when the Bandits season is ending and they’re headed back to school, they’ll have become part of one of the best baseball stories on Earth. It was started by Msgr. Joseph H. “Smokey Joe” Schultes, the pastor of St. John’s church from 1933 to 1967 and often the pitcher on the Bancroft town baseball team. “He was called ‘Smokey Joe’,” as Paul Bernhard told me — yes, “Mr. Pork Chop” was a former altar boy for the monsignor and later a teammate, “because he smoked a cigar and he could throw smoke, too.” When Schultes discovered in 1935 that he’d become too busy in the pastorate to be coaching the St. John’s High School baseball team — the “Johnnies” — he ordered the school’s English teacher Vincent James Meyer to take over as coach. Meyer had never played or coached baseball before, but the monsignor told him it didn’t matter. “I know baseball, and I’ll teach you everything you need to know about it,” Schultes told him. “You’re a good teacher. You teach the game to the kids.” Oh, did he ever! In his 46-year career as coach of the Johnnies, Meyer’s boys won 1,105 games, lost just 179, won six state championships and Meyer wound up being inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame. As a result, the town has always prided itself on supporting whatever team they have playing — from little league, to high school, American Legion, college ball and the earlier era’s town teams. And as you quickly learn here, Bancroft produced two Major League Baseball players — pitcher Joe “Lefty” Hatten of the Dodgers & Cubs in the 1940s and early ’50s, and infielder Denis Menke in the late 1950s, ’60s and ’70s with the Braves, Astros & Reds.
The man who started Bancroft’s great baseball tradition.
Donnie Roberts must’ve had one of those “Is this Heaven?” moments when he arrived in Bancroft two years ago to talk about putting one of his college all-star baseball summer teams in here.
He is now a 51-year-old dairy farmer from Spooner, Wisconsin., who also is a pipeline worker and a former hockey player who just happens to love baseball. He and his kids built a very nice baseball field together on their place outside Spooner. He allowed youth and Legion teams to play there, then started a team of college players and other 20-somethings, the Spooner Bandits.
His son Donald “Bucko” Roberts III played on that Bandits team and wore No. 7 on his uniform. But in the summer of 2013, the 20-year-old Bucko was killed in a tragic auto accident.
Donnie Roberts decided after that there was a good way to memorialize his son and celebrate their love of baseball — by putting together these college all-star teams so more good players would have a chance to play in the summertime. And thus we now have the Bancroft Bandits, the Carroll Merchants and this year the new Storm Lake Whitecaps and Albert Lea Lakers. The Sioux Falls Gold are owned by someone else, but operate in the same manner as Roberts’ four teams in the Pioneer League. All the teams owned by Roberts have logos with a No. 7 designed into them, as a tribute to Bucko.
“Our goal is to add a couple more teams, to get to six of our own, maybe eight,” said Donnie Roberts, speaking for himself and his significant other Tracy Field, of Spooner. She does a lot of the scheduling, booking and finances. He does logistics and even takes turns driving the team buses. “I’d really like to have one or two more towns in Iowa with teams. We’re getting calls about that now, so it might well happen.”
He said the games, as played by these college players, seem to be increasingly popular.
“We certainly sell the quality of baseball that our teams play, because it’s pretty good,” Roberts said. “But it’s even more than that. A night or an afternoon at the ball park with one of our teams is like a community picnic. We’ve got contests and entertainment happening throughout the game. Everybody knows each other, especially in a place like Bancroft. We try to make it fun for everybody.”
We Offenburgers will be back for more, that’s for sure.
Bankers Charlie Kennedy and Teresa Kennedy, both of them big supporters of the Bancroft community and baseball, too, with guest Chuck Offenburger.
Biggest billing of my entire baseball career, on the corner of Bancroft’s business district and U.S. Highway 169.
Bancroft Bandits in final pre-game strategizing.
The Bancroft Bandits lined up for the National Anthem, behind City Director Crysti Neuman carrying the flag.
The visiting Storm Lake Whitecaps lined up for the National Anthem.
National Anthem sun by the “Just Cause” trio of Todd Herbst-Ulmer, Mia Hegarty-Roach and Scott Buchanan, all of nearby Algona. Buchanan, an attorney, also has an office in Bancroft and is its City Attorney.
Old fat man, winding up for the ceremonial first pitch.
And it didn’t bounce!
Bleachers down the first base line were filled, too. These are right behind the Bancroft Bandits dugout, in case you want to share tips and opinions with the players and coaches.
Fans, including Carla Offenburger, lining up at the concession stand.
Kids doctoring up the free hotdogs.
Pitching change for the Bancroft Bandits. Players come from all levels of college baseball, including NCAA Division I.
In the press box, Jeff Broesder keys the “walk-up music” for batters and Dewey Hatten does the public address work.
Game over. An assistant coach gets the bus ready to deliver the Storm Lake Whitecaps back safely to the city on the lakeshore.
Sisters Inn, in Bancroft, where you want to stay for Bancroft Bandits home games.
Great crowd for the baseball luncheon the next day at the Main Street Pub & Grill.
One of the three “genuinely big deals” in Bancroft, magnificent St. John The Baptist Catholic Church.
The legendary “Mr. Pork Chop,” Paul Bernhard, who promoted Bancroft to hundreds of thousands of people with his grilled Iowa Chops before his death late in 2016. This photo was taken when RAGBRAI visited Bancroft in 2014. Behind Mr. Pork Chop is his daughter Brenda Vaske, now also deceased. Beside him is his granddaughter Anna Bernhard, then 11, of Des Moines. Mr. Pork Chop’s story is another of the small town’s big claims to fame, and the family continues the business.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.
To read more about the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League, go to the league’s website by clicking here.
To read more about the Bancroft Bandits team, go to their website by clicking here.