august2009

OTTO-Remembering the Hollywood Store

August 25, 2009

Yucaipa, CA


Fond fastpitch memories of the Store

THE HOLLYWOOD STORE - The old timers affectionately call it the
"Store." Back in the 1960s and '70s, some of the fiercest men's
fastpitch softball battles in southeastern Minnesota were fought on
the little ball diamond located at the Hollywood Store.

And those battles continue today.

In June the Hollywood Sports Complex, located near Watertown and
about 40 miles west of Minneapolis, celebrated its 50th anniversary
of men's fastpitch softball.

But back in the 1960s and early '70s, the Sports Complex was simply
known as the Hollywood Store - or "Store," by the ball players, who
graced its plain-Jane infield and outfield.

Go back in time and picture this scene: It's the late 1960s and a car
full of fastpitch players travels west from Minneapolis on county
road 25 & 122. They're destined for the Store and a weekend tournament.

As these "city" guys speed down the quiet country road, their gaze
falls upon a gently rolling landscape. A landscape filled with dairy
farms and Holstein cows grazing in pastures in the midst of lush
green corn and alfalfa fields.

And then suddenly the Store appears before them like a beaconing
lighthouse. At the corner where county roads 122 and 21 meet, stands
a 100-year-old, small, white one-room country school with a bell on
top. On the opposite corner is a small township hall.

And across from the old schoolhouse and township hall stands the
Store - a simple, A-framed building also about 100 years old. It
stands as a solitary dwelling in the middle of hundreds of acres of
farmland.

But what makes the Store unique for the sports-minded is the softball
diamond behind it.

“The Store was a beacon for fastpitch on Sunday afternoons," said
Bruce Johnson, 58, who grew up in the area and began playing on the
Store ball diamond as a 16-year-old. Johnson retired in the mid 1990s
at age 44, but fond memories of the little ball diamond play on.

"You could buy a three-finger glove there for six dollars," said
Johnson with a chuckle. "We had our very first big tournament in 1969
when lights were added to the field. Sixteen teams came from St. Paul
and Minneapolis, Lake Lillian ...It was amazing having some of the
best teams in the state coming here."

And one of the state's all-time great baseball players played at the
Store as well.

Johnson recalled that Paul Molitor, inducted into Major League
baseball's Hall of Fame in 2004, once played a summer of modified
fastpitch at the Store in the mid-1970s. It seems Molitor had injured
himself and was told not to play baseball by his University of
Minnesota coach. So as not to disobey his coach, Molitor opted to
play modified softball instead.

57-year-old Gary Theisen has a special fondness for the Store.
Theisen lived about 50-yards across the road from the Store on a
dairy farm owned by his mom and dad, Kenny and Delores Theisen.

In 1967 the Theisens bought the little general store that served the
area's farm families. And the deal included a baseball field. But a
year later, Kenny Theisen converted the baseball field to softball.
And soon after he built a second softball field.

When Gary Theisen was just a youngster he kept his ball glove hanging
on the handlebars of his bicycle. And when the farm work stopped,
Gary and his brothers Mark and Danny, and their pals jumped aboard
their bikes and raced to the ball diamond for a few innings of
baseball or fastpitch softball.

"We used to play between loads of hay coming in from the fields, or
when we had a break from work, however long," Theisen said. "I
remember when I was about 12, I would go to the fastpitch games and
lean against the fence watching. If a team was short of players, they
would say, 'ask Gary to play.' That's how I got my start."

Others as well received their fastpitch baptism at the Store,
including Kenny Stritesky. Now age 65, Stritesky has long since
retired. But the memories of fastpitch at the Store and in the
neighboring towns remain clear as if yesterday.

Stritesky started pitching at 11 and retired at 40, only because of a
bad back, he said. In his prime, the teams in the area - Watertown,
Silver Lake, Winsted, Waverly, and Lake Lillian - "were some of the
best fastpitch around in a three-state area," said Stritesky, who in
his heyday at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds was one of the state's most
dominating right-handed pitchers.

Stritesky pitched the 1973 Silver Lake team to an ASA Class A State
Championship. And in 1980, he helped lead the Winsted team to a state
title. Both small towns were within a short drive of each other.

“We had great competition and the teams and leagues were all within
15 miles of each other," Gary Theisen said. "You didn't have to drive
very far to play good ball."

Although many of the Store's fastptich players of the 1960s - 1980s'
have retired, one of the area's best pitchers keeps on chucking.

62-year-old Gary Holtz starts each spring as he did 47 years a go
when he began pitching at age 15.

"I start throwing against the wall on my shed when the snow starts
melting," said Holtz, who pitches for a team from New Auburn in the
Hollywood Sports Complex fastpitch league. "I just love to play and
compete. I'm not as good as I once was, but it's still a great game."

Holtz recalls many great games, pitchers, and players he tangled with
at the Store.

"Lake Lillian was the best team, and I would say that Kenny
(Stritesky) was the best pitcher, and Gary (Theisen) the best hitter.
I just hated to face him. He was one heck of a good hitter."

Along with tournaments held at the Store, Holtz said that all the
little towns from the surrounding area hosted great tournaments.
"Hutchinson, Glencoe, Lake Lillian, Waverly ...we went every weekend
to tournaments and we hardly had to drive very far," he said.

The Hollywood Store holds fond memories for Tom Stuewe as well.

"The Store is one of those Minnesota bumps in the road," said Stuewe,
who played on the 1980 Winsted team that won the state championship.
"It's now known as the Hollywood Sports Complex, but to the old guys,
it was and always will be the Store."

Although many of the tournaments and leagues have disappeared in the
area, the Hollywood Sports Complex perseveres as one of Minnesota's
hot spots for men's fastpitch and modified fastpitch softball.

Largely because of owner, Joe Swartzer.

Swartzer bought the Hollywood Store in 1996. Since then the Sports
Complex has become an Oasis for sports fans. Swartzer organizes
leagues and tournaments for men's and women's fastpitch; men's and
women's modified fastpitch; a sand volleyball league consisting of 80
teams, and bowling leagues.

And on September 26-27, Swartzer and the Sports Complex will host the
Minnesota Softball Federation Fall Men's Fastpitch State Tournament.

"This is an exciting place to play because there is always about 100
to 150 people watching volleyball and softball," Swartzer said.

"We are starting to get more younger players into fastpitch, who are
the sons of former players. And we're starting to have some of the
modified players moving over to fastpitch. They say they really like
it."

From a 12-year-old, who got his first taste of fastpitch at the
Store, Gary Theisen went on to star on some of the best fastpitch
teams in the state, including major powers like the St. James, James
Gang (1981-'82) and Mankato Happy Chef (1983-'85).

His fastpitch travels have taken him all over the U.S. But when he
looks back on his career, memories of playing at the Store remain
etched in his mind. He talks of learning how to pitch on the Store's
ball diamond. Of towns such as Winsted, Lake Lillian, and Silver Lake
bringing fastpitch pride and honor to the area by winning state
championships.

Theisen recalls the tension and electric atmosphere of each and every
Hollywood Store League game. Only the league champion qualified to
play in the state tournament. And that created intense competition
between the eight evenly matched teams.

"We had good crowds because all the league games meant so much,"
Theisen said. "Guys would have quit their jobs rather than miss a game.

"My happiest memories are here. This is sort of like a Field of
Dreams surrounded by corn and hay fields. An, 'if you build it, they
will come,' kind of a thing. It was a great time."

(Did you once or now play at the (Store) Hollywood Sports Complex?
Would you like to share a memory of your experience on my website? Or
perhaps you have a photo of playing at the Store you would like to
share? If I received enough memories and photos, I could possibly put
together a story / photo book of the Store.)

Email Bob Otto at botto3@verizon.net.
Visit www.ottoinfocus.com for more fastpitch softball stories,
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