A brief history of youth baseball in Rugby
NOTE: This account was originally published in The Pierce County Tribune on March 21, 1984, submitted by Dave Stempson.
No discussion of organized youth baseball in Rugby would be complete without recalling the days in the late 1940s when Art Stempson organized a local league.
Those days are remembered well by Stempson’s son, Dave, who now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
He remembers prior to 1948 or 1949 “Baseball in Rugby consisted of only two organized teams: The independent or town team and the American Legion team. There was no other organized ball of any kind and certainly no softball (which is hard to believe).”
His father, he says “was a promoter of baseball his entire life, including playing, coaching and managing. Prior to 1949 he managed the Junior Legion team, and prior to the war he was the player-coach of the town team.”
In 1949, when Dave Stempson was six, Art “felt at that age it was time for Dave to begin his baseball career, and in order to be able to do so, it would require some kind of organized league.”
Art Stempson, who owned Art’s Cleaners in Rugby for 25 years, “began hustling and promoting as only he could to organize a baseball league. He first contacted the everfaithful and at that time, very active, American Legion which agreed to sponsor the league with caps and long-sleeved white sweatshirts emblazoned with the words American Legion on the chest.”
Dave recalls “all of those sweatshirts were the same size and were made of shrinkable cotton.”
Then, he recalls, Art’s next task was to “sweet talk three other men besides himself to coach each of the three teams.”
Those teams were “chosen with great thought and care,” Dave remembers, with one “being from the north side, one from the east side, one from the south side and one from the west side with the railroad tracks and Main Avenue as the boundary lines. This division, of course led to a flurry of recruiting of farm boys living around Rugby who didn’t come within the city limit’s boundaries. Since the rules were made up as they went along, it was reasonable to assume that Art, the coach of the west side team, came out on top of the early recruiting battle.”
The search then began for a site for the new league teams to play. “Strangely enough on the west side of Rugby, very close to our house and directly south of the old swimming pool, was an open field where only hay grew. It was at this unlikely location, which is about 100 yards east of the present ball fields, that organized youth baseball began in the city of Rugby,” Stempson says.
Dave’s father mowed the field by hand, chalked it and maintained it. “There were no bleachers, no backstop, no fences and only a great deal of running to chase down foul balls as well as hard-hit balls which became lost in the tall hay with great regularity.”
He also recalls there was no love lost among the four teams in those early years. “It was not unusual for fights to break out before, after and even during the games. Even with these distractions, the season progressed, games were played and it was generally a successful year.”
The following year, a new location was found for the new league teams.
“It was to be located in a vacant field, called the “Y” where McGuire Ford is now doing business.”
Stempson recalls “It was basically a low-lying swampland area, full of mosquitoes, but clear of all else. It was here the league actually began to prosper, for a backstop was constructed, an infield was cleared and it really looked like a ball diamond.”
The “Y” “was our ball field for several years until Rugby began to expand.”
During the early 1950s, the city developed a skating rink on West Fourth Street about 80 yards southwest of the old swimming pool in the park. The location “was about 50 yards straight west of the first youth ball field previously mentioned.”
Stempson recalls, as an aside, “The area was also used by the Rugby High football team for practice in the fall of the year. The team would either run or drive from the old high school to practice at that spot.”
Art discovered he “would make a ball field on the ice skating rink, alleviating the need for a lot of mowing and finding a flat area for the infield. The only problem was a slight incline beyond third and shortstop where the sides of the rink came into play. This the players were forced to live and play with.”
During the time from 1950 and 1951, Art Stempson “began getting sponsors for the teams. There were more than four squads and players were selected by lot. Some of the sponsors were the local Lions Club, McGuire’s, Gronvold Motors and the fire department.
“Along with the sponsor’s came real uniforms and good equipment. Because of the interest and number of boys (there were no girls) playing, it became necessary to start scouting another ball diamond.”
Dave recalls his father “saw the potential of the area and obtained permission to develop another field just to the west of the skating rink.” The new field, which was just on the other side of the rink’s wooden wind protection fence “became the forerunner of the present day ball field complex which Rugby now proudly displays.”
“It is the first ball field on the east side of the complex and, of course, the rest of the fields going west are now history.”
For the next 13 to 14 years, Art Stempson was very active in youth baseball in Rugby, his son says.
“He was primary in having Rugby become a member of the national Little League Association, taking teams to Winnipeg on several occasions. One of those teams won there and went on to Chicago, which was only one step removed from the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania. He coached the Lions team for many years, and at one time, lost only game in four years.”
Dave continued: “He went on to coach the Junior Legion team for 10 years. During that time, he fought to keep baseball alive in Rugby when ball for the older kids could have faded away.”
He, his family, and a few others in the community “kept the fairgrounds ball diamond in condition for play every summer for years. Some of those years, he was paid by the American Legion $300 for the whole summer. Some of those years, he was not paid.”
Dave says his father could be called the “father of youth baseball in Rugby” for his efforts.
He says his father “cajoled, pled, fought and literally cried” in the process of establishing and maintaining the youth programs. He also “made enemies, but when all is said and done, Rugby and its youth are the better for” his efforts.
Art Stempson died after the publication of this article on April 12, 1986. Alice Stempson died in 1993.
Tribune Reporter Carissa Mavec contributed to this report.
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