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Lake Wobegon Games
Garrison Keillor
December 22, 1986
The whole town watched in awe and wonder as the dying Babe stepped shakily up to the plate
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December 22, 1986

Lake Wobegon Games

The whole town watched in awe and wonder as the dying Babe stepped shakily up to the plate

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Our lake Wobegon teams did not do well in 1986, the Whippets with no pitching finishing dead last, the Leonards pitiful and helpless in the fall even with a 230-pounder to center the offensive line, and now it's basketball season again and already the boys are getting accustomed to defeat. When they ran out on the floor for the opener versus Bowlus (who won 58-21), they looked pale and cold in their blue and gold silks, and Buddy had the custodian turn up the heat, but it was too late. These boys looked like they were on death row, they trembled as their names were announced.

It's not defeat per se that hurts so much, we're used to that; it's the sense of doom and submission to fate that is awful. When the 230-pounder centered the ball and it stuck between his tremendous thighs and he toppled forward to be plundered by the Bisons, it was, I'm sure, with a terrible knowledge in his heart that this debacle was coming to him and it was useless to resist. Two of the basketball players are sons of players on the fabled 1958 squad that was supposed to win the state championship and put our town on the map, but while we looked forward to that glorious weekend our team was eliminated in the first round by St. Klaus. None of us ever recovered from that disappointment. But do our children have to suffer from it, too?

As Harry (Can O' Corn) Knudsen wrote: "In the game of life we're playing, people now are saying that the aim of it is friendship and trust. I wish that it were true but it seems, for me and you, that someone always loses and it's us."

Can O's inspiration came from playing 11 years for the Whippets, a humbling experience for anyone. The team is getting trounced, pummeled, whipped, and Dutch says, "Come on, guys, you're too tense out there, it's a game, go out there and have fun," and you think, This is fun? If this is fun, then sic your dogs on me, let them chew me for a while, that'd be pure pleasure. But out you trot to rightfield feeling heavyhearted and not even sure you're trotting correctly so you adjust the trot and your left foot grabs your right, you trip on your own feet, and down you go like a sack of potatoes and the fans are doubled up in the stands, gasping and choking, and you have dirt in your mouth that you'll taste for years—is this experience good for a person?

Some fans have been led to wonder if maybe our Lake Wobegon athletes are suffering from a Christian upbringing that stresses the unworthiness angle and is light on the aspect of grace. How else would boys of 16 and 17 get the feeling that they were born to lose, if not in Bible class? And the uneasiness our boys have felt about winning—a fan can recall dozens of nights when the locals had a good first half, opened a nice lead, began to feel the opponents' pain and sympathized and lightened up and wound up giving away their lunch. Does this come from misreading the Gospels?

Little Jimmy Wahlberg used to sit in the dugout and preach to the Whippets between innings, using the score of the ball game to quote Scripture, e.g., John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" or Matthew 4:4: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." That was fine except when he was pitching. God had never granted Little Jimmy's prayer request for a good curveball so this fine Christian boy got shelled like a peanut whenever he took the mound, and one day Ronnie Decker came back to the bench after an eternal inning in centerfield and said, "First Revelations 13:0: Keep the ball down and throw at their goddam heads."

Ronnie is Catholic, and they have more taste for blood, it seems. (Was there ever a Methodist bullfighter?) In St. Klaus, the ladies chant, "Make 'em sing and make 'em dance/ Kick 'em in the nuts and step on their hands." The boys are ugly brutes with raw sores on their arms and legs and with little ball-bearing eyes who will try to hurt you. A gang of men stands by the backstop, drinking beer and talking to the umpire, a clean-cut Lutheran boy named Fred. Fred knows that the week before, Carlson called a third strike on a Klausie, dashed to his car, the men rocked it and let the air out of the tires but couldn't pry the hood open and disconnect the spark plugs before he started up and rode away on the rims.

For a Golden Age of Lake Wobegon Sports, you'd have to go back to the '40s. The town ball club was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were brothers, sons of E.J. Schroeder. Nine big strapping boys with identical mops of black hair, big beaks, little chins and so shy they couldn't look you in the eye, and E.J. was the manager, though the boys were such fine ballplayers, he only sat in the shade on a white kitchen chair and grumbled at them, no matter what.

E.J. was ticked off if a boy hit a bad pitch. He'd spit and curse and rail at him, and then R.J.'d go up and pound one out of the park (making the score 11-zip) and circle the bases and the old man'd say, "Boy, he put the old apple right down the middle, didn't he? Blind man couldn't hit that one. Your gramma coulda put the wood on that one. If a guy couldn't hit that one out, there'd be something wrong with him, I'd say. Wind practically took that one out of here, didn't even need to hit it much"—and lean over and spit. When the Schroeders were winning every game, E.J. bitched about how they won.

"Why'dja throw to first for, ya dummy?"

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