Led by College of Education Emeritius faculty member, Dr. James Kelly, twenty-eight current and former UNI faculty, staff and coaches worked together to write Tutors to Panthers: a brief history of UNI athletics, a new book containing 16 chapters chronicling 120 years of intercollegiate athletics at the University of Northern Iowa. Familar names such as NFL standouts Kurt Warner, Bryce Paup, Brad Meester and James Jones, professional baseball players Eddie Watt and Duane Josephson, basketball coaches Norm Stewart and Eldon Miller and many more student-athletes and coaches are highlighted in this text in addition to interesting anecdotes regarding such athletics facilities as Latham Field and the famed UNI Dome.
My research assignment was the sport of baseball. How does one cover one-hundred plus years of a sport in a limited number of pages as each sport easily could deserve an individual book? It's not an easy task, but I believe many of the authors, including myself enjoyed the process as we discoverd various recognizable names or amazing achievements from people that shared a common passion and commitment for their sport and their university. Below, are several brief excerpts from Chapter 1, focusing on the history of baseball at UNI. The book contains many photographs of players and coaches in each sport (which I have not included in the text excerpts below).
Baseball at UNI
By Steve Taft
In the world of the ideal and perhaps in the far corners of our memories, it’s not unusual to think of baseball in terms of sand lots and little league games, playing catch with dad or attending a professional game with a glove in one hand and a hot dog in another hoping to catch that ever evasive foul ball. Iowa is, of course, the home of Hollywood’s Field of Dreams and it is also home to the original field of dreams in Van Meter, Iowa where a father cleared a farm field and built a “ballpark, complete with bleachers, scoreboard and refreshments, right there on our farm,” so his future Hall of Fame son, Bob Feller, could play the game of baseball.
Today, this sport known as baseball, traditionally referred to as the National Past Time and America’s Game is slowly being overshadowed by more popular sports and perhaps more so to video games and youthful technology. For 103 years, the game of Ruth, DiMaggio, Robinson, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Jeter and more was played by students enrolled in our university. In 2009, UNI Panther baseball faded into history with economics, weather, and politics ultimately swinging the bat of reality.
An appropriate title for this chapter may be “Against All Odds” because throughout its existence, UNI baseball coaches and players fought the good fight often accomplishing more with less. Given the unexpected timing of the notification in the spring of 2009 that UNI baseball was ending forever, emotions may cloud the fact that the existence of UNI baseball was an uphill battle for years, if not throughout much of the program’s existence. This chapter will highlight some of the many accomplishments of baseball at the University of Northern Iowa and perhaps a disappointment or two. Every effort has been made to accurately portray the history of baseball at UNI. Specific reference resources include student newspapers such as The Students Offering, The Normal Eyte, The College Eye, The Northern Iowan, and the university Old Gold Yearbook, the Waterloo Courier, UNI Hall of Fame biographies, UNI Baseball Media Guides and The Associated Press. Space is of course limited and apologies to all of the outstanding players, coaches, assistant coaches, academic advisers and supporters that may not be mentioned in this chapter.
Although university baseball media guides list baseball beginning officially in 1893 at the Iowa State Teacher’s College (I.S.T.C.), it should be noted that records show the sport first appeared on campus at the then known Iowa State Normal School as far back as 1878. As The Students’ Offering, the first student newspaper notes, “Base Ball in the pasture is the favorite amusement.” (Note the original spelling of the sport.) Although not an official sanctioned sport, the crack of a bat on campus continued to be heard throughout these early years. In 1891, The Normal Eyte, the new school newspaper reported competition was alive and well on campus as the “young men of the Fourth Year class invite the gentlemen of the Third Year class and H.S. classes to cross bats with them upon the diamond”. The diamond was perhaps more of the sand lot type as “The boys have put up good back-stop on the ball grounds. Now if the grounds could be leveled-off a little some and some of the post holes filled up it would be a pretty respectable looking place to play ball.”
On June 17, 1893, during the first “official” season of baseball at Iowa State Teachers College, the Normal Nine as they were known, bounced back from a June 3rd 27-4 pounding by Waverly to defeat them on the road 18-9. The 1893 team did not have an official “coach”, but was instead led by Captain Avery and the first year of baseball as an official sport on campus ended with a record of one win and one loss. Avery continued to guide the team in 1894 with the team sporting one win and two losses.
In 1895, The Normal Eyte reports baseball was not simply reserved for the males at the college to enjoy: “Boys are not the only one who can play base ball; if you do not believe it watch a game between the Patterson and Rownd nines composed of the ladies of the two halls. Surely some of them might well play in the regular nine.” In 1895, J. E. Vance came on board as the first non-player coach and the team bounced back with a two-win, one-loss season. Lack of fan sportsmanship was noted in 1895 when the Normal Nine played an away game against Western College in Toledo, Iowa losing 16-4 and spectators revealing the sign of the pitcher and catcher to the home team. The school paper notes: “We have as good a ball team as any college with our resources and we are willing to meet Toledo at any time in a good straight game, but we object to the spirit that was manifested by our neighboring school last Saturday.” As early as 1895, resources (or lack thereof), were an issue as well as the importance of sportsmanship.
1896 marked the beginning of several Iowa colleges attempting to form a new baseball league. The Inter-Collegiate Baseball Association of Iowa had already been formed with other member teams including the State University of Iowa, Iowa College and Cornell University. The captain of the baseball team, Arthur Rhine writes a brief notice in The Normal Eyte encouraging young men that are committed to the sport and the idea of team to tryout. He stresses that baseball players should never be “delinquent in studies” as they are looking for young men to “whom the regular practice in baseball shall be an aid in school work rather than a detriment.” Certainly games could not have been much of a distraction as the team ended the year with a record of one win and one loss.
As years passed it became evident that sports on campus were attempting to become a part of college life. However, it was not without its opponents. Student and manager of the football team, John M. Dunkerton, was rather emphatic noting how important it was to have students and faculty supporting campus athletics: “The athletes will doubtless have uphill work here for some years to come, unless some people who are trying to control everything at Normal, either change their views or cease trying to put a stop to all team work in connection with the school.” One faculty member noted, “We don’t want the idea to get out that we are going to athletics entirely in this school.” Another faculty member noted, “O, athletics are merely a passing fad at the present time; they will soon go like all other fads.” Dunkerton makes his final argument noting, “The training of the body along with the mind is a God send to the youth of our colleges and universities, and it has come to stay. Students, make a stand for athletics to help them to be successful in every department this year.”
It’s evident in these early years that sports may not have existed on campus without the hard work, ingenuity and voices of dedicated students. In January of 1903, Guy Lowman, a student and
manager of the baseball team, was working hard to get a coach for the team. The Athletic Department supported Mr. Lowman’s efforts while asking pertinent questions: “How are we to raise the money to
hire a coach? Who will be the first one to devise means of securing a coach? Don’t all speak at once!” It’s evident that the concept of team was necessary in life as well as on the field. It’s also
evident that students may have been driving the justifi¬cation for sports on campus and also that Guy Lowman understood the art of persuasion.
Baseball is a clean, wholesome sport and is good to every boy who indulges in the game. It brings him out of the close confinement of the classroom. It takes the stoop out of his shoulders and enables him to build up a strong and hardy frame. It rests those organs of which have been in usage through long hours of study, and teaches the boy who indulges in the sport, self-reliance and courage. If every mother at home could fully understand what her boy means when he says he is ‘in training’ she would rejoice to know that he’s on the college nine.”
Training for the 1942 season began but was soon affected as three Panther players headed off to service. Varsity catcher Forrest Hanifan departed school in April for the Army. Hanifan was the only married Panther and was father to a baby girl. He was a two-year letterman and batted .319 in ’41. Third baseman Bowen and second baseman Schaeffer had already been inducted earlier in the year. The 1942 team continued on with a season highlighted by a split to the Cyclones and an exciting double-bill with Illinois Normal resulting in a 15-5 win in game one and 3-3 13-inning tie in game two. Game one featured an exciting eighth inning with Bob Titsworth, Nottger, Jack Lansing, and Ken Dilly each hitting a home run. Although a slugfest in game one, game two featured its share of dramatics as the College Eye reports: “Besides the tussle in which an Illinois player was determined to break the tie by bending a bat around the umpire, two unidentified youngsters staged a prolonged exhibition on the ‘manly art of self-defense’. Several college professors and ‘Brick’ Bradford were almost ‘assaulted en masse by the provoked juveniles.’” In addition, a monoplane flew overhead and shortly thereafter a Cedar Falls fire truck rolled passed the stadium. It was suggested that Coach Whitford “summoned it to extinguish the fire in the opposing pitchers speedball.” The '42 team overcame the loss of valuable teammates and excelled in several areas, particularly at the plate. Nottger once again led the team in batting with a .426 batting average. Changes were in store for the baseball team as Coach Whitford was the third University coach to leave for service. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Army.
In the spring of 1943, several athletic sports seasons were put on hold, including baseball due to “transportation problems, the limited enrollment of men, and increased use of athletic facilities by the army and navy.” Four members of the college athletic staff were now serving in the War and remaining staff were spending more and more time “training more than 400 army air corps students.” In addition, gymnasium facilities were being used by the Waves making indoor training difficult for spring sports. Therefore, baseball was not played from 1943-45.
However, in the summer of 1945 Coach Whitford was back on campus and also was involved nationally as a member of the American Association of College Baseball Coaches and was named one of eight on the national membership committee. Upon his return to campus he proudly announced, “Collegiate baseball can be expected to forge ahead to a place in the sports world akin to that of football and basketball following the close of the war.” One of the major discussions taking place at the national meeting was the relationship of collegiate and professional baseball. Famed Dodger owner Branch Rickey was vocal in pointing out his belief that there are instances where college coaches recruit their own players to play professionally or semi-professionally before they graduate. “This is a deplorable condition,” Rickey declared as he believed there may be instances “where boys who have entered college might reasonably be signed a professional contract even though they had not finished their college education.” However, he also wished to reduce tensions and build a positive relationship with college programs and did not press the issue. Coach Whitford apparently was not opposed to players being paid to play. The July 13, 1945 College Eye notes, “College musicians legally exploit their talents for cash and yet maintain their amateur standing. Why not allow the same for baseball players? Is a music team or a debate team any different from an athletic team?” Of course, such questions continue to be asked today.
Sixty-five men were in place to try out for Whitford’s 1946 team. A handful from the 1941 and ‘42 team were back. They were older and wiser men, men now able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill which Franklin Roosevelt signed into law on June 22, 1944. Colleges and universities would quickly see enrollment increase. A Fortune magazine survey of the class of 1949 (70 percent of whom were veterans) concluded, it was “the best...the most mature...the most responsible, the most disciplined group of college students in history.” Certainly, the same could be said of the Whitford men.
True to the polite and respectful nature of all Iowans, Coach Whitford personally demonstrated such qualities as illustrated in a May 10, 1946 College Eye story when questioned why visiting teams sit in the third base dugout and the Panther nine in the first base dugout? Whitford explained “… it is merely a courtesy to the visiting club to give them the benefit of the warmth of whatever spring sunshine there is during the late afternoons rather than having them use the usually cooler side of the field.” The polite ’46 team had a respectable 6-6 record and shortstop Don Shupe paced the club with a .302 batting average.
Ninety-three baseball candidates were on hand to try out for the 23 varsity positions in 1947 with 10 letter winners returning. Stands were often full and the team responded with the best baseball record since 1940 posting a 10-3 season and a nine-game winning streak. Carl Dresselhaus finished his senior season with three shutouts and a 5-1 record. The left-hander allowed just six runs (four earned) and 30 hits while striking out 33 and issuing only seven walks in 54 innings with an ERA of 0.75. In addition, he batted .285 for the Panthers. Freshman Don Dalke was 3-0 on the mound and was described as a “clutch hitter” and played left field when not on the mound. Catcher George Dorr paced the Panther batsman with a .360 batting average with Shupe second with a .320 average.
Eighty players participated in fall workouts. Making the team could not have been an easy prospect as Whitford had 11 lettermen and 14 reserves return¬ing. Fan support was evident in ’48 and there were many highlights for the 12-4 team including an open¬ing day double-header sweep of Iowa State 7-2 and 4-2. Throughout the season, John (Jack) Demitroff pitched 20 scoreless innings against Big Ten teams, but lost a heartbreaker to the Minnesota Gophers giving up one earned run. The Panthers had a rather fun-filled win against Illinois Normal, 21-2 and Dorr hit .371 for the season, pitcher Dalke won six games with a 0.90 ERA and contributed at the plate with a .346 average. Round¬ing out a great season, Dalke had zero errors in 38 chances. It is apparent he was one of the standout players of this era.
1949 could not have started any better as the Panthers knocked off the Gophers twice by identical scores of 4-3 over a Friday and Saturday with game two being rather historical. On Saturday, April 9th the longest game in Panther history took place against the Gophers with a 19-inning marathon lasting four hours, 18 minutes. Demitroff came to the mound in the eighth inning with the Panthers down by two. With the Panthers making a comeback and tying the score, Demitroff continued for the remaining 11 innings to pitch shutout ball. Demitroff also got three of the teams 10 hits in the game.
April weather was once again causing schedule challenges in the spring of 1950 as snow, rain, and cold delayed the mid-week opening with Minnesota until the weekend. Beating the Gophers appeared a grand way to begin a season as standout Dalke pitched 12 innings for the Panthers beating Minnesota on Friday, April 7th 6-5. Dalke struck out nine while allowing zero earned runs. It was also his second straight game without a walk. Errors continued to plague the Panthers the next day unfortunately as they lost 11-5 to Minnesota. The freshman team concept continued in 1950 with 50 students attempting to establish themselves for future seasons. Leading the freshmen were coaches Burdette Hansen and Jim Bayne. Dalke once again had an excellent season hitting .423 and establishing a 5-1 record as a pitcher with a .964 ERA.
All too often the impact a coach has had on the life of a young ballplayer can be overlooked. However, in the fall of 1950, Coach Whitford was honored during “Mon’s Day” at the South Dakota State-Teachers College Football game with 42 former players attending to honor the legendary coach. Although appreciative, Coach Whitford still had a lot of years and games left before passing on the leadership of Panther baseball to someone else. Whitford labeled 1951 a “rebuilding” year for the Panthers and perhaps the 5-8 record indicates Coach’s intuitive nature and the fact that none of the starting nine hit over .300. It should be noted that the Korean Conflict affected the 1951 roster. Eight letter¬men returned for Whitford’s 20th season in ’52 and a record of 8-6 went into the books. 1953-54 resulted in .500 teams, but 1955 resulted in a 12-5 record with Pitcher Bob Boderman and catcher Duane Newton discuss “the plan” with Coach “Mon” Whitford. The Tutors finished the 1955 season with a 12-5 record beating the likes of Mankato Teachers, Iowa State, Omaha and La Crosse Teachers. Derald Swisher as the leading pitcher with a 5-2 record and Duane Newton leading the team in hitting with a .415 batting average. Sonny Horn finished second to Newton batting .383 and first-baseman Howie Pigg was the defensive standout with zero errors in 17 games. Swisher’s best pitch apparently had a mysterious side to it. Called his “skidding fastball,” Coach Whitford said, “I’ve studied his motion and his grip, and I can’t see that he does anything different when it breaks. It’s the best pitch he’s got and it will make him tough to hit if he can learn to throw it when he wants to. But, what he does to it is a mystery to me.”
Would you believe it, cold weather affecting the team in 1956? According to the Old Gold yearbook, “Weak hitting and cold weather contributed to 7 straight Panther losses during April.” The opening series against the Cyclones resulted in a six-inning 5-3 loss on April 6th as the game was called due to a “blinding snowstorm.” Game two of the series was also cancelled due to snow. In a three-game series against unde¬feated Minnesota, the Panthers were pounded for 13 home runs in losses of 7-1, 6-1, and 13-1. However, after loss number seven, the Panthers outscored their opponents 77-39. And as warmer weather finally welcomed spring, the Panthers battled for nine straight wins in May. Merle “Lefty” Garman, a switch-hitter, led all hitters with a .392 batting average. Whitford noted in ’56 that New York Yankees switch-hitting Mickey Mantle started the trend regarding the art of hitting from both sides of the plate as more southpaw pitchers began having success against left-handed hitters and Whitford saw no reason why players could not adjust to being a switch-hitter. “After all”, said Whitford, “the most important fundamentals in hitting are a good eye and good timing. A player who has this eye and timing from one side of the plate should still have it after he switches, provided he practices enough to gain coordination.”
As noted at the beginning of the chapter, we often hold on to the positive memories and slowly let the bad memories fade. However, it is important to note the extraordinary dedication the Panther players, coaches, and staff had to their team, often having to perform the grounds keeping duties themselves, a coaching duty rather unheard of in the Missouri Valley Conference and in Division I baseball. Such duties were fulfilled not only out of respect for the game and the Panther team taking the field, but also out of respect for visiting teams and to make sure that UNI baseball represented the university in the best possible light. “Mon” Whitford would be proud.
On Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2005, Coach Heller was seriously injured while preparing the field at Waterloo’s Riverfront Stadium alongside his staff. Heller was “struck by the tongue of a large, steel roller he was attempting to attach to a tractor on the infield. He suffered a broken collarbone, six broken ribs and a bruised lung.” He was transported to Allen Hospital and was in intensive care. In a Nov. 2 Waterloo Courier article, Pitching Coach Dan Davis noted the coaches were rolling the infield, which helps pack down loose dirt, a procedure the coaches have done hundreds of times. “It was just one of those freak accidents. We do it all the time.” Assistant Coach Marty Sutherland said he was standing approximately 15 feet away when the roller got away from Heller and swung violently into his body. “The tongue went about 180 degrees and took him with it,” said Sutherland. “It is horrible, knowing what kind of force it has. A lot of horrible thoughts ran through my head, but you have to get rid of those in a hurry and react to the situation.” Of course, knowing how to react to unexpected situations is something all coaches must be able to do to be successful. And in 2005, Assistant Coaches Davis and Sutherland reacted well to a crisis and ultimately, Heller did recover.
2006 had an up and down start and the season seemed to progress the same as the Panthers finished a respectable 28-27, but were 10-14 in conference play for a seventh-place finish. There are times one has to wonder how the Panthers would do in the Big Ten for after an earlier error-plagued game against the Gophers, UNI came back to win on the road 9-6. Five Panther players received All-MVC honors and some were destined to repeat in major ways. In ’06, shortstop Brandon Douglas received first-team MVC honors as well as being named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All- American team. First baseman Brett Featherston and second baseman Brett Douglas received second-team MVC honors and outfielder Curt Bradley and versatile second baseman Mark Frieske were awarded honorable mention status.
Standout pitcher Taylor Sinclair was recognized in 2006 for his achievements on the field and in the classroom earning honorable mention on the MVC Scholar-Athlete Team. A major in Geographic Information Systems, the Indianola native posted a 3.67 GPA. Sophomore Douglas was back at shortstop in 2007 and was named to the pre-season MVC team and also named on the Wallace Watch List (a pre-season poten¬tial Player of the Year list). Heller returned six starters and 14 letter winners and the Panthers were picked to finish fourth in the MVC. Winning consistently was the challenge for UNI in ’07 and it’s difficult to find a bright spot with the exception of a split with Big Ten Iowa. A 23-28 record and 8-16 in the MVC resulted in a sixth-place MVC tie for the Panthers. Douglas and outfielder Deric Manrique were selected first-team All-MVC, pitcher Aaron Jenkins to the second team and honorable mention honors went to outfielder Eric Hoffman. Free agent signings included Curt Bradley with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Taylor Sinclair with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Shortstop Douglas was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 32nd round but he chose to return to UNI for another year. The Missouri Valley Conference was celebrating its Centennial in 2007 and former Panthers Adam Boeve, Ryan Brunner, and Nic Ungs were named to the All-Centennial team.
The Final Season
What does one say about baseball in 2009? Entering his 10th season in 2009, Rick Heller never realized it would be his last at UNI. Certainly, rumors had swirled for years. Coach Jack Dahm of the University of Iowa noted after hearing of UNI’s decision to bring a tradition to an end, “We’ve heard the rumors for years that Northern Iowa was going to drop baseball.” And certainly anything was possible as Iowa State University shocked the state when Cyclone baseball was cut in 2001 after a 109-year existence. And it has not been unusual for mid-west and northern universities to drop the sport. Programs at Wisconsin, Providence and Boston University had dropped baseball. The University of Vermont baseball and softball teams were anoth-er victim of circumstances in 2009. Vermont Athletic Director, Dr. Robert Corran addressed the weather challenges. “The weather is so unpredictable, other than we know it’s not going to be very good. It’s just, how bad is it going to be?” A May 16, 2009 Associated Press article continues, “Most cold-weather programs start the first month of the season on costly road trips to the South. The weather is often far from tropical when they return home, making it tough to generate local interest and revenue as many fans are unwilling to bundle up for a game.”
New UNI Athletic Director Troy Dannen intended to address UNI’s Title IX concerns without any intention of an addi¬tional women’s sport affect¬ing other UNI programs. However, he could not anticipate another budget cut (one of many) that UNI would receive. Rather than making an across the board cut to all UNI athletic programs, the difficult decision was made to address a sport that did not have an on-campus facility, an outdoor sport which throughout its history had been affected by weather, and a sport in which loyal fans and donors were appreciated (yet many more were needed). Ashley Lathrum’s Feb. 27, 2009 Northern Iowan article notes that Dannen “pledged that the decision was financially-based and the Title IX equality in athletics does not pose a threat to men’s sports at UNI.”
Rick Heller, perhaps the top fund-raiser amongst UNI coaches and his supporters made a valiant effort to raise the financial support of $1.2 million dollars Dannen said was necessary to continue the program in the future, but Dannen also acknowledged that in regards to raising the necessary funds, “You never know, something could be out there. But if that fails, then there’s a whole other set of problems.” Although it may not be politically intelligent to admit it, it is reasonable to believe that the Title IX issue was ultimately a factor as Lathrum notes: “As an institution with 57 percent female enrollment and 39 percent athletic participation, cutting a women’s sport was not considered an option.” Still, there are others that wonder if pressure from facul¬ty on campus was a factor and baseball the ultimate sacrificial victim.
But still...drop baseball? America’s Game? The National Past Time? Mike Stout, Sports Editor for The Northern Iowan wrote an honest forthright article in the Feb. 24th edition. Having sought out recent UNI standout and current professional baseball player Brandon Douglas for a comment, it was clear Douglas was upset, “The first thing I wanted to do when I got paid was to donate money back to UNI. They’ve given so much to me. But I’m never giving a penny now. How can a team that stands out in the cold to take money from parking at the UNI-Dome be broke? The players already pay a hefty chunk themselves, buying a lot of their gear out-of-pocket.” Certainly, Panther Scholarship Club members attending a winter Panther basketball game remember the players in below-freezing temperatures guiding traffic into the west Dome parking lot. An unfortunate public relations incident occurred when players began to find out about the planned action of the University before the official announcement was made public. In addition the team was departing for a road trip. Certainly emotions were high and heads were spinning as the futures of players and coaches were suddenly in question. Their spring road trip was a bit bumpy. However, the Panthers channeled their energy and talents against Big Ten Indiana in a wild contest as UNI topped the Hoosiers 28-17. As luck would have it, the Panthers returned to the Cedar Valley to have their first home stand rained out.
Given the dramatic nature of closing an athletic program after 100 plus years of existence and the many challenges the baseball program faced over the years, I found this research to be interesting, revealing, dramatic and even inspiring in many ways. Whether a member of the Panther faithful or simply someone that believes in the value of athletics on a college or university campus, I believe you will enjoy Tutors to Panthers.
Note: UNI's final baseball coach, Rick Heller, went on to coach several successful seasons at Indiana State University leading the team to their first Missouri Valley Conference Championship and an NCAA appearance in 2012. In July of 2013, Heller returned to his home state to become the Head Baseball Coach at the University of Iowa and reuniting him with former UNI coaches Marty Sutherland and Scott Brickman. In 2017, the Iowa Hawkeyes won the Big Ten Championship. Their success proves that talented, dedicated coaches with a commitment to their players can win not only on the field, but in life. Congratulations to Rick Heller, coaches and players.
To purchase the book and read the entire chapter on baseball at UNI and the history of UNI Athletics go the University Book and Supply (Cedar Falls) web site. All proceeds from Tutors to Panthers support the UNI Athletic Scholarship program and UNI student-athletes.