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REMEMBERING THE SUMMER OF 1947:
THE YEAR A SMALL TOWN WON THE BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP

by
Kenneth W. Godfrey

Each year, as spring reaches for summer, a plethora of books regarding baseball appear in America's bookstores. This year, 1991, sixteen of these volumes were thought important enough to be reviewed by the New York Times. While most of these books extolled, lauded, and applauded the exploits of such superstars as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Tommy Johns, one volume celebrated a mediocre player, Michael Fedo, and another praised the game's most famous "Screwballs."

America's fascination with baseball and its players, while declining somewhat, continues as tens of thousands of fans fill giant stadiums. There was, however, a time when lovers of the sport crowded small sandlots, not gigantic stadiums. Following World War II, baseball mania aroused the populace and Cache Valley was no exception. Twelve communities, the summer of 1947, fielded teams in the "Cache Valley Baseball League." Even as Ted Williams, Joe DeMaggio, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra and other superstars garnered the affection and awe of a nation, Juke Jensen, Dale Bergeson, Howard Stone, Ralph Roylance, Stan Richardson and Carl Nyman, to name only a few of the Valley's best baseballers, were basking in a limelight all their own. Brown-backed boys, thinning sugar beets, dreamed of Saturday afternoons when all work halted and the umpires cried, "Play ball."

On Sunday mornings, home runs, stolen bases and sacrifice flies replaced faith, forgiveness, patience, and long suffering as Sunday School curriculum. Gifted athletes dislodged mayors, bishops and stake presidents as the communities' most influential citizens. Hoeing sugar beets, mowing alfalfa and stacking hay, youths fantasized pitching no-hitters, hitting home runs, or smacking game winning singles. Thus, baseball provided hope, excitement, expectation, and meaning in the lives of the rural populace that far transcended its aspects as a sport. For five months of the year, baseball was more important than religion, family and crops, at least if one determines importance by the amount of conversation engendered. If a community's team began winning constantly, the conversation and the excitement became even more pronounced.

The gods controlling the weather seemed to have favored the playing of baseball as the sun shone on Saturday, 20 April 1947, when the Cache Valley Baseball League teams played their first games. In a harbinger of things to come, Cornish beat Clarkston 9-3, while Smithfield downed Hyde Park 11-5. Carl Hansen, a bachelor and avid reader of books about baseball, managed the Cornish team and sensed that in the trio of Bergesons, he had the nucleus that just might result in a league championship. The third round of the season, Carl Nyman, "The Perennial North Logan athlete, like Old Man River, [kept] rolling along," to borrow a phrase from the Herald Journal reporter. Pitching a four hitter, he shut out previously unbeaten Trenton, achieving a 3-0 victory for his Hyde Park team. After having played six games, both Cornish and Smithfield were undefeated. The league's smallest community, Cornish, and its largest, Smithfield, [Logan did not field a team that year] battled for supremacy.

Ready to turn fourteen in October, I can still remember the excitement that engulfed our miniature hamlet as the team continued to win. It seemed that everyone attended the games as all labor ceased on the days, mostly Saturdays, they were played.

Then tragedy raised its ugly head. An underdog Weston team scored four runs in the last of a ninth inning, beating Cornish by a score of 11-10. Alone, undefeated Smithfield now led the league. We, the Cornish fans, took some consolation in the fact that both Marcell Pitcher, our second baseman, and Dale Bergeson, the shortstop, had hit home runs in the Weston defeat. Still, our homes were filled with depression.

As it turned out, the dark cloud of gloom only engulfed our town for two weeks because Smithfield was beaten by North Logan in the league's eighth round, while Cornish crushed Lewiston 18-4. Having played one more game than Smithfield, we stood alone atop the league's standings. Being boss of Bunker Hill, however, lasted only a few days as a mid-week encounter with Trenton on their own turf loomed.

North Cache High School's baseballers had, the spring of 1947, won the Region One baseball championship. With school having ended, the high school's ace pitcher, Charlie Scheidigger, joined the Trenton team, and was ready to "toil the rubber." Cornish countered with their own "super star," Garth Bergeson, recently released from the armed services, who, the next spring would hurl for Brigham Young University. The game, an "epic," lasted ten innings before Eppich singled, stole second, and came home on a Brown single. Trenton had upset Cornish 2-1. Seven days later, Smithfield clobbered Trenton 11-4. However, as the first half of the season closed, Smithfield and Cornish had tied, both having records of nine wins and two losses. League officials decided that a playoff game between the leaders would decide the championship.

Twelve hundred baseball fans filled the downtown Lewiston ballpark to overflowing as the Valley's two strongest teams warmed up. I can still remember the excitement, the anticipation and the tension filling the summer air. A Herald Journal reporter wrote that "all of the playing greatness of the famous American pastime was on display. "

Smithfield's brilliant pitcher, Stan Richardson, chucked no-hit ball for the first seven innings, while Smithfield only garnered one hit off Garth Bergeson in five innings. As Smithfield prepared to bat in the top of the sixth, neither team had scored a run. The crowd edged toward the front of their seats as Goodrich singled and Ralph Roylance, an all-state high school athlete, confidently took his place in the batter's box. Only moments passed before he tripled to center field and Goodrich scored. A passed ball allowed Roylance to "lope" across the plate and Smithfield led 2-0. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with Smithfield leading 3-0, "Big Dale Bergeson" hit a home run with two men on base, and the score was tied. There were, moreover, no outs. Before the inning ended, Cornish again scored and for the first time led 4-3. Only weeks away from signing a professional baseball contract, Cleon Hodges, in the top of the ninth inning, belted a home run with two men on base, and when the Cornish batters "went down without any spunk" in the bottom of the ninth, Smithfield, managed by Glen Trout, was the First Half Champion.

Prepared to play even better the second half, Cornish won their first three games. Their star pitcher, Bergeson, was rested more the second half as Dean, his left-handed brother and star first baseman, sometimes took the mound. Dean, too, would play baseball for Brigham Young University.

After having played seven games, Cornish was a half game behind league leading Trenton who was undefeated. Still, a reporter believed that our team [Cornish] was "the outstanding club to watch because of their steadiness." The last two games of the season, as excitement reached new highs, Cornish defeated previously unbeaten Trenton 5-2. Garth Bergeson allowed only five singles. Then we downed Smithfield 6-3. Meanwhile, in the last game of the season, North Logan crushed Trenton 9-2, giving Cornish the Second Half Championship.

As excitement reached new highs, Cornish and Smithfield prepared to play for the league championship. A Herald Journal reporter made much of the fact that with a victory, a small town numbering close to 300 baseball loving people would win the crown. There was a marked decrease in the amount of work done in the community the week our team prepared to play the title game. Many of the community's citizenry even turned out to watch the players practice. Others gathered at Ervin Kendell's store and talked baseball for hours, while still others chatted near the town's only other commercial establishment, the Shell service station.

Like preparing for a one game World Series, tension continued to fill the air. Every person, I believe, could name every player on the team and provide anyone who cared to know with their batting average. Everyone in our community arrived at the neutral Lewiston ballpark early and grabbed a good seat. I could never remember seeing so many cars in one place before, but I had, at age thirteen, only been out of the Valley once or twice and then only to visit Salt Lake City.

The August afternoon was perfect for baseball. The game, as it turned out, was, in the words of a reporter, "one of the best, if not the best, in the history of the North Cache Valley loop." Again, Garth Bergeson took the mound for the Cornish nine, while the left-handed Stan Richardson hurled for Smithfield. At the end of six innings, not one run had scored. With one out in the seventh, Ralph Roylance singled and went to third when the usually reliable shortstop, Dale Bergeson, allowed a ground ball to pass between his legs. Cornish fans groaned even as Smithfield's supporters knew feelings of ecstasy. The next batter hit a "sizzling" line drive to Dale Bergeson, who made a sensational catch and doubled Roylance off third, ending the Smithfield threat. Rex Pilkington, Cornish's miniature catcher, walked to open the eighth inning and scored the game's first run as Garth Bergeson "banged out a long double" to left field. Perhaps the game's most sensational play occurred when Smithfield pitcher, Richardson, belted what appeared to be a home run, only to be thrown out at the plate by a perfect relay "strike" by shortstop Bergeson. Cornish won the game 1-0. Jubilant, the citizens celebrated far into the night, replayed the game many times in church on Sunday, and honored "their popular baseball playing fellows" with a banquet the following Tuesday.

Even today, forty-three years later, there are summer nights when the August of "47" in Utah's centennial year returns to my mind. I think I can still see short, stocky Rex Pilkington crouching behind the plate, waiting for tall, raven-haired Garth Bergeson to throw the first pitch. The boyish, lanky left-handed Dean Bergeson, brother of Garth, pounds his glove in anticipation at first base even as Marcell Pitcher, stocky, always happy, covers second. Smooth-fielding Paul McKnight plays the hot corner like a professional as the red-headed giant of a man, Dale Bergeson, covers shortstop. Gifted, tenacious and baseball wise, I believed then, and still am confident today, that he could have played professionally had he been given the opportunity. Erickson, Bingham and Buxton patrolled the outfield. These men, my boyhood heroes, helped shape my life, gave it hope, excitement and purpose. When a small farm boy from a small town, laboring on a twelve acre farm anticipated weekly watching a baseball game, it was very difficult to become depressed. Using the words of author George Durrant, the summer or 1947 was "my best summer so far."