Mr. Sports, Mr. Stats, Mr. GustafsonThe Gary Gustafson Last Chance Baseball Tournament was played this past weekend at the Steve Arnovich and Art Parenteau Fields in Superior. Thirteen teams consisting of eleven- and twelve-year-old players competed in the 12th annual event and enjoyed America’s pastime — baseball. One person who could tell you all you wanted to know about the game was the namesake of the weekend’s tournament.
By: Don Leighton, Superior Telegram
The Gary Gustafson Last Chance Baseball Tournament was played this past weekend at the Steve Arnovich and Art Parenteau Fields in Superior. Thirteen teams consisting of 11- and 12-year-old players competed in the 12th annual event and enjoyed America’s pastime — baseball.
One person who could tell you all you wanted to know about the game was the namesake of the weekend’s tournament.
I first met “Gus” in the summer of 1968. Frank Olson, Danny Hannula and I were asked to play for the Superior Legion team. Having attended Northwestern High School, this was quite the honor. Bill Weinandt and Brant Hannula, Dan’s brother, had played in Superior in 1967.
Hugo Rajanen was the coach, and there were some great players on that team. The first few practices were held at Lake Nebagamon, which was really cool. The team really wanted us to feel comfortable.
The one person who I remember the most was Gary Gustafson. The whole team, the coaches and the parents welcomed us with open arms, but Gary made us feel as if we were part of the family.
Gus had been involved in Legion ball beginning in the early 1960s and continued to be involved in all sports, but baseball was his true passion. He was a huge Milwaukee Braves fan and particularly loved Hank Aaron. He would lay in bed each night listening to the radio as Earl Gillespie and Blaine Walsh described the exploits of Spahn, Mathews, Burdette, Aaron, Covington and the rest. I would wager that Gus was the happiest person in the world when the Braves won the World Series in 1957.
His brother, Steve, is a teacher in the Chequamegon school district in Park Falls, Wis.
Steve remembers his older brother hauling him around to games, listening to his transistor radio, which was always in his possession.
“He was a huge Milwaukee Braves fan,” Steve said. “Loved Hank Aaron; he had a plastic statue of him and repainted it when they moved to Atlanta. He made up a miniature baseball field out of plywood and we used a tiny bat and marble to play. We used baseball cards to make our lineups. When players got traded, we scratched out the old team and wrote the new team on the card.”
The brothers listened to countless games. Steve remembers nights spent listening to games from all over the country, with Harry Caray doing Cardinal games from St. Louis. He also remembers Gary going to great length to get the latest sports information.
“Gary hooked up a homemade antenna to the roof and we would attach it to the radio or TV and try to pick up games,” Steve said. “Once we picked up a CFL game from Winnipeg or somewhere. Also tried to pick up tournament basketball games when they were too far to drive to. I remember him listening to a small transistor radio with an earphone in church one Saturday night to listen to a Badger basketball game.
“What I remember most is traveling all over to attend basketball games,” Steve continued. “He (Gary) was thirteen years older than me, but I had a blast. He brought me to Washburn, Hurley, Chetek, all the Duluth schools and everywhere in between to either watch games between top teams or to scout teams Superior was going to play. We used to go to lots of Dukes games and saw a lot of future big leaguers. We also saw Eddie Feigner, the Harlem Globetrotters, many Spooner sectionals and all sorts of sports.
“One of the things I miss most is being able to call him about some question I have regarding sports in the Superior area. He would always be able to either answer my question or look it up somewhere.”
The stories about Gus are endless. His sister, Eileen, also has “fond” memories of her older brother.
“Gary had built his own baseball field from scratch, and I was in the field with my twin sister, Diane,” Eileen said. “I took one to the face and was bleeding like a stuck pig. Instead of offering some sympathy to his little sister, he told me to rub some dirt on it and get back to the game.”
Doug Score, who knew Gus for 30 years and coached a Babe Ruth team with him for 10 of them, remembers one particularly funny story.
“One of Gus’ biggest claims to fame is that he beat Mike Stack, a member of the 1974 SSHS basketball state champs, in a game of horse,” said Score, former Wisconsin State Babe Ruth treasurer. “He always bragged that he was a better outside shooter than Mike ever was. They played maybe 20 games, but Gus certainly talked about the one time that he beat Mike.”
Other Legion baseball players from the late 1960s also have stories to share about Gus.
Greg Tinker was a member of the Legion team in 1968-69. Besides remembering Gus as a driver to games, a coach when needed, the keeper of the book and the biggest supporter of the team, he remembers one interesting and telling trait that Gus possessed.
“Gus used to drive this old blue Ford, and if you needed something related to baseball, you talked to him before going to see Bill Finn and Marcus Sporting Goods,” Tinker said. “Gus would open his trunk and canvas bags of bats, balls, gloves, catcher’s equipment, bases, uniforms — anything you needed — was there.”
Gary Reiten was one of the older players on the team, and always rode with Gus to the away games. I remember leaving those games in caravan style with Gene Wickell, Glen Tinker, Hugo and the other parents driving. For some reason, still unknown to me, Gus, Gary and the other occupants of his car got home later than the rest. They must have had car problems.
Reiten sums up what Gus was all about: “Gary was perhaps the most avid baseball fan ever in the history of Superior. His contributions to the American Legion Baseball program were enormous. Gus, or as we used to call him “Gusse,” which was pronounced “goose eh,” in the late 60s was always there to provide transportation to out of town games. He was always there to keep score for the team. He reveled in our victories and shared our woes in our losses, which were not many.
“When called upon to coach, his chest swelled with pride. He was a mentor who tried to keep us on the straight and narrow path at a time when “gas house” baseball was in vogue. Mr. Gustafson was a positive influence on the lives of many young baseball players for many years.
“You left us prematurely a few years ago, so I honor you and say thanks Gusse, you are missed by many who knew and loved you.”
Gus was born in July 1942 and “rounded the bases” for the last time in March 2000. The oldest of five children, he graduated from Superior Central in 1960.
At his funeral, his five year old niece sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” What better tribute could have been given to Gus as we said goodbye?
It is important that those who are young and play the game Gus loved so much know who he was and what he meant to Superior baseball.
More than 40 years of nurturing, cultivating and watching over his beloved like a mother hen, Gus was a very special, respected and loved man. We are better off for having known him, but we are lesser beings for not having him in our midst.
Thank you, Gus. We still remember and love you.
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