A lasting influenceLegion baseball coach Hugo Rajanen leaves enduring impression on former players
By: By Don Leighton, For The Telegram, Superior Telegram
The following is another “Have Fun or Get Out of the Way” column by award-winning writers Don Leighton and Mike Granlund and their alter egos, Lance Boyle and Billy Pirkola, which runs occasionally in the Superior Telegram.
If you ever participated in sports, at any level, there are coaches who made a difference in your life and influenced who you are today.
I had some great coaches as a young person. My first coach was Pat Moreland at the Lake Nebagamon Grade School. He introduced me to basketball, and I was fortunate to play collegiately on a scholarship. The influence of Moreland and Darrel Kaldor, my high school coach at Northwestern, put me in the right direction. Kaldor was also my baseball coach in high school, and I am fortunate to have them as friends.
I wish I could have played for Ron Orlandi and Bernie Tomzak at some time in my life. Orlandi was the incredible baseball coach at Superior Senior High School in the ’60s and ’70s. Tomzak coached baseball, basketball, golf and track at the youth and high school levels.
But one Superior coach I was lucky to play for was Hugo Rajanen. Rajanen was the American Legion coach from 1967 through the mid-1970s. I played for him during the 1968 and 1969 seasons. What a great experience that was.
In 1967, Rajanen began his first year as the head coach of the Superior American Legion baseball team, and he asked three players from Northwestern to play for the team. That year, Bill Weinandt, Brant Hannula and Don Olson became the first non-Superior players to play for the Legion team.
Greg Tinker, who played Legion ball in 1968-69, remembers Rajanen and the impact he had on future teams.
“My thoughts are that with Hugo’s great love for the game, it was his intent to recruit and bring in the best talent in the area so Superior could field the best team possible and continue to play competitively throughout the state,” Tinker said. “It was with that forward thinking that Hugo recruited the best players from Maple Northwestern. By doing this in the late ’60s, Hugo set the stage and extended the opportunity for many future ballplayers to follow.”
In 1968 Rajanen brought back Weinandt and Hannula and added Frank Olson and Don Leighton to the mix.
“We had great teams but could never get by Eau Claire in the tournaments,” Tinker said. “I’m still great friends with the Northwestern guys.”
One of those Northwestern players, Weinandt, remembers the two incredible years he spent with Rajanen as a coach.
“Hugo was an excellent strategist and student of the game. He cared about his players and had the knack to put them in situations to be successful,” Weinandt said. “I first played for Hugo in 1967 when I was given a chance to come in from Northwestern and join the Legion team. It was intimidating for me since Superior was coming off a great previous season with players like Ray Nygard, Jeff Crisp, Packy Paquette, Jeff Finn and Paul Hammerbeck — to name a few — but Hugo somehow created an environment that had us ‘country folks’ accepted from the start. I learned a lot from Hugo, and the two years I played for him were the best baseball years of my life.”
I concur with Bill’s opinion of Rajanen and the Legion team. I played in 1968-69, and those years were the two best years I experienced as a baseball player. Rajanen and the Superior parents, fans and players made them so.
Glenn St. Arnault was the Legion coach for Eau Claire during Rajanen’s coaching tenure and has been involved with Eau Claire baseball for 44 years. He remembers Rajanen as a “great competitor.”
“The games we had with Superior in 1968 through 1970 were classic battles between two of the best teams in the Midwest, not just Wisconsin,” St. Arnault said. “The Superior American Legion team was well-respected and feared around the state. His (Rajanen’s) two boys, Al and Sammy, were great ballplayers and great competitors just like their dad. God bless all of the young men who played for Superior and Eau Claire. And, God bless Hugo Rajanen.”
Rajanen was married to his lovely wife Donna for 49 years and together had six great kids; Al, Diana, Greg, Robert, Kimberly, and Julie. Rajanen worked as a grain inspector for 31 years and coached hockey and baseball for many years. He was one of the original founders of the youth hockey program in Superior. Without him and others, who knows what the program would be today.
His baseball acumen was second to none. He demanded that his players worked hard and did their best, and he usually got them to perform at a level they were unaware they possessed.
In fact, that is what he expected of his kids. He held them to standards that should be the norm today, rather than the exception.
His son Al, who played in the Chicago White Sox system, has many memories of playing for his dad. I had the pleasure of playing with Al, and I can vouch for his comments.
“My dad used to say to me, the day a coach has to talk to me about any of us, that was the day our uniform would come off. He expected us to work harder than anyone else and to be leaders not followers,” Al Rajanen said. “He could be really tough, but that toughness made us better people.”
Many others have echoed Al Rajanen’s feelings, including Mertz Mortorelli.
Mortorelli was one of the greatest authorities on human nature and the human condition. He coached thousands of young people in almost every sport and served as athletic director at UWS. He is now enshrined in the UWS Hall of Fame.
Prior to Hugo Rajanen’s death in 1999, Mortorelli commented on Hugo’s commitment to the youth of Superior.
“He was an exceptional man blessed with an innate desire and ability to lead young men at a time in life when direction and perfection are most important,” Mortorelli said.
Mortorelli was a great man. It takes one to know one.
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