On Stukel Way, summer nights and legacies

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
Baseball, Ely and summer evenings have been intertwined for generations.
That may now seem matter-of-fact, given the beauty of Veterans Memorial Field and the community’s penchant for hosting baseball tournaments year after year, even in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But it wasn’t always that way, and the ballpark today bears little resemblance to its beginnings in the mid-1950s.
Then Matty Stukel came along.
While Matty had a lot of help along the way, nobody can deny that he was the driving force in putting Ely’s summer baseball program on the map.
“One thing led to the next,” remembered Jim Stukel, a 1970 Ely graduate and former player, coach, and ultimately head groundskeeper at the historic ballpark. “Matty’s whole goal with the thing was that he was really tired of Ely getting beat up. Not necessarily in baseball, as we did OK, but he didn’t like the politics. You would go someplace and get unfavorable umpiring, and you went to somebody’s field and the third base line was chalked left of third base. That was common. He was very determined that Legion baseball, and backing it up to Little League baseball, would really get rolling and we would make a program for Ely.”
There was an Ely Little League team or two that made deep runs in the Little League playoffs in the late-1950s, but Stukel’s labor begun to bear fruit in the ensuing decades.
That’s when Ely piled up district championships and state tournament appearances in both VFW and Legion baseball and even captured a state title along the way.
There were Stukels and Somrocks, Dunstans and Klobuchars, Berrinis and Merhars and Erzars in the lineups. The late-1960s brought a flamethrower named Paul Starkovich, who eventually played in both the Orioles and Royals organizations and remains an Ely resident today.
The ballpark progressed with the program and the 1970s brought Matty Stukel’s quest to a new level. First came a second fence that reduced the size of a cavernous outfield, while an electric scoreboard replaced a hand operated one atop the third base dugout. Soon came lights, atop giant wooden poles that were placed around the field. There was a method to the madness.
“Matty thought we could do things in Ely as well or better than anybody else, so he thought why not do tournaments here?” remembered Jim.
Area and district playoffs soon became staples of Ely summers, and Matty secured both the 1975 and 1977 state Legion tournaments.
In those days, a wooden grandstand served as seating inside the park and for big games there often seemed to be as many people outside the fence than inside, watching from their cars or the backs of their pickups or standing along the fenceline. It wasn’t uncommon for Matty Stukel to send a young man or two with a coffee can to collect gate admission.
“They were happy to pay,” said Jim. “They just said this is where we want to sit and watch the game.”
Not long after the ‘77 tourney, he concocted the grandest and what at the time seemed the most farfetched plan of them all: a bid for the Legion World Series.
With the late Leonard Zupancich and ample supplies of Zup’s polish and wild rice, the two boarded a plane for Indianapolis, Ind., where they somehow convinced the nation’s Legion bigwigs to hold their signature event in the tiny town of Ely.
“Matty wanted the World Series and they said why don’t you take a regional first, but he said ‘here’s our bid book,’” Jim recalled. “Here’s what we have, and pretty soon after eating enough polish those guys said ‘these guys have it together.’”
The stories of the 1980 Legion World Series are legendary and truly once-in-a-lifetime. There were appearances by hall-of-famers Ted Williams and Bob Feller and an Olympic hero named Bruce Jenner. Few who were there will forget the sight of Secret Service agents on top of the stadium grandstand and then VIce President Walter Mondale on the field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Future big leaguers including Will Clark, Sid Fernandez, John Cangelosi and Bob Melvin were on the field and Fernandez’s Honolulu team beat Boyertown, Penn., in a classic Labor Day championship game.
Matty Stukel needed an army of volunteers to pull this off and among them were Carlo Berrini, who seemed to live in the stadium ticket booth, and Bill and Gen Palo, who ran a concession operation that included the main concession stand that exists today as well as auxiliary operations in what is now an equipment shed as well as another stand beyond the right field fence.
A few years after his crowning achievement, Matty Stukel dialed back from his involvement in baseball, which also included a stint as the state’s Legion baseball director.
Not long before Matty’s passing in the early-2000s, city father recognized all that he had done and aptly renamed the stretch of Seventh Avenue next to the ballpark as Stukel Way.
While Matty is gone, the infrastructure he was responsible for remained and baseball continues to be a giant part of every Ely summer. Over the last 20 years or so, Matty’s legacy has carried on with Ely hosting six more state tournaments, a couple of multi-state Legion regionals, and countless other weekend regular season and district tournaments. In a typical year, anywhere from 130-150 games will be played in Ely.
Improvements have also followed, with the stadium roof refurbished and the grandstand repainted, new lights installed in 2003 , a scoreboard in 2015 and a $50,000-plus initiative last year that included new netting and a blacktopped pavilion area, complete with high-top tables.
Every year, teams from around the state flock to Ely and Stukel Way.
“He would really be impressed knowing that he had a little bit of a hand in this,” Jim Stukel said Wednesday. “It’s incredible what has been done and how you’ve improved it. ”
There seemed to be nothing but good feelings last weekend, with the Sir G’s Classic bringing 10 teams and incredible baseball weather.
Perhaps because of the weather, perhaps because of nostalgia or perhaps because the virus has limited what one can do, crowds were up remarkably and concession stand business was brisk for the tournament.
It also wasn’t hard to find links to Ely’s baseball past.
Carlo Berrini’s grandson Brian was among the many volunteers who worked a concession shift.
Down the third base line, outside the fence, people assembled to watch the game like they did back during the 1970s and 1980s. Bill and Gen Palo walked up from their home just down White Street to see the action, four decades after they were so heavily involved in the World Series.
The night games both Friday and Saturday no doubt added to the connection as calling balls and strikes was Andy Stukel.
Matty’s grandson and Jim’s eldest son, Andy played on the field for Duluth Central and not long after got into umpiring. He has worked countless tournaments in Ely but took a brief hiatus, missing a handful of summers as he pursued his goal of becoming a professional umpire and working in the minor leagues.
Andy is now back home in Duluth, but baseball, umpiring and the Ely ballpark remain in his blood. Returning to umpire in Ely tournaments remains part of his summer itinerary.
“He’s had some great umpiring experiences, but I don’t think he enjoys anything more than going to Ely to umpire,” said Jim. “He feels it. He senses something. That’s something my friend John Sandstrom said to me, just think what Matty would think now. He would be so proud.”
Local baseball has truly been the only game in town this summer. Mother Nature has cooperated and there’s plenty of room to spread out, or even to watch from outside the fence in the manner of Ely baseball fans from decades before.
Over the next few weeks, there will be more games, tournaments and a salute to veterans, and further ties that bind generations. The past and present come together at Veterans Memorial Field like nowhere else in Ely.
Matty Stukel’s legacy has carried on and continues even in the strangest of summers.
Jim Stukel will make his own pilgrimage yet this year, watching his son work behind the plate and returning to a place “that opens up a flood of memories.”
“It’s a good feeling to come to Ely and watch a baseball game,” he said.