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Mondays with Eddie: A Personal Account of a Gopher Legend and the Heisman Trophy

posted Apr 29, 2019, 6:54 AM by Dan Whenesota   [ updated Apr 29, 2019, 12:07 PM ]

On Tuesday April 16, The Minnesota Twins lost a heart breaker at home to Toronto.   In the 9th inning CJ Cron was thrown out at the plate trying to score the game tying run.  He was sent home by third base coach Tony Diaz.  There was mixed reaction on Twitter: Some supportive, some critical.  I felt bad for Diaz.  No third base coach wants to make the wrong call.  I’ve been there.  It sucks when you make the wrong decision.  You feel like losing the game is entirely your fault.  But you have to go with your gut because if you start questioning yourself, you’re done. 

As I was typing my reaction on Twitter, I heard a voice from the past inside my head.  The voice said, “Doggone it!  You gotta send that runner Danny!”.  The voice had a similar scowl to Robert Shaw’s character in ‘Jaws’, but not as deep and a bit scratchier.  I immediately recognized the voice, and smiled.  It was Eddie Steinbauer.  No sooner had I smiled, I started to feel guilty that I hadn’t thought about him in some time.   He passed away in 2002 at age 82.

Eddie and I played fastpitch softball together for many years.  On Mondays we played at Dunning and on Thursdays we played at McMurray, both in St. Paul.  Not only did we play together, I was the team’s manager.  Can you imagine that?  A mid 20’s punk like me managing a 70 year-old Minnesota legend?

We all called him ‘Fast Eddie”.  I’m not sure where he received the ‘Fast’ moniker, because he sure wasn’t.  He walked with a bit of a limp.  It also wasn’t his pitching.  He was more of a ‘finesse’ pitcher and his fastball had seen better days. 

Speaking of his fastball, Eddie faced some really good hitters.  We used to worry about him getting hurt on the mound.  Fortunately, Eddie’s fastball was just slow enough that most hitters pulled the ball.  As a matter of fact, he really frustrated a lot of hitters because they were used to faster pitching.  Eventually after the second or third time through the batting order they would start to ‘catch up’ to him and we would bring in another pitcher.  I did see him get hit once, but his body was so thick, I’m not even sure he felt it.  When a 70 year old gets hit by a screaming line drive, your immediate reaction is panic.  Clearly Eddie wasn't like other 70 year olds.  He told us he was fine, kept on pitching and finished the game.  He even hung out with us in the parking lot afterward.  

He used to like to “help” me make coaching decisions.  He never batted because he couldn’t run very well.  So when I was making a lineup he often lobbied to bat if I needed him to.   He’d say, “Danny, gimme an at-bat. I’m feelin’ good today!”   However, most of Eddie’s ‘help’ came when I was coaching third base.  My philosophy on stealing bases and sending runners home was probably a little more conservative than Eddie liked.  He would yell, ”Gotta go! Gotta go!”, playfully criticizing me if I held someone at third and played it safe.  If I didn’t steal a runner he would yell, “You gotta send that runner Danny!”  And then when I’d get back to the dugout he would lecture, “It takes a good catch and a good throw!”, implying that the catcher would have to receive the ball cleanly, and make a perfect throw to stop us from stealing.  (In fastpitch softball the bases are 60 feet, not 90) 

Anyway, that’s the voice I heard in my head after CJ Cron got thrown out at the plate that night.  It wasn’t a bad decision to send that runner.  Toronto just played it perfectly. 

Thinking about Eddie again after so many years reminded me about his contribution to Minnesota Sports.

Eddie played football for the Minnesota Gophers from 1938-1940.  He was a part of the 1940 Gophers National Championship team.  According to the team’s yearbook, he played “End”.  Not sure if that was Defensive End, or Tight End.  I do know that he also played Full Back at some point.  As a matter of fact, he blocked for a certain half back named Bruce Smith.  Smith went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1941.  Even with all the championships the Gophers won back then, it’s the only Heisman Trophy in Gopher History.  Having said that, Smith had more rushing yards and higher yards per carry in 1940 when Eddie blocked for him, than he did in his Heisman Trophy year. 

Looking back over Gopher archives of that time really makes one appreciate just how good Gopher football was back then.  Not only did Smith win the Heisman trophy, the team won 5 national championships in 8 years.  Read that sentence again, and let that sink in for a few seconds. 

There aren’t many college football teams that can say that. 

After college, Eddie served in WWII.  He was deployed as infantry in Germany.  According to the Star Tribune’s Pat Reusse, Eddie was one of two original members of his company to return home alive.  In addition to his accomplishments for the Gophers, Eddie was inducted into the Owatonna High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Minnesota Softball Hall of Fame in 1999.  He was also a Golden Gloves boxer. 

He once told me the secret to staying healthy at his age was eating an orange everyday.  It wasn't uncommon to see him at the ballpark peeling and eating an orange between innings. 

I wasn’t there for it, but there was one game where Eddie (who was 70-something at the time) was pitching on a very hot and humid day.  Everyone was worried about him pitching in that intense heat.  The other team had a pitcher who was 50 something.  The 50 year-old pitcher had a heart attack on the mound.   

When Eddie died it wasn’t due to illness or failing health.  The way I was told the story, he went in to have his pacemaker adjusted and after surgery he got an infection.  While at Eddies wake, I stopped to talk to a friend who was also a ball player near Eddies age.  I remember him shouting out, “Damn V.A. killed another one!”

I’ve been lucky to have some really unique encounters with people involved in Minnesota sports.  Most of those we’re very brief.  I was friends with Eddie for 10 years.  I look back now and wish I would have spent more time with him.  I also wish I could pick his brain about all he had been through in his life.  I would have certainly asked him more about his time as a Gopher football player.  I think I was just too young to understand how big of a deal that really was.  I also failed to appreciate how lucky I was to sit in a dugout every Monday and Thursday with a Minnesota sports legend.  

                                                            
                                                       1940 National Championship team.  Eddie is #55, Bruce Smith is #54
 
                                                                                      
                                                          Eddie in 1938                                                    Eddie from the 1940 Team Yearbook

Sources

Top photo of Eddie in 1999 - Dan Whenesota

GopherSports.com Archives (1940 Team photo and photo of Eddie in 1938)

University of Minnesota Athletics - Communications Department (Photo of Eddie from the 1940 gopher team yearbook)

Startribune.com obits - http://www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/1OAR032002002/

Patrick Reusse - Star Tribune, July 19, 1998, All-around athlete still going strong after 79 years.

https://www.owatonnashs.portal.rschooltoday.com/page/2785

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