70 years of baseball
Thompson ready to step down
By Greg Seubert
A Badger Amateur Baseball Association season without Lee Thompson?
It hasn’t happened since the Truman Administration.
Thompson has been involved with the BABA as a player or manager since 1947. After more than 20 years of playing for two teams and more than 40 seasons as a manager for the Waupaca Lakemen, the 86-year-old has decided to hang up his baseball jersey for good.
The current general manager and treasurer of the Lakemen said this season – his 70th – will be his last.
“I can’t believe it,” Thompson said July 16 after showing up for the team’s Old-Timer’s Game at Lakemen Field. “That’s a long time. At the end of this year, I’ll have been doing it for 70 years. I can’t go out on the field and play anymore, so it’s just time for me to retire.”
Thompson’s love for baseball goes back to his playing days at Scandinavia High School.
He eventually hooked up with the BABA’s Scandinavia Vikings, a team the current Lakemen team hosted July 16. Thompson threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the game.
“I started playing with Scandinavia in 1947 and played with the Vikings until 1960,” said Thompson, a pitcher on the Vikings’ first Grand Championship team in 1954. “I was a pretty good baseball player and I love baseball. I loved going to the ballgames and playing.”
A move to Waupaca meant a team switch for Thompson to the Lakemen in 1961. Besides pitching, he also played shortstop and manned third base.
“I went to work for the gas company in Waupaca,” he said. “I knew all the guys and started playing right away. I played just about every game up to about 1970, ‘71, ‘72.
“My arm started getting a little sore and I started losing a little speed,” he said. “I played part of the time and started to do more coaching in ‘76. I managed the team for a number of years. I bought all the supplies for our building. We put in lights on the field in ‘76 and we made it better every year.”
Once Thompson’s playing days ended, he became the team’s manager. He also helps man the concession stand at home games and collects admission fees from fans.
The Old-Timer’s Game is held every two years gives former Lakemen a chance to play in front of a home crowd. Thompson last played in the game four years ago.
“It’s wonderful because you don’t see those fellows very often,” he said. “A lot of them are 50, 60, 70.”
Organizing a team takes plenty of work, according to Thompson.
“You have to find guys that want to play for sure, that they’re going to be here and not coming late to half the games,” he said. “It’s a lot of work running the (concession) stand and making sure it’s in good shape. Very seldom do you see something good happen (in a game) because most of the time, you’ve got your head down looking this way or that way.”
Waupaca’s success in the BABA over the years include 13 Grand Championships from 1972 to 2011, including five in a row from 1976-80; back-to-back titles in 1987-88 and 2010-11; and championships in 1972, 1974, 1982 and 1994.
“We’ve had quite a number of good players in Waupaca over the years,” Thompson said. “Then you have Dave Peterson, who’s a very good coach. He knows all these kids from high school sports and most of them want to play. They like to play.”
Thompson has seen the game of baseball change over the years.
“I think we have a little better pitching nowadays and better umpiring,” he said. “Most of our ballfields are better now than they were in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Some of them were part grass in the infield and part dirt and mud.”
The BABA has fewer teams now than it did when it started in 1946.
That first season included a Southern Division (Waupaca, Iola, Scandinavia, Weyauwega, Manawa, New London, Clintonville, Marion and Shawano); Western Division (Marion, Leopolis, Tilleda, Bowler, Morris, Tigerton, Caroline and Neopit); Eastern Division (Bonduel, Cecil, Gillett, Pulaski and Krakow); and Northern Division (Wittenberg, Birnamwood, Eland, Hatley, Galloway, Elderon, Almon and Rosholt).
This year, there are 25 teams in four divisions. Waupaca competes in the six-team South-Central Division, which recently lost Lanark, Manawa and Rosholt.
“I don’t know why they’re not attending baseball games now like they used to,” Thompson said. “We usually had good crowds because that was the only thing going on. People started spending Sunday afternoons at the beach swimming, things like that. A lot of girls didn’t like going to games, so a lot of the ballplayers didn’t play very long. About two-thirds of the players in Scandinavia were 40 years old. As time went by, the older ones quit and the younger ones didn’t care to play.”
Just because Thompson is stepping down as general manager doesn’t mean he’ll be a no-show at Lakemen Field.
“I’m still very interested in it,” he said. “I’ll probably still be coming to the ballgames. I hope to. My wife wants to do something else on Sundays now and I don’t blame her.”