Although I didn't know Leo Litke real well, I will always remember that carmel-tanned skin and those enormous hands.
Litke, a Morrison County amateur baseball legend who died Feb. 28 in Pierz at age 93, possessed hands that could virtually wrap around an entire baseball, making it look like a marble. Those hands enabled him to throw a curveball that tumbled like it had just dropped off a table.
He used to say that you should have seen his hands when he was younger because they shrunk as he aged.
"We've got a picture of his hands holding a baseball on the seams," Leo's son, Ron said. "I think we're going to impose that picture onto his (grave) stone. He had giant hands. They almost wrapped around the ball."
In 1921, Leo began playing baseball at age 12 for Harding. Among the teams he played for were Little Falls, Pierz, Lastrup, Center Valley, Daggett Brook and Shady Brook.
Leo played for and managed the Pierz Pirates in the 1940s and 1950s, going to several state tournaments.
He also was the first manager of the Shady Brook Broncos who started playing in 1967. In their first season, the Broncos went undefeated in the Victory League playoffs and advanced to the region tournament.
He also was a groundskeeper and organizer. By 1974, he had been involved in amateur baseball for 52 years and was inducted into the State Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame later that year.
Until he was no longer able to get around, Leo could be found at some central Minnesota ballpark every Sunday in the spring and summer, and sometimes on week nights, watching an amateur baseball game with Ron or his other son, Larry.
Leo also was an avid outdoorsman. He loved to hunt and fish. Around 1950, he started the Litke Bait business in his home. He was proud of the fact he had never worked a day in his life for someone else.
There are hundreds of yarns, some unprintable, about the legendary, colorful Litke.
Paul Froncak, who has been associated with the Victory League as a batboy, player, manager or officer for more than 40 years, recalled a few tales about Leo that are printable.
In 1951, Leo and the Pierz Pirates played the Brainerd Braves, whose star attractions were Herb Score, who went on to pitch for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, and first baseman Gordy Coleman, who eventually played for Cleveland and the Cincinnati Reds.
Pierz beat the Braves 3-2 in 12 innings in Brainerd on a bunt single over an infielder's head and lost 10-0 at home. Leo used to say Score threw so hard the ball looked like an aspirin traveling sideways to the plate.
Then there was the time Harding was playing at Vineland, which had no outfield fence. Leo hit a ball well over the outfielders' heads. As he rounded the bases, a car began to chase him off the field. Running for his life, Leo sprinted to an outhouse. When he thought it was safe to depart, Leo stepped out and a Vineland player tagged him out.
Froncak remembers a game in which Leo was managing Harding in a playoff game against Hillman. Trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, Leo's nephew, Danny, was the scheduled hitter. The 56-year-old Leo called timeout, sent Danny to the dugout and decided to pinch hit. Leo dug into the batters' box and hit a game-winning grand slam.
One night in 1974 was designated Leo Litke Night at the old fairgrounds ballpark in Little Falls. At age 65, Leo pitched almost three scoreless innings for Shady Brook in a regular-season game against Lastrup.
"He was going to pitch until one person got on base, which we thought would be his first inning," Ron Litke said. "He wound up going two-plus innings but they beat us in a close ballgame."
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