by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Bruce Schmidt is such a baseball nerd that several times he’s won WCCO trivia contests for the right to broadcast an inning at Twins games, nailing questions such as what Twin hit the first homer as a designated hitter (Tony Oliva), which pitcher had the most wins in a season (Jim Kaat, 25) and when did Frank Viola win his Cy Young Award (1988).
“I’m pretty good at the trivia. I follow Twins baseball a lot,” said the Elk River retiree. “They let you broadcast an inning, and tape it for you. It’s not on the air, of course, just for you to keep. You get tickets to the game, so that’s great.”
Schmidt watches all the Twins’ spring training televised games, and locally he is organizing a reunion for all past Elk River town team players set for July 21. “I played town team four years in the late 1960s, and I started out as a batboy,”
Devoted but not delusional about the Twins, who’ll have their home opener Monday against the Angels, he thinks they’ll be better than last year’s 99-loss disaster but still a below .500 team.
As an avid fan who relishes any chance to forge a connection to his team, he scored a major coup over the winter.
An exhibit he created over 25 years ago to commemorate a unique 1984 incident at the Metrodome — Oakland slugger Dave Kingman’s famous pop-up that never came down — will be displayed at Target Field, and our guy will be throwing out the first pitch of the May 8 game against the Angels. The Twins provided him with 20 tickets and the deck outside the executive suites above the left-field foul pole.
“That’s going to be so much fun,” said Schmidt. “It’s such an honor.”
Schmidt and his brother Tom were among the 10,000 fans in the Dome that Friday night in 1984 when Kingman, a long-armed 6-foot-6 slugger known for monstrous home runs (his 442 total included one that went 530 feet), towering pop-ups, and spectacular swings-and-misses (1,816 strikeouts, fourth-most in history when he retired), undercut a Frank Viola pitch with a herculean swoop of the bat, resulting in the infamous “Dome ball” pop-up that never came down, delighting the many critics like Billy Martin, who laughed (and scoffed) at our Dome. The ball rocketed through a small air hole in the roof and lodged between the two layers of teflon-coated panels.
“My brother and I noticed that everyone just kept looking up at the roof, and for about four or five minutes we kept thinking it might come down,” recalled Schmidt.
Twins first baseman Mickey Hatcher, always a prankster, swiped a ball from the umpires’ bag and tagged Kingman out. “The crowd just roared,” said Schmidt.
Amusement and wonder grew as players and umpires peered at the eggshell-colored roof, against which dozens of fly balls had disappeared from outfielders’ sights and dropped to the turf safely. This time the ball was just plain gone. The umps finally decided to give Kingman a double and let the game proceed.
Clyde Doepner, who started collecting Twins memorabilia in 1981 and was well-known to many Twins officials, was also in the crowd.
“I knew right away I had to have that ball,” said Doepner, now the Twins’ official curator, “and I went to Laurel Priebe (Twins traveling secretary) to make sure I got it.”
The ball, retrieved with considerable difficulty the next day, soon became the property of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Schmidt resolved that such a rare occasion in baseball history should be commemorated. “The next day I decided to make a collection of everything relating to the ball being stuck in the roof,” said Schmidt, who tried to acquire the actual ball, too, but the Twins sent it to Cooperstown.
Within weeks, Schmidt assembled, with help from friend Jerry Quist and a local wood shop, a two-paneled display of plexiglass-encased memorabilia from the event including the Star Tribune writeups and photos (such as Kingman and the umpire gazing upward), a Sid Hartman column quoting club president Jerry Bell giving assurances that no ball would ever get stuck in the roof, a Baseball Digest writeup, his ticket sub and program for that game, Kingman’s autograph, an autographed Viola portrait, a photo inside the Dome showing where the ball went, and letters to and from the Baseball Hall of Fame regarding the event including one with a photo of the ball.
Schmidt told the Twins about it, and the club invited him to the Dome to meet Kingman when the A’s returned to town. As he lugged his display through the bowels of the stadium, Kirby Puckett ambled over and inspected it with interest. Kingman was “pretty quiet,” said Schmidt. “He was friendly enough, not outgoing, but courteous.” Kingman autographed an A’s jersey emblazoned with “Dome Ball Night, May 4, 1984,” which Schmidt had made for him at Schroeder’s sports shop in Elk River.
Last December, 28 years after that game, Schmidt, 61, contacted the Twins to offer his collection. “I just felt that it belonged to Twins fans,” he explained. The club invited him to Target Field to look it over, and immediately accepted.
“We were grateful to have it,” said Doepner. “The Hall of Fame would have taken it, but then it would be put away and not shown very often. It belongs here.”
Doepner calls himself “Clyde the Collector” due to his many massive accumulations of mementos, including about 7,000 items pertaining to Twins history, most of them organized in the attic of his St. Paul home. The last two years, his and the Twins “stuff” have been steadily merging.
Doepner, 65, was a pro prospect once himself, as a college pitcher at Winona State, but he injured his arm playing handball and his career was over. He became a history teacher and baseball coach at Tartan High School. In 1966 he sought out Calvin Griffth at Met Stadium to personally thank him for the free passes high school coaches got at the time. The Twins owner was so pleased at the show of gratitude (“None of those other so-and-so’s ever said thank you”) that he let Doepner use his owners box that day and they became good friends.
Doepner handles the exhibits in the Legends Club at Target Field where you’ll see glass cases honoring such luminaries as Harmon Killebrew (including his Payette (Idaho) High football jersey, a uniform made by his mom for him at age 8 — prophetically with No. 3, the bat he used for his 573rd (and final) homer; Kirby Puckett (his Gold Gloves, Silver Bat, 1993 all-star game MVP plaque, Hall of Fame plaque); and Rod Carew (trophies for Rookie of the Year and all-star appearances), all of which Doepner’s personally sweet-talked away from a myriad of sources.
Kitty-corner from Target Field is an empty Ford factory recently purchased by the Twins as the site of a future team museum. That’ll be Doepner’s baby, a place for all the great stuff he’s collected.
“We really wanted Bruce’s exhibit,” said Doepner, adding that he gave Schmidt half the passes he’s allocated for the season. “This display is unique because it chronicles the only time in the history of baseball where a ball went up, but didn’t come down.”
It will be displayed in model cases accessible to all fans.”
Schmidt, who worked in facilities maintenance for the county and then for Boston Scientific, is retired on disability due to heart surgery and brain tumors. He’s attended a half-dozen games per season over the years, the biggest being Game Six in the 1965 World Series, with his dad, when Mudcat Grant and the Twins beat the Dodgers.
After following all the Twins’ spring games, Schmidt assessed: “I think they’ll slightly improve but still be below .500. Even if Mauer and Morneau are back where they were, and some other guys come through, like that new guy Willingham, I’m afraid they’re still going to give up way too many runs. But I’ll still be watching every day. Baseball is baseball and I love the Twins.”
And remember, there’s more than games at Target Field. There are lots of cool exhibits.