Town ball takes center stage in St. Cloud author's new book – Minneapolis Star Tribune

St. Cloud author Bill Meissner has often found luck combining his love of language with his love of baseball.
During his tenure teaching creative writing at St. Cloud State University, Meissner, 73, frequently joined students after class for pickup games — and still occasionally meets up with some to hit softballs in the grass for a while.
He's also published nine books in the last three decades, with one on the way next spring. Nearly half of the books revolve around baseball, including his most recent, "Light at the Edge of the Field," which is a collection of short stories with ties to America's pastime.
"I loved the game as a kid. The more I played it, I realized baseball is a kind of metaphor for many parts of our lives. So in quite a few stories, [baseball] is the nucleus of the story but the stories go far beyond just the game," Meissner said. "These are not pro players in the bottom of the ninth hitting a home run. The stories are more about individuals focusing on their relationships, their dreams, that sort of thing."
The book is Meissner's second featuring baseball-themed short stories; the first was "Hitting into the Wind" in 1997. His first novel, "Spirits in the Grass," chronicled a small-town ballplayer who discovers the remains of a Native American burial ground in a baseball field; it won the Midwest Book Award in 2008.
While the stories are fictional, the fields are not: Many of Meissner's stories are inspired by local fields, including diamonds in Cold Spring, Sartell, St. Cloud and even an abandoned field in rural St. Augusta. After moving to St. Cloud more than four decades ago, Meissner became keenly aware of central Minnesota's baseball culture.
"I think the game itself is an escape for a lot of local and regional towns. Part of the draw of it is these aren't million-dollar players. They're 32 years old with a 3-year-old kid out there playing for the fun of it," he said. "It's a huge contrast to the multimillion-dollar contracts pros are getting. These guys aren't getting paid a cent — unless they are bought beer by a buddy."
Minnesota has about 300 Class C amateur baseball teams, according to Tom Elliott, sports editor at the West Central Tribune and former sports reporter at the St. Cloud Times.
"All you have to know is Stearns County has 29 teams. Some of these teams are in places that barely could be called towns," Elliott said. "This area is such a hotbed for baseball. It's what distinguishes central Minnesota from a lot of places."
Elliott attributed the area's town ball density to its history with German and European immigrants wanting to assimilate. "The way they did that was playing baseball," he said. "A lot of them, in this county especially, were farmers and they were really struggling to survive. So they would farm all week and then on Sundays, they would go to church … and then they would play some ball afterward. That was their social event of the week."
Many areas with town ball teams — Meier Grove, Greenwald, Farming, Spring Hill — are just miles apart from each other yet they still manage to have enough players for a team.
"There are still rivalries between towns that are 5, 6, 8 miles apart," said Steve Penick, head archivist at Stearns History Museum. "It's certainly an identifier for a lot of communities."
During the pandemic, Meissner photographed many central Minnesota fields that'll be featured in his forthcoming book, "Circling Toward Home," which he describes as a coffee-table book with pictures accompanied by short prose. The book celebrates the game that is so important to Meissner and many central Minnesotans.
"It's a community event," he said. "It makes games a celebration of local life."

Jenny Berg covers St. Cloud for the Star Tribune. Sign up to receive the new St. Cloud Today newsletter.
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