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Enterprise Journal

The love of the game

Aug 12, 2020 01:06PM ● By Savannah Howe

It was the summer of 1960. United States’ relations with Cuba were quickly deteriorating, a neck-and-neck election season was drawing to a close that would soon name John F. Kennedy as president, and a young Robert Sturges stood on the pitcher’s mound under the hot summer sun in Osage.

It was the first year that Osage’s adult baseball team, the Merchants, would play. In the years to come, Sturges would go on to hit 30 home runs in his first year with the Mets, and would win First Team All American at Ellsworth Junior College—but for the time being, he was sharing his love for a good game of baseball with his friends in the city of Maples.

“It was a bunch of great people. Great places. I had more fun with the Merchants than with anyone,” said Sturges, who now enjoys the retired life in Clear Lake. And, by anyone, Sturges doesn’t mean just anyone; after his two-year stint as a player for the Osage Merchants baseball team, he went on to serve six years as a professional ball player, including tenure for the Minor League Baseball teams the Mets and the Pirates.

Enterprise Journal caught up with former Merchants ball players Sturges, Ron Foell and Larry Dieterich to relive the legend of Jerry Steiert, a man who spent three years from 1960 to 1963 as the Merchants baseball team manager and passed away in December of last year, and to commemorate six decades’ worth of baseball memories.

He and his brothers, the whole lot of them, just great people. One of the best ball players of all time, too, because he never gave up, on himself or on anybody else.

Bob Sturges

“[Jerry] was a great person, let me tell ya,” recalled Sturges. “He and his brothers, the whole lot of them, just great people. One of the best ball players of all time, too, because he never gave up, on himself or on anybody else.

“Jerry Steiert hit some home runs that are still flying, if you know what I mean.”

Foell is a former Osage Merchants, University of Northern Iowa and Wisconsin Rapids Twins player who now lives in Ankeny. He was a third baseman for the Merchants, and remembers the “team of the ages” fondly.

“Here’s the one thing that I credit the Merchants team for, always have and always will: you learn how to respect the game,” said Foell. “Jerry was one of the original ones that started the team with my older brother. I used to go to their games when I was in junior high and watch Jerry play while I shagged balls. They taught me how to play the game the way it should be played.”

Foell feels that baseball has changed a lot institutionally over the years, with more fame and more money involved. However, he said that at the heart of the game it’s still the best sport ever played—a significant part of which is because of people like Steiert, who are great athletes but even better friends.

“You just had to respect Jerry, because you knew that Jerry respected you,” said Dietrichs, an Osagian who went on to graduate from Wartburg and play for the college’s baseball team. “He was more than a baseball player. He was a leader.”

 After playing with the Merchants, Jerry went on to play baseball at Iowa State University. PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHY STEIERT

The Merchants were rebranded as the North Stars as the popularity of adult baseball teams has changed but, back in the day, the Osage team came head to head on the diamonds with teams from their neighboring communities of Stacyville, St. Ansgar, Adams, MN and Lyle, MN.

Dieterich said that the rivalry was nothing more than a spirited match, though; in the end, when the players hung up their jerseys, they were just neighbors with a love of baseball again.

“That’s why I see what’s going on today and I’m just confused,” said Dieterich in reference to the charged environment surrounding Charles City’s and Waverly’s baseball game where racial slurs were shouted. “Nothing even close to that ever happened back then. We were just a bunch of people who wanted to play.”

Dieterich said that he learned a lot from his time playing with the Merchants, and with Steiert, that is applicable to life—including hard work, losing gracefully and never giving up.

A lot of athletes these days rely on their talent, and not enough on their attitude. You need to listen to the people who have been where you are. I attribute a lot of my success in baseball and life to that, and to playing with the Merchants.

Ron Foell

Foell said there is a right way to play baseball, and it’s not always about talent. “A lot of athletes these days rely on their talent, and not enough on their attitude. You need to listen to the people who have been where you are. I attribute a lot of my success in baseball and life to that, and to playing with the Merchants.”

Foell’s time with the Merchants was cut short when the Vietnam War draft notices started to arrive. However, once he returned, he played with the Clear Lake Buttertop fast pitch softball team, which played 100 games a summer all over the midwest, and other teams until he was 32.

When asked if he knew that his last time on the diamond would be his last baseball game for life, Foell laughed.

“Sometimes your body knows before you do,” he said.

While baseball for the Merchants players of days passed isn’t much more than playing catch with grandchildren now, memories of those summer matches in the ’60s will always remain for Foell, Dieterich and Sturges.

“It was worth every minute playing for the Merchants and with Jerry. He was a good ol’ boy and I’ll never forget him,” Sturges said.
When Dieterich heard of Steierts’s passing, he called up former Merchants players to arrange a memorial, and together the group raised $1,045 to purchase equipment for Osage’s high school baseball and softball programs in Jerry’s memory.

“We are grateful for the many players and organizations that have kept amateur baseball strong in the Osage area for several years,” Dieterich said.

The group plans to place the memorial plaque and present the equipment sometime in the spring of 2021, but the team may or may not come back together for the ceremony in Osage—Sturges said that decades of time spent apart is funny that way.

“I could come back around, depending on who’s coming,” said Foell, “but we’ve all gone such separate ways since leaving the Merchants.”
Dieterich was determined to get in touch with his former teammates, though, and spent hours upon hours tracking them down and talking to them to arrange Steiert’s memorial.

“You’d think we wouldn’t have a whole lot to talk about after living different lives for so long,” said Dieterich. “But I spent at least an hour on the phone with most of them. It was sort of natural that way, and a lot of it had to do with our memories of Jerry.”

Enterprise Journal also visited Kathy Steiert, Jerry’s widow, who said that his passion for baseball ran deep.

“I remember, on our honeymoon, sitting at a baseball game and not knowing a thing of what was going on, except that it was too hot out and that Jerry was happy,” she recalled. She touched a photo of Jerry that hangs on her wall and smiled. “He loved the Cubs, he loved to play at Iowa State, he just loved the game.”

Sturges said that he will always remember Steiert’s advice, long after he’s put the bat down for the last time.

‘Never give up,’ that’s what Jerry always said. And I soon realized he was talking about so much more than just baseball. But Jerry changed us in that way. He changed us through his love of the game.

Bob Sturges

“‘Never give up,’ that’s what Jerry always said. And I soon realized he was talking about so much more than just baseball. But Jerry changed us in that way. He changed us through his love of the game.”

 A more recent photo of Jerry. PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHY STEIERT