Merrill hall welcomes new ballplayers
When the Merrill Baseball Hall of Fame convened for the fourth time last Thursday, banter flew around Kathy & Cal’s Club 64 faster than the ball changes hands when players trap someone in a pickle.
The charm of the event rivaled the information shared, providing a veritable feast for anyone interested in Merrill’s rich history in baseball.
Four new inductees-three individuals and one team-were feted on the night. Pitchers Rick Bonnell and Bruce English, contributor/ambassador Norm ‘Jiggs’ Heideman and the Beacon Bar A’s all add the hall’s constituency.
Bonnell wrapped up a 40-year career by helping the Windfall Lake Loons to its fourth consecutive masters state championship in 2009. He started in a Stars of Tomorrow league in Des Plaines, Ill., played college baseball at Iowa Western and Georgia, and was offered a contract by the Montreal Expos. After helping the Schofield Merchants to the WBA state title in 1984, he was given a tryout to the Milwaukee Brewers.
Rick picked up more state titles with the Merchants in 1987, the Merrill Rangers in 1991, the Exeland Braves in 1994, ’95, ’97, ’98 and 2000, along with runner-up finishes in ’96 and ’99. He helped the Eau Claire Cavaliers to 1988 AABC Stan Musial runner-up title while earning the Most Outstanding Pitcher award. An interesting aside was when presenter and Exeland manager Rick Gerber noted that after the Braves played the USA Baseball team in 1999, and Bonnell pitched three innings and striking out five, the USA manager said, ‘Your pitcher is better than ours and he’s 37 years old.’ Gerber noted that several major leaguers came from that squad.
Bonnell’s stats for his 1991-2009 run with Exeland and Windfall Lake included a 182-26 record, 2.32 ERA, 1,138 strike-outs, .392 batting average and 168 home runs. In his best season, 1997, he was 16-0 with a 0.87 ERA.
He is currently the MHS Athletic Director.
The Beacon Bar A’s team shocked the established baseball teams when it won the state championship in 1974 without a single player over the age of 20, and would prove it was no fluke by repeating in 1975. It was Merrill’s first WBA champion, despite trying since 1949.
Team members had experienced considerable Valley and Legion success, and eight players had or would play college ball.
Members of the close-knit team still consider themselves to be close friends.
Heideman was a life-long supporter of Merrill baseball. He served many roles, including player, sports reporter, official scorer, board of director member, coach, manager and American Legion asso. dir. for Region 2.
“If you catch a whiff of pipe tobacco when no one around is smoking, it’s just Jiggs taking a sabbatical from heaven to take in a game at Athletic Park.”
Bruce English was a key pitcher for those Beacon Bar state championship teams while pitching for a UW-Stevens Point squad that would finish second in the WIAC.
He also helped Lazy J, Merrill Giants and Beacon Bar teams to top finishes in the Linc. Co. Baseball League, firing no-hitters in 1971 and 1974.
Bruce is a retired physical education teacher, and served more than 30 years as a coach of numerous sports, including baseball, basketball, softball and cross country, as an official and as timekeeper for Bluejay football.
Oliver ‘Downtown Ollie’ Burrows, host of ESPN Sports Den on FM radio 100.5, was the keynote speaker for the event. Kevin Cu, of the Stevens Point Journal, was the emcee, and Mike Grunenwald was the presenter.
The organization also announced it will be making two improvements to Athletic Park, including the area surrounding the Hall of Fame wall by allowing home plate paver purchases, and the creation of Keith’s Corner, an awning-covered spectator area to the south of the concession stand in memory of Keith Zuelsdorff.