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Island Baseball Has Rich History

Ray Hansen, left, and Jake Ellefson. Photo by Patricia Hewitt

Islanders have been playing baseball since 1875 when the boys from St. Martin's Island came over for a game. After that, games were mostly played between Island players. In 1903, Will Jess organized the baseball team into an athletic association: Island Ball Club.

A team from Piney Woods, Miss., barnstormed around the country in 1930 and came all the way to Washington Island to play ball.  The pitcher they faced was Harold "Lefty" Johnson whose career spanned 27 years. They were so impressed with his abilities, they came back the next year.

Jake Ellefson and Ray Hansen both played with Lefty, who retired around 1954 and was inducted into the Door County Hall of Fame in 1992. Johnson died in 1979 at the age of 67 at his home on the Island. He was a retired commercial fisherman.

Jake recalls the story of how Lefty became such a great pitcher.

"When he was a kid, Lefty threw stones at a fence post to gain control. He also had the left hand advantage and a fast breaking curve ball." Jake added with a gleam in his eye, "It curved and dropped -- a deadly pitch."

Considered by many as the best pitcher who ever played in the Door County League, Lefty struck out 22 batters in the marathon championship game of June 10, 1951 against the Institute team.

The Washington Island baseball team in 1954: front left, Percy Johnson, manager; Leland Johnson, bat boy; Royal Johnson, Dick Johnson, Irvin “Gibby” Goodlet; Harold “Lefty” Johnson, pitcher; Ervin Smith, Ray Hansen; and standing, left to right are Kirby Cornell, Everett Ellefson, Vic Goodlet, Jake Ellefson, Walter Jorgenson, Len Atkins, and Len Ellerbrock. Courtesy of the Washington Island Archives.

The Door County League was organized after the war in 1947. Hansen, who served in the army, played some ball in the Philippines during the war, where he gained good experience.  After the war, he played pro ball for two years.

Jake said, "Ray was a great athlete -- a natural ballplayer. He played third base and always hit near or above .400 with a lot of RBIs and home runs. Everybody makes mechanical errors, but Ray didn't make thinking errors and that was very important, and he was a classic hitter."

"What does that mean?" I asked. Poor Jake and Ray had to explain a lot about baseball to me!

"Ray hit the ball where it was pitched," Jake patiently told me. "Inside corner to left, outside corner to right, and he'd rifle a shot through the box if the pitch was down the middle. I think he was the best curve ball hitter I ever saw."

Ray played ball into the 1960s and was inducted into the Door County League Hall of Fame in 1992.

Ray remembers that, "Without fail, we practiced two times a week. During the final games, we'd practice three times a week. Playing experience is the foundation of the game."

Jake added, "It was sport and social activity. We had no television, or almost none. No distractions. We played from the end of April until season end at the first of September."

Jake played on the Island team from 1946 to 1960. He thinks he played in every game between 1950 and 1960. Laughing he said, "And all in center field! It was fun."


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