Beaner Ball: How Wayne Flaten left his mark on Kenyon baseball

wayneflaten

The Kenyon Leader file photo: This story appeared in the Feb. 21, 2013, edition of The Kenyon Leader

By JOSH BERHOW

Up until a couple of years ago, the photo had sat undisturbed, discarded in the same storage closet for half a century.

There it collected dust, losing relevance but building sentimentality to the man who would uncover it in the future.

Unbeknown to him, Jeff Flaten moved the photo in October 2010 when he transferred a nondescript envelope from a box in the closet of his grandparents’ home on 534 Forest St. in Kenyon, along with other sports memorabilia that belonged to his father, to his house in Dennison.

There the photo continued to sit, neglected like it was for 50 years prior. It didn’t surface again until Jeff stumbled upon it on Feb. 8. The smell of the closet’s wood shelving still lingered on the envelope.

Jeff admits he was inexplicably drawn to the collection of black and white photos in the yellow Bergh Drug envelope. Looking back he says it might have been luck.

Wayne Flaten, Jeff’s dad, was in several of those images, but it was one in particular that caught Jeff’s eye, almost as if he was supposed to find it.

Wayne, as a toddler, is playing outside on the Strandemo farm south of Kenyon. He’s wearing a white baseball cap and overalls and resting a cut-down baseball bat on his shoulder, unknowingly mirroring a batter patiently waiting for a pitcher to deliver. His gaze was on a subject outside the picture’s border.

In the photo, which is in remarkable condition considering its age, Wayne is smiling. Looking down at the photo of his father taken some 70 years ago, Jeff, naturally, smiled right back at him.

Wayne Flaten, otherwise known as “Beaner,” was a baseball junkie from the beginning.

* * * * *

The man who started Kenyon’s American Legion baseball program — leading Post 78 to three of its four state tournament appearances — who coached the Kenyon High School team and was a player on the now-defunct amateur team, the Kenyon Kayes, was a major part of the town’s baseball history.

On Feb. 1, seven days before his oldest son uncovered that photo of him, Wayne passed away at age 70. His sons Jeff and Jay and long-time friend Bob Fielitz were with him when he passed at Faribault Senior Living.

Kenyon baseball, quite frankly, wouldn’t be the same without Wayne.

“He was a pretty neat guy,” Jeff said. “All the stories he could tell; I wish he had written a book.”

Wayne’s passing not only provides a time to reflect on his impact on Kenyon baseball, but also on the history of Kenyon and some of its teams. Perhaps no one was more immersed in all levels of Kenyon baseball — high school, legion and the Kayes — than Wayne.

Part One: The Kenyon Kayes

The Kayes, who Wayne played for and his uncle, Kenny Strandemo, managed for most of their existence, were a big draw in their time.

Carl Finnesgaard joined the Kayes as a catcher in 1951 when Lorry Ugland was the manager and the team was in the Southeastern Minny League. He caught for the team until 1954 — a year after Doc Hiner took over as manager — before he joined Benson’s team in the West Central League, electing to play for $30 a game instead of for Kenyon, which had no home games that year due to field renovations. After serving in the army in 1956 and 1957, Finnesgaard returned to Kenyon and caught for the Kayes in 1958 and 1959.

He still remembers when consecutive rainouts forced the Kayes to play a tripleheader on the Fourth of July in 1952. Finnesgaard caught all 23 innings that day — one nine-inning game and two seven-inning contests — and recalls that his muscles started to burn in the 21st inning.

“It was a fun league,” Finnesgaard said. “They had older guys, most ex-GIs, and then had us younger guys. We had about 15-16 guys suit up a lot of times.”

Howard Held, Dick Werdahl, Claire Kispert and Ray Strandemo all pitched in the Kayes’ tripleheader that day.

A portion of the Kayes’ roster was made up of teachers and even some high school players. Finnesgaard first played on the team as a 16-year-old sophomore in high school, finding time to play not only on the Kayes but on the high school team and the Faribault American Legion squad as well. (Kenyon didn’t have a Legion team until Wayne Flaten started one, so many Kenyon players competed for Faribault’s Legion team.)

When Kenny Strandemo took over as the Kayes’ manager in 1958 — the same year the Kayes joined the Century League — he and his wife, Gladys, treated days at the ballpark more like family gatherings than games.

They would tote a popcorn stand to the field, and they’d also bring a full size milk can of fresh water from their farm for the team to drink.

“Kenny was the energy, he was the source of the team,” said Mark Strandemo, Kenyon’s current Legion baseball coach. “That baseball team existed because of him. He was kind of the backbone. As a manager, he really set up baseball in Kenyon for 30-40 years.”

Mark has many fond memories of those days. Mark was Kenny’s nephew and also Wayne’s cousin, and he graduated from Kenyon High School 13 years after Wayne did.

As a bat boy for the Kayes, Mark, then about 10 years old, remembers chasing foul balls across the road and into the cornfield and returning them in exchange for a dime. Players would give him broken bats, too, many of which he still has today.

According to records, Wayne Flaten first played for the Kayes in the early 1960s. The exact years the Kenyon Kayes started and ended has been lost to time, but there is evidence of the team playing as early as the 1920s. According to former players the team folded in the 1970s.

Part Two: All in the Family

Wayne, who spent 32 years as an elementary teacher, many of them in the Faribault School District, was born in Faribault in 1942, the only child of Ernest and Alvina Flaten.

He grew up in Kenyon with a slew of equally athletic and talented cousins, the Strandemos.
Wayne’s uncle Kenny made his mark on the Kenyon baseball scene by coaching the Kayes, and Kenny’s farm in Moland, just southwest of Kenyon, was a baseball mecca for family members during the summer.

Kenny was one of the first in the area to own an Iron Mike pitching machine, and just off the driveway they used telephone poles and light poles to form a large rectangle for the structure’s border. Hundreds of yards of chicken wire lined the outside and top of the cage, making the batting cage both state-of-the-art and rustic.

All of the cousins, including Kenny’s son, Steve, spent a lot of time in the makeshift cage.

“I don’t know how many spools (Kenny) went through to wrap it,” Mark said. “It was quite the thing in its day.”

Part Three: The Rise of a Legion

What Kenny Strandemo started for Kenyon baseball was finished by his nephew, Wayne. Both cared for Picha Field as if it was a sibling.

“Wayne loved Picha Field,” said Ken Alderman, who was Wayne’s varsity assistant. “That came down from the Strandemos, they took care of that. It was a beautiful field.”

Lawrence Picha, who the field is named after, actually had Wayne as a student in his industrial arts class in high school. When Picha passed, his field didn’t deteriorate. There were those who wouldn’t let it.

“My dad took care of that field like it was his own,” Jeff said. “He meticulously took care of it. It was probably one of the best fields in southeastern Minnesota.”

Alderman remembers Wayne going through a relatively simple thought process in the time leading up to him beginning Kenyon’s Legion program. The weather in Minnesota during April and parts of May is rotten. Snow. Cold. Rain. Why not start a Legion team for the summer?

Wayne coached Kenyon High School from 1970-78 and again from 1982-84, and he also introduced Kenyon’s first Legion squad in 1970. He led Post 78 to state tournament appearances in 1971, 1972 and 1974. Kenyon’s Legion didn’t advance to state again until 2011, when it went under Mark Strandemo, who happened to play on the 1971 and 1972 teams.

“I guess you could say they played ‘Beaner Ball,’” Jeff Flaten said. “If he didn’t have the athletes to win and play with the big boys he would produce runs. He liked to bunt and run and steal bases. He taught the fundamentals and expected his players to perform the fundamentals.”

Alderman remembers Wayne as a laid-back coach who had a good relationship with the players. Wayne’s players respected him as well as the game and their field, and the way the players walked to the storage closet, grabbed rakes and started manicuring the field on their own after every home game was evidence of that.

What’s interesting is that in his years at Kenyon, Wayne never coached his sons at the varsity level. Jeff played baseball through middle school before joining the golf team. Wayne retired for good the year before his youngest son, Jay, was set to play varsity baseball. Wayne decided it was a great chance for him to sit back, watch from the stands and finally have an opportunity to really take the game in.

Part Four: Baseball Today

In a tribute to its first-ever coach, the Kenyon Legion team will have a different color scheme this summer. The team is changing from black and red and reverting to its maroon and gold colors it wore when Wayne coached, the same colors the Kenyon Vikings sported before they consolidated with Wanamingo.

The team also plans to retire Wayne’s jersey.

Nowadays, Jeff doesn’t have a hard time finding mementos that remind him of his dad. He has photos, some of his dad’s memorabilia — including an old, wool No. 5 Kayes jersey — and several newspaper clippings. One of his favorite clippings, from an old, faded issue of The Kenyon Leader, quotes his dad promoting that year’s baseball team.

“Come up and see us!” it reads. “We make the same mistakes like the big teams (the Twins), but you can watch us for nothing.”

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