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Local Sports

The days of the A's

One of the smallest stops on the Newton A’s schedule produced some of the team’s biggest memories.

A favorite destination of the team, the Harvest tournament became a home away from home for the A’s. Played in Westphalia, Iowa, the tournament featured 16 teams and some of the best talent a couple hundred bucks could buy. Every August, local town teams joined squads from larger communities, such as Omaha and Council Bluffs, for the four-weekend festival that turned the town into a bustling baseball hub.

Troy Plummer (Grand View University Athletic Director, Newton A from 1988-99): Every year, we would play in the Westphalia tournament.

Ed Johnson (school principal, Newton A from 1987-1992): That was kind of like the pinnacle of the season. We wanted to go over there and win that.

Darin Tisdale (Newton High School baseball coach, Newton A from 1992-2000): In those games, it just kind of mattered more. You could tell they (the A’s) were more serious and they did not want to lose the games they were playing in that and they wanted to win that tournament for sure. That’s kind of what they built the whole season around. 

Lowell Jacobsen (Newton A from 1975-1990): It was our World Series so-to-speak, the highlight of our season … If we won that thing, then we had a great year. 

Johnson: That was always the one we really wanted to win for Swanny (manager Doug Swanson). It was a cool tournament and, two, you get money back.

Denny Barton (Urbandale High School baseball coach, Newton A from 1974-mid '80s): If you were to win the championship of that tournament, you had to be pretty good.

Tim Mahoney (Newton A in '90s): If you look on the map, it’s just north of Harlan, Iowa and the baseball field is on the west edge of town. 

Tisdale: We just rolled north of I-80 and …

Barton: You went to Harlan and then you took this old two-lane highway and… 

Tisdale: …drove through cornfield after cornfield after cornfield and all of a sudden, there’s this little town and a big baseball tournament.

Ryan Cooley (Two-time state champion baseball coach at West Des Moines Valley, Newton A in '90s): If you didn’t know where you were going, you weren’t finding it.

Tisdale: It was literally out, I mean, you were in the middle of nowhere.

Cooley: There was nothing in that town. Nothing.

Jacobsen: First year I went out there was in 1975 and I took the thing kind of lightly. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into. I had no idea where Westphalia was. Come to find out, it’s a town about six miles northwest of the town I was born in. I was born in Harlan, Iowa.

Scott Kickbush (Newton A from 1989-2000):  Basically., Westphalia is a church and about 15 houses and a bar, and a baseball field.

Tom Sharp (Newton A 1982-early '90s): First time you get there, you’re kind of going, OK. This is different.

Ben Blake (Simpson College baseball coach, Newton A 1988-2000): You felt like you were going back in time and playing a game in the early 1900’s. 

Kickbush: You just show up and your first impression of it is just a small town, old-time baseball park with big, wooden bleachers and a dirt infield and a big church out there. It was the quintessential small town baseball field from years ago, but they put on a great tournament. For three weekends, it was just baseball teams and their fans and guys that loved the game. 

Barton: The field itself was a classic.

Cooley: That field has been on documentaries.

Kickbush: If you look at Ken Burns’ "Nine Innings of Baseball," Westphalia is in there.

Tisdale: I was watching it when it first came out and I was like, man, that ball park looks familiar, and I re-wound it and I was like, that’s Westphalia. It was perfect.

Sharp: They had a nice, little, short field, so you just, you can’t wait to play. Anybody can hit a ball out there.

Barton: The old timers would judge home runs by how many corn rows it would go because there was a cornfield [beyond the outfield]. They would judge home runs by, ‘Oh, I bet that was a 15-rower, or a 25-rower.’

Cooley: The grandstands were covered and I always thought that was cool.

Barton: The scoreboard was an old wooden scoreboard and the kids flipped the numbers.

Johnson: Then you had a bar and you had a church. It was just great.

Doug Swanson (Newton A player/manager from 1974-2000): In right field, there’s a church, so the church steeple is up behind the fence, big, green fence, and there’s corn behind it, and there’s corn out in centerfield. There’s the fence, dugout and then probably 100 feet away is kind of like the town hall, the Klubhaus. It was the bar. 

Cooley: They had a little building that sat kind off in the cornfield, just maybe 15 feet behind the fence, and there was a church right next to the bar. I always thought that was ironic.

Mahoney: When you have, within walking distance, a bar, a dugout and a church, all within 25 steps of each other, it’s one of those places that you just have to go experience. You can walk right out of the bar, confess your sins and go play baseball.

The A’s annual trips to Westphalia, except for a few absent years in the mid '90s, created a love affair between the team and the townspeople. 

Kickbush: We looked forward to it because it was a great atmosphere and it was a tournament and we always wanted to win a tournament. Swanny had been going out there for so long with teams and so it was a big tournament to Swanny. Swanny was really popular out there. Everybody knew him and they knew he’d been coming with teams forever.

Johnson: When we would pull up, Swanny was like a celebrity. Everybody knew him and they always pulled for the A’s. That kind of struck me right off the bat.

Tony Goetz (Westphalia resident/town team player): When Newton came to town, it was like royal class.

Johnson: I think there for a while, we were the most popular team in Westphalia. I think we were, I don’t know, legends in our own mind over in Westphalia.

Goetz: Swanny and Jake (Lowell Jacobsen), those two guys, when I first started, would give me a dollar for being the bat boy. I can’t say enough about Swanny and Jake because they were my little kid heroes.

Joe Blake (Newton A from 1987-2000): All the farmers would be there. We’d show up, and they thought we were the New York Yankees. 

Goetz: Some of these guys, they kind of treated me like their little brother and I think that was the coolest thing of anything, being 10, 12 years old and have these guys come in. I’d get to wear the old Newton A’s hat and all that. 

Johnson: I mean, Swanny was just, seriously, I think he’s like a legend there. That was cool. I just remember, I hope I’m not inaccurate here, but I really think those people really wanted the A’s to win if it wasn’t a Westphalia team. 

Goetz: They were odds on favorites most years when they’d come. It just kind of mattered who Swanny got. We held the tournament in August, and some of these kids had to go back to school. He’d kind of have to reload with different talent. I would say the majority, 85 percent of the time when Newton A’s came to town, yeah, they were probably favored. They were at least favored in the top two. 

Newton claimed five titles in 12 years through the '80s and '90s. After winning the team's first Harvest championship in 1983, the A's won four in a row beginning in 1991.

In 1992, Newton won a quarterfinal game, 12-8, against the Omaha Merchants and pitcher Brian O’Connor, who has coached the University of Virginia baseball team to three College World Series appearances since 2004. Then in the semifinals, the A’s beat the Omaha Broncos and starting pitcher Brad Kaufman, who went on to a seven-year minor league career that included three triple-A stops.

Swanson: There were a lot of guys that played pro baseball. 

Plummer: You would run into triple-A guys that just got released. Professional pitchers would play in that little, bitty, small-town tournament.

Jacobsen: There was no rule that stated you couldn’t hire anybody. You could bring anybody you want.

Mahoney: None of it was illegal. You could do whatever you want. 

Jacobsen: I guess that’s what made the tournament so unique in that you never knew who you were going to face and you couldn’t take anybody lightly because it may not be the same team from what they had the week before.

Mahoney: We competed heavily during the year, but we knew we were going to run into some real talent once we got to – not real talent because there was talent everywhere – but we’d run into the more elevated talent when we got to Westphalia. Other teams would go find kids that might not have played on their team all year long and then bring them in for the Westphalia tournament.

Jacobsen: One game, this game was between us and the Souix City Saints. A guy by the name of Mike King, who had pitched in the Oakland A's system (fourth overall pick in 1980 Major League Baseball draft) ... he and I squared off out there. We scored in the top of the first and were leading, 1-0. The game is going on and on and he was striking out guys, I was striking out guys. By the end of the game, he had struck out 19 guys and I had struck out 18 and we won, 1-0. You could talk to the folks out there, there hasn't been too many 1-0 ball games out on that field.

Swanson: The guy that is the Virginia coach, Brian O’Connor, he threw against us one year back when we were on that run. He pitched for Creighton and they brought him in to throw against us. 

Brian O'Connor (University of Virginia baseball coach): I didn't pitch for them (Omaha Merchants) all summer. I guess you could say maybe that I was like a hired gun that when they went to a tournament like that, I would pitch for them.

Joe Blake: He was giving away his curveball. We told him that after the game. You could see when he was going to throw his curveball and when he was going to throw his fastball. I can’t remember what it was, but we told him about it – after we pummeled him.

O'Connor: I remember that now. That was the summer between my junior and senior year ... I don't remember any of the names of the players, but I do remember somebody coming up to me and telling me that. I really appreciated that. In college baseball, nobody would tell you that because they want that advantage against you the next time they'd face you or the next year. Those are the things that guys with experience that have played the game for a long time, have played minor league baseball, those are the little nuances of the game they pay attention to and they pick up and are really, really good at. Maybe that's why I felt like they're lineup was suffocating.

Johnson: They had, in the bracket, on one side all the Omaha teams and we’d get thrown in there and on the other side of the bracket, they’d have all the small town, local teams from that area, so like Westphalia could get in the finals or Earling, just the little towns over there.

Jeff Judkins (Newton A from 1995-2000): The late Saturday game was really what the true championship game was because it tended to have the top two teams playing one another to face off against whoever was in the other bracket, and they were generally two of the weaker teams.

Joe Blake: They would kind of make it so one of the farm teams would get into the championship, so always that second-to-the last game was the championship game.

Plummer: What usually happened for us, it was a Saturday-Sunday deal, you’d get to the semifinals on Saturday and that’s when you play the best other large team. We’d win that and then we’d go in the bar until about two o’clock in the morning and then we’d have to peal out of there and have to play the town team for the championship on Sunday.

Judkins: There were a couple different times where the opposing team would try to buy us enough drinks so that the next day we didn’t feel like playing, but it never seemed to affect us.

Johnson: We liked to have fun. We would go play and – it’s going to sound like we were a bunch of drunks, which kind of we were – but we’d sit there and drink beer and have fun with the people there and talk baseball and the history of the tournament and this and that. I think the people just liked that. We just wanted to have fun and talk to people and get along and play baseball. That’s what we did and I think the people liked it.

Goetz: They used to be ornery. That was good. 

Mahoney: Once we won it once, it was very infectious. We got a following of people there and the Newton A’s were coming to town and the Omaha team we were playing against, they wanted to get more competitive. It basically built upon itself in that we expected to go win and we also expected people to fight like hell to kick out butts

Goetz: When my father coached, it was 1983. Newton had four or five on the all-tournament team – Bill Huesman, Chris Barkus, Tommy Sharp and then of course Mark Danker, he was the MVP – he beat my father’s team that year. The final score was like 12-11. Newton was winning 12 to 7 going into the ninth. Westphalia, I believe, one guy hit a three-run homer and the next hit a solo home run, but that was the closest Westphalia got. That would be the game I would remember. My dad was mad at Swanny and Jake probably for a couple years after that.”

Cooley: I always thought Westphalia, yeah, it was great to win, but they’d have an all tournament team, so it was like going back to high school days – except there was drinking beer afterwards, and we, oh, oh gosh, we had good times in that bar. Lots of good, good times. Just laughing, talking. 

Johnson: We always seemed to find our way into a wedding reception over there, whether we were invited or not … I just remember going into some wedding receptions and trying to go in there and probably get free beer.

Mahoney: Westphalia was always, that ended up being two to three weeks of just silly fun. You literally didn’t have any care in the world. You just wanted to play baseball. As a young adult, that doesn’t happen very often. Everybody was working and everybody was trying to get started with their lives, and the fact you got to go play baseball on the weekend without a care in the world in a small town that treated you so well, it was wonderful. 

Barton: I would think Swanny would agree that the Westphalia thing was by far the most fun.

Swanson: Yeah, that was probably the most fun we had. 

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