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The days of the A's

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 11:18 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Aug. 22, 2014 12:33 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Submitted photo)
Darin Tisdale walks up to the ball park in Watkins for a Newton A’s game played in the 1990s. Tisdale was one of the few high school players who played for the A’s.
Caption
(Submitted photo)
Joe Blake bats for the Newton A’s in a game against Arlington, Neb., in Westphalia, Iowa in 2000. Blake was one of the A’s key players during the team’

The year was 1973. Doug Swanson was 20, long-haired and wanted a place to play baseball. In order to ensure himself a future on diamonds scattered across central Iowa, he seized an opportunity to take over the Kellogg Cardinals, a collection of ball players a few miles down the road from his hometown of Newton and a team that had won a state championship 18 years prior. 

The following summer, Swanson, affectionately called ‘Swanny’ by his peers, moved the team to Newton. During the next 27 years, Swanson changed the way baseball was viewed and experienced by handfuls of college, minor league and even a few future major league players. 

Whether the town team was semi pro, summer league or an incredibly skilled beer-league bunch, fun times and great baseball defined the Newton A’s.

Tom Sharp (Newton A from 1982-early '90s): I wish I could take you back and along for the ride just so you could see what it was like.

Scott Kickbush (Newton A from 1989-2000): It was 10, 12 years of some of the most fun summers I’ve ever had.

Doug Swanson (Newton A player/manager from 1974-2000): I could talk for five or six hours about this. One hundred hours probably.

Denny Barton  (Urbandale High School baseball coach, Newton A from 1974-mid '80s): For me personally, and I think I can speak for (former players) Nelly (Larry Nelson), Jake (Lowell Jacobsen) and Worm (Jerry Sears), it was the most fun time of my life.

Lowell Jacobsen (Newton A from 1975-1990): I was supposed to play for them in 1973. The team was over in Kellogg and I didn’t know much about them. A guy I played high school ball with was playing for them and he called wanting to know if I wanted to play. Well, I had a summer job that took up a lot of my time. I decided I wanted to make money, which it wasn’t good money but it was more money than I’d ever made before. Had I known then what I knew later, I definitely would’ve played. It was a lot of fun playing for the A’s.

Ed Johnson (school principal, Newton A from 1987-1992): My first memory of the Newton A’s is we played them, I was on a different team, and I think they just kicked our fannies and they were really good. I thought, I want to play for them. They were just really good. I thought, boy, it’d sure be fun to play for a team like that. 

Swanson: I’m a big Cardinals fan and we (Newton High School) were already the Cardinals. That was when the A’s were in their heydays, ’72, ’73, ’74, when they won three World Series in a row. I kind of liked the way they did things and they had long hair and stuff, mustaches. As a matter of fact, as a side note, they used to call me Catfish because we played Williamsburg one time, and I had the fu manchu, we had the A’s uniforms. We go to the bar after the game and some old man sitting there says, ‘Hey, you’re Catfish Hunter.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah I am.’ He said, ‘What are you doing in town?’ I said, ‘Well, we’re on our way up to play the Twins. We just thought we’d stop and play your town team on the way up there.’ ‘Oh, OK, have a beer.’ So anyway, that’s why we became the A’s. 

The team was originally comprised of mainly local talent, area college players looking for playing time in the summer. As years passed and word spread, the A’s became an all-star collection of central Iowa baseball players.

Swanson: It started out, the year I had the team in Kellogg, it was mostly Newton kids and then in ’74, a buddy of mine, Denny Barton, who is the Urbandale high school coach, he had played at Simpson for a year and then went to Drake. 

Barton: I was playing at Drake and Swanny knew me and was interested in two or three of the Drake players who were really good players: Mike (Zelenovich), Dave Roberson, Roger Busse, guys that were just around for the summer.

Swanson: When we moved to Newton, it was Drake’s last year of baseball. So Bart had called — that’s how things have changed, phone-wise. He called me collect and he was in Denton, Texas and I didn’t know that. The phone call was, like, nine and a half bucks, which in 1974 was a hell of a lot of money. 

Barton: I had forgotten that phone call … Drake had dropped their program, so we knew that we were done. We go to the Missouri Valley tournament. We drove cars down there to Tulsa. I had a girlfriend who lived in Texas, I think it was El Paso. I asked Spike when this is over, do you mind I’m flying to Texas? He said, fine, thanks, good luck, because this is over. That’s when I called him. Like I said, I was a player and I said, Swanny, I’m down here and we’re done and he said, alright, you want to play for us? That’d be great. Can I get (Roger) Busse, (Dave) Roberson and (Mike) Zelenovich? I said, yeah, I’ll talk to them. So I was the player to be named later.

Swanson: So we got a bunch of guys from Drake that were really good. They were second in the conference that year to Tulsa, so we were pretty successful. 

Barton: Then Swanny and I were together for 20-25 years. In essence, Nelly, myself, Jerry Sears, who has passed away, Swanny, we would be kind of the original (group). Then as the years went on, Lowell Jacobson, when he got released from the Mets…

Jacobsen: I started in 1975, right after I got released from the Mets … A friend of mine, a former teammate, Paul Mills, that I played with at Grand View, he was playing in Newton. He gave me a call and said, I’ve got a ball club that you could play for if you want. I wanted to keep playing, so I said, yeah, I’ll play.

The A’s roster continued to develop and evolve in the late 70s and into the 80s. Tom Sharp, a Newton native and all-American player at Grand View, joined the A’s as a college player in 1982 and helped opened the door for more talent from the school in the future. Similar connections sprouted at other area colleges, such as Simpson in Indianola. Friends recruited friends, uncles suggested nephews, brothers brought brothers – seemingly all supplying supreme baseball talent. In some instances, entire baseball families, like the Blakes and the Mahoneys, dawned the A’s uniform.

As the talent improved, so did the A’s record. 

Swanson: In 28 years, our record is 652 and 255, so that’s about 400 games over .500.

Troy Plummer (Grand View University Athletic Director, Newton A from 1988-1999): It was ridiculous. We won almost all the time. The only time we didn’t win was if one of our pitchers couldn’t show up and somebody else had to pitch. If we had our team together, we pretty much won just about all the time.

Tisdale: Growing up as kid, I’d always gone out there, so I knew them. My dad and I used to go out to the games and watch, sit in the dugout and talk to Swanny while the games were going on … Whoever they were playing, they seemed to dominate. When you’re a little kid, you always like to watch guys hit home runs and I just remember watching those guys hit ball after ball out of the ball park onto the road (beyond) Eversman Field, which are pretty long shots, so that was impressive as a little kid. Some of the pitchers, they were really good. They threw hard and it was strike out after strike out. 

Brian O’Connor (University of Virginia baseball coach, pitched against the Newton A's in tournaments in Westphalia, Iowa): They were huge. It was like pitching against the Oakland A’s. I’m serious … They had quite an impressionable lineup. 

Jeff Judkins (Newton A from 1995-2000): I had played in Des Moines, in that league for a couple years and we’d actually played against the A’s a couple of different occasions … Generally, we took a pounding. The teams I played on, we always, and I played against them a couple different times, but we generally had it handed to us. Either the pitchers we were facing or the lineup of hitters that Swanny put on the field — there weren’t too many close games I can remember playing against them. 

Rick Heller (University of Iowa baseball coach): I played Legion ball in Ottumwa when I was growing up and so the first experience I had with the Newton A’s was our Legion coach would have them come down and we would play them before our state tournament so we could face some better, quality competition heading into the tournament … They always had a lot of good players and that was my first memory is that they had some really good players. That’s obviously why our coach wanted us to face them so we could get ready to go.

O’Connor: I’ll just tell you this, I had a tough time against them. I just remember one time pitching against them and honestly, I felt like I was facing a team that was one of the better college lineups that I would face. I pitched in the College World Series in ’91 and pitched against some great ball clubs throughout my college career and I felt like I was facing one of the more legitimate lineups that I had faced in my pitching time.

Barton: Some years we were more competitive than others, depending on who Swanny could find. Then at a certain point in time … he got a hold of the Blake family. All the Blakes played for us, every one of them. There were four boys, three of the four played professionally and Joey should have. (Heck), Casey (Blake) played a couple games when he was at Wichita. Then Scott Kickbush, he was a former pro and so that era came on board – (Ryan) Cooley, Rosie (Todd Rose) – and then Swanny got really, really good.

In six seasons from 1987 to 1992, the A’s went 159-30. The team benefitted from adding players like Kickbush, who was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1986, but had his pro career cut short due to a rotator cuff injury. Kickbush’s arrival in 1989 demonstrated how big of a draw Newton had become.

Kickbush (Newton A from 1989-2000): When I got released from the Braves, I had arm surgery and Ed Johnson said, hey, when you get done with your rehab and stuff, you ought to come play for us. I was kind of ticked off and bitter at the time and I didn’t really want to so Ed said, look, just come over and hang out. So I rode over with Ed, hung out in the dugout with Swanny and was like, as soon as I’m healed up, Swanny. I mean, he’s just that type of person. He’s just an amazing, amazing man.

The biggest reason I didn’t want to play was they had this Des Moines league and I saw the teams from the Des Moines league that played, some of the players they had (and) I just didn’t want to play that type of baseball. When I went over and saw Newton play and Swanny and all those guys, they were up here, they were good. So I’m like, alright, I’ll play this.

At certain times, we had college all-Americans playing for us, we had four or five guys who played minor league ball, guys throwing for us that played professionally. You had to be pretty good to crack the lineup. There were a lot of guys that wanted to play for us, but talent-wise couldn’t.

Tim Mahoney (Newton A in '90s): If you grew up in central Iowa and were looking for a summer town team, you wanted to play for the Newton A’s … because of the level of talent that was there. You started to see who ran through there.

Heller: I would agree with that. That was back before the Northwoods league. There were really few collegiate leagues out there. You had the Jayhawk League and then the Cape and the main ones, but there weren’t many places or options for the college player to play. Not only did he (Swanson) have his share of good college players, but he had a lot of guys that had a played at a high level in college and even some former pro guys who would come back, so the mix of talent was pretty awesome.”

Kickbush was one of 33 Newton A’s that signed a professional contract to play baseball. Four players — Casey Blake, Mike Mahoney, Darrell Einertson and Kory DeHaan — made it to the majors. 

Ryan Cooley (Two-time state champion baseball coach at West Des Moines Valley, Newton A in '90s): The thing that I remember most is how much experience and success everybody had that played for the A’s. If you didn’t, you didn’t play. You maybe played a game and that was it. It wasn’t like Swanny didn’t want you to come back or told you not to come back. You figured it out. I mean, you’re a three-hole hitter for a Division I or II school and then you come down to us and you’re going, holy cow, I’m hitting eighth and I probably shouldn’t be hitting in this lineup.

Mahoney: There was never a lack of advice, and good advice mind you, as it related to playing baseball. 

Tisdale: I thought it was pretty interesting to play with some guys who made it to the major leagues. Like Casey Blake and Mike Mahoney, I can remember those guys being around, they were just out of college and hadn’t made it to the Bigs yet, and just to know what they looked like before they got to that level, that was interesting to see up close. At the time, you’re thinking, yeah, he’s a good player, and the next thing you know he’s on TV playing. 

Success became a problem for the A’s in the mid-90s. After routinely playing more than 30 games a season in the late 80s and early 90s, the A’s managed only 19 games in 1995. Opponents were hard to come by, and as Kickbush described it, “It got to the point where teams in central Iowa wouldn’t play us anymore because we just kicked the (crap) out of them...”

To counter their problem, the club joined the Iowa Valley League. Despite continued success on the field — the A’s were league champions in 1997 and state champions in 1998 — the travel involved with weekly trips to eastern Iowa, along with age, played roles in the end of the A’s. The team’s final season was 2000.

Ben Blake (Simpson College baseball coach, Newton A from 1988-2000): Honestly, I think the end of the team was due to its location.

Joe Blake (Newton A from 1987-2000): I think with us not finding a lot of games around Newton and having to travel every weekend — we didn’t have to travel every weekend but having to travel every other weekend — it started to just get hard. It was a long day, you know?

Cooley: I know Kick was saying this was it for him and, like I said, he was kind of like the captain during my years ... It was a lot of work to be average. Too much work to be average. You couldn’t just show up and play anymore, and I didn’t have the time or desire to keep working out so that I could be average. 

Kickbush: We’d all talked about and kind of told him (Swanson) this was going to be our last year and after this year, we were done. That’s kind of when he agreed that when you guys are done, I’m done. He’d kind of always had said that. Between Ben and Joe and myself, some of the core guys that were left, when we told him, hey, this is our last year, Doug decided he was done, too.

Tisdale: Those guys had got to play together since they were young through their early-to-mid 30s, so I was hoping the team would stick together, but now that I look back I’m kind of their age now, I can understand how it ended and the timing that it did. 

Cooley: All of them at least grew out of the Newton A’s stage, because it is a stage you go through. It was a fun stage, but sometimes you’ve got to move on. 

Kickbush: I look at pictures I have, I have a bunch of them hanging in my house, I guess every time I look at them, I look at them and I see youth and I see fun and I see back when we really didn’t have any cares in life. We were just all hanging out together as a bunch of young guys having fun and doing what we really love to do. That’s how I see it to this day.

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