The success of 1978 carried the Norsemen into the 1979 season with a belief that big things were just around the corner for the team. They were the league runner-up and looked forward to building on that strong showing. They entered the new season hoping to bring a league championship home to St. Paul’s Midway Stadium.
It even seemed like their two-year quest to be recognized had also turned a corner. Team games were scheduled to be broadcast on the radio on WWRD 1130. Channel 5 had agreed to tape a June game against the Milwaukee Schlitz and broadcast it locally the next day.
The team remained as busy as it had ever been, planning a dozen new promotions and signing new players.
One of the most heralded signings for the 1979 season was pitcher/infielder Bob Lurtsema. “Benchwarmer Bob” retired from the NFL after a long career in 1977, and although he came to the Norsemen without the softball pedigree of his teammates, his time playing football proved he was an upper echelon athlete.
Following his retirement from the NFL, Lurtsema continued to attract local celebrity attention. allowing the Norsemen to engage in cross-promotional activities previously unavailable to them. His commercials for Twin Cities Federal Bank featured him in his softball uniform after he signed with the Norsemen.
A consummate showman, local news outlets reported that he'd struck out his wife six times during an indoor workout before the season.
Lurtsema revealed that he had four pitches in his repertoire, “slow, slower, rolling.” The fourth pitch affectionately referred to as “The Benchwarmer,” but kidded that it would never get into the game. While he joked, Lurtsema took his decision to play seriously. He didn’t “want to look like a big overgrown (man) in a game where he doesn't belong.”
The radio and television agreements, as well as the signing of Lurtsema, gave the Norsemen a chance to bring in new fans like never before. Doran hoped to capitalize. He spent $35,000 in advance promotions hoping to see six-thousand fans make their way to the park to see the team’s third season home opener.
There were newly implemented league-wide rule changes to attempt to speed up the game. The outfield fences, once required to be 300 ft. from home plate were now to moved back to no closer than 315 ft. Home runs were exciting, but they slowed the game down. Also, each of the bases, previously 65 ft. apart, were moved to 70 ft.
The league’s plan for the new season was to showcase its athletes, not just it home run kings. Forcing teams to be aggressive instead of relying on home runs to win was a big step in that direction. New Norsemen’s Manager Rick Finke applauded the moves, saying that his team would be aggressive from the first pitch through the last.
A reported crowd of 1867 came out to see the Norsemen open at home against the Rochester Zeniths. Doran was disappointed in the poor turnout. It was a rough weekend for the Minnesota team on the field as well. While their new star pitched in each of the four games of the series, he was the losing pitcher each time.
Unfortunately, the Norsemen wouldn’t benefit from a home field advantage in the season’s early going. The team lost their first eight games at home, finally winning a game against the Cleveland Competitors the second week in June. In spite of the slow start at home the team still managed to be successful, winning nearly as many games as it lost by the season’s halfway point.
The fan support that the team had worked so hard to bring in each season had once again alluded them. Questions arose about the team's willingness to stay in operation while it continued to lose money. The Norsemen had the financial backing that Joe Houle’s Goofy’s lacked, but the constant business losses still took their toll.
According to local newspapers, each road series cost the team $5500 and consistently falling short of the three-thousand fan break even point at home was a losing proposition. Doran remained steadfast, saying that he “ha(d) a $200,000 investment, and (he) intend(ed) to keep this going until this (was) a winner.” The Norsemen were one of the top three financial teams in the league, and in the eyes of the owner, would be all right in the end.
A July home series against the defending champion Detroit Caesar’s seemed to offer Norsemen faithful a slight glimmer of hope about the team’s financial future. It was reported that 5413 fans came out to see the team take on the Caesar’s. Never one to pass on a promotional opportunity, that day Doran and the team airdropped silver dollar coins onto the field. Fans sixteen and under were invited out to grab the coins.
However, the coming out party for the team was soon after branded a fake by the local newspapers. According to their informal head counts reporters tallied only 2200 fans were in attendance, a number that included children and pets. The parking attendants also accounted for exactly five-hundred and twenty-eight cars, making it nearly impossible for more than five thousand fans to have been in attendance.
Described as an “insult to the intelligence of those who were there,” the deception virtually knocked the team out of the newspapers. Local coverage, already waning, became nearly non-existent from that point on.
On the field, the team that was so dominant for much of 1978 couldn’t seem to put it together in 1979. They finished the season 32-32 and missed the playoffs. The Milwaukee Schlitz beat the Kentucky Bourbons five-games to-three to win the league championship.
The ASPSL would continue one additional season before folding; however 1979 would be the last for the Minnesota Norseman. They left the league after the season ended.
Former Goofy’s owner Joe Houle’s 1977 proclamations for Midway Stadium never came to be. The stadium, long considered to be an unprofitable “white elephant” in Saint Paul, was demolished in 1981 to make way for a 106-acre industrial park complex.
Part III in a three part series
- "1977-1979 Minnesota Goofy's & Minnesota Norsemen." Fun While It Lasted. Last modified November 21, 2012. https://funwhileitlasted.net/2012/11/21/1977-1979-minnesota-goofys-minnesota-norsemen/.
- Levy, Paul. "Norsemen: Playing pro ball isn't always a soft job." The Minneapolis Star, May 1, 1979, 3B.
- Soucheray, Joe. Minneapolis Tribune, March 19, 1980, 3C.
- Star Tribune (Minneapolis). "Coach Doran puts it all on the line as Norsemen open season tonight." n.d. 3C.
- Weiner, Jay. "West St. Paul's Winfield accepts the obscurity of amateur baseball." Minneapolis Tribune, September 4, 1979, 2C.
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