Reusse: Baseball field might be the final chapter in St. John's-St. Thomas rivalry

Patrick Reusse, Star Tribune
·4 min read

COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. – St. Thomas made the journey to Central Minnesota to test baseball skills with St. John's. The Tommies had the benefit of Fred Miller as a lefthanded pitching ace and Emmet Halfpenny as a slugger in the middle of the order.

The Tommies won 9-6, and that helped put their record at 11-2. The Johnnies' only losses came against Notre Dame and the professional Calumet (Mich.) Aristocrats.

This contest was played on May 17, 1907, a Friday afternoon, on a baseball field in St. Cloud. Lefty Miller played professionally, then went to medical school and became a physician. Halfpenny became a parish priest in Detroit.

Five score and 14 years after that first meeting, on Sunday in a modern ballpark on the St. John's campus, the Tommies and Johnnies played a ballgame with the potential to be the last for the best of rivals.

St. Thomas is making a historic move from Division III to Division I athletics in the fall. The football battles started in 1901 cannot survive that discrepancy in recruiting, nor can the basketball rivalry dating to 1907.

There could be more baseball in next month's MIAC playoffs (all league teams will participate) at St. John's. And while baseball is a sport where D-III athletes would be at a disadvantage, there was a time when the Gophers' midweek schedule featured several MIAC teams.

"You don't see that anymore because the Division I programs now emphasis the NCAA's computer ratings in their schedules," said Jerry Haugen, in his 44th season as St. John's coach. "But the Summit League is a one-bid conference, so maybe it's possible we'll play again."

Chris Olean, in his 24th season on the Tommies staff and 12th as the head coach, said: "We have our 52-game schedule done for 2022 and there are no MIAC teams, no D-III opponents. We're concentrating on a Division I schedule."

In all likelihood, the Tommies administration wants that in all sports, to amplify there's a new Division I program in town.

"Are you playing the Gophers next season?" Olean was asked.

Answer: "I can't answer that until the schedule is released."

St. Thomas became coeducational. St. John's shares classes with nearby, all-women St. Benedict, but it remains all-male, which is why the 120-year rivalry is framed in those terms.

The new look of Johnnies-Tommies baseball since this ballpark opened in 2013 is stunning, even for the coach who shared the honor of the name — Haugen Field at Becker Park.

"We had two previous baseball fields, and the first was way over there by the trees in the northwest corner of campus," Haugen said. "The sun never got in there. It was the last place in Stearns County where the snow melted."

Haugen was a player for the Johnnies when Tom Feely, basketball coaching legend, also was coaching baseball for St. Thomas.

The Johnnies would harass Feely unmercifully when he brought his powerful basketball teams here to play in Rat Hall. Then, in the spring, the Johnnies would bring their beer and gather by the woods to be even better heard by Coach Feely at ballgames.

It was bad enough when Feely's son Pat, father of placekicker Jay, was targeted with a "Daddy" chant as the Tommies point guard. It was worse when he was the center fielder and got in the batter's box.

The Johnnies won the first football game in 1901 and what now stands as the last in 2019, with a record of 53-35-1 vs. the Tommies.

The Tommies won the first basketball game 22-16 on Feb. 2, 1907, and won both meetings in the COVID-condensed 2021 schedule. The records are incomplete until 1932, with the Tommies are 117-58 since then.

Baseball is also unknown, but it's the Tommies that have NCAA titles in 2001 and 2009. In hockey, dating to the 1920s, the official record favors the Tommies by 108-53-16. They also leave the division with more hockey wins, 1,190, than any other D-III team.

Haugen, always a defensive assistant in football to go with baseball, said: "We're going to have a great games with longtime opponents in the MIAC, but the feeling you get any time you're going to play the Tommies — football, of course, but baseball, basketball, heck, tennis …

"I don't know how we're going to replace that."

Footnote: The Tommies completed a three-game weekend sweep with a 7-3 victory Sunday. The Johnnies were left hoping for another last shot in the MIAC tournament here May 19-22.

Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing sports@startribune.com and including his name in the subject line.