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Oh, Brother, What a Team

The barnstorming Fredrickson boys were a baseball sensation of the 1920s

It was a late-summer Saturday in 1929 when the famous bearded barnstorming baseball team, the House of David, arrived at the Scott County Fair in Jordan, Minn. Many of the players were members of a religious sect that practiced celibacy and did not eat meat, and yet the House of Davids were decidedly entertaining ballplayers who would later be thought of as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. The Davids' opponents that day may not be as well known in baseball history, but they were an equally odd band of ballplayers. They were the 12 Fredrickson brothers, who were, in at least one way, the antithesis of their foes. They were members of a family that obviously believed in propagation; evidence of such a belief was written all over their eerily similar clean-shaven, egg-shaped faces. A game between the two teams was something of a battle of opposites.

For the Fredricksons baseball was a release from their flat-as-the-prairie lifestyle, from the boredom of working on their father's 220-acre farm in Eidswold, Minn.: Milk the cows at dawn, thrash hay under the sweltering midday sun, carry buckets of water in from the well for their Saturday-night baths before dinner and then go to sleep in a bed shared by as many as three brothers. "Playing baseball was the only enjoyment my brothers and I got out of life," says 78-year-old Arthur Fredrickson (Arthur and his brother Edwin, 93, are the only surviving members of the team). "There was literally nothing else to do."

There was, of course, at least one other thing to do, which was apparent from the size of the Fredrickson clan. Besides the 12 baseball-playing brothers (Fred, Martin, Axel, William, Nels Jr., Joe, Edwin, Otto, Soren, Walter, Herman and Arthur), there were two other brothers, one of whom died in infancy, and four sisters (Hattie, Minnie, Elizabeth and Rose). In 1927, Otto, the aptly named eighth brother, corralled his male siblings and persuaded them to band together as a traveling amateur baseball team.

Because there were enough of them for a full ball club—complete with first and third base coaches and a batboy—the Fredrickson Brothers Baseball Team was a local legend before it ever played a game. "When in the hell are you going to find 12 brothers, let alone 12 playing baseball together?" Arthur says. "But, don't forget, we were good enough to beat a lot of teams."

Nels Jr., who was 29 at the time and owned the general store on Main Street in neighboring Elko, supplied gray wool uniforms at wholesale prices. Wearing jerseys with the letters FB embroidered on them, white pinstripe caps with gray bills, and tattered leather shoes with triangular sets of cleats on the heels and toes, the brothers spent the next three summers driving a 30-mile circuit to play games in places like Union Lake, New Market and Northfield. They played almost every Sunday, and occasionally on Saturday, from the spring thaw until the first snow blanketed the plains, 35 to 40 games a year.

Otto, the catcher, was the team's leader and best player. "He could throw a player out from his knees before [the player] got halfway to second base," says Arthur. Herman, who once made an unassisted triple play, could slap a pitch to the opposite field as easily as he could drive the ball up the middle. Walter, a lefthanded pitcher, had a curve that "dropped off the end of a table," says Arthur. And Edwin's greatest achievement was that in three years he never struck out.

From Fred, the oldest boy, born in 1891, to Arthur, the baby, born in 1916, the Fredricksons played with a reckless abandon that belied their regimented lives back on the farm. "I remember in a game against Millersburg when Martin tackled the would-be winning run as the runner rounded third base," Edwin recalls with a smile. "That caused quite a fight."

Amateur games were rife with bench-clearing brawls in those days. Competition was all the more fierce because the winning team would take home a 60% share of the gate receipts. "I remember every game I went to was a fight," says 76-year-old Leonard Bentson, a longtime friend of the Fredricksons'. "I think that is one of the things I always remember first about the boys."

The brothers' sharpest memory, however, is of how their parents, Nels and Emelia, felt about their adventures. "They never saw one of our games," Arthur says. "When we started, they forbade us to play on Sunday. That was a day for milking the cows and relaxing, nothing physical that wasn't necessary. So they wouldn't watch us play."

Nels was a stern, lanky immigrant. He was a staunch Lutheran who amassed a small fortune carting fresh apples and beef from his farm to Minneapolis 25 miles away. He was 28 when he married the not-quite 18-year-old Emelia, a sturdy, strong-jawed Norwegian woman who gave birth to a child roughly every year and a half until she was 46. At one point the Fredricksons made up half of Eidswold's population.

Nels was set in his ways and slow to change. When one of his sons tried to teach him how to drive a car, he tried pulling back on the steering wheel, as though yanking the reins of a horse, and yelled "Whoa!" in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the car from crashing through the back of the shed in which it was housed. Although Nels believed that playing baseball on Sundays was a sin, Bentson says, "To the boys, baseball was a religion; it wasn't just a game. They were such fun to watch, not because they were that great, but because they loved it so much."

The family's passion for baseball increased as more members joined the fold. Fortunately for the latest generation of Fredricksons, there has been more support for ballplaying than Nels and Emelia offered. Nowadays it seems there are as many Fredricksons in south central Minnesota's organized baseball programs as there are lakes in Minnesota. In the past few years the number of Nels and Emelia's descendants playing youth league and amateur baseball has passed 100. The last family reunion, in 1988, had more than 500 Fredricksons in attendance, and here were eight softball teams of 10 to 15 people each.

But no team of Fredricksons has gained he fame of the original 12, and the pinnacle of the family's sporting accomplishments came that Saturday in 1929 against he House of David. Crammed into five black Model-T Fords, the brothers, their sisters and other Fredrickson fans and fanatics made the 20-mile trek from Eidswold to Jordan. Four thousand others jacked the fairgrounds, many undoubtedly attracted by the ball game. "We had a following," Edwin says, "and they were passionate. Some of them used to fight in he stands more than we did on the field."

Walter's fastball tailed away from the righthanded-hitting Davids, and his natural curveball—"I never threw it on purpose," Walter once said—went unsolved. Arthur played capably at short, Martin wasn't forced to make any game-saving tackles at third, and the brothers prevailed 4-2.

Better than the win against their more famous rivals, though, was the $400 prize money. "We stopped in New Market on the way home, and that was a mistake," Arthur remembers. "We got happier as the night went on, happy enough to take two days to drive the 20 miles home. I think we left most of the money in New Market."

The brothers no longer played together after that season. The combination of sibling rivalry and the common infighting that often follows success proved fatal to the team. "Basically we couldn't get along anymore," Arthur says. "We all wanted to be managers, so we had to break up."

Despite disbanding as a ball club, the brothers never drifted apart. None of them moved farther away than North-field, 13 miles southeast of Eidswold. Herman bought his father's farmland and built his Fredrickson Lumber & Construction business on it in 1958. And Edwin, who retired from the lumber business three years ago, still lives in a white house next to a grain silo on his parents' original property.

Arthur, peering out a window at an oak tree where his father's log cabin once stood, pauses a second when asked to tell his best memory of those summers. "It's impossible to think of just one, and it's real sad to think of any at all, because it's been hard to go to the funerals of everyone in our family," he says. "I was with my brothers, and those were the best days of my life."



Emelia and Nels (left) were such God-fearing folk that they never saw their bountiful brood play.



[See caption above.]



The House of David squad gave the Fredricksons few hairy moments and ultimately fell to defeat.