Watertown Legion baseball team honors WWII veterans before game

By Matt Bunke, Community Editor

For nearly 50 years, baseball was a huge part of ElRoy Vidlund’s life, first as a second baseman for Watertown’s amateur baseball team, and later, as an umpire for 25 years.

But since retiring as an umpire in 1991, Vidlund, now in his late 80s, estimates it’s been more than 20 years since he’s even thrown a baseball. So when the Watertown Post 121 American Legion team asked the World War II veteran to throw out the first pitch before the team’s home opener against Jordan, Vidlund knew what he had to do.

"I trained at home," Vidlund said shortly after strolling to the mound, tossing aside his cane and making the much anticipated pitch. "I threw three of them (at home), and then my fourth one, I tried to throw it hard and I fell down. I didn’t want to fall down out here."

Vidlund’s ceremonial first pitch was part of a bigger celebration by the Watertown Legion baseball team, which honored several local World War II veterans before Thursday’s game as part of a recognition of the anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. Brothers Harry and Hjelton Johnson, who were both a part of that invasion in 1944, were also on hand to raise the flag during the national anthem, which was sung by Harry’s granddaughter, Erin Schrupp. Legion coach Steve Hangartner said the ceremony was an effort to both remember our local veterans and to recognize the contributions the American Legion makes to the local baseball program.

"We’ve had some big wars in our country’s history, and I think a lot of people take for granted how many people fought for our freedom," Hangartner said. "It’s good to remind people. The Legion supports us, they help us out, and I think it’s important to keep that in the forefront."

Both Johnsons were excited to be a part of the ceremony before taking a front row seat to watch what turned into a thrilling 12-inning victory for the home team.

"It was an honor for me to do this," Harry Johnson said. "I love my country."

Added Hjelton Johnson, who now lives in Robbinsdale: "It’s nice to be here and just be in my hometown. It’s always nice to get back home."

While not a part of the D-Day invasion, Vidlund is also a World War II vet who was in charge of an LST 1049 in the South Pacific from 1943-46. While he did successfully stay upright during his ceremonial first pitch, his powerful toss spun him in a circle and nearly knocked him off his feet. The pitch spiked into the ground, but was thrown with enough force that it probably would have been an impressive toss had Vidlund let go a bit sooner. Hangartner later joked with Vidlund that he was just trying to throw an 0-2 pitch in the dirt to get the batter to chase.

Hangartner said he was pleased with how the whole night turned out, and especially with the crowd that came out to see the events.

"I was really impressed by how many family members came out," Hangartner said. "I thought it would maybe be just a few of them, but they filled the stands. They knew how important it was for them to come out and be recognized and honored. There were a lot of other veterans there too, guys from the legion. That was cool to see them supporting it, and we gave them a good game."