by ADAM GRUENEWALD
It’s hard to believe Don Jorissen when he says his left arm doesn’t hurt.
The Chaska resident has had a long history of pitching after all, leading Central to the state semifinals in 1954, and also hurling in the Brooklyn Dodgers system and amateur teams in the area.
On Sunday, July 21, prior to the Cologne game against Norwood at 2 p.m. at Fritz Field, Jorissen will show his stuff, throwing out the first pitch as the 2013 Fill the Hill honoree.
Holding the gift of not only physical dominance on the mound, Jorissen, 77, also is an apt storyteller, able to recall numerous happenings from the back of his mind.
Jorissen was not always going to play baseball though.
DEVELOPING HIS TALENT
As a kid growing up in Cologne, he got his start playing baseball with his older brother, Bob.
“He insisted, if I didn’t, I’d get beat up,” said Jorissen, laughing. “If he wanted to play, I better play.”
Soon, whenever they had a chance, the two brothers would take a break from working on the 40-acre farm with older brother Myron and their parents Vernon and Sally, to walk to meet kids in Cologne to play baseball under the direction of Father Thompson at St. Bernard’s Catholic School.
Right away, Jorissen was pitching.
“I pitched most of the time,” he said. “I threw and they’d get out of the way. I threw pretty fast in those days, even when I was younger.”
Jorissen did learn the curve ball in high school, but still depended on his fastball, relying on the instruction from former coach Edgar Braun.
“The thing in those days was, if you threw a fastball and you struck them out, they said fire that ball, give it to em, fire that ball, that’s all they would say,” he said. “Curveball they didn’t think of and a change-up was unheard of.”
A three-sport athlete, Jorissen also played basketball and football for the Raiders, also under Coach Braun, though his time spent playing football diminished,
“Towards the end I just did the kicking, because I had to be on the farm,” he said. “We had no ride from Norwood to Cologne. We had to hitchhike or walk home. By the end, it wasn’t worth the trouble anymore.”
Baseball was always worth the extra effort for Jorissen though, as he stood out on the diamond even from his freshman year.
With Central, he led the Raiders to the semifinals of Minnesota State High School Baseball tournament in 1954.
Quick to give credit to others, he highlighted backup pitcher Charlie Krunzt and also catcher Ollie Feltmann, who, as a freshman, caught Jorissen his senior year.
“He was one of the few that could hold on to the ball,” he said. “So he was pretty good.”
The pairing worked well as Central went undefeated leading up the state tournament.
“We matched up against some of the bigger schools, you know, and the paper didn’t give us a chance,” he said. “We’d whop em 17-2 or something like that.”
In the regional final that year, which Central won 1-0, Jorissen struck out 17 while giving up one hit and two walks.
In two games at state, a 3-0 win over Lakeville and loss to Austin, Jorissen struck out 31 hitters in the two seven-inning games,
Still fresh in his mind, Jorissen recalls the loss to Austin well.
“I won’t mention who did it, but our right-fielder dropped a flyball which would have been the third out, and we would have won 2-1,” he said. “Two runs we still lost. He still apologizes to this day. He feels so bad.”
His performances aside, Jorissen credits his teammates for giving him the shot, some who he still is in touch with.
“We had a good team,” he said, mentioning centerfielder Maynard Rolf. “We had a good hitting team.”
MAKING THE MAJORS
After graduation, Jorissen was signed right into baseball by scout Jerry Flathman of St. Paul as a longshot invitee to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Flathman was running the parks and recreation league in St. Paul at the time, and did get Jorissen his shot.
“When you get scouts like (Bert) Wells out on the West Coast and (Alex) Campanis on the East Coast, they were the big time guys and ran spring training too,” he said. “So their boys got the first chance. In fact a lot of them were automatically on teams.”
RECALLING SPRING TRAINING
Jorissen’s experiences at spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., are strong, highlighted by the memory of a lifetime in 1956, when he met Jackie Robinson.
Robinson happened to be tending flower beds along Holman Stadium,
Not knowing who he was at the time, Jorissen later had a casual conversation with him about farming and Jorissen’s family farm in Cologne.
Robinson was 36 at the time, about to begin his last and final season.
“I had no idea who he was,” he said, knowing Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio from Wheaties boxes in those days.”
The recent movie, 42, brought up the memories again for Jorissen, who knew Robinson “had a bad time.”
Other chance encounters with legends like Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax or Tommy LaSorda stand out in his mind as well.
“I remember when Drysdale came in, he had married a model,” he said. “Everybody stopped and looked. Who’s that guy, you know?… He was pretty good.”
Jorissen recalls seeing Mantle late in his career, once during practice at Holman Stadium where they got the afternoon off to watch his game.
“He came up to bat and it was the third inning,” he said. “They had a kid throwing who was throwing bullets. Just fast. Mantle took the first two strikes, then he got a handful of dirt, rubbed the bat. Kid fires another one down the middle, and they had kind of a built-up fence out of dirt out there and they had palm tress on top. Right behind the pitcher where they could see the balls coming in they had a big pipe erection thing with canvas over ground. He hit that ball and it went right over the canvas and right over the top. Mantle turns around and walks to the dugout and the announcer says ‘that will be all for Mr. Mantle today.’ So a kid comes out and runs the bases for him. It was good.”
Despite the unique baseball experiences, being away from home was difficult for Jorissen, especially around Easter time.
“They had a big bucket of colored eggs and that was about it for Easter,” he said. “We went to church that morning. Took a bus into church. Came back in the afternoon.”
Coaches said they would take it easy, but Jorissen and his teammates ran for five hours.
“The next morning, we came down for breakfast and the back of our legs hurt so bad,” he said. “It was like you had knives in there. We had to walk on our tiptoes. So all these coaches are sitting there by the breakfast table, laughing and seeing us come in.”
Once at practice, coaches joked again they would take it easy, sending the group around the park twice full speed.
“By the time we got to first base, it got real hot,” he said. “The pain went away. It got real hot and that was it… They didn’t worry about your arm being in shape. They worried about your legs being in shape and then your arm would come.”
A total of about 750 athletes battled for 250 spots on 16 teams in spring training, but Jorissen would prove himself from his first year in 1955.
PLAYING IN THE MINORS
After spring training, Jorissen was first flown to Chicago, where the plane then refueled and then flew to Great Falls Electrics of the Pioneer League in Montana.
“We got up there and we were supposed to play that night, but there was about a foot of snow on the ground, so they changed the schedule and we all went back to Boise… then we came back and it was 70 and above.”
The high altitude temperature shifts would continue to impact Jorissen, though his first year with Great Falls, according to baseballreference.com, Jorissen went 10-8 with a 3.26 ERA in 141 innings.
In his second year with the Dodgers organization, Jorissen went 1-2 for Great Falls.
“I pitched one game. It was 32 degrees,” he said. “I could feel it in the arm. I had a couple of not so good games after that. The arm hurt, so they sent me to Hornell, out in New York. It was warmer out there, and it was better too.”
With the Hornell Dodgers, he won nine games, the most notable against Olian, NY, when he had 19 strikeouts through eight innings.
“So nobody said anything,” he said, referring to traditional superstitions of not talking to the pitcher. “If they had said something, it would have been different. I could have given it a little more. They were quiet, and I thought ‘what the hell is wrong with these guys?’ Usually they’re hollering.”
Recalling the ninth inning, Jorissen got two strikes on all three batters, but got a groundout to second and two popups to second.
“If I could have given it a little more, used the curve ball a little more, but I was just fastballing them.”
Jorissen won 6 games with Great Falls in 1957 and pitched 29 innings with a 3.41 Reno Silver Sox, Nev., in 1958 before calling it quits, realizing the call to the next level wasn’t coming because the Dodgers were so strong and free agency did not exist at the time.
“That’s where I ended my season because nothing was happening so I bought my ticket,” he said, recalling the big league teams would pull from any of the leagues at any time. “Back in those days a lot of players quit because you didn’t move. You only had so many teams. A lot of people quit in those days.”
The money wasn’t nearly what it was today, of course – Jorissen’s signing bonus was $1,000 and his salary was $500 – so a lot of players barnstormed to pitch in different towns and got paid more than minor league contracts.
In the winters, Jorissen found what work he could drilling wells and also working for Minneapolis Moline.
The unique facets of the minor leagues are what stands out to Jorissen, whether it’s foggy weather turning a popfly into a home run when the ball couldn’t be found, or riding buses for seven hours. While pitchers usually sat in the spacious back of the bus when they had to pitch, those trips could be extended with engine failure, like one notable Erie, Penn., experience when Jorissen, helping out, had the bus filled up with the wrong fuel.
“It had to be 11 o’clock when we took off, and we had to ride all the way back to Hornell because we had to play the next day,” he said. “About halfway there the engine starts knocking. Every hill it got a little bit louder. Finally, boom, that was it, and it blew a piston out of the thing. We’re halfway between Erie and Hornell… We had to wait for another bus to come. Three hours later a bus came. There was always episodes like that going on.”
Also notable are Jorissen’s memories of teammates from New York City, who would travel to the Big Apple, which was 350 miles from Hornell, to check on their girlfriends. Both started the same way, with them tapping on Jorissen’s window at 5 a.m., asking if the game would get rained out.
Seeing clouds off to the west, Jorissen assumed it would rain.
“They drive all the way to New York, 350 miles, and by my luck, it rained,” he said. “If it wouldn’t have rained and we would have played, they wouldn’t have been there and they would have gotten kicked out. It rained. Two times I did it. Two times they asked and two times it rained out… At 5 o’clock in the morning, how do you know it’s going to rain late you know? But it worked and they came back and thought I had supernatural powers or something.”
Once his professional career was over, Jorissen kept pitching though for Cologne and Chaska, averaging, to some calculations, 15.5 strikeouts per game. He set a strikeout record of 21 strikeouts at the 1959 State Amateur Tournament and also recorded two no-hitters for St. Bonifacious.
“I pitched a lot of games during the week,” he said. “I pitched when I could pitch. One week I pitched seven times in seven days. My arm always felt great.”
In addition to pitching, Jorissen worked for Whirlpool in St. Paul for a few years, worked at what is now International Paper in Shakopee for 39 years as a supervisor and coached little league baseball.
Jorissen and his wife Lucy, who passed away in 1983 of cancer, also raised five kids, Steve, Mary, Judy, John and Jackie. who passed away in 2000. Almost all of them took up sports as well. He has six grandkids, whom he sees quite often. John’s son Nick, 8, just started playing little league and daughter Tara, 5, plays T-ball.
“She plays at 7 o’clock and Nick plays at 7:15,” he said. “I take in half of her game in and quickly go over and watch his half. So it keeps you going.”
Contact Adam Gruenewald at [email protected]