Athletics: Whittling away at the writings of Woodrow
John Woodrow has been the eyes, ears and voice for Aitkin High School sports fans for more than 40 years.
The 69-year-old columnist, public address announcer, radio play-by-play voice and now author has lived the glory days of amateur baseball and witnessed the many great teams and athletes to come out of Aitkin.
The husband of Barb of 44 years and father of Aaron, Woodrow talks about his most recent endeavor, his new book.
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Q: You recently published a collection of your work for the Aitkin Independent Age called "Well Folks." How long have you been thinking about doing this and talk to me about the process of writing a book?
JW: I had been thinking about it for quite a while, but when I had a heart event a few years ago my wife Barb and our good friend Margie Burman thought I should speed up the process if I was going to do it. Margie and I spent five months in the basement of the Independent Age going through all 2,200 columns that I had written to pick out the best ones for the book. Then we used the services of Mat Nix at the Aitkin County Historical Society and friend Laura Thornbloom to put it into book form and Ruth Lofgren to proofread and we had a book. Jeff Tidholm of Tidholm Productions then contacted a company in Duluth and they printed it for us. It was pretty cool and I think it turned out great.
Q: What is the book about and what can readers expect?
JW: The book is basically a history of Aitkin sports over the past 50 years and more and includes a lot of childhood memories growing up in Aitkin. It mentions a lot of athletes and coaches and townspeople so it has interest for a lot of readers.
Q: You talk about the glory days of amateur baseball and mention some pretty recognizable names like Connie Lueck and others from Aitkin and the surrounding towns. Talk about what Sundays at the baseball fields were like back then?
JW: Sunday baseball was what we did in the early '60s. If you didn't have a place on the lake you were looking for something to do and what better than baseball? I started being batboy for Aitkin and hall of famer Bill Cline. He was truly a legend and no better person to learn the game from. Players came and went over the years from Nisswa, Brainerd, Jenkins, they all knew and respected Bill. Stores were closed on Sunday for the most part so the ballpark was the place to be.
Q: The Victory League is still a thriving amateur baseball league with teams from Pierz, Fort Ripley, Nisswa and Aitkin, but it just doesn't seem like it will ever compare to the days you describe in the book? What's missing?
JW: I don't think it will ever be great again, not like it was. There is so much for young players to do; they don't really want to commit to a full summer of baseball. It is coming back a little with the Steam, but I don't think we will ever see it as popular as it once was. Families and other fans made it a happening every Sunday back in the day.
Q: I really like your references to players from other towns. Former Pequot Lakes sports writer Wayne "Wheaties" Wallin, especially. Like you, Wheaties did a great job documenting Patriot athletics. Did you ever run into him while you both were covering your hometown teams?
JW: I truly think he was such a legend on the diamond. He spent a career hitting shots against us. He hit the ball so hard. Later when he started covering Pequot Lakes athletics we reconnected and had lots of fun watching sports, mostly at the expense of the Gobblers. I had a chance to introduce him to Margie Burman, Bill's daughter, a few years ago at a basketball game and it was fun to see them interact and talk about baseball. He is certainly missed in the area.
Q: The Aitkin High School baseball team is one of the more consistently good programs in the area. What's the feeling like in the town for that program? Is there a rebirth of baseball in Aitkin?
JW: I have watched coach Jeremy Janzen run the Gobbler program for a number of years and I see such a great respect for him from his players, coaches and our fans. I have known him since he was born and coached him in football. He expects nothing but the best from his players and he knows how to get it. This is a program that has caused a rebirth of baseball in Aitkin and he is a major cog in the machine.
Q: I have a passion for the area's sports history and you really brought Aitkin's history to life in the book. It just seemed like athletes had more fun back in the day. Do you think we as a society have sucked the fun out of high school sports with traveling teams, AAU basketball and all the other "extra" stuff kids have to do in order to be competitive?
JW: I am so old school because I think sports should be played in their respective seasons, but I am also smart enough to know that that is not the way it is anymore. If players are going to get better they have to play as much as they can, with as many teams as they can all year long. I don't care for it, but I have to live with it. That's the way it is in 2019.
Q: What are your thoughts on sports specialization and how it really affects smaller school districts?
JW: Specialization certainly hurts the smaller schools. I hate to see good athletes who could help their friends do well in other sports, but decide to just play one sport. Again I realize that's the way it is these days, but when you think about it, there are not that many athletes playing one sport that go on to play pro ball, not in our area anyway, but there are exceptions.
Q: Those who love bowling will enjoy your book. I'm not much of a bowler myself, but I did enjoy the story about when you were working late and the town cop came to investigate some late night shenanigans. How big was bowling back in the day?
JW: Bowling was very big when I was young. The lanes had just opened in the early '60s and I lived behind the bowling alley so I lived there growing up. I was pretty good back then and we had a lot of bowlers. I think it's still popular, but not to the extent of the old days. It was a situation of not much else to do so let's go bowling.
Q: Of course being a big baseball fan, you have a lot on the Minnesota Twins. Dick Bremer was a Q&A last month. What is it about the game of baseball that draws you and many others to it?
JW: I am a big fan of "Field of Dreams" and I think the game was played out very well in that movie and I can still recall James Earl Jones talking about how baseball was always the constant, no matter what was going on in the world, baseball was always there and I think that's how guys like Mr. Bremer and I feel. It's a simple game. See the ball. Hit the ball. Bright sunshine and a ballfield, no better place to be.
Q: You do a bit of name dropping in the book? Who is the most famous person you've interviewed or talked to because of your job?
JW: I have been lucky over the years to talk to some pretty great people, some great athletes, some great people. How about Andre the Giant, Vern Gagne and Joe Frazier? So many Twins over the years, including Kirby Puckett. Hockey player Bobby Hull and Herb Brooks, but the two best in my estimation were George Brett at the old Metropolitan Stadium and Hockey's Gordie Howe in the lobby of the old Civic Center in St. Paul. I talked to him near the ice and he said to meet him upstairs after practice so I went there expecting him to just blow me off, but he showed up and I was so excited, after all, I was just a small town guy. I was very impressed.
Q: You mention some of the great teams and athletes you've seen while covering Aitkin. The Braham basketball teams of the early 2000s being one of those. If you had to pick an all-star basketball team, could you?
JW: You know I could but I would most certainly leave someone out so I never would. I have asked coaches to do it over the years, but they aren't doing it either. You and I have been so blessed to see so many good ones over the years, me probably more than you since I'm a lot older, but you know what I mean. It's a treat every time I get to watch high school athletes doing their best.
Q: Each of the towns I cover has their own culture and of course Aitkin is no different. Talk to me about what it means to be a Gobbler—the little things that make it so special for you.
JW: Someone told me a couple of years ago, 'you have seen more Aitkin Gobbler basketball games than anybody alive' and I thought it was pretty nice of them to say until I realized that the reason is that I have covered them for so long and am nearly 70 years old. I wish I had a solid answer for this, but it's in my heart and you can't put it into words. I have been an Aitkin Gobbler for my entire life and for me there is nothing better. It's walking into the gym or onto Woock Field, it transforms you to a special place. Small towns are the greatest.
Q: You've been in Aitkin most of your life, did you ever want to or think about going to a bigger market? What brought you back to Aitkin and kept you there all these years?
JW: I have had opportunities to move on to bigger markets, but I just couldn't pull the trigger. Andy Griffith once said on his show, 'I could move to a different place, but I would just find out that what I wanted was back home anyway.' I was born here. I'll die here, no regrets. Burt Lancaster from "Field of Dreams" again, sorry.
Q: I've made a lot of really good friends that I probably wouldn't have ever met were it not for this job. Who are a few of the people that have made covering Aitkin athletics worth it?
JW: I have met so many great people who have helped me over the years. I patterned my column after the great Ralph Anderson from Detroit Lakes and Don Riley from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. They got me started, but guys like John Davies, Truman Buisman, Billy Selisker, Lee Alto, Noel Bailey, Ron Meyer, they made my life easier for many years as they always had the information I needed every time I needed it. We covered so many teams back in the '70s and '80s, I could not have done the job without these and so many other coaches and athletic directors over the years. So many people made my book possible—athletes, family and friends. I can truly say it was a labor of love.