SABR

Arlo Brunsberg

This article was written by David Greisen.

In the 2006 New York Times #1 bestseller For One More Day, author and Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mitch Albom created a fictional professional baseball catcher named Charles “Chick” Benetto. This imaginary character collected exactly one major league hit during a late season “cup of coffee” with the Pittsburgh Pirates. A real-life ex-big league catcher who experienced a comparative career is Arlo Brunsberg, a reserve backstop who collected a single hit while with the Detroit Tigers in the final month of the 1966 season.

Born on August 15, 1940, in Fertile, Minnesota, Arlo Adolph Brunsberg was the younger of two children. Fertile, located in the upper northwest section of the state near Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota, has typically housed about 1,000 people. “It’s a big Scandanavian area and there’s a lot of Norwegians and Swedish there,” Brunsberg commented during an interview in 2010. “My grandparents moved there because farming was an easy transition.”

His father, Adolph, and mother, Alice, were laborers. “My dad was a construction worker and my mom was a homemaker. They grew up in the 1920’s and went to school only through eighth grade. It was tough back in those days,” he remarked. “There were a lot of people like them at that time.”  

Much of Brunsberg’s childhood was spent playing baseball and billiards. “We were always playing ball outside when we were kids. We’d play ball all day,” he said. “Fertile was a good place to grow up. I had a good time there, but it’s sure slow when I go back there.”

His graduating class in 1958 was 49 students. Neither of Brunsberg’s parents, nor his older sister (Allene) were sports stars; he, however, was a three-sport prep star in football, basketball, and baseball. “My dad never really played much athletics,” he commented. “I just seemed to migrate toward sports and I enjoyed them. As a youngster, it was one of those things that I just liked to do. When I got older my folks were very encouraging and very supportive.”

Brunsberg’s career as a catcher began in high school. “A lot of people don’t like catching,” he said. “It’s a dirty job, especially if you catch a doubleheader and it’s ninety-five degrees. I liked catching and still think it’s the quickest way to the big leagues, especially if you’re a switch hitter.” He was offered his first professional contract at the conclusion of his prep career. “I had an offer to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the bonus wasn’t that great and I had the means to go to college. The rule back then was: If you got $20,000 or more, it was probably worth signing. You could pay for your education if you didn’t make it or still get to go to school in the offseason.”

In the fall of 1958, Brunsberg took his diverse athletic talents locally to Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he lettered in football, basketball, and baseball as a freshman. Reflecting back on that experience, he thought, “Playing college ball wasn’t really that much different for me. The level of intensity in each sport was definitely better, but I was used to playing three sports.” Brunsberg made his first All-Conference team early in his sophomore year after starring as the football team’s halfback. His feats on the gridiron were more prodigious a year later.

“I was really doing well in football before I busted my knee,” he said. “My rushing average was really good and we were pretty good in the conference. I can’t tell you about a specific game or anything like that, but if I wouldn’t have got hurt I’m sure my junior year would have been a career year.” As it was, he led the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) in points scored, compiled the second most yards from scrimmage in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), and was the first underclassman chosen to receive the conference MVP award. Later in his junior year, he made the St. Paul Pioneer Press All-Conference basketball team. 

Brunsberg’s major milestone that spring was having knee surgery. He recalled, “I should have had surgery right away but I didn’t. I was able to play football the following year, but it was a slow rehab.”

Brunsberg’s health heading into the 1961 campaign was paramount for the football team’s success, according to the team’s coaching staff. They commented, “If Arlo Brunsberg’s knee operation heals in time and if he can maintain the torrid pace he has set the past three seasons, our prospects will be brightened considerably.” While Brunsberg’s final tour on the field was a big success – he earned All-America status for the second time and smashed the school’s career record for points scored (260) – the team struggled and finished with a losing record (4-5).

At the conclusion of his stellar four-year collegiate athletic career, Brunsberg signed a professional contract with Paul Scanlon, a regional scout from Minneapolis affiliated with Detroit. “The Tigers followed me for a couple of years, and they stayed with me. Cincinnati scouted me a lot too, but they never made me an offer. I was just lucky to sign with somebody,” he recollected.

The previous year Detroit had signed Bill Freehan, the eventual eleven-time All-Star. “He got $100,000 which was unheard of back in the sixties,” Brunsberg stated. “He was the biggest bonus boy around and he was a very good all around catcher. He was 6’4”, 220 pounds, and real strong. I did some things pretty well, but I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to be a starting catcher. I stayed with it because, boy, I liked the game. Plus, there’s always things that happen.”

Brunsberg immediately experienced the highs and lows of professional baseball during his first season in Thomasville, Georgia, and Montgomery, Alabama. “I was only there [in Thomasville] three weeks and I was hitting .330. I was tearing the league up. I was happy but they needed a catcher in Montgomery, which was also A-ball then. They sent me up and I just didn’t get going. I wish I could’ve stayed in Thomasville all year to get my confidence up and play for Gail Henley because he was good.”

For the next three seasons (1963-65) in the Tigers farm system, primarily at the AA level, Brunsberg was a fine defensive catcher who could hit for power. His breakout season occurred in 1965 with Montgomery (AA) in the Southern League. He remembered the year well. “It was so damn hot down there that I lost about 15 pounds. Every day it was about 85 to 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. I hit 15 home runs the first half of the season and I hit only two the second half. I just kept losing weight and strength and I couldn’t keep up when I was catching all the time. I turned into warning track power. I did keep my average up though, hitting .281 that year.”

The Tigers invited Brunsberg to spring training the following season, but cut him. He started the year in AAA with the Syracuse Chiefs, where he hit .202 in 42 games before returning to Montgomery. He was batting .254 when he received his September call-up from Detroit. He recalled, “I met the team in Cleveland and spent the rest of the season with them. I went to Kansas City, Minnesota, Anaheim, and Detroit. It was the greatest just to be there. You put your bags on the bus and you didn’t see them until they were in your room. There was clubhouse food. You hit white balls during batting practice. Everything was clean. You’d pinch yourself. I can’t imagine what it is now.”

Brunsberg added, “The Tigers were going for second place that year, and a lot of the rookies didn’t play much.” He saw limited action in just two games, the first occurring in the late innings of a blowout loss on September 23 against his hometown Minnesota Twins at Metropolitan Stadium. “I was 25 years old and I was as nervous as hell. You watch these guys for years and then all of sudden you’re there. It took a while to settle down.” 

Brunsberg concluded his big league career on the last game of the season, again in a substitute’s role, against Kansas City. The Tigers trailed 7-3 in the bottom of the ninth when he faced eventual Hall-of-Famer Catfish Hunter. “It was a good at-bat,” Brunsberg thought. “He had me 2-2, I think, and I fouled off two or three pitches. He tried to come inside on me, but he didn’t get it in far enough and I took him down the right field line for a double. It was ironic because my first at-bat was here in the Twin Cities against Mudcat Grant. My at-bats were against a Mudcat and a Catfish. It was like destiny or something.”

The remainder of Brunsberg’s professional career – four years – was spent entirely in the International League (AAA), mostly with Toledo. During that time, the Tigers optioned him twice to different organizations. He summarized, “I went to Columbus, Ohio, for part of one year [1967] and when Pittsburgh sent a catcher down, I went back to Toledo. Another year [1969] I was optioned to Rochester, the Orioles Triple A farm club, after spring training. I played for Cal Ripken Sr. He was a great baseball man and I loved playing for him.”

About Cal Ripken Sr., Brunsberg elaborated, “I can see how Cal Jr. could be an ironman like he was. I was catching all the time in Rochester and once I got hit in the knee. It was all swollen up and I said, ‘Cal, I can’t go.’ He said, ‘Aw, get in there. You’ll be okay.’ I said, ‘Shit, I can’t even get in a stance.’ I ended up catching nine innings because he wouldn’t let me out.”

During this latter stage of his professional career, Brunsberg continued to be a solid battery mate who regularly hit home runs; he clubbed a total of twenty-five in 599 at-bats from 1968-69. The Mud Hens won the ’67 Governor’s Cup and ’68 regular season league championship. According to Brunsberg, “Toledo was a good place to play and a lot of fun.”

While at Toledo, Brunsberg also furthered his education and upgraded his baccalaureate degree in physical education to a master’s degree at Bowling Green State University, 25 miles south of Toledo. In 1970, he served as a graduate assistant for the baseball team and also taught some activity classes before spending his final playing days as a DH and spot catcher for the Mud Hens (the IL had introduced the DH in 1969). “It was really kind of them [Tigers organization] to let me play because I pretty much talked about throwing in the towel and quitting,” he remarked.    

After his nine years in professional baseball, Brunsberg returned closer to home and was employed for more than three decades as a coach and educator. His first position, in 1971, was as head baseball and assistant football coach at North Dakota State in Fargo. “I was there for three years,” he stated. “In 1973, I got an offer to go to Blaine, a new school that opened up on the north side of Minneapolis. I took that and went there as head baseball coach and phy ed teacher. I stayed there for 30 years until I retired in 2003.”

During his playing days, Brunsberg supplemented his modest baseball salary during the off seasons in various ways. He worked in an insurance business for a while, served as an assistant coach at Concordia, and was a substitute teacher in Toledo. He also played winter ball in Dunedin, Florida. “Playing in Florida was wonderful,” he remembered. “We’d practice a little in the morning, play a game in the afternoon, and be home by six o’ clock every night, just like a regular job. We’d play until Christmas – about 40 or 50 games – and come home until spring training started in February.”

Brunsberg was a very committed family man dating back to his college days at Concordia. “I got married my junior year, which was not unusual because people got married young back then,” he acknowledged. “My wife was from my hometown. We grew up together and pretty much went to school together. We had one more year at Concordia and had a daughter before I started playing pro ball. My youngest daughter was born in ’64. They were with me all the time, except in spring training sometimes.”

Brunsberg’s recollections about his life in baseball are bittersweet. He said, “Even though I only got a cup of coffee, it was a great experience because I met so many great baseball people and friends over the years. I learned a lot about the game in my nine years of playing, and it was a great experience for coaching. The only thing is I wish I would’ve had a chance to play myself out. If I would’ve had a few games, or a month, where I’d played a little bit and they said, ‘You ain’t cuttin’ it.’ Then there’s something better. I could live with that. But I never really got a good shot to say, ‘He can’t play’. I got three at-bats.”

He continued, “The part you really miss the most is the friendship making and the times you shared. Riding them buses all night, geez, it was quite an experience. We’d get to some places at nine or ten in the morning and go to the ballpark at four after playing the night before. Those were brutal trips. Stuff like that you never forget.”

July 16, 2011


Sources


Arlo Brunsberg, interview, January 29, 2010

Arlo Brunsberg, phone interview, September 20, 2010

Arlo Brunsberg, phone interview, July 6, 2011

1967 Detroit Tigers Press, Radio & TV Guide

Fertile High School 1958 Yearbook (The Falcon)

Grinaker, Vernon F. “Concordia Men’s Sports – The First One Hundred Years.” Available online at http://cord.edu/dept/sports/sportsbackup/finn/ch7a.html (accessed on July 5, 2010)

Rose, George. One Hit Wonders: Baseball Stories. Lincoln, NE: Universe, Inc. 2004.

www.baseball-almanac.com

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.org

www.tripleabaseball.com

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