By Ron LaPoint
This is the fourth installment of baseball in Oshkosh
uring the summer between his junior and senior years at Oshkosh High School, Len was invited to try out for the professional Oshkosh Giant baseball team, a farm club of the New York Giants. Not knowing that this was permissible I asked Len why he was allowed to do this. He simply said that it was permissible at that time
Upon returning home from interviewing “Seed” as he was known to many, I ran across the following newspaper articles from one of his scrapbooks he allowed me to take with me. One Northwestern story stated that: “In keeping with the policy of the Oshkosh baseball club to give local boys an opportunity to play in the national pastime, an Oshkosh player was signed to a contract with the local Giants of the Wisconsin State League, C.W. ‘Wally’ Bronson, business manager of the team announced today.”
It was noted in the article that David Grey, the 16th Ward Alderman, a fellow west sider, and a Director with the Oshkosh Civic Recreation League had been watching Heinbigner play ball during his youth. He recommended to the Giant management that young Lennie had all the earmarks to make it in professional ball.
Len was told to report for spring training in April of that year at the New York Giant facility in Lakewood, New Jersey. Somewhere on the long train ride through Pennsylvania, he saw another young traveler sitting close by. In his attempt to relieve some of the boredom of the trip and make a little conversation, Len asked where he was going. Lakewood, New Jersey was the reply. That’s how this 17 year old met Sam Brewer, arguably the best pitcher to ever put on an Oshkosh Giant uniform. Brewer, a Cherokee Indian from Stillwell, Oklahoma went on to win more than 20 games for the 1947 Giants.
Pedaling my bike to that ballpark on the west side of town on many of those nights, I remember Lennie (I always called him Lennie) as a line drive hitter, usually hitting in the outfield gaps for extra-base hits during the summer of ‘47 when I was mostly interested in the pitching tandem of Sam Brewer and Tom Gatto.
Lennie played again the following year for the Giants and led the league in doubles and was one of the leaders in batting average. Later in his career, under the tutelage of Rocky Colavito, a tall muscular outfielder with the Cleveland Indians, he became a homerun hitter.
“We used to fill the ballpark in the ‘40s,” as Lennie began reminiscing about a time when he was still a young stud. But the transfer of the Braves by Boston’s Lou Perini to Milwaukee in 1953 and the contractual partnership between television and Major League baseball all but put an end to the lower classifications of minor league ball.
Lennie played two years for the Giants batting .265 in 1947 and .334 the following year when he was voted to the Wisconsin State League All Star team. The game was played in Sheboygan against the hometown Sheboygan Indians. the Indians at that time had an outfielder by the name of Walt Moryn who went on to play right field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The All Star games in the 1940s usually drew full houses. In 1946 the game played at Sawyer Field in Oshkosh drew 4201 fans. The following year at Sheboygan the game drew 4418.
Paging through his scrapbook I found the 1948 All Star Game edition printed in the Sheboygan Indian Mound News.
“While upwards of 5,000 fans are expected to view the State League Classic, many tens of thousands more will be following the play on radio stations. WOSH in Oshkosh with Bill MacDonald, WIPG in Green Bay with Earl Gillespie, and Bob Lloyd broadcasting out of WHBY in Appleton. The All Star Classic is one of Wisconsin’s biggest baseball attractions.”
Earl Gillespie, by the way, was a former All Star third baseman with the Green Bay team and later became the play-by-play announcer for the Milwaukee Braves. Bill MacDonald, as most every All Star fan knows, was a long-time player for the professional basketball team, the Oshkosh All Stars.
The All Star edition ran stories of many of the players selected to play in the All Star game. This is what they wrote of Len Heinbigner.
“Len Heinbigner, stellar second sacker of the Oshkosh Giants, had little trouble to snaring his position on the All Star club. Len is among the top five hitters with a .365 average and is no mean performer on the field. He may have peers on defense but when it comes to punch at the plate, he’s way out in front of the other second baseman.”
There were others on the squad who caught my eye while paging through this All Star edition. Ed Lubanski, a pitcher for the Wausau Lumberjacks, later became an outstanding professional bowler for the world champion Detroit Strohs. Jug Girard, voted in at centerfield would soon became a halfback for the Green Bay Packers.
In the spring of 1949 Lennie jumped two classifications and was assigned to a Class B team in Erie, Pennsylvania where he hit .310 and was the league leader in extra base hits. He batted .280 with Spartanburg, Pennsylvania the following year.
In 1951 Len became the property of the Cleveland Indian’s organization and took his spring training at their site in Florida where he said that he batted against such pitching greats as Herb Score, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, and don Drysdale. He was assigned to the Indian farm club in Reading, Pennsylvania and played on the same team as “Moose” Skowron, later of the Yankees, and “Dusty” Rhodes, who helped lift the New York Giants in a four game sweep of the Cleveland club in 1954.
Feeling that he was not moving up the baseball ladder fast enough, Lennie grew disenchanted. So when he was offered a job with a semi-pro team in Marshalltown, Iowa in 1952 he grabbed it. The team provided him with a day job and as Lennie put it: “They paid me under the table.”
“Iowa was a ‘hot-bed’ for baseball in the ‘40s and ‘50s. We averaged 2,000 fans a game.” And in addition to his job and the under-the-table pay, Lennie said he earned $8 for every home run, $4 for a double, and $2 for a single.
Jim Schymanski of the Merrill Rangers had heard about Lennie’s long homeruns in Marshalltown and asked if he would like to come up for a tryout with the Rangers, a semi-pro team in Merrill, Wisconsin.
A contract offer was made and Lennie became somewhat of a legend in this northern Wisconsin town. They game him a job at the Lincoln Canning Company during the day while playing ball at night. He said he made more money that year than he made in any one season playing professional ball. His contract called for the same dollar amount for home runs, double and singles that the team in Marshalltown provided. Lennie went on to lead the league that year in home runs and slugging.
No wonder that proved to be his best financial year in baseball.
A few years ago Lennie went back to a Ranger Reunion. He along with other attendees was given a memorial book entitled The Ranger’s Reign. A glimpse of Semi-Pro Baseball in the ‘50s.
This is what the authors wrote about Len Heinbigner.
“One transient did arrive for the 1954 season and made an indelible impact upon the Rangers and their fans. His prodigious hitting feats are still remembered. The 23-year-old Oshkosh native arrived in town in late May to take over the third base spot. By mid-June a newspaper article informed the fans about his impact upon the squad.”
That article said: “Number one man has been Len Heinbigner, the third baseman who hits from the left side and has made Merrill fans forget about Florys and Wilson.”
“One of the highlights of Lennie’s season was one of the longest drives ever hit in the local ballpark when Ranger’s won a pair of exhibition contests from a team from Menasha. Len Heinbigner broke up the ball game with a tremendous poke to right center field for a round tripper with the bases loaded in the second frame. Without the hitting of Heinbigner, his long extra base hits, and his run scoring ability, the Rangers would probably have had a lower win-loss record.”
In 1955 Lennie decided to return to his hometown to be with friends and to play golf. He was a prodigious hitter on the golf course as he was on the diamond. His course was the Oshkosh Municipal Golf Course or “Muny” as it was known to most. His scores were usually in the 70s and the second club he took out of his bag on the 300 yard first hole was typically his putter.
Before I left that day at his house on the corner of Dove and Buchanan, I wanted to know who he thought was the best ballplayer of his era. I was thinking of such names as Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and that it might be difficult to choose just one as the best. Without hesitation he said Harvey Kuehn. “He sprayed the ball to all the fields and hit for a high average.”
Just like Seed once did I thought. He did say that Willie Mays was pretty good too.
Lennie died two years ago and is sorely missed by friends and family.
It may be a long time before we see another hitter like him in our hometown. ν
Excerpts of this story came from my book: Oshkosh: The Way We Were.