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Baseball at Four Corners

The Four Corners baseball field sits at the junction of three highways about 40 miles west of Pierre.

 

To say baseball is the only game in town at Four Corners would be misleading, mostly because there is no town. Four Corners is simply the junction of highways 14, 34 and 63 about 40 miles west of Pierre. But there is a baseball field, thanks to a handful of farmers and ranchers who nearly 70 years ago wanted a place to play the game at the end of a busy day tending cattle and fixing fence.

The modern day Four Corners baseball team, which plays in the Pony Hills League of South Dakota’s amateur baseball association, is actually the club’s second iteration. The first dates back to the 1950s, when the fathers and uncles of many current players launched a fundraising drive to create a baseball field. In true ranch country fashion, donations included hay, cattle, machinery and precious time. Roy Norman collected money, and in 1953 purchased 14 80-foot light poles from a company in Ohio for $1,400. The height was important; Four Corners’ rival town of Philip had just installed 70-foot lights. They also gave Four Corners the unique distinction as the only non-municipal lighted field in the country.

Four Corners pitcher Adam Kaus delivers the ball during a Sunday doubleheader. Batters have to contend with sunlight reflecting off grain bins across the road.

Four Corners hosted its first game in the summer of 1954. Crowds of 200 to 300 people came to watch their neighbors play. Despite its remote location, finding players was rarely a problem, thanks to baseball’s great popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. But when needs arose, the men sought creative solutions. One summer, Four Corners needed another pitcher, so Norman placed an ad in the Omaha World-Herald seeking a farm laborer. The final line on the job description said candidates “must be able to pitch for a competitive amateur baseball team.” He found his pitcher. The young man spent the summer sleeping in the concession stand.

Four Corners’ heyday lasted until 1986, when the team’s aging founders opted for softball in other places. The field, no longer used, fell into disrepair. Its chicken wire backstop slowly disintegrated. Grass and weeds overgrew the dirt infield, swallowing home plate and the pitching rubber. For years, cattle roamed where outfielders once glided after lazy fly balls.

About 15 years later, the baseball bug re-emerged. “My cousins and brothers and I talked about the possibilities of it,” says Mike Hand, whose father, Dave, played for Four Corners. “And we just ran from there.”

Volunteers showed up, just like they did 50 years earlier. “We found the dimensions and mowed it,” Hand says. “We sprayed the weeds and grass off the infield. It took us a while, but a baseball field took shape.”

Baseball returned to Four Corners in the summer of 2002, and the team has been going strong ever since, maybe because familial ties unite the players, literally and figuratively. Mike Hand, the manager, is one of six Hands on the team, which includes his brother, his son and three cousins. The roster is rounded out by players who have moved away but still travel home from places like Wessington Springs, Mitchell and Wagner — 215 miles away — just to wear the Four Corners uniform.

Their dedication is remarkable. Because there is no city crew to help with maintenance, the players do it all, a task made more challenging due to the field’s lack of running water. Hand knows the field isn’t perfect, but they do their best. “If you ask players what the problems are, the first thing they’ll mention is the outfield,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not smooth; it’s kind of like playing Plinko because it’s tufts of grass and gopher holes.”

Shade is rare at Four Corners, so the players built small shelters for fans who bring chairs.

The lights, once a point of pride, no longer work, so game times are regularly Sundays at 4 p.m. That leads to another Four Corners quirk. The field faces south, so when batters come to the plate on a sunny Sunday afternoon, trying to catch a glimpse of the pitcher’s grip before he hurls the ball in their direction, all they see is sunlight glaring off seven grain bins on Mike Hand’s farm, which lies on the other side of Highway 34.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is travel. “Because we’re rural and in the middle of nowhere, hardly anybody will travel to Four Corners,” Hand says. “There are a few teams that willingly come every year. But last year we played 26 games and had five home games. It is not uncommon for us to travel 3,000 miles in a summer for baseball games.”

The travel is a matter of perspective. Four Corners once drove to Armour — 195 miles — after work for a game that began at 9 p.m. It finished at midnight, and then the players embarked on the 3 1/2 hour drive home. “Baseball is the only vacation and release we get from our normal, everyday lives,” Hand says. “The love of baseball itself is the best part of it.”

The question now is how long the players can sustain such a schedule. This group is in its 17th season of playing together. Hand says they are most likely the oldest team in the state; two players are over 50, six are over 40, five more are over 36 — and finding good baseball playing farmhands through newspaper advertisements isn’t as easy as it used to be.

There is hope in Fort Pierre, 35 miles away, where a long dormant junior legion program is once again fielding a team of 16- and 17-year-old players. Hand hopes to draw a few of them to their crossroads ball field in western Stanley County. If he’s successful, then even though there’s no gas or groceries at Four Corners, there will still be baseball.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 2018 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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