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October 20, 2010

A Worthy Tradition

Americana, the 1954 World Series, and a Small Town in Upper Michigan

by David Laurila

In 1954, at New York’s fabled Polo Grounds, Willie Mays made the most famous catch in World Series history, his over-the-shoulder thievery of a 460-foot drive by Cleveland's Vic Wertz helping spur the Giants to what remains the franchise’s last title. It also helped start a tradition over a thousand miles away, in the sleepy village of Trenary (population 400), in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

What started as a barroom bet is now its own unique slice of small-town Americana. Known locally as “The Potato Auction,” the event took place for the 56th time this past Sunday.

"Hurk Aho and Joe Hytinen were the ones who started it," explained Stacy Rucinski, who currently serves as the event’s coordinator. “They were arguing about who would win the World Series and decided to make a bet. They agreed that the loser would push a wheelbarrow full of potatoes from the highway (U.S. 41) to the bar (approximately three-quarters of a mile). Hurk lost, pushed the wheelbarrow, and when he got there they auctioned off its contents. That first year the proceeds got drunk, but ever since, the money has been donated to the local Little League program.”

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A 1954 World Series side note: Mays’ eighth-inning catch in Game One remains the signature play of the Series, but the contest itself was ultimately decided on a 10th-inning, pinch-hit, three-run homer by Dusty Rhodes (an apt name within the context of this story, as residents of rural Upper Michigan will readily understand).

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Much in the game of baseball, and America itself, has changed since the wheelbarrow was pushed for the first time. The Giants have long since moved to San Francisco, and while the final game of the 1954 fall classic was played on October 4, the postseason now stretches to Halloween—too late for an upper-Midwest harvest. For that reason, the event is now held after the conclusion of the Division Series.

The way the games are followed has also changed. I traveled to Trenary last weekend and watched the Giants square off against the Phillies in the NLCS, on a large color television. Such wouldn’t have been the case five-and-a-half decades ago.

“I know that Hurk and Joe listened to that World Series on the radio,” said long-time Trenary resident Greg Cady. “In 1954, only three people in town owned a television.”

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Some 1954 World Series side notes: Rhodes was the offensive star of the Series, going 4-for-6 with a pair of home runs and seven RBI. The pitching star was Johnny Antonelli, who came to the Giants prior to the season in exchange for the player who hit the most famous home run in franchise history, Bobby Thomson. The Indians’ lone bright spot was Wertz, who despite being robbed by Mays, went 8-for-16 with four extra-base hits.

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The loser of this year’s bet was Trenary resident Tim Farrell, who displayed brutal honesty and a sense of humor when asked what it was like to push a wheelbarrow full of produce close to three-quarters of a mile.

“It sucked,” admitted Farrell. “It was a lot harder than simply running that far, that’s for sure. The money goes to the Little League team, obviously, but I thought that I was going to break the record this year, so I was really running for personal fame.

(Editor’s note: The run is timed and Farrell fell short of the record set over 20 years ago by another Trenary resident, Lowell Ellis.)

“Now that I’m here,” Farrell continued, “everybody is going to go inside, get drunk, and buy a bunch of potatoes.”

Buy potatoes, they did. And cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, bottles of homemade wine and vodka, and more. The wheelbarrow carries only a small percentage of what is auctioned off, with local residents donating a cornucopia of items, primarily from their gardens. Despite a somewhat smaller-than-usual crowd, this year’s auction brought in $1,649.75 for the local Little Leaguers.

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A 1954 World Series side note: The ceremonial first pitch of Game One was thrown out by Jim Barbieri, the captain of the 1954 Little League World Series champions, from Schenectady, New York. Twelve years later, Barbieri played in the World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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As Farrell said they would, people also consumed adult beverages, but not the bottle of homemade choke-cherry wine made by the late Sara Smith, in 1991. The unopened bottle has become a tradition within the tradition, having been auctioned off and donated back, every year since 1997. It went for $115 this time around and has raised $2,503 overall.

"It’s a big party," said Hope Krysiak, also of Trenary "The auction moves between both bars (the town has two, which sit side-by-side; in 1954 there were three) and things sometimes get pretty crazy. I've even seen women snacking on a bowl of live goldfish!  If you want to see people partying with cabbage leaves in their hair, the Potato Auction is where you want to be.

 "Of course, what it's really about is being supportive of the community and the Little League program," added Krysiak.  "My kids play, just like kids were playing when this whole thing started 56 years ago.  It's about having fun, but more than anything it's about the kids and baseball."  

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