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SHULLSBURG, Wis.–Baseball is important in Shullsburg and the surrounding area when summer rolls around. Unlike years past, this summer has been met with very few at bats at local diamonds.
That changes on July 4 when the Shullsburg/Benton Fever of the Home Talent League (HTL) takes to the plate against Blanchardville to continue the tradition that dates back to the 1880s of Fourth of July baseball, the original field was located by the present water tower. The 4th of July became a major attraction after the creation of Badger Park and would become a three-day tournament. In 1936, Charles Simons pitched a no-hitter on the fourth of July for Shullsburg. The newspaper reported that thousands attended that game.
Last year was the first baseball game played on the date since the 1970s, since then softball has taken precedence. However, with the Fever beginning their franchise, they have been bestowed the honor of playing on July 4.
Beginning in 1929, the HTL is one of the oldest baseball leagues in Wisconsin. The teams are truly made up of hometown talent.
“You were only allowed to get players from a six mile radius. The distance changed recently,” said Jay Haldiman.
According to league rules, the franchise must consist of players that live within a 10-mile radius from home plate of their diamond.
For some, these teams run deep in family legacy. Haldiman is a veteran member of the HTL having played in the league since he was 13. Haldiman’s grandfather began the Wiota Indians franchise in the late 1960s. His father managed the team from 1972-1991. Haldiman played for Wiota from 1984-1991. He and his father began a South Wayne franchise and ran that team for eleven years before returning to Wiota. In the next 15 years, Haldiman played for Wiota and Hollandale in separate tenures before joining the Fever in 2017.
“Wiota thought I was too old for them,” said Haldiman. “Tommy (Behrens) and Joe Cox accepted me in with open arms and that was wonderful for a 46-year-old guy.”
While on the Wiota team, Haldiman played with one of his brothers, two cousins and an uncle. He said at one point every male in his family had played for the team.
“Everyone knows each other (on these teams),” said Haldiman. “For the most part, most are small town teams that have a lot of guys who like playing ball.”
Beginning the Fever
Tommy Behrens, special education teacher at Scales Mound, is originally from Waterford, in southeastern Wisconsin. While at home in Waterford, Behrens played on the Waterford Rivermen team of the Land O’Lakes league, a league similar to HTL.
“When I moved out here for my first job, I was traveling two-and-a-half hours for a home game every Sunday,” said Behrens.
Behrens served as the assistant coach for Benton/Shullsburg’s high school program while he worked as a teacher at Benton School District.
“I found out there was a lot of talent in the area,” said Behrens.
In the winter of 2012, Behrens embarked on the process of getting the team set up to play the following summer.
“We took some lumps along the way,” said Behrens. “We finished with two or three wins that first year and ever since then we have been gathering steam.”
Behrens said he has a good core group of players.
“It is filled with guys who play baseball the right way,” said Behrens. “This league is refreshing for traditionalists who just want to see people play the game the right way.”
Behrens said players in HTL are playing for the love of the game.
“There is a passion about this. There is more of an approachability to this,” said Behrens. “Kids can come up and just start playing catch with some of the players. It is just an overall family experience. I can’t emphasize that enough. “It is baseball how most people remember it in the 1950s and ‘60s. Generally, anyone that shows up that is older, they say how much they love it and that this was how they remember baseball.”
Behrens said that HTL is focused on providing a positive fan experience.
There are no age restrictions to HTL, as the team has players as young as 15 play on the team to players in their late 40s such as Haldiman.
The team also features Galena native Jeremy Miller who serves as the team’s third base coach. It is typical to see Jeremy’s nephew, Graham, at many of the games cheering on his uncle. Behrens said it is that type of welcoming and family atmosphere that attracts people to the Fever.
“I joined the Fever because of a college friend of mine,” said Miller. “He asked if I could coach third base and help do things to run the team.”
Miller said he enjoys helping the team move forward and watch it continue to grow.
The 2020 season will be Miller’s third season on the team.
“I will pinch run mostly and I have helped raise money for the team,” said Miller. “We were quite successful with sponsors last season but due to the virus and economy, we did not seek any this season.”
Behrens said that the game is not just for families but those who want to watch baseball the way that they remember it.
“It’s a fun family environment, and that is what brings me back each year,” said Miller. “Also, getting to go around to smaller towns in Wisconsin and getting to know others has made it a fun time.”
Haldiman said he is an elder statesman for the team and one of the longest tenured players in the HTL.
“It is in my blood,” said Haldiman. “It’s the only thing I have ever known to do on a Sunday in the summer. My three daughters don’t want me to retire and hang it up. They keep asking me when we are going to start playing again.”
Haldiman said the past few months without baseball have been very different for him.
“I don’t know what to do with myself on a Sunday afternoon,” said Haldiman.
Fourth of July
The team will be opening its exhibition season on July 4 at Badger Park to begin a shortened season.
“I am excited to get back into the season,” said Miller.
Behrens said that the atmosphere for the July 4 this year is planned so that those who attend can feel safe with spaced out picnic tables enough for people to be able to practice social distancing.
HTL has put into place rules and regulations that every team must follow to provide for proper safety regulations.
“This year we are the big headliner,” said Behrens. “We are excited about that.”
The game begins at noon and a food stand will be held by the Shullsburg Fire Department. Behrens said there is enough shade at Badger Park that umbrellas aren’t necessary and carry-in food and beverage is also allowed.
On Friday, June 26, the Home Talent cancelled its regular season, but will allow teams to hold exhibition contests, such as Shullsburg’s Fourth of July game.