By Tory Gillis
Their proud image is slowly being wiped from the prairie landscape. Each rural Saskatchewan settlement once boasted at least one, but years of neglect and decline are quickly changing them into artifacts of the past.
It is no secret that men’s softball teams are slowly slipping away from Saskatchewan towns and villages.
The exclusion of men’s softball from the 2009 Canada Summer Games was a sombre indicator of the state of the sport on a large scale. But the signs of impending extinction have long been seen at the grassroots level, in the prairie towns where softball prowess is bred.
In Mortlach, a village of 257 just west of Moose Jaw, the hometown team hasn’t been around since their decision to fold in 2008. The Mortlach Jets enjoyed a long lifetime, evolving from the early 1960s as a community team that was originally known as the Remount Royals. In the beginning, they played mostly with the surrounding squads from Central Butte, Todare and Chaplin. Stan Gardner, who played for Mortlach for six summers during the 1970s, described the team as popular during its heyday, with a strong following from fans in town. He remembers that at the time, Mortlach would host an annual Sports Day every July First drawing about eight to 10 teams.
“It was a big deal. We’d have a big crowd all day, with ball and beer gardens and hamburgers” laughed Gardner.
From there, they became a senior squad that included many of the men in and around town. As other rural teams around them began to dwindle in the early 1990s, the Jets moved to a league that played all its games in Moose Jaw. But hey retained their association with Mortlach in name, and still consisted of a majority of players from the village.
The Memorial Field Fastball League operated at one point with 14 or 15 teams within two divisions, but by the time the Jets had arrived they had shrunk to just four. Richard Janzen, a player-manager who suited up in with the Jets from 1995 until their demise chuckles as he remembers a field caretaker who said it “was always the best when Mortlach played because they would always get the most fans by far.”
The team seemed to survive as an anomaly in those years, managing to put together enough players to live long after their rural counterparts had ended. But Janzen knew it wasn’t going to last forever. “For three years, Al Muhle was our only pitcher and he pitched every inning of every game, with no breaks,” he said.
Jamie Fischer photo
Faded jerseys from the Mortlach Jets hang in the Mortlach Museum.
When they began to struggle to find nine players to start a game, “the writing was on the wall.”
Before their end, the team won the Memorial Field Fastball League Championships in 2004 and 2005, proving that even while they struggled to field enough players, the talent of those hailing from Mortlach was potent.
That reputation was cultivated under the care of a number of builders, and one volunteer in particular. Anyone with a connection to the team remembers Ernie Muhle as a constant figure helping drive the team throughout the years. Beginning in 1965, first as a player and later as a coach, Muhle donned the green Jets jersey for 42 years. He and his three sons were mainstays on the highlights lists, serving as two pitchers and a catcher for the team. He began working with players when they were still 14, helping them to develop. “Ernie Muhle was a great coach, he brought kids along all the time and brought them through the system,” says Gardner, who was a player when Muhle headed up the bench.
As is often the case in villages like Mortlach, the team was a family affair for Gardner as well. His two sons also played for the Jets, with the youngest, Rob, continuing on to Team Saskatchewan and later winning a gold medal with Team Canada in 1993. The Gardner kids and pitcher Al Muhle, along with a sprinkling of other former Jets, have continued playing ball since the team folded. A few have moved over to former Moose Jaw rivals within the Memorial Field League, like the Canadians and the Giants, while Janzen and Muhle drive in to Regina to play at a higher level.
Back home, when the Jets disbanded 2008 it was clear that the glory days of having a team in every town had become a thing of the past. Men’s softball teams, like the family farm and original grain elevators, are slowly vanishing from the Saskatchewan summer.