GRAND RAPIDS — From the late 1960s into the new century, Bob Streetar was a well-known figure on the baseball fields of northeastern Minnesota.
Streetar, coach of both the Grand Rapids High School and American Legion baseball team for decades, took a no-nonsense approach when it was time to play baseball, expecting his players to execute like they had been taught. Opponents of Grand Rapids knew that they had better play well because the Indians rarely beat themselves.
After serving as an assistant coach under the legendary John Curran, Streetar took over the head coaching job at Grand Rapids High School in 1969. Coaching both the high school and American Legion teams, Grand Rapids won the state Legion title in 1975, and then captured two high school Class AA championships in 1978 and 1984.
Streetar was honored on Friday during a brief ceremony at Legion Field, where the field has now been renamed Bob Streetar Field at American Legion Park. Bill Kinnunen, who played and coached under Streetar before taking over the head coaching duties when Streetar retired, said renaming the field after Streetar is very appropriate.
“It is well-deserving that the field is being named after Bob and it should have been done a long time ago,” said Kinnunen. “Bob taught you so much about life in general, but as far as baseball goes, pitching and defense were big things with him.
“Another huge thing was discipline; he didn’t care who you were. You followed the rules if you wanted to play ball and you had to stay within the lines.”
Streetar, 81, is a 1955 graduate of Grand Rapids High School and played under Cur-
ran while in high school. He then attended the University of Minnesota to play baseball. At that time, freshmen were allowed to play only against other freshmen, and he was able to play in intrasquad games sometimes against the varsity. He said he learned things observing the Gophers’ well-celebrated coach, Dick Siebert.
“(Siebert) was really good on making adjustments and he was a pretty good guy to play under,” Streetar said. “He could watch anybody and make the adjustments. He was very good at that. I think I saw he took some kids, changed their stance, or changed some pitchers a little bit, and he was very successful at what he did.”
Streetar said in the mid-1950s, the University of Minnesota had just two scholarships available. One scholarship went to ex-Major Leaguer and Minnesota Twin Jerry Kindall and the other went to the brother of George Thomas, a teammate with Streetar on the freshman team and a future Major League outfielder.
“That was the year they won the national championship so we got to practice against some pretty good people,” said Streetar.
After failing to get a scholarship, Streetar then enrolled at St. Cloud State University where he was on some teams that enjoyed considerable success. In his second year at SCSU, the Huskies went to the national tournament and placed third. One of the highlights in Streetar’s college career came in the third place game against Creighton University.
“We were behind 5-0 in the ninth inning with two outs, nobody on, and we ended up winning the game 6-5,” Streetar recalls. “We scored two runs and had two guys on and I hit a three-run home run to tie it. Then we squeezed a run in.”
The next summer, Streetar was playing in an amateur tournament in New Ulm, Minn., when Siebert told him there was a chance he could sign to play professional baseball. Streetar decided to take the offer and spent one year in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
“My biggest problem was I was 20 or 21 and that was kind of old back then,” said Streetar. “Most of the guys were just out of high school back then when they had so many minor leagues.”
After that one year, Streetar decided to return to St. Cloud to complete his degree. He helped coach the freshman team at St. Cloud State while attending school, and he also played basketball for the Huskies for two years.
Graduating from SCSU, Streetar’s first teaching job was in Bloomington, Minn., when it had just one school where he coached B squad basketball. After a year there, he went back to SCSU to graduate school and following that he looked around for a place to teach. He applied for a mathematics teaching position in the Grand Rapids school district and he was hired.
When Streetar arrived back in Grand Rapids in 1962, all that was available in Northeastern Minnesota was varsity baseball. Coaching under Curran, he worked with the B squad, having the Grand Rapids athletes play each other. At that time, many high school athletes competed in track and field in the spring and then played VFW or summer baseball.
“We didn’t play anybody for a couple of years and then (the Grand Rapids varsity) beat Hibbing a couple times and (Hibbing coach) Matt Bergan found out we had a B squad so Hibbing started a B squad,” Streetar laughed. “Finally Coleraine looked at it and they started a B squad. About in the middle 1960s everybody had B squad baseball and they have had it ever since.
“That really made a difference when the kids started to play a couple years earlier before they had to play on the A squad.”
Streetar said Curran was a great fundamentalist and players didn’t run around doing as they pleased.
“He was pretty straight-laced, but I think at his funeral one of the kids who spoke said, ‘If you wanted to play, he was one of the nicest guys you ever wanted to meet. If you wanted to horse around, he was the worst guy you wanted around.’
“That was about it. He put in lots of time like a lot of those old-timers did, putting in lots of hours for basically minimum money,” Streetar said. “I served under him about six years and then he died of cancer at kind of a young age; I think he was in his mid-50s.”
After Curran’s death, Streetar took over the Indians’ program in 1969. He said one big step he took was changing the schedule where Grand Rapids would play some of the bigger schools around the state.
“We started playing in the St. Cloud area and playing down there instead of going 120 miles up to Ely we went the other way,” Streetar explained. “We got bounced around for awhile but finally the kids realized that they could play at that level and that really helped. Our season won/loss percentage was much lower than our tournament games. We won a lot more tournament games percentage-wise than we did during the season.
“We would go down to the Cities in the spring, walk out of the gym and then go down and start playing outside which wasn’t easy,” Streetar said. “But it helped in the long run.”
Streetar said two important things he stressed that his team was proficient at was pitching and playing defense.
“In high school teams don’t have that many good hitters unless you are at a really big high school and if you just make the every day play, you are fine,” Streetar said. “A lot of games are lost just by throwing the ball around or booting it around or what not. So if you can cut that out, you will be in most ballgames.”
Streetar was known as a strict disciplinarian who expected his athletes to abide by the rules.
“You don’t shoot them, but they have to learn that if they goofed around then there were consequences,” Streetar laughed. “You might have to sit for awhile but most kids wanted to play so we have very few problems with that.”
Streetar cited the fact that the Grand Rapids practices were disciplined which he feels prepared his athletes well.
“Boom, boom, boom, you had to go through a pretty regimented practice and it showed up in ballgames as the kids made the plays,” Streetar explained. “If you don’t have discipline then you are going to have problems. But practicing baseball was fun. I told the kids that practicing football wasn’t really fun and baseball is kind of fun.”
Grand Rapids became the first Northern Minnesota team to win a state Division 1 American Legion title in 1975. Streetar said Grand Rapids relied on the pitching staff of Denny King, Tony Jacobson and Jim Jetland.
“We had enough pitching, and I think we played Hutchinson in the first game of the state tournament and they had a kid who threw a no-hitter against us and we beat them 1-0,” Streetar recalled. “We got a guy on, bunted him over, bunted him again and the third baseman threw it away and that was the only run.
“Jet (Jetland) pitched that game and then Tony Jacobson really came around. I think the last day he won two games; he pitched a game and then relieved. After that, people knew we were getting better and we were getting competitive. Nobody up north ever wins the Legion title because usually they have so many games that you need a ton of pitchers. But we were lucky we never got beat so we just won four games in a row to take state.”
The Indians won the state high school title first in 1978. Streetar said Grand Rapids had a dominant pitching staff and to prove it he said that the Indians’ pitchers hurled 16 shutouts in the 21 games played that season. Grand Rapids won its first state tournament game over Columbia Heights 5-3, and then it used the big right arm of Jetland in defeating the Steinbach brothers and New Ulm 1-0. Jetland hurled a one-hitter in that game to propel Grand Rapids into the championship game.
In the championship game against Robbinsdale Cooper, Jetland was forced to come on to pitch in the first inning with the bases loaded and no outs.
“Jet came in from third base and got out of the first inning without giving up a run and he ended up throwing a one-hitter in that game,” Streetar said.
Grand Rapids won its second state title in 1984 with Kinnunen, Mark Sonaglia and Streetar’s son, Turtle, being members of the team. He said Grand Rapids lost just one game that memorable season.
“In the first game of the state tournament Sonaglia threw a no-hitter against Anoka, and in the second game Billy Kinnunen pitched and we beat Cretin Derham Hall like 7-2,” Streetar recalled. “ln the championship game, Renner pitched well and we 10-runned them in five innings.
“The second state title was as good as the first one. It was another group of kids and they wanted to go to the state tournament and they wanted to win it, and they did.”
Streetar – who played his last game at age 48 – retired from teaching in 1999, and then coached for two more years before stepping aside following the 2001 season. Being an educator for 35 years, he said teaching goes hand-in-hand with coaching.
“You teach a sport just like a classroom; you have to be organized and I look at games as being like tests, just finding out how good you are and what you need to work on,” Streetar said.
He thanks wife Sharon for her support through the years. She spent a lot of time working concessions during games and could hardly be rivaled as a vocal fan of Grand Rapids.
“She was a lot of help and I was lucky to have three boys who were always at the ball park,” Streetar explained. “I would tell the players that if they thought I was hard on them, they should hear Sharon.”
Streetar said one of the highlights of his career is coaching all three of his sons in state tournaments. He finished his high school career with close to 500 victories, and his lifetime winning percentage was about 75 percent.
“I was lucky to have good kids and most of the parents were no problem and that made it nice,” Streetar said.
Streetar was asked how he feels about the baseball field being named after him and he said, “I think it is a nice thing to have happen. There are a lot of people like John Curran and all those who put in a lot of hours too. A lot of other people, I think, deserve a lot of credit for it too.
“Baseball was really something to do all summer. A lot of guys I know don’t like putting in a lot of time any more but I really enjoyed that part of it. It was really a fun time.”