Play Ball: When the Mt. Rushmore Nine Took the Field

by Joe Guzzardi
[cartoon id="241685"] From the 400 carvers who created the magnificent Mt. Rushmore National Memorial emerged a fine baseball nine. The Mount Rushmore Keystones competed in South Dakota’s amateur league, and once went all the way to the state’s playoffs. Baseball was important to the workers. New carvers were often selected based on their diamond skills. And, needless to say, after a day on Mt. Rushmore, the carvers, drillers and winchmen enjoyed the diversion that baseball provided. In the 1930s, the Mt. Rushmore crew earned 50 cents an hour if their jobs were at the mountain’s base, but carvers could make up to $1.25 an hour. During the Depression era, Mt. Rushmore jobs were coveted. In his book, “Mt. Rushmore Q & A,” Don “Nick” Clifford, a key player, wrote that from age seven he helped support his family. Clifford hauled water to coal miners, delivered newspapers, milked cows, managed a pool hall and helped his Mom with her custodian’s duties at the Keystone School. But Clifford also found time to “play baseball every day, rain or shine.” Clifford explained the important link between baseball and Mt. Rushmore. Clifford wrote that Lincoln Borglum, Mt. Rushmore architect and sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s son, was a great baseball fan and wanted his workers to have a team. In 1938 and 1939, Borglum sought out experienced players, and since Clifford was a former member of the Rapid City Junior League team, he was among those selected. A pitcher and an outfielder, Clifford said that he completed all the games he started, and that his philosophy was to “throw as hard as he could.” Nicknamed the Keystones, the club went up against other South Dakota small towns that fielded teams. In 1938, the Mt. Rushmore nine couldn’t afford uniforms, and local baseball beat writers dismissed them as “…harmless and a permanent occupant of the cellar….” Yet, after the Keystoners drubbed the local Dohertys 6-1, those same critics ate their words and wrote that the upstarts “grew fangs overnight,” and “ambushed” their unsuspecting rivals. From that moment on, Clifford said, the team was on its way to greater heights. By 1939, the team had uniforms that read on the front “Rushmore Memorial.” Their warm-up sweaters featured images of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The fourth president, Teddy Roosevelt, had not yet been added to the monument. The Keystones represented themselves proudly in the Aberdeen-hosted state tournament. The Associated Press described Rushmore’s first win before eventually bowing out - a 2-0 ten inning squeaker - “a thriller.” Crawford drove in the two winning runs. But as the Mt. Rushmore project reached completion, the players drifted away to find other employment. No more games were played. A baseball signed by most of the 1939 team and other Keystone memorabilia are displayed at the Mt. Rushmore Lincoln Borglum Visitor’s Center. Aberdeen has a rich baseball history. In the early 19th century, South Dakota saw a surge in baseball’s popularity. On one of his many barnstorming tours, in 1922, Babe Ruth visited Deadwood to play an exhibition game. Post-World War II, 448 minor league clubs played in 59 nationwide leagues. One was the Northern League that included four South Dakota teams - the Sioux Falls Canaries, the Huron Cubs, the Watertown Expos and the successful Aberdeen Pheasants. Established in 1946 by Aberdeen businessmen known as the “Founding Fathers,” the Pheasants’ major league affiliates were the St. Louis Browns who, in 1954, moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles. The Pheasants’ sent 26 future stars to the big leagues. Among the most recognizable are Don Larsen, the New York Yankees’ perfect World Series game hurler and his teammate “Bullet” Bob Turley, the 1958 Cy Young Award winner. Others include two Orioles Hall of Famers: pitcher Jim Palmer, manager Earl Weaver, and the Birds’ slick fielding shortstop Mark Belanger, not in the HOF but a 1976 All-Star. The 1964 Pheasants, managed by Cal Ripken, Sr. and assisted by batboy Cal Ripken, Jr., are considered the best-ever Northern League team. By 1971, the Pheasants and the Northern League disbanded, a fate that awaits about 40 minor league teams in 2021 when Major League Baseball will slash its affiliations from 160 teams to 120. The countless fans in small communities like Aberdeen are plum out of luck. Last year Clifford, the last living Mt. Rushmore worker, passed away at age 98 in his beloved Rapid City. To purchase “Mt. Rushmore Q & A,” and to learn much more about the baseball team and the monument, contact the Mt. Rushmore Society at [email protected] - Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at [email protected]