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Jim Thielman

Breckenridge, Minn., native Jim Thielman has worked at newspapers in Minnesota and Florida. As a journalist, Thielman covered the Minnesota Twins from 1977 until 1993. He also reported from events such as the National Football Conference Championship, the British and U.S. Opens, Rose Bowl, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, postseason playoffs and World Series. The internationally published freelance writer's partial but eclectic list of topics includes halal, transfer pricing, window washers, Oberammergau, wood preservation, mycotoxins, civil war statues and bird flu. And Muhammad Ali. Thielman's post-journalism jobs have been communications positions with the Minnesota House of Representatives, University of Minnesota, Cargill Inc., General Mills Inc., a Fortune 500 technology company and a law firm. He is the author of the book “Cool of the Evening: The 1965 Minnesota Twins.”

JIM THIELMAN: What I Didn’t Know About Uncle Hugo

Dad looked at the clock one night and said, “It was Hugo’s birthday today. I should have called him.”

He was closest to Hugo, his oldest brother. (Hugo, left, and Dad, pictured above).

“I feel a little bad about that.”

It was only about 9 o’clock, but that was it. Truly, it was that thought that counted.

Eldo, Waldo, Otto, Hugo (from left) and Leo (front).
Eldo, Waldo, Otto, Hugo (from left) and Leo (front).

Dad and his four brothers were mainly the same guy. With almost the same name: Eldo, Waldo, Hugo, Leo and Otto. They were farm boys of equivalent lithe statures and quick smiles. Never a guffaw.

Hugo owned the first garage door opener I saw. Demonstrating it one summer Sunday, he mentioned he had just installed one for a neighbor in his small North Dakota town.

Could Hugo’s remote open that garage door? Dad asked.

Hugo looked at his opener. Shrugged. Grinned. “Get in the car.”

The guy was in a lawn-mowing trance as Hugo’s convertible slid by.

Hugo clicked.

The door opened.

The guy stopped pushing as his mind worked. He looked down, saw us from the corner of his eye and laughed.

Small-town entertainment in the 1960s, before anyone considered the implication of a single radio frequency.

As is typical with uncles, it was mostly fun. You left and their lives stopped until the next 50-mile trip. Or so it seemed.

Decades after the garage door adventure, I settled into a folding chair at the last available set of white plastic forks and knives at uncle Otto’s 75th wedding anniversary. A retired bank president and his wife were on my right on a golden autumn day with no wind and plenty of sun outside the town hall in a tiny North Dakota burg.

A person must sprint well past 80 to achieve a 75th wedding anniversary. Otto and Aunt Ann were each 95. Hugo and Dad had shed their mortal coils.

Hugo and Otto had owned a hardware/electronics store in this town of 1,000.

Me, on the boat Hugo built. Made of wood. A cousin of mine and I wish we still had that boat.
Me, on the boat Hugo built. Made of wood. A cousin of mine and I wish we still had that boat.

Repairmen drove to your house to fix your set in those cowboy-and-Indian TV days. Hugo was the man who appeared to make your furniture talk again. He had learned the trade through a correspondence course. Hugo was an electronics maestro.

He had constructed his own home stereo system in the days of cathode ray tubes. The rambler’s astonishingly long basement featured a shuffleboard court and archery corridor. He placed audio speakers throughout the ceiling. The sound sparkled.

I walked into the town’s high school gym to shoot baskets one Sunday as hotdish and Jell-O with grapes in it flowed at a family reunion outside. Dust swirled in streams of daylight that filtered in from high, narrow windows. Between the streaks of light stood Hugo, scanning the ceiling and his memories. He eventually revealed he had fashioned the entire sound system.

It was Hugo at age 77 who pulled me through when I struggled to install a poorly labeled car stereo system. You can do a lot with a little knowledge and a 9-volt battery.

They had little formal education.

So I reminisced with the retired bank president as we ate our meals at Otto and Ann’s 75th anniversary on a beautiful day in Lidgerwood, N.D. The banker was dressed a tad better than some of the locals and had maybe seen a little more of the world. But he was still a small-town guy who shopped at JCPenneys.

He reflected on how it was rough starting out in the ’60s, just making ends meet with a wife, a kid on the way.

Color TV had arrived, and their old black and white was on the express to electronics hell. Hugo appeared to announce a verdict.

Thielman’s Hardware had received some color TVs. Hugo told the banker that these color sets were the thing. The future bank president said he couldn’t afford something like that. “I was just hoping to keep my job.”

“I’ll bring one by and you try it while I look at your set,” Hugo said.

“No,” said the banker. “I know if you bring that thing here I’ll never want to give it back. But I can’t afford it.”

The retired banker looked at me. He was a gray-haired man with his wife by his side and a condo in Florida.

He confessed to the allure of Technicolor.

“Hugo came over the next day to take my set to the shop, and he had a new color TV in the back of his truck. He said he’d look at my set, but it wasn’t in very good shape, and I could use this one while he looked at mine.

“I told him again I couldn’t pay for it.

“Your uncle,” the banker nudged my arm lightly with the back of his hand, “told me that was OK, that I’d really like this set. And if I wanted it I could pay him what I could, when I could.

“Gosh, once we got that TV, my wife and I couldn’t give it up. Your uncle didn’t care what I paid him each week, but I paid him $5 a week until I had paid it off. Some weeks that $5 was a little hard to scrape up.”

He dug into a fork full of potato salad. Swallowed. Looked over at the table where my aunt and uncle sat.

“I wouldn’t miss Otto’s anniversary.

“Those Thielman boys, they were something special.”

JIM THIELMAN: What’s The ‘Rush,’ Paul Ryan?

Do we have video?

“Rushed.” By ambulance? Usually “rushed” in a headline suggests dire health issues. Which, I guess, dovetails with the topic of health care.

Or do you see him in more of a sprint? Capitol to White House. That’s like a 2-mile run. I think the world record for the now-defunct 2-mile run is about 8 minutes. And I’m betting that guy was a Kenyan. Who would no longer be allowed in the U.S., unless I miss my guess.

Paul Ryan is a 40-something guy from Janesville, Wis. I don’t see Paul Ryan getting to the White House in under 12 minutes.

First of all, that’s going to ruin a good suit.

Second of all, in today’s information age, 12 minutes isn’t really a rush. It’s a news cycle.

I’d like to have seen him on a Zamboni. That would be great. Rushing from Congress to the White House on a Zamboni.

We need a Congressional Zamboni in this nation.

JIM THIELMAN: Did Whack To Hand Cost Cubs ’45 Series?

Hitler was barely dead when the Chicago Cubs lost the 1945 Series to Detroit in seven games. The analog clock has stood still for the Cubs since.

Until now.

So with the Cubs headed to the World Series, you’ll hear some names. Like Phil Cavarretta. He was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1945 and the original “Mr. Cub,” long before Ernie Banks.

As with the other Cubs from the 1945 World Series, Cavarretta is gone. Light-hitting shortstop Lenny Merullo was the last to go, in 2014 at age 97. Cavarretta, a very good baseball player, died in 2010. He’d be 100 this year.

He’s got something to say.

Naw, he didn’t speak to me from “the other side.” Which is where you really want the departed speaking from. If they are going to.

He was 68 when the Cubs were threatening to enter the 1984 World Series. Before Chicago came up short that year, I made a landline call to his Florida retirement home. Which was just fine. I was a sportswriter: License to intrude.

I wanted to know if indeed that 1945 World Series was bad as history says. It’s said by some to be the worst.

That opinion is punctuated by the famous story of of Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown. Asked if the Tigers or Cubs would win the first Series game, Brown said, “I don’t think either of them can win.”

Phil — normally you use a last name here, but from one conversation 32 years ago he still seems like a pal — said he thought writers were trying to “be on the smart side” when they ripped the play in the ’45 Series.

“I get very upset with those statements,” said the man who played 22 years in the majors, 20 of them with the Cubs.

He was in the Major Leagues soon after he graduated from the high school he attended near Wrigley Field.  He debuted with the Cubs at age 18. That year, 1935, he played in the first of three — count ‘em, Cubs’ fans, three — World Series.

Phil listed his ’45 Series opponents in his attempts to defend the quality of play that October. The Tigers had future Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Hal Newhouser, along with Virgil Trucks and Dizzy Trout.

“For someone to say something like that about the ’45 Series, he might have had to be upset about his room reservations or something. You know, during the war, travel wasn’t too good. I guess he figured, ‘well, we might as well take it out on those guys.’ ”

“The war was bad, and we knew that,” Phil said. “It wasn’t easy, let me put it that way. Transportation was the main thing after the war because trains were being used for service people, who were No. 1. Hotel reservations were kind of hard to come by. And we kind of had a minor food problem. Which I presume is to be expected during a war.”

If the first postwar Series featured bad teams, attendance didn’t reflect that. The seven games drew 333,457. A record $1.5 million gate. Each Cub got a little less than four grand. In 1945, you could pay cash for a new house with about four grand.

Aside from the payday, it was a good World Series for Phil. He hit .423. That led everyone.

It was not so good for Cubs fans. They could have left the Series finale early. Chicago trailed 5-0 after a half inning at Wrigley Field.

Phil said there is an untold story there. It involves another name that is likely to surface next week. That would be Game 7 starting pitcher Hank Borowy. He was the last Cub pitcher to lose a World Series game. And win one. And lose one. That’s right. Borowy had the last three World Series decisions for the Cubs.

Followers of baseball know the recurring story. Midseason, the New York Yankees pick up a veteran or two for the second half. In ’45, the Cubs were the buyers. They picked up 29-year-old Borowy, the Yankees’ best pitcher, for future considerations. Yankee fans thought that might end up being Phil Cavarretta. Instead, it was $100,000 cash.

Borowy won the ‘45 Series opener, going nine innings. He lost Game 5. He was the winner in four innings of relief in Game 6. He started the finale and made it through only three batters.

That’s a lot of work for a man. Even back when pitchers completed 18 games a season, as Borowy did in ‘45.

Borowy had pitched in Games 5 and 6 before a day off. Why did he start Game 7 rather than Claude Passeau? Passeau was a 17-game winner who, at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, was bigger and had pitched less than the frail-looking 6-foot, 170-pound Borowy.

“That’s a story that’s very seldom been printed,” Phil said.

Passeau started the 12-inning Cubs’ Game 6 win. “He got hit with a line drive to his pitching hand, and therefore was unable to come back and start Game 7. It was unfortunate,” Phil said.

“But you figure maybe Hank can give you four or five good innings and then go to your bullpen. He was just tired. I believe if Passeau was able to pitch, we’d a won.”

In ’84, The Cubs won 96 games. The playoffs — the Cubs blew a 3-0 lead in the final game of the National League Championship Series — hadn’t started when I called Phil. I tried to reach Borowy, too. But even the Cubs couldn’t get him to call back.

“I guess he’s just a crusty old-timer who doesn’t want to be bothered,” a Cubs public relations guy told me.

So before I said goodbye, I wondered if Phil was unhappy about his loss of privacy.  I couldn’t be the only one calling.

“Like you say, there’s been a lot of ’em lately,” he said. “But boy, it’s nice to be remembered.”

You’re remembered again, Phil. And your Cubs are knockin’ on heaven’s door.

JIM THIELMAN: In This Election, It’s Not Him, It’s Me

To this day, I have no idea about Dad’s political leanings. When you run a business in a small town, you don’t want to give people a reason to find another place to do business, he said.

Dad’s response to political comments was, “Oh? Is that so?” A well-chosen phrase that suggests both surprise and agreement to someone immersed in their own viewpoint.

It was a diplomacy that belied Dad’s eighth-grade education. A civility lacking in this presidential campaign.

One year, I asked for whom he planned to vote.

Undecided.

Sound strategy. He didn’t want me telling friends. And maybe the kid will just let it go.

When I didn’t let it go and asked him who he had voted for, he told me that voting was a private affair. Like how much money you had. There were some things a man kept to himself.

Dad had a bit of homespun Andy Taylor of Mayberry in him. Teach a lesson subtly.

He’d tell me some World War II stories. Always the fun ones. Like how he was friends with the cooks and would sneak down to the mess now and then after dark for a little extra food, maybe a shot of whiskey that he had hidden in a Coke bottle, and poker.

A natural diplomat.

Dad had a sound fiscal policy. He sent his paycheck to his mother to invest. What little money he needed on board a ship in the Pacific he made playing poker.

When once again a younger shipmate’s pay didn’t last past the first poker game, Dad laid it out. “You’re no good at this game. Why don’t you save your money?”

Who cares about money? I might never make it out of here, the kid said.

“Why don’t you send your pay back to your mother?” Dad advised. “If you do make it out of here, you’ll have something to get started when you get home. If you don’t make it, your mother will have a little something from you.” The story was meant to tell me to have a plan, I later realized.

I was getting to be about 10 when I asked him for another war story.

“Jimmy, I’ve told you all the war stories I’m going to tell you.”

Smacked me like a baseball bat. Didn’t expect that. I got the message.

It’s the people who have been in war who don’t want another.

Dad was 33 when he enlisted. A little old for a World War II volunteer. He chose the Navy. Said he wanted to have a clean place to sleep.

Like his four brothers, he was big on being scrubbed up and dressed well, even though they were farm boys.

He didn’t marry until he was 43. Who would want a lifelong bachelor at that age?

But around the house, he did some of the 1960s “women’s” chores, except cooking, and all of the men’s work. Mom would have done the Monday laundry from the barber shop. But he did that.

When one of Mom’s widowed friends married a widower, the man confided in Dad that, “Now I’ve got someone to cook for me.”

Dad told me the story and added, “Don’t tell your mother that. It will bother her.”

But why tell me?

Another Andy of Mayberry moment. I was in my 20s and involved. His way of saying, “Don’t expect women to do stuff for you.”

He could make a sandwich. In his last years as a barber, he had no employees. He ate at work. He’d “make a lunch” before bedtime and put the paper bag in the fridge. Mom would have done it, but he didn’t ask her.

It’s no mystery why women liked him.

Dad died 26 years ago this month. He was cool but never knew it. Which made him so cool that he made Sinatra look like Wally Cox.

A year after Dad left the Navy — where he contracted malaria between being shot at in air, on land and on sea — Donald Trump was born.

My Dad didn’t act like Trump in the 1960s. So I can’t identify Trump’s approach to people in 2016.

The golf clubhouse Dad changed in had some metal lockers, community showers and Clubman aftershave. They talked about cars, sports and weather. I can’t even identify with Donald Trump’s locker room. Let alone the locker room talk. If it existed.

In the 18 years I lived at home, Dad took two weeks of vacation. So I can’t identify with Donald Trump’s preternatural sense of entitlement.

Donald Trump could never identify with my Dad. Or me.

I can’t identify with him.

JIM THIELMAN: Muhammad Ali Called Me An Idiot, And It Was Great

I had just turned 26 when Muhammad Ali came to WFMC. World Famous Mayo Clinic. It was a deadline press conference held in a bland, beige conference room at the Kahler Hotel in Rochester, Minn.

At any major press conference today, there is sponsorship signage in the background and lecterns adorned with expensively researched brand logos. “Tell the agency to make the dot on the ‘i’ a little less red.”

In 1980 Rochester, this press conference was held in a room with chairs. A room in which Ali would call me an idiot.

The assignment was no big deal. I started working at The Forum in Fargo, N.D., when I was in college. Covered the Minnesota Vikings’ path to their last Super Bowl at 22. In a blink, I had gone from a high school kid idolizing athletes to knowing they were just people. Sometimes unpleasant people.

I expected nothing of Ali. Then the door to my left opened.

It could just as well been the ceremonial opening of the Ark in the climactic scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with shards of light bouncing around the room.

He wasn’t four steps into a room of high windows and 75 murmuring people when I said, quietly, “Whoa.”

For years, the bio on my web site has read:

[Jim counts] interviewing Muhammad Ali at the top of his list of famous folks he has met.

“The minute he walked into the room there was an aura that skittered over the rooftop, clattered down the drainpipe and jiggled around your shoes like Jell-O, if you’ll pardon the cliché.

“Walter Payton? Sandy Koufax? John Wooden? Payne Stewart? I never met anyone else who projected whatever it was Ali had.”

Ali was making a comeback in 1980 after a brief retirement. He was trumpeting his trip to Mayo Clinic to assure the world that rumblings of his health having sprung a leak were just rumors.

That 1980 story about Ali read, in part:

“Ali appeared relaxed, almost docile when he opened the press conference. … But when a reporter asked why he should take a chance on getting hurt, he came to life, radiating confidence and arousing the crowd.

“Me, get hurt? Me, get hurt? …

“What are you, the local Howard Cosell? Howard Cosell gets paid to be an idiot. What’s your excuse?”

I had stood to ask my questions. I did not sit back down.

When he burst to life, I didn’t turn my head to look at the crowd. I looked at him. Some of the assembled did click into my peripheral vision. They were in collective recoil, as if inching away after someone had stuck a bottle of unappealing perfume under their noses.

I started to grin and could not stop. It was all a show. I had no idea that terrific show would play in my head a couple of times a year for decades.

When Ali finished, I asked him if he really needed the millions of dollars that he would make from this little rumble with Larry Holmes.

Instead of getting defensive, Ali did what he’d be doing for years: Answered unconventionally.

“Yeah, I need the money. What’s wrong with needing money? Everyone needs money. Washington, D.C., needs money. The Pentagon needs money.”

He then segued into touting his health, explaining that Mayo doctors “had me on the table for hours. Like Frankenstein. With wires sticking in me.”

When it was over, he posed for photos. I headed back to write my story. At age 26, I figured someone with such a double-barreled luminous aura would come along again.

I’m still waiting.