Brooklyn, New York, 1920’s. “It was here that I first began what was to be a lifelong love for the national pastime of baseball and eventually softball,” muses Earl ‘The Pearl’ Sturm as he would be known as around the baseball diamond in Boulder Junction, WI. “My Dad and I both became Dodger fans and ‘dem bums’ could do no wrong. Although not often, I was thrilled to be at the old Ebbets Field where the Dodgers battled the locally hated New York Giants in the Subway Series,” adds Sturm. “There was also a baseball diamond across the street from my elementary school- PS 89 where every Sunday afternoon rival double AA teams would battle it out, with enthusiastic neighbors cheering them on from the sidelines. I used to love the hot dog vendors nearby to the baseball field. You could buy a foot -long dog piled high with sauerkraut, pickles, mustard and ketchup for 10 cents.”
Earl Sturm became involved in the Boulder Junction community back in the 1940’s as a young husband and father. Marrying his sweetheart Evelyn in Chicago after being discharged from the Army at the end of World War II, they later vacationed starting in 1950 with daughters Linda and Janet. This tradition continued annually for many years at Pinewood Lodge on Fishtrap Lake.
Softball was a constant for Earl- from the early introduction to the game in 1920s and pickup games he would play during the war and in company leagues on the south side of Chicago. Earl was known not only for his skill with sharp batting and but with the rapid repertoire- always joking with fellow players.
Softball was a constant for another player in Northern Wisconsin and Boulder Junction – Bob Lawrence. His path would not cross with Earls until the early 1980’s when Earl and Evelyn retired full time to their retirement house they built on their favorite spot on Fishtrap Lake. Earl once again picked up his bat- this time in Boulder Junction.
Softball started for Bob in the mid-1970s. Living in Rockford Illinois after the Vietnam War, Bob was an unemployed young veteran. There was a ballfield at the end of the street where he started playing. Moving to northern WI in the 1980s, Bob found a team in Rhinelander. In the Northern Highlands during the 80’s 90’s there were 24 teams in the 35+ categories. Seasons were 12 weeks in length. Bob played on 3 different teams. He has a fond recollection of a game where the Boulder team only had 7 players. The opposing team showed up and wanted Boulder to forfeit. Boulder insisted on playing with their 7 teammates. They beat them badly. “What a sweet moment, they were so mad!” exclaimed Lawrence.
Senior softball was at its height in the 80’s and 90’s in Boulder. With Earl the catcher and Bob the outfielder, they played on over seven teams in the summer leagues — two from Eagle River, and one each from Sayner, Presque Isle, St. Germain, Phelps and Boulder Junction. Earl recollects, “When I played for Boulder Junction in later years, my duties were mostly coaching because I was older. He was also the catcher on the Eagle River team sponsored by Burkett Realty. Jerry Burkett is known to have named Earl ‘Earl the Pearl’ and made a shirt that is now iconic.
Bob managed hundreds of players over the years. Bob Lawrence also ran the little league team, managed the tee ball, then played on his own team. Of his 3 boys ages 25, 34 and 35, only the oldest played ball. In 1995 Bob turned 45 and started a 45+ team in Boulder Junction. “It was hard to fill the 35+ roster,” adds Lawrence. “Groups were never very organized- usually we just got together informally to play ball, get some exercise, have a beer together and socialize. I always tried to put the best team on the field at any given time,” notes Bob. “Teams were not officially sanctioned, they were always independent. Boulder Beer Bar began to sponsor the teams and they had tee shirts and balls. Bob recalls how for years he dragged a bed spring behind his pickup truck to flatten the infield before each game. He sees a love of the game and a solid work ethic in the older, more seasoned players. “We were legends in our own minds,” Bob notes. “When you don’t know many people, playing ball is a nice way to get involved.”
Earl played for decades, then in later years coached — “always standing by” for when needed to pinch hit or play. Bob has played for over 50 years and still manages the senior team in Boulder. Earl ended his career at 92 with 55 years of play, coaching and supporting his teams. Both men were proud of every hit the team made and the camaraderie of every team. Win or lose, it didn’t matter. There were no trophies. No accolades. Leaving the field and meeting friends at the bar afterwards, it was always a good day. “It’s just a fun game.”
The ‘youngest’ 45+ team Bob started has now folded in Boulder. The younger players are not replenishing the spots now empty. What is next for softball in the North Woods? Who will enjoy the recently refurbished Sturm Memorial Field? Who will sit in the dugouts, enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the ballfield? Who will be sitting in the new bleachers under the lights to watch the games?
It is time for the pages of the book of softball memories from 50 years in Boulder Junction to turn to a new chapter. In honor of Earl and Bob and the hundreds of players alongside of them, let’s make sure softball remains a constant in Boulder Junction.
Janet Oppenheimer is the daughter of Earl Sturm who passed away at age 96. The ballfield in Boulder Junction “Sturm Memorial Field was named by his family in his memory. Bob Lawrence currently manages the one senior team and lives in Boulder Junction. For more information on how you, a neighbor, a friend, can volunteer to play, manage sponsor teams of any age in Boulder Junction contact the Boulder Junction Town office at (715) 385-2220.