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Peterson: Merv was one of a kind on or off the field

It was the first game that I ever played with the late Merv Klemett.

I had just become eligible to play for the Portage Lake Oldtimers baseball team, and Merv was the manager of the squad.

Before my first game, I asked him how to approach things against the Wolverine Oldtimers. Whether to take it as just an exhibition or to play for real.

He looked hard at me and said:

“Have fun but play hard, just like it was a regular season game,” was his quick answer.

I should have known better, having competed against his teams in the Twilight League and the Over 35 Softball League for three decades.

Klemett always played the game for real and believed in the fundamentals above all. That was why we had to lay down three sacrifice bunts before we exited batting practice, even though no bunting was allowed in the oldtimers contest.

Just about every youngster growing up in Hancock between 1950 and 2000 was influenced by Merv in one way or another.

He coached in the young leagues and was quick to notice talent — even at a young age.

The more talented players usually would end up on the Bancroft Dairy teams he managed with great success for years.

Klemett got his start as the bat boy for the fabled South Range baseball teams of the 1940s. When Detroit Tigers star Dizzy Trout brought a barnstorming major league team here in 1947, Merv served as bat boy for the big leaguers.

By 1957, he was the starting right fielder for the Hancock Merchants when they played George Kell’s major league barnstormers in an exhibition game.

His lasting memory of that game was watching two towering homers by Detroit’s Charley Maxwell of the pros.

“They looked like peas going over my head,” he later said.

Standing just 5-foot-7, he was a very good hitter, having won five Twilight League batting titles. And he hit with power for a guy his size.

But he loved all sports, even basketball. That was unusual for a guy who grew up around the five hockey rinks scattered around Hancock.

But then again, he had spent some of his younger years in Chassell and came to know all the players of the Panthers hoop teams that won three state titles in a row between 1956-58.

“They were all good athletes who would have been stars in any sport,” he often said.

I got the chance to know Merv even better during a few fishing trips we took. He told yarns about angling that would keep you in stitches for hours.

I could fill a book with tales about Merv and his exploits on the playing fields

The City of Hancock recently dedicated the Driving Park in his name.

I can’t think of anyone else who deserved the honor as much.

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