Baseballs and photographs: Good luck getting Dennis O'Melia, Hastings, out from behind the lens these days
Most school teachers find fun summer jobs. None, though, succeeded as gracefully at this as Dennis O'Melia.
In the 1950s, he pitched in professional baseball's minor leagues as a way to pay for college.
By 1970, he had moved to Hastings and was teaching at Inver Hills Community College.
By 1975, he landed the granddaddy of fun summer jobs: He was the batting practice pitcher for the Minnesota Twins when they played their home games at the Met.
"My kids were in junior high and high school at the time, and they'd come and chase balls in the outfield while I pitched batting practice," O'Melia said. "That was a big deal for them at that age."
Rod Carew warmed up during those home games with O'Melia on the mound, while manager Gene Mauch looked on. O'Melia would throw the ball to home plate, and then be sure he stayed safely behind a big net as major leaguers took their whacks.
"The ball came back pretty fast from those guys," he said. "You wouldn't even want to stick a foot out from behind the net."
Nowadays, a love for baseball is shared at his Hastings townhome with photography and technology. There can't be a 77-year-old man here with any more gear than he has. Monitors are everywhere. Camera gear rests on the couch, waiting for spring to spring.
This year, O'Melia will join a group of senior photographers who will trace the route taken by Lewis and Clark from St. Louis to Portland, photographing all the way.
The hobby has turned into a small business of sorts, as his work is proudly displayed at the Great Rivers Art Gallery in downtown Hastings.
After a great high school career in Eau Claire, Wisc., O'Melia was drafted by the Milwaukee Braves.
"I was a wild left-hander," O'Melia said. "I was pretty raw."
He pitched one season for them, 1953, before being drafted. He spent two years serving his country, then returned in time for the 1956 season. By then, his contract had been sold to the Kansas City A's, and he reported to their Yakima, Wash., farm team.
He played in Pocatello, Idaho. In Abilene, Texas. In Rochester and Winona, moving back and forth between C level ball and B level ball.
In 1958, he faced Jim Kaat, who put together a nice 16-9 season for Missoula in the Pioneer League.
In 1959, O'Melia had a 10-6 record for the Kansas City A's farm team in Plainview, Texas. He had an ERA of 3.23, and allowed just 121 hits in 145 innings.
In 1960, O'Melia was pitching for a Class C team in Missoula, Mont., known as the Missoula Timberjacks, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. One of his teammates was former Twin Cesar Tovar. That season, O'Melia went 9-9.
O'Melia remembers facing numerous players who went on to become household names in the 1950s and 1960s.
He remembers facing Frank Howard, who went on to hit 382 career home runs for the Dodgers and the Washington Senators. He faced Willie Stargell, who went on to earn a spot in the baseball Hall of Fame after hitting 475 big-league home runs. At the time, Stargell was a 19-year-old member of the San Angelo/Roswell Pirates.
"He was a good-looking prospect," O'Melia said with a laugh.
Through it all, O'Melia had one real goal with baseball: He wanted it to pay for college. By 1960, it had just about done that. He left the game, studied full-time, graduated, and then earned his Master's.
All the while, he played for town ball teams, like the one in Exeland, Wisc. He was even a well-hired pitcher-on-call for other teams. They'd send him some money and he'd give them innings over the summer.
"Have glove, will travel," he said.
O'Melia started teaching biology and eventually settled in Lamar, Col., smack dab in the middle of nowhere. In 1970, a new college was opening near the Twin Cities called Inver Hills Community College. He applied and earned a position as one of the founding faculty members at the school. He moved his family to Hastings and a few years later, got back on the mound to pitch batting practice for the Twins.
The Hall of Fame
In February, O'Melia was inducted into the Eau Claire Baseball Hall of Fame. He was part of the first group of Eau Claire baseball players to receive the honor.