While Joel Winn has never made an official at bat, he has more than stepped up to the plate for baseball in Fort Atkinson.
It’s because of Winn’s countless volunteer hours fundraising for projects throughout the community, and in Jones Park specifically, that he is being honored this Sunday prior to the Fort Atkinson Generals Home Talent League game against the Cambridge Blues.
“It was baseball that brought me to Jones Park,” said Winn, looking back at his childhood.
As early as an infant, when his mother brought him down to the park in a stroller to watch his father play for the Merchant-sponsored Blackhawks, Winn has been coming to Jones Park. His father, Harry, played catcher for the Blackhawks just after World War II.
“Even though I can’t remember it, it was the community gathering point for baseball and sports, and our family was here continuously; I’ve been coming here essentially my entire life,” Winn said.
Baseball has been a huge part of the Winn family’s leisure time for nearly eight decades. Harry Winn was a catcher for the University of Wisconsin before coming to work for Thomas Industries in Fort Atkinson following graduation.
Joel Winn’s sons, Luke and Nathan, both played high school, VFW Teener and American Legion baseball, but along the way, the circle was broken.
Winn is Fort Atkinson’s version of Moonlight Graham, the fictional character portrayed in the acclaimed movie “Field of Dreams,” as he never has appeared in an organized baseball game.
“I never had my name penciled into the lineup,” said, Winn, who was cut from American Legion team. “I played in some Oldtimers games and once played in an All-Star game, but no scorebook was kept, so, my times at the plate were never documented. My pleasure has been as a spectator all those years, and it continues in my adult life.”
Winn, however, did make the baseball team at Milton College, appearing in two games for the now-defunct Division III school.
“I beat out some guys that were baseball players,” Winn said with a smile.
As he approached retirement as director of the Fort Memorial Hospital Foundation, the hospital wanted to recognize Winn.
“The last board meeting I attended, the board said they wanted to do something in my honor, and I was to think of something that (the board) could essentially fund,” said Winn. “My immediate thoughts went to medical equipment, and knowing what those things cost, nothing came to mind.”
Winn was very close to his last day of work when Fort HealthCare President Mike Wallace told him the hospital was serious about doing something his honor.
“He had no more than finished his sentence when I said, ‘We need seating at first base at Jones Park.’ He said, ‘Get a price,’ and that’s how it funneled to the Fort Parks and Recreation,” Winn recalled.
One might wonder why a local hospital would do such a thing for one individual.
“When they hired me, I was asked to raise $3 million toward a $38 million project. I did it, and then some,” said Winn. “I got credit for being the point person on that fundraising, but in truth, there was a wealth of pent-up gratitude in this community toward the hospital — they hadn’t been asked (for donations) since 1968. I was plucking low-hanging fruit.”
The end project at Jones Park, according to Fort Atkinson Parks and Recreation Department director Scott Lastusky, was roughly $25,000 to $30,000.
“That includes the stadium seating itself, the railings and blacktop,” Lastusky said. “We listed the hospital as a lead-off donor, for without them, this obviously wouldn’t have been attempted. They made a major contribution through donations that came in from people that Joel worked with and who maybe were beneficiaries of what Joel raised for the hospital.
“We’re very fortunate, like Joel said, that there’s a history here that people want to be a part of, from buying either individual seats or some other sort of contribution,” Lastusky added.
Forty-six seats were added on the first-base side during the new phase of improvements, while another 76 are located on the third-base side. All 122 seats have been purchased by sponsors.
“The seats paid for themselves,” said Lastusky. “But the construction and all the other stuff were paid for by what I’ll call the ‘Friends of Joel Winn and the Fort Atkinson Generals.’”
Along with Winn’s honor Sunday, the dedication of the new stadium-style seating will take place in a ceremony beginning at 1 p.m.
A plaque behind the new first-base side seats bears the name of Joel Winn, Fort HealthCare, the Fort Generals Baseball Team, Friends of Joel Winn, the Klotz Family and the Fort Atkinson Parks and Recreation Department.
Fundraising is in Winn’s blood. In April 1996, storms whipped through Fort Atkinson and caused damage throughout the city. In the path of Mother Nature’s wrath was one of the wooden lightpoles at Jones Park, toppling it to the ground. Winn immediately stepped in.
“I was on the community foundation board and the (new) lights were $80,000, and I made the motion to the board to fund it to the tune of $40,000 and the city came up with the other $40,000, the Generals came up with $2,500, and before you knew it, we had beautiful lights,” recalled Winn. “That’s something I felt pretty good about.”
1993 Legion Tourney
Other Jones Park’s improvements began just prior to Fort Atkinson hosting the 1993 Class AA American Legion State Tournament. Winn, along with American Legion coach Jeff Boos, Legion Post 166 representative Gary Haag, Lastusky and former Daily Union sports editor John Close were the frontrunners of organizing the event, but they also wanted to put Jones Park on display.
“We identified some cosmetic things that needed attention, so I personally funded the painting of the scoreboard and the grandstand,” Winn said.
Seven American Legion baseball teams throughout the state flocked to Fort Atkinson that late July and early August, with Menasha claiming the 1993 Class AA title. Even then, visiting fans raved about the field.
Winn also helped in the fundraising for the expansion of the current concession stand and pressbox, which was finalized in 2005.
“Rarely did Joel ever just make a contribution; it came in his competitive nature with some other guys,” said Lastusky. “It was always some competition that got other people involved, no matter what it was.”
Fort Youth Baseball
Winn’s father was one of the founders of what Fort Atkinson views as its Little League program, the Fort Atkinson Youth Baseball League, and there is a plaque at Memorial Park that bears the name Harry L. Winn.
“He was one of the local dads who put that together; that was the city dump — they converted Diamond 1 out of the city dump. We played on a skinned infield that had broken glass, nails and pop/beer caps,” remembered Winn.
Harry Winn passed away in 1998.
Joel Winn has carried on that tradition, as have his children. Winn has served as treasurer of the Fort Atkinson Youth Baseball League for several decades.
“I was asked to be on the board in the ’70s, and I’ve been there since,” said Winn.
“As a young person, I grew up in that program. I played there and so did my brother, for Fort Home Building and Supply and Lions. I didn’t set the world on fire, but I also didn’t discover that I was nearsighted until college; had somebody bought me glasses before that, my batting average would have been improved,” Winn said.
Meanwhile, every Father’s Day, Winn’s two sons write a check to the FAYBL, out of the respect for the program in which they grew up, and their father and grandfather’s involvement.
“With every project at Memorial Park, Joel has led the way,” Lastusky said. “From lights to scoreboards, the concession stand — everything major — Joel not only was involved, he was the organizer and lead fundraiser.”
Jones Park in SI
Winn’s oldest son, Luke, is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and one of the premier college basketball aficionados. Not long ago, he and a fellow SI writer visited Jones Park, and the love affair was immediate.
“They were doing a baseball tour in the Midwest and they stood in front of the concession stand and his friend said, ‘This is the only ballpark in America that their soda is more expensive than beer. The tour starts here,’” said Winn. “They went to (Warner Park) in Madison, Dyersville, Iowa, for the Field of Dreams, took in Chicago Cubs and White Sox games and, I think, Detroit.”
From there, they put Jones Park on the iconic map, much to the pleasure of locals. That statement continues today because the world thinks that’s what they’re going to find when they visit Jones Park.
Love of the Game
This spring for the second time, Winn participated in the Milwaukee Brewers Fantasy Camp in Arizona. An avid Milwaukee Brewers fan and once longtime season ticketholder, he lived out his dream of dressing in a major league uniform and taking his cuts.
Part of the deal was playing in a game at Miller Park, which Winn did on July 20. In his second at bat, Winn was hit by a pitch on his left side, and he proudly displayed the bruise.
Leading up to his Miller Park debut, Winn took part in the batting practice with the Fort Atkinson Generals.
Junior Legion Coach
Winn also served as a coach for the Junior American Legion during the early 2000s.
“Today, I’m still watching players I coached — Josh Crandall, Nate Pfeifer, Bryan Wallace — play for the Fort Generals. I’m still taking pride in the pleasure of seeing them continue their baseball here in Fort Atkinson,” Winn said.
“My pleasure is to come down here and watch young Fort Atkinson athletes carry on a tradition that goes back to 1873,” he added.
While Joel Winn hasn’t ever made an official at bat at Jones Park, he has more than stepped up to the plate.
In memory of the late John and Delores Harrington, who both passed away on March 24, 2011, in an automobile crash, their family contributed $3,000 toward the new Sixth Street entrance at Jones Park.
The Harringtons both were avid supporters of the Fort Atkinson Generals.
A pair of pillars with huge baseballs on top, along with a plaque bearing their names, is located behind the new stadium seating.