at 70 years young, Arly Schelhaus Hangs up the Cleats at the 2020 Fastpitch Masters
By Mike Drooger
According to Chris Hogan, a financial coach at Dave Ramsey Solutions, the average American male retires by the age of sixty-two. And Ronald Black, who authored the article The Age of Sports—When Do Athletes Begin to Decline Within Their Sport? noted the typical athlete notices a steady decline around the age of thirty-five.
Edgerton’s Arly Schelhaas has defied the odds on both accounts—when to retire and when to decline. He’s been playing softball in South Dakota’s Senior League for 30 years, which might not sound like much until you realize Arly didn’t start playing in South Dakota until he was 40. A little math is all it takes to determine Arly is 70 years old. And he’s decided 70 is the right time to walk away from the game he loves, but it won’t be easy. “Even at the age of 70, it is hard to say ‘this is it’ especially because it is the game I love,” Arly posted on Facebook after his final weekend of softball.
Arly started playing softball in 1966 when he was 16. “My dad coached a fastpitch team for a church league in Pipestone. I played on that team with my dad through 1969 when I was drafted into the Army,” Arly reported. He recalls three men that still call Edgerton home—Jerold Schoolmeester, Art Bleyenburg, and Jim Achterhoff—playing on that team.
When asked how many games he thought he had played over the years, Arly estimated it to be around 2,500. “Some summers we’d played up to 80 games in a season,” Arly said. He also surmised he played over a thousand slowpitch games.
When talking about those early years of his softball career, Arly said, “I played with my Dad those three years before I went to the service. When I got out of the service in 1972, brothers Ron and Doug and I wanted to honor our dad, so we all played in the church league in Pipestone with him in 1972. It was so worth it. It was very memorable because we won the championship that year!”
That 1972 championship with his brothers and dad is Arly’s number one fondest memory of softball. Memory number two is the camaraderie and friendships built over the years, and number three fondest memory is a stretch during his playing days when he had hits in 13 consecutive at-bats.
When you’ve played softball for as long as Arly has, you make a lot of friends along the way. And if you have Arly’s outgoing, positive personality, the friends aren’t just teammates. Even opponents such as Gary Young, the commissioner for USA Softball of South Dakota, were respectful of Arly. “Whether you were playing against or playing with him, there was one thing you were guaranteed—that big smile, a sincere ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and a compliment when you had a good hit, a defensive gem, and even if the pitcher struck him out,” noted Young.
Arly played a lot of softball games over the years for different teams and in many locations, but he’ll always be remembered for playing with Edgerton’s JB’s, a team named for his dad, John. The team was known as John’s Boys, which was shortened to JB’s.
Robert Petersen, manager of the Ewert Rec. Center in Pipestone, high school softball coach, and fastpitch softball player said, “If you think of the JB’s, you think of Arly. He was a fierce competitor who enjoyed the game and he was one of the most feared power hitters I have played against. Most important, Arly is a great person.”
Curt Vander Stoep, who lives in Lakeville, Minn., not only played fastpitch softball with Arly, but he played slowpitch softball and town team basketball with him as well. Vander Stoep stated, “As a teammate and friend he is a class act!”
Huck Tinklenberg, one of Country Lumber’s main men, played with Arly for many years. Tinklenberg said, “Arly had that unusual ability to coach and play at the same time.” Tinklenberg recalls Arly’s International Harvester Travelall. “It was always interesting piling ten guys in there and heading for a tournament!”
Shane Bouman, who grew up around softball and has coached at five colleges including Northwestern in Orange City where he is currently the head coach, recalls, “Arly and the Edgerton JB's were the best team in the area for years and when we started as the Ruthton Rookies they were the standard. They were the top of the Tri-County League and a lot of that was due to Arly Schelhaas. Arly was a staple at third base and the number three or four hitter. I hated to face Arly because if I made a mistake—bomb! Arly was a staple of the JB's and softball in SW Minnesota.”
Fastpitch softball was at its peak in the 1980s and into the 90s in southwest Minnesota. The Tri-County Fastpitch League that Bouman referred to had 13 teams—from Woodstock to Jasper, Holland to Verdi, and Edgerton to Lake Benton. Arly’s JB’s won the title in 1982 finishing 19-3 in league play and 42-22 overall. In 1983 they went 56-13 and they had a 52-19 overall record in 1984 when they finished 5th in the State Tournament. In the five games at State, Arly went a collective 8-for-15. In 1985 the JB’s won the Holland Tournament and Arly batted 7-for-16 in four games. They won the league title in ’85 and ’86 and they also won the Leota Tournament in 1985 where Arly went 8-for-17 in seven games.
Arly’s son Chase, who lives in Omaha with his wife Hilary and their four children, remembers his dad playing multiple days a week, plus weekend tournaments all summer long for around 40 years. “I always loved going to games and tournaments with him as a kid. I made it to every game I was allowed to go.” Chase’s best memory of his dad and softball occurred in a tourney in Fargo in the 1990s. “Dad was playing for Greg’s Welding and they were down by a run or two in the top of the 7th. He blasted a three-run homer to left field that won the game!”
Arly’s “baby brother” Jeff, who teaches and coaches in Pipestone, called his brother the heart and soul of the Edgerton JB’s. “He was the only player to play every year the JB’s existed. He did everything in his power to put a competitive team on the field and most years he succeeded.”
Jeff recalls Arly doing part of his milk route on a Saturday morning, taking his milk truck to a game, and then finishing the route when the game was over. “That showed his dedication to the game.” Jeff also remembers one night in Holland, Arly hit a drive beyond the lights, as they had no fence. The fielder could not see the ball as Arly rounded the bases for another home run. “There are many people I really enjoyed playing softball within my years as a player. Arly Schelhaas was at the top of that list. He taught me to love the game and how to be successful playing it,” Jeff concluded.
Ron Zwart—teacher and coach at Edgerton Public School—grew up across the street from the Schelhaas family but, being 12 years younger than Arly, didn’t really get to know Arly until he was 19 and playing for the JB’s. “Arly was always the manager of the team, but I know he got a lot of good to advise from John B., his dad,” Zwart said he has thousands of memories of playing softball with Arly but, in a nutshell, he, like all the others that contributed to this story, said Arly is a very compassionate person. “He loves the game. He always played to win and is as fierce a competitor as I have ever been around. He had the ability to raise people up, to make everybody around him better. He approached every game the same whether we were playing a team with no wins or we were traveling to Mankato on a Tuesday night to play Happy Chef. On every given night they were going to see the best version of Arly, and he was going to make sure his teammates did the same.”
As far as off the field, Zwart said Arly loves his family and he appreciates his friends “and he has many.” Zwart also said, “His sense of humor is another quality that will always define him. We had lots of laughs. That will always be my best memory of Arly.”
Bob Stoel, teacher and coach at Central Christian in Prinsburg, had the pleasure of playing with Arly and the JB’s in 1987. “I was 19 and had never played fastpitch softball. I grew up around it, watching my dad play for the Edgerton Indees. I must have done okay because Arly asked if I'd be interested in playing with them the following summer,” Stoel said.
Stoel continued, “Arly was this big, lanky guy who just made things look easy. He didn't seem that muscular, but he had so much power as a hitter. By the time I got to play with the JB’s, Arly was in his upper 30's, but you'd never have guessed it. Since he's finally retiring, it turns out in '88-'89 he was just getting warmed up!”
Stoel also said, “Arly was kind of this combination of ultra-competitive and ultra-nice guy. He was kind of a ‘gentle giant’. One of the things I remember was how Arly seemed to know everyone. And everyone seemed to know him. The JB's were good, so a lot of teams maybe didn't care for them because of it, but everyone seemed to really like Arly. Our paths have crossed periodically since and he's always so gracious and wants to know how things are going. He's just a really good man.”
Bob’s dad Leroy Stoel said, “Arly and I were on opposing teams but he was fun to play against. A fierce competitor on the field, but he was the first to shake hands after the game. He truly loved the game of fastpitch softball and it showed the way he played.”
Curt Vander Stoep remembers Arly being more than just a player and a leader on the team. “He also organized schedules, transportation, and equipment.” And Vander Stoep noted Arly was very competitive and always made each game enjoyable.
Kent Woelber, the “Pepsi Man” who lives in Holland, noted he began playing against Arly in 1981. “The man has never aged! He was a feared hitter and a great defender. He was so steady and smooth and very competitive, which I liked. I can never remember the guy blowing up or getting upset. He just went about his business and let his defense and hitting do the talking. We had many battles on the field over the 15 years I played. The man is a legend and I’m glad I had the chance to watch him and play against him and call him a friend. ”
Commissioner Gary Young said, “I have had the pleasure of both playing with Arly and against him for a lot of years. Arly has played games against three generations of my family—my grandson Parker, both sons (Travis and JD), and myself. My son JD pitches and still considers Arly a tough out, even at 70! You have to keep it high and tight on him so that those arms cannot get extended. Arly was the guy you liked to have wear your uniform as not only was he a good hitter, but defensively he also could play most places on the diamond, which was the same reason that you did not want Arly on the other team. Many times his bat would take a lead away from his opponent. Arly and the Schelhaas boys were competitive as all get-out, but we loved having them play here. Arly said that he only missed one Masters Tournament in South Dakota. That was the year he had his 40th wedding anniversary. And we thought he had priorities! I am sure he will be around the diamonds in the future, but not having him on the diamond will be different.”
Merle Veenhof, who lives in Huron, South Dakota, has memories of Arly and the rest of the Schelhaas family that go back to their childhoods. “We used to go to town on Wednesday and Saturday nights in the summer when we’d bring eggs to Ben Hendriks. I’d get dropped off at Schelhaases on Mechanic Street and there was always a softball game going on in the backyard by the barn. Man, we had fun!” Veenhof played fastpitch softball against Arly and with him. “He was kind of scrawny in high school, but he filled out in the Army and he sure could hit that ball. And he always seemed to stay injury-free,” Veenhof concluded.
Curt Zwart, who lives in Sioux Falls, played many games with Arly. He was there the weekend Arly retired and saw first hand his final at-bat. “In his last at-bat, this 70-year-old guy hit a line-drive double off the left-center field fence. I could not have been happier for him. What a way to end a career!” Zwart was impressed with the number of players that congratulated Arly on his final game and brilliant career. “There was a line of people waiting to talk to him! I was so grateful to be there for his last game. I gave him a big ‘man hug’ and in typical Arly fashion all he said was, ‘I love you man.’”
Zwart also praised Arly’s great sense of humor, his ability to play the game thanks to his awesome talent, his competitiveness, his faith in God, and his genuine love for his teammates. “I think the love for his teammates is what kept him playing ball for so many years.”
Zwart, like Huck Tinklenberg, recalls the Travelall vehicle Arly owned. “It always felt like the circus was arriving as what probably seemed like 15 or so of us climbed out the ‘clown car.’ I remember Arly laughing about it and never taking money for gas. He was just happy to have us all there.”
Zwart also said, “Arly was as competitive of a person on the softball field as anyone that I’ve been around. Nobody wanted to win more than Arly; however, I don’t recall Arly ever using any profanity either during or after a game. He was always very classy in how he handled himself.”
Troy Bouman, who as head coach has built the Pipestone Arrows into one of Minnesota’s best high school softball programs, played with Arly, and called him “an amazing player and person.” Bouman added: “Still to this day, Arly can hit the ball. He loves to hit the right-center gap with power like he has done his whole career. Arly’s love for the game of softball rubbed off on a lot of people. I miss those days of the old Tri-County League.”
Gene Van’t Hof played fastpitch softball for Leota for 25 years. He echoed the same sentiments of the other men quoted in this article. “Arly was a good guy…super nice. He had a passion for the game. His dad John was the same way. They were a special family,” Van’t Hof stated. “Those days of fastpitch were a lot of fun. We were all competitive, took the game very seriously, but we had a good time.”
Van’t Hof played with Arly at some of the over 40 tournaments in Watertown. “That guy (Arly) could play any position. He’d say, ‘You guys pick the position you want and I’ll take what’s left.’” Van’t Hof also pointed out Arly’s passion for the game and the fact he couldn’t think of a single enemy of Arly. “Everybody likes the guy.”
Chad Boom, an Ellsworth fastpitch player who was later named the 2004 USA Softball Player of the Year, said, “I played against Arly back in the 80s and 90s. I can remember Arly was always a very tough out. He was one of the most respected players and also one of the nicest.”
Travis Folkens—from Rock Rapids but now living in Sioux Falls—played against Arly in the Border League when Arly played for the Hills Indees. “The thing that amazes me about Arly was how well he moved for he was in his 50s/60s at the time. He was so smooth in the field and around the bases. But for as great as he moved, his hitting was his calling card. Being as tall as he is, there wasn’t a part of the plate he couldn’t cover and yet his hands were quick enough he could hit inside pitches too.”
While Curt Zwart had a great view of Arly’s last game in Sioux Falls, Folkens had probably the best view—pitcher. “I struck him out once but he was on base three times including hits in his last two at-bats.” Folkens also remembers the crowd after the game when they learned Arly was retiring. “The fans around the field gave him a standing ovation. It was a great moment for a great guy!” Folkens concluded.
Arly stated his favorite position over the years was shortstop. “I played that most of my years, but I did play every position except pitcher at one time or another.” The JB’s folded in 1992 and the players went their separate ways for about two years. Then Arly’s brother Jeff, along with Ron and Curt Zwart, began playing with the Buffalo Ridge team, which included players from the Holland squad. They won the Minnesota State Championship in 1997.
When asked what advice he’d give young players, Arly recalled his early years. “In my first few years, I was beyond competitive, like arguing with umps and just taking it too seriously. When I settled down, and just enjoyed the game, I played better and had more success. Arly concluded: “My advice would be, enjoy the game; you can still be very competitive.”
That is very sound advice from a man that’s seen about everything there is to see on a softball field for 54 years and 3,500 games.