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Baseball at Mount Rushmore

By Bill Nowlin , November 8, 2015
Mount Rushmore National Memorial Credit: Carol McMains

At some point early in 2012, I realized that I had never been to North Dakota. I thought I’d been to all 50 states but couldn’t recall visiting North Dakota. So I planned a trip with my son. Although we stepped foot in North Dakota, most of the sites we visited—Deadwood, Sturgis, Devil’s Tower (in Wyoming), the town of Nowlin, South Dakota (population 7)—were in surrounding states. Naturally, the trip also included Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore, of course, is a National Memorial. The day we visited, we had lunch at Carver’s Café, and since it is a cafeteria, we took trays to hold our food. The trays, I noticed, depicted a baseball team, the Rushmore Memorial Drillers. There were a few photos and text that read:

Lincoln Borglum was a great baseball fan, and he wanted a team for Mount Rushmore. In 1938 and 1939 Lincoln hired men who were good baseball players to work on the carving. They practiced after work and played games on Sunday afternoons. The ball diamond was located in Keystone. The popular sport added some camaraderie between the players who worked together on the mountain. The whole community supported the team.

The “greatest game of all” was the semi-finals between Rushmore and the highly-favored Brookings team at the 1939 State Amateur Baseball Tournament. With no score going into the tenth inning, Rushmore catcher McNally walked with one away. Then 18-year-old right fielder Nick Clifford (pictured at left) smashed a line drive triple into right center field to send McNally home with the run that meant victory. Clifford came in on a wild pitch and the game ended 2-0. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum attended the game, and afterwards invited both the Rushmore and the Brookings teams and their wives to a dinner party – a fine gesture. The Drillers came in third place in the tournament.

You can see more pictures of the Rushmore team in the Memorial Team Ice Cream Shop.

Credit: Otto Bochman, NPS Volunteer, Mount Rushmore National Memorial

As it happened, I also noticed an elderly man in the shop signing copies of a book. He was one of the men who had worked on sculpting Mount Rushmore more than 70 years earlier. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was Nick Clifford!

I later learned that Nick’s wife, Carolyn, had written the text on the Carver’s Café trays.

After leaving the area, I realized there might be an interesting story about the baseball team at Mount Rushmore. I reached out to the National Park Service and heard back from Zane Martin. Martin was “Museum Specialist/Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower & Jewel Cave,” and she’s been on the job since 2007, when she first began as a museum tech. She’s still there in 2015. So is Donald Leo “Nick” Clifford, a native of Pierre, South Dakota, born on July 5, 1921. His father was a cigarmaker and a mining promoter. The family moved to Keystone—a small town next to Mount Rushmore—in 1924. By age 15, Nick had quit school and was working for the Consolidated Feldspar Company both in their mine and at their mill.

Nick was hired to work on the Mount Rushmore project, initially on a number of jobs “below the mountain” but later as a winchman on top of the heads of the presidents and a driller in front of the faces. He worked for three years helping carve the heads of the four U.S. presidents, Gutzon Borglum’s spectacular sculpture.

2009 Topps American Heritage #62 Gutzon Borglum Trading Card
Source: The Trading Card Database, tradingcarddb.com

In all, there were usually 20 to 25 men working on the project. Nick’s pay as a winchman was 55 cents per hour. As a driller, he got 65 cents per hour. They worked a 48-hour week, eight hours a day, six days a week. There was no overtime and no pension for retirement.

Sundays were free, however, and the men enjoyed playing baseball. In fact, with eight-hour days, there was time to get in some ball after work. Growing up in Keystone, Clifford recalled, “We played baseball every day, rain or shine.”[1] He’d also played with the Junior Legion team in Keystone.

Nick pitched and played right field for the Keystone team. There was no one to train them so he just relied on “throwing as hard as I could” with an occasional curve mixed in. Most of the towns in the area had teams, and Rapid City had a couple of them. His first year with the Mount Rushmore team, at Keystone, was 1938. They did well enough and made it to the state tournament at Aberdeen but lost in the first round. “Just getting to the state level was a great way to end our first season,” he said. “The players and the fans were very proud of our team.”[2]

In 1939, they returned to the state tournament. Gutzon Borglum’s son, Lincoln, was the big baseball fan, and he ordered up cream-colored uniforms that read “Rushmore Memorial” on the front in red. There was an emblem of Mount Rushmore on the back. It was created from an earlier photograph and showed just three of the four faces—Teddy Roosevelt was missing. Fans were able to order up white and red jackets, and many did, wearing them to the games.

The Rushmore Memorial Drillers baseball team of 1939.
Courtesy of Nick and Carolyn Clifford  

Team personnel on the 1939 team were (front row): Orville Worman (SS), Ted Crawford (LHP), Casey Jones (RF), his brother Glen Jones (2B), Howdy Peterson (3B), Nick Clifford (RHP), and (back row): Bob McNally (C), Al Johnson (1B), Manager Red Anderson, Norman Newell (an extra pitcher, not a regular on the team and had not worked on the mountain), and Howdy’s brother Merle Peterson (CF). Another Rushmore worker, Ed Hayes, was the umpire.[3]

Umpire Mac McKeague had worked the August 31, 1939, game, which he called “the greatest game I ever worked.” It was a pitcher’s duel between Rushmore’s lefty, Ted Crawford, and Brookings’ Gerry Hertz. Rushmore was the underdog, and Hertz threw a no-hitter for the first nine innings. Neither team made an error in the game. In the 10th, catcher McNally walked and Clifford tripled him in, followed by the wild pitch that permitted Clifford to score. “It was the tensest game I ever worked,” McKeague said.[4] Crawford kept the game ball, which most of the players signed afterward, and some 64 years later (in 2003) he presented it to “little Nickie Clifford” (as Louella James Borglum, Lincoln’s wife, described him in a letter to her mother-in-law the very next day).[5] The ball is on display at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center.

After the thrilling extra-inning game in 1939, the Rushmore team placed third statewide. Several of the players left for other jobs in 1940 and team play suffered. The team then disbanded. Clifford played for Tom’s Bar in Rapid City in 1941 and 1942. He entered military service and was in the 8th Army Air Force Signal Corps.

For a decade after the war, Clifford learned the dry cleaning trade from his brother, and Nick ran his own shop for a decade. From 1957 to 1967 he leased and operated the Sylvan Lake Resort at Custer State Park, South Dakota. When the lease expired, he says, “I moved to Houston, Texas, so I could attend baseball games in the newly built Astrodome.”[6] He married Carolyn Moen in 1974, and the couple moved back to Keystone to open the Dip-A-Lot Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop, which they ran until retirement.

In 1997, they bought the old house in Keystone where Nick had grown up and renovated it. During summers, he signs copies of his book and talks to visitors at Mount Rushmore. To have worked on the iconic sculpture has perhaps taken on more meaning to him over time. He says, “It makes me proud to be an American to have worked on something like this.”[7]

Courtesy of Nick and Carolyn Clifford

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Sources:

The principal source for information about Clifford and the baseball game comes from Mount Rushmore Q&A by Don “Nick” Clifford (Tucson: Arizona Lithographers, 2004). The book, and an accompanying baseball card, may be ordered through the website www.mountrushmorecarver.com.

Thanks to Carolyn and Nick Clifford, and to Zane Martin, for a careful reading of the first draft of this article.


[1] Don “Nick” Clifford, Mount Rushmore Q&A (Tucson: Arizona Lithographers, 2004), x.
[2] Ibid., 46.
[3] Author interview with Carolyn and Nick Clifford, April 13, 2015, and e-mail from Carolyn Clifford later the same day.
[4] Raymond S. Griffiths, “Grif’s Grafs,” Rapid City Journal.
[5] Letter from Louella James Borglum to Mrs. Gutzon Borglum, September 1, 1939.
[6] Clifford, Mount Rushmore Q&A, 65.
[7] Text, reverse of Don (Nick) Clifford baseball card.

 

 

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