Former Aggie donates winning baseball to alma mater
The leather has yellowed and cracked, and most of the names inscribed between red stitches have faded. But for Bill Ernst, the ancient ball is a time capsule – a window on a memorable day during an unforgettable season playing baseball at Colorado A&M.
“It’s one of the more pleasant memories from my sporting days,” Ernst recalled.
A few things you should know about Bill Ernst: He graduated from Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, as CSU was formerly known, with a bachelor’s degree in forestry in 1939. At 101 years old, he’s one of the University’s oldest living alumni. He never really expected to be on the field that day at the University of Denver, when the treasured ball became part of his life. He has also led a remarkable life and blazed a trail for four generations of CSU students.
For Ernst, the circumstances leading up to that day were all a happy accident. He grew up in Kansas City, the son of a sheet-metal worker, and had never heard of Colorado A&M or thought about going to school in Fort Collins until he read a newspaper article describing a career in forestry.
“A life in the North woods appealed to me above all considerations at the time,” he said.
So, after completing a two-year degree at an area community college, Ernst and a friend – who just happened to be studying at A&M – hopped a freight train to Denver, then hitchhiked to Fort Collins in the fall of 1937.
The baseball coach, Andy Clark, held an open tryout to fill out his thin roster. Ernst, a star quarterback in high school, made the team and opened the season as the starting right fielder when the Aggies took on rival Wyoming.
And what a debut it was! Ernst belted a home run in his first collegiate at-bat, leading A&M to a victory playing on a field he recalled as “a god-awful cow pasture.” It was the only home run of his two- year career, but it served as a catalyst for a successful season.
But back to the ball. The Aggies were battling DU for the Mountain States Conference title, and the final game of the season would determine the champion. Led by star shortstop Joe Peters, a future member of the CSU Sports Hall of Fame, the Rams led 11-10 and were one out away from clinching the conference championship.
Peters positioned Ernst in deep right field to defend against the Pioneers’ best hitter – a slugging catcher known for belting home runs. Sure enough, the ball was launched in the direction of Ernst, who made the catch to secure the title.
The celebration on the bus ride back to Fort Collins included an autograph session: Clark and all of his players signed the ball. Ernst, who claimed the successful catch, proudly displayed the winning ball in his South Carolina home until recently donating it to the CSU Hall of Fame display at Moby Arena.
The obvious worn spots on the ball were created when Ernst taught his son, Malcolm, how to throw and catch. Malcolm later died of leukemia at age 16.
Ernst fulfilled a dream by working for decades in the timber industry. He was the only survivor of a horrific car accident more than six decades ago, then walked away from a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer 20 years ago, despite being thrown some 100 yards from his vehicle.
“The guy is indestructible,” said grandson Jason Weinland, who graduated from CSU with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1987. Ernst’s daughter, Carol Ann, attended CSU, as did grandson Weinland and his son, Cole, who graduated in Spring 2018 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
On the other side of the family tree, Weinland’s paternal grand-father, Ernest Weinland, was the state senator who sponsored legislation leading to the transition of A&M to Colorado State University in 1957. Their story as a legacy family is featured on the third floor of the Lory Student Center.
Ernst, who has lived on his own until a recent fall limited his mobility, said he was happy to donate his 80-year-old treasure to his alma mater. He recently saw a team photo from 1938 and identified every player while sharing stories about the historic season.
“Gramps really is a remarkable guy,” Weinland said. “We’re all thrilled that the ball will be on display at CSU.”