Williamston track coach and history teach Mitch Lutzke readies for new chapter
The world of baseball history is Lutzke’s passion and he hopes to expand the legacy of Adrian’s Page Fence Giants team.
Williamston High School history teacher and track coach Mitch Lutzke has reached the finish line: he’s retiring from the classroom at the end of the 2022 school year. He spent 32 years – 27 at Williamston High – as a teacher.
“I have great kids this year, my teams will be okay … and I like my school district a lot,” Lutzke, 60, said. “But it’s time, and I want to go in a good frame of mind where I think I’m still pulling my weight and earning my and pay and not be the old guy who they say, ‘You know, 20 years ago, he was a pretty good teacher…’”
But Lutzke’s work as an educator spans even more time and more subjects; and a few years ago, it became intertwined with the legacy of one of Michigan’s best black baseball teams.
He earned a telecommunications degree from Michigan State working in radio broadcasting for several years before going back to school to become a history teacher. He and wife Karen moved back to MSU in 1990 when she was hired by the Spartans as their head women’s cross country and track and field coach. Lutzke taught at Gardner Middle School in Lansing for five years before moving to Williamston to coach track and field and teach social studies as well as video.
“I just wanted to spread knowledge of history … and give (people) access to information that they probably needed to know and then maybe open their doors of curiosity for their own examination,” said Lutzke. “I looked at giving news information (as helping) people make decisions in a democracy … I just do it in a classroom.”
Lutzke’s love of history started early; as a kid, he would read mini biographies and encyclopedias as a kid, fascinated by how and why things happened and what could have gone differently. Now, Lutzke doesn’t just love reading and teaching history – he also loves tracking it down and sharing it.
He wrote “The Life and Times of Kimber M. Snyder” in 2006, detailing the experiences of his great-great-grandfather as a Union soldier, and “Stories from Williamston’s Past” in 2014.
While working on his book about Williamston, Lutzke discovered articles about Lansing’s bustling minor league baseball scene in the 1890s. One team kept popping up: the Page Fence Giants, a black championship baseball team from Adrian, Michigan. Lutzke said they didn’t have much to do with his Williamston book, but he made a note to look into the team more. A few years later, Lutzke was looking for another book to write, and his interest in the Giants resurfaced.
It wasn’t difficult for Lutzke to find the team captivating: he’s a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Aside from the athletic aspect of baseball, Lutzke likes the historical, social and political dimensions of the game. The Giants were right up his alley as a local black baseball team that dominated teams – white or black – at a time of rampant racism, discrimination and segregation.
Lutzke thought there would be lots of information on the Giants, given their status as a championship baseball team, but his initial searches were disappointing. Experts on 19th-century black baseball had little to offer other than gratitude that Lutzke was working on a book. Even the Giants’ hometown of Adrian couldn’t help much.
“I (was) expecting to walk into some museum … and I would open up something and the light would beam in from the heavens and the angels would sing, and I would just have to chronicle what’s already there that nobody wanted to do,” said Lutzke. “They basically gave me a manila envelope with three or four pages in it of photocopied items. That was it.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m not sure I can get a magazine article out of this.’”
But after a couple years of research, poring through old newspaper articles and piecing together box scores and train schedules, Lutzke’s research grew into 274 pages and roughly 40,000 words. “The Page Fence Giants: A history of Black Baseball’s Pioneering Champions”, won a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2019 as well as the Robert Peterson Recognition Award from SABR.
“His book was the first and remains the only book-length treatment of one of the four or five most important 19th-century black baseball teams,” said Gary Gillette, chair of SABR Southern Michigan. “He filled in the details, corrected a lot of bad facts and myths and gave us a full picture of a really fascinating team with really important players.”
Writing “The Page Fence Giants” has given Lutzke the work on other projects in the baseball world. He began writing for The Tigers History Project website, which shares posts about Detroit baseball history; site owner and SABR Southern Michigan President Nathan Bierma contacted Lutzke because of the Page Fence Giants book. There have been a couple book signings and speaking engagements, too. Even so, Lutzke isn’t interested in focusing on himself.
“People said to me, ‘You know, the Page Fence Giants were just not on the map until, Mitch, you wrote this book,’ and I’m like, right, but remember, they did the work, I did the writing,” said Lutzke. “They traveled the backroads, they played … they did the work, I’m just someone presenting it.”
Lutzke has been instrumental in finding ways to get the team and its players recognized. He met with the Lansing Lugnuts over the summer of 2020, while the team ran Lemonade League games, to figure out how they could honor the Giants and important members of Page Fence, such as co-founder Bud Fowler.
The Lugnuts successfully nominated the Giants for the Michigan Baseball Hall of Fame in 2021 and held Page Fence Giants Night on June 19, 2021 to coincide with the induction. The Lugnuts wore Giants uniforms – black pants and jerseys with maroon lettering – and auctioned them off during and after the game. Proceeds went toward the restoration of Hamtramck Stadium, one of five major Negro League ballparks still remaining in the United States. This year, the Lugnuts will have a Bud Fowler bobblehead night on June 24.
“To be able to get to know people because of a great historian sharing their story … through the words in which the contemporaries described it is so important,” said Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, radio broadcaster and media relations coordinator for the Lugnuts. “It’s such a wonderful thing to be able to tell their story through Mitch’s dutiful, scholarly work.”
Retirement will let Lutzke work on other projects. He’s working on another history book about Williamston, and will still write articles about history and the Tigers. As president of the Williamston Depot Museum, he’ll put together new exhibits. He’ll travel to Cooperstown, New York, this summer for Bud Fowler’s National Baseball Hall of Fame induction. One of Lutzke’s goals is Page Fence-oriented: find descendants of Giants players and share the team’s history with them.
“I’m going to try to run these people down .. and they ain’t buying the book, I’m going to give it to them, and say, ‘This is my gift to your family for … what your ancestors did for our country,” said Lutzke. “Their families probably don’t … even know about the greatness of their ancestors playing on this championship team … that’s what I’m doing, I’m going to keep plugging away at this.”
Lutzke’s days as a teacher are almost over. But his days as an educator are far from finished.