By Mike Chapman
Seldom has the term “hometown hero” held greater significance than in Elkader, Iowa. There, in the cozy community of some 1,270 residents snuggled into the far northeastern section of the state, the name Jack Dittmer looms very large, and has for nearly 70 years!
“He has probably been the No. 1 citizen of this town for decades,” said Rick Dengler, who moved to the area 11 years ago and, with his wife, Julie, started the popular Barn on the Bluff bed and breakfast just south of town. “He is so outstanding as a person, everyone’s so proud of him.
“In fact, all the surrounding towns seem to feel the same way. Everyone knows Jack Dittmer. It’s like Elkader is the hometown of a president. He’s a true legend.”
The legend began with John D. “Jack” Dittmer’s birth on Jan. 10, 1928, in Elkader. He was a sensational high school athlete, earning 12 letters and all-state honors in both football and basketball. He moved on to the University of Iowa in the fall of 1946. As a Hawkeye, he won nine letters — one of only six athletes to ever accomplish that, and the last to do so. He won four letters each in football and baseball, and one in basketball.
In his final football season, Dittmer set five school records in pass receiving and was honorable mention All-American as an end. He was voted the team’s most valuable player, and drew raves during the season for his receptions.
“A colorful player, many of Dittmer’s catches were nothing short of sensational,” wrote an Iowa official in 1949. “His two touchdowns against Boston had Easterners agog. Typical of his spectacular catches was his first touchdown against Wisconsin. While being guarded by two Badgers, Dittmer made a diving catch of a partially-deflected ball in the end zone, gathering it in just before it hit the ground.”
He was just as skilled in baseball. As a second baseman, he handled 107 fielding chances his senior year with just one error. He helped the Hawkeyes win the Big Ten championship in 1949 and was named second team All-American that season.
Though he would have preferred to play in the NFL, Jack figured that at 160 pounds he was too small for that level of football and signed with the Boston Braves to play baseball. It was a decision that would make him a star in the Elkader area for the rest of his life.
Entering the minor leagues shortly after graduation from Iowa, Dittmer went on a tear. He batted .373 with Denver in 1950, and the next year batted .334 with Atlanta and led the Southern Association with 42 doubles. He moved on to the Milwaukee franchise in the American Association, hitting .356 in 57 games before the parent team, the Boston Braves, pulled him up to the major leagues.
On June 17, 1952, the 24-year-old Iowan made his major league debut with Boston. The very next season, the Braves moved to Milwaukee to become a member of the National League. Dittmer had his best season that year. Known primarily for his slick fielding, he batted .265, hit nine homers, 22 doubles and drove in 63 runs. The Braves set a new attendance record and third baseman Eddie Matthews slugged 47 home runs to lead the league. After the 1953 season, it appeared that the former Hawkeye was a key part of something very special.