American Legion Baseball Keeps On Paying Back
Look around, there’s probably a high-octane American Legion baseball tournament game at a ballpark near you. But look fast. Legion teams are already in state tournament elimination tournaments this week. Seems like we’re barely into actual summer, and the actual summer American Legion baseball season is ending for about half the remaining teams, every day.
Legion baseball is one of the best-kept secrets around. You rarely find the results in any newspaper or on television sportscasts, and there doesn’t seem to be any valid reason for the scarcity of information. Apparently, there isn’t much of a network set up for reporting the results to the media, and the media is just going along with the rest of us, recovering from Windchill season just in time to back off a bit and relax for Dog Day season.
But for those who were lucky enough to chase down the occasional high school baseball game that was played in this area in the springtime, the intensity and the skill level of the ball games was impressive. Always is. OIt’s one of the more remarkable sports achievements in the Northeast Minnesota region that baseball among high school age players is as good as it is, considering how short the season is.
But when that too-short high school season ends, the Twin Cities teams, with their “southern” exposure to warmer temperatures earlier, dominate the state tournaments. After that, the high school players branch out and play for whatever American Legion post is nearest. Think of it as Little League for teenagers. High school players up to age 19 are eligible, and the competition is usually very good. Especially in the Northland, where it seems as though the players are eager to celebrate the arrival of warm weather that they play with a little extra fire.
Last week I drove around trying to find a Legion game, just to see where we were at. I drove past Hermantown’s field -- no game. I drove past Proctor’s field, same thing. I drove down by Wade Stadium, and the Huskies were out of town and nothing was going on. Heading for home, I drove up 40th Avenue East and, sure enough, there was action at Ordean Field. Or what used to be Ordean Field, and is now probably Duluth East/Ordean Field, or something like that.
One team was wearing red, but it wasn’t East. It was Superior, which always seems to be in blue, but not this time. Their post is named the Reds, and it says Reds on their jerseys. The other team was in black, and that was the nucleus of the Duluth East team, playing for the Lakeview Legion post.
This was last Saturday, and Lakeview had a big day, winning 5-0 in the first game, and coming from a deficit of 2-0 or 2-1 to win 4-2 in the second game. Tournament play came next for Lakeview, which was to learn its seeding and first-game foe earlier this week. The Superior guys also were heading for tournament play, on the Wisconsin side.
In Legion ball these days, they have Division I for the bigger programs, and Division II for the smaller areas. Both tournaments have started already in District 8, and will continue as the week goes along, in double-elimination format.
Years ago, the Duluth area was hotly competitive in American Legion baseball. I grew up living outside the East End of Duluth, in Lakewood, and I could catch rides with my mom into Portman Square, on 47th and McCulloch, every day and spend those youthful days practicing baseball and making up pickup games.
Getting older, after the sixth grade at Lakewood School, we were bused into town, but not to nearby East; there was talk East was overcrowded, but we knew the upper-class East folks didn’t want these country kids coming in and infiltrating. So we were bused to Washington Junior and then Central High School. It made for an interesting situation for a baseball kid, like me.
All summer, every summer, I played with the kids from East, who became close friends, and we played our best against the kids from the downtown -- the Central area kids -- as well as Woodland, the West Duluth Cubs, Morgan Park, Esko, Cloquet, Two Harbors Silver Bay. But our prime rival was the downtown kids, with whom I later went to junior high and high school with, and became good friends.
By the time we got to high school, I continued to play for the Zenith City American Legion Post with the Lakeside and Lester Park kids I’d played with all my life, while the kids I knew in high school grew up to play for the David Wisted Post. But in high school, I played for Central, against my summer buddies from East. Made for some great rivalry games, because the talent level of the two areas was pretty even.
Our home games for Zenith City were at Ordean Field, which was an oddly shaped facility with a long, angular grandstand, and then a vast open field that actually had two softball fields in the outfield, one in left and the other about a block away in right. The entire infield was grass, except for the pitching mound.
One of my sports thrills was that our Central team, under new coach Jim Norwick, won our league championship. We had some great players: pitchers Dan Howard and Rich Tanski, catcher Bill McGann, third baseman Dick Holte, Mickey Farrell and Larry Greenberg at second base, a herd of good outfielders, led by Dennis Morgan, and I was at shortstop. Not much of a hitter in those days, but I had a pretty good glove and a real live arm. We beat my buddies from East, and went on to win the District 26 title, although our optimism was short-circuited when we ran into an Eveleth team with a fireballing righthander named Roy Nystrom in the Region 7 tournament.
When summertime came, I switched allegiances again, and rejoined the Zenith City team. We had some good players, like future UMD hockey and football star Dick Fisher, another UMD hockey player in Bill Savolainen, heavy-throwing pitcher Larry Conrad, and a couple of secret weapons. Morgan Park had run out of bodies and couldn’t field a full team, so John Gornick and Jim Udevich were allowed to join our team. Udevich was a solid-hitting outfielder, and Gornick was a multi-sports star and an outstanding left-handed pitcher/first baseman. But they didn’t join us until the season was underway.
We opened the season at Ordean, against Wisted. The Wisted guys, my high school teammates, were flushed with confidence, and big left-hander Dan Howard was out on the mound, where he would spend his summer preparing for a future of pitching with the Gophers.
We got through the top of the first, and came up to bat. At Central, I didn’t hit much, but I learned a lot. Among the things I learned was that Dan Howard was really fast, but he got by only with that fastball, and his curveball was a nonentity. Didn’t matter, because he could blow down most foes with fastballs. I stepped into the batter’s box, and ignored the heckles from my Central buddies. In my mind, I knew Dan Howard was going to throw fastballs -- especially to me, his light-hitting former teammate.
So I dug in, and convinced myself that there was no need to be intimidated. He’d fire fastballs, and I’d swing, and either miss it or hit it. First pitch was a missile, but I swung from the heels. My reaction time was not as quick as Dan Howard’s fastball, but I made solid contact in my own, late-swinging fashion of the moment, and to my surprise -- and the Wisted players‘ universal shock -- the ball sailed off into right field, down the line for a clean, opposite field double.
Seems to me we lost that game, although I can’t remember. I do remember growing up a whole bunch with that one swing -- a lot more than I would have had I swung and missed at that pitch. That instant maturation pushed me to a really great summer, and my batting average rose on a direct parallel with my confidence.
It worked in the field, too, because at shortstop I felt like I could catch up to any grounder hit between second base and our third baseman, and my favorite play was to backhand a hard hit ball deep in the hole, and rocket a throw across to nail the batter at first. I was by no means a standout; just an emerging player who loved the game.
The high point of that summer was that Gornick emerged as a true pitching standout, and we kept winning, until we won the tournament championship. Yup, we beat Wisted, along with tough Esko and Cloquet teams. We didn’t have enough depth to go very far toward the state tournament, but that didn’t matter. For years, every time I ran into any of my old Central buddies, I could just say I couldn’t understand it, but I was the only player who played for both Central and Zenith City -- the two teams that won both championships.
All of those memories came back in the last week, because of two circumstances. First, we only had nine guys so I played as an aging veteran on the 35-and-over Senior Men’s baseball team I manage, down at Edina last Friday. We rallied from behind to win 8-7 in the final inning. Next day, I stood behind the screen at the all new and magnificently redesigned Ordean field, watching this year’s American Legion teams fight it out for tournament advancement.
Kids of all ages can play baseball, some keep on playing it, and a few never get enough of it.
Catch a game, if you can find one. But hurry.
John Gilbert has been writing sports for
over 30 years. Formerly with the Star Tribune and WCCO. He currently hosts a daily radio show on KDAL AM.