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Archive for Saturday, July 28, 2007

Legion baseball thrives in birthplace

July 28, 2007

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The granite monument on the corner of "Unity Square" proclaims Milbank, S.D., as the birthplace of American Legion baseball. Legion baseball is played by high school-age children in all 50 states.

The granite monument on the corner of "Unity Square" proclaims Milbank, S.D., as the birthplace of American Legion baseball. Legion baseball is played by high school-age children in all 50 states.

— The Milbank nine jog out of their dugout and line up on the third-base line. The opponent from 90 miles away, Aberdeen, follows suit on the first-base side.

In monotone unison, the players repeat the American Legion code of sportsmanship:

"I will:
Keep the rules. Keep faith with my teammates.
Keep my temper. Keep myself fit. Keep a stout heart in defeat.
Keep my pride under in victory.
Keep a sound soul. A clean mind.
And a healthy body."

After an admonition from the public-address announcer to show proper respect to the flag, a recording of the national anthem blares over the loudspeakers.

It was a mom-and-apple-pie moment on this steamy Friday evening. But so it has gone for eight decades of summer nights in this northeastern South Dakota town of 3,640.

This is the birthplace of American Legion baseball. It says so on road signs at the edge of town and on the granite monument on the corner of "Unity Square." The city office building, across the street from the aptly named Legion Field, features a display case with mementos of the town's baseball tradition.

Legion baseball is played by high school-age kids in all 50 states. Many of the game's biggest names - Yogi Berra, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Johnny Bench, Roger Clemens and Albert Pujols - all graduated from Legion programs, as did more than half of all major-leaguers.

Many places, the brand has evolved into just another summer baseball organization, like Connie Mack and Babe Ruth programs. Sure, the uniform may have an American Legion patch stitched over the breast or on the left sleeve, but it's dwarfed by the name of the business sponsoring the team.

"Just about every state is picking up American Legion teams," said national program coordinator Jim Quinlan of Indianapolis. "It's just fundamental, strong baseball. These young men want to play Legion ball because they want to play college. The better players migrate toward Legion baseball, so better coaches migrate toward Legion."

Milbank, however, clings to its heritage and the way Legion ball used to be organized everywhere. American Legion Birch-Miller Post No. 9 always has put up the money for the boys - usually about $4,000 a year - holding fundraisers such as bingo nights and raffles.

As in other small towns, the ballpark is the center of activity at night. After folks get off work at the cheese factory, granite quarry or power plant or come in from the farm fields that surround Milbank, many migrate to Legion Field as if by ritual.

Kids get a quarter for returning a foul ball to the concession stand. Home games are broadcast on the local radio station, KMSD.

"The old guys talk about our games every morning at the coffee shop," shortstop Jeff Fish said.

"Everybody knows everybody on the field, and the little kids look up to you," said center fielder Jeremy Hopper.

The American Legion is a veterans organization that was chartered by Congress in 1919 and now has 3 million members.

In July 1925, the South Dakota Department of the American Legion met here for its annual convention. It's where the idea of baseball as a "program of service to the youth of America" was first proposed. Within a month the resolution was ratified at the national convention in Omaha, Neb.

Millions of kids have played Legion ball the past 87 years. There were 5,468 registered teams in 2006 - 50 more than in 2005. Pennsylvania led the nation, by far, with 605 teams. New Jersey, Minnesota and Nebraska boast more than 300.

Quinlan, the national program coordinator, says Legion ball is as strong as ever.

There is a perception that Legion ball has waned, he said, because of an aging veteran population. But Quinlan points out that Legion membership has grown from 2.6 million to 2.7 million in the past 10 years.

"They may not have quite as much energy," he said, "but those who love baseball are still very dedicated to baseball."

Though businesses pay the bills for many Legion teams, those teams still adhere to Legion bylaws to remain eligible for local, regional and national competitions.

Ron Krause, 51, works for the city street department by day and as Milbank's Legion coach by night.

He patrolled the outfield at Legion Field in 1973 and '74 - site of the ballpark where the first Milbank team played.

"My team respects Legion as if it was gospel," Krause said. "We say the code, we do all the things required by the Legion. Our guys buy into it real well, and I've been blessed with some pretty good ball players over the years."

The creed isn't corny, he says.

"The whole thing behind it is the sportsmanship of the true athlete," he said. "If you're a good sport, good athlete, you're going to have a healthy mind, a clean mind, a healthy body. All those things venture into it. The kids understand what it's all about."

Hepper said he and his teammates understand the importance of Legion ball to Milbank, if not all the history behind it.

"We could know more about it," he said.

Milbank, like all teams, has had its ups and downs through the years. The team won a state championship in 2001 and has been to the state tournament every year since 2000.

"We put out a pretty good product, and people come out and watch good baseball," Krause said.

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