The ring of horsehide (or cowhide since 1974) baseballs slamming into leather mitts, the smell of roasted peanuts carried in the glacier air, the exuberance of tiny youth leaning over rails and fences begging for their favorite players autograph and the “boys of summer” obliging with a smile and a tip of the cap... those are the trademarks of American Legion baseball teams from the days before state hood.
“Those were the days,” Juneau resident Roger Grummett, 71, said. Grummett played legion ball in three straight territory championships from 1957-59. “We traveled all over, to Ketchikan and Sitka, and drove by car up to Anchorage. We ferried to Haines on the old landing craft the Chilkoot and drove up the highway in a caravan of cars.”
The Juneau Midnight Suns Post 25 American Legion baseball team is returning some of those traditions after a 12-season hiatus and Grummett will throw out the first pitch on Saturday to his son John, 46, a member of the 1983 and 1984 state legion championship teams and a former president of the Midnight Suns Baseball Club.
“Hopefully I won’t bounce it across the plate,” Grummett said. “I am going to try and throw it the whole 60-feet six-inches, in the air, over the plate.”
Grummett’s legion team defeated Ketchikan for the southeast title in 1957, and then Sitka in back-to-back seasons. The ‘57 team lost at Anchorage, the ‘58 team lost to Fairbanks on Fireman’s Field, and the ‘59 team lost at Fairbanks.
The 2013 legion team will have a 27-game schedule and, unlike former teams, will have 15 home games at Adair Kennedy Field.
“The community will get to see these kids play often,” Juneau legion manager Andy Macaulay said. “And against some very good competition.”
The first game is Saturday’s 3 p.m. matchup against Anchorage’s Dimond Post 21. The two teams will play again at 6 p.m. (non-conference) and on Sunday at noon. Saturday’s opening ceremony begins at 2:45 and includes recognizing the members of Auke Bay Post 25 for their support, presentations of the U.S. and Alaska flags, the singing of the National Anthem by Melissa Bowhay and the ceremonial first pitch.
The last Juneau season was 12 years ago with Jim Ayers at the helm, along with coaches Bruce Scandling and Mark Hickey, and the support of the MSBC.
“That last legion team had a tremendous amount of support from the community,” Macaulay said. “Each kid had to raise $1,200 apiece and unfortunately all games were on the road. They played in Seattle and then north to Anchorage.”
Prior to that season the legion played up until 1984, and then Big League became a division through little league. That play continued through 1990. Local high school baseball began in 1991.
The efforts of Mike Franklin and Jerry Walkush brought a legion team back in 1994 and returned in 1997. Corky Stadt, Bill McCauley, Glenn Frick, and Tom Stadt, among others, also have coached or assisted.
“Recognizing that we had three teams in the last 20 years, the intent is we will have a team every year,” Macaulay said. “It has taken over two years to get the planning in place for this season. It has taken the support and coordinating with The Alliance For Support Of American Legion Baseball in Alaska. They run American Legion Baseball and are based out of Anchorage. They are in charge of scheduling, coordinating, getting coaches certified and players registered. Everything goes through their program. It was through their generosity to offer 15 home games. I don’t know if we could, realistically, year in and year out, go into the future without that. We would have been faced with the challenges of the teams in the 90’s and the 2001 team.”
Past Juneau legion teams were faced with being on the road for two months. Players having to give up summer jobs they needed to earn money for college, and volunteer coaching staff gave that time from family and employment.
The legion alliance has the same goal as the Juneau team: they want to expand so that other southeast teams may be able to participate in future years.
Juneau’s legion preseason began on Tuesday, once the high school season ended and school was out. Team members must be 16-18 years old and have Juneau residency.
“What we noticed over the last 10 years was a real lack of Juneau players to play after the high school season,” Macaulay said. “And these kids practice a lot during the off season, but what they lack is the offseason is game experience.”
Local players get roughly 20 games in high school. The legion experience will hopefully make a combined 50-60 games between the two seasons and increase player skill development without conflicting the high school programs. This format is followed by the northern legion programs and contributes to strengthen the high school teams as well as allowing more players to find a path to college ball. Juneau’s home games will have live webcast at www.post25baseball.org.
“As a kid I used to go to the ball park at Centennial Park over at the airport,” Macaulay said. “I remember going to the games my brother played in the late 70’s and 80’s. I just have fond memories of going to the ballpark in June and July and seeing teams from Juneau playing against really competitive squads from Ketchikan and Sitka. I also remember they would have scrimmage games on Sundays against older players and men and they would play some great baseball.”
Macaulay, and coaches Erik McCormick and Frank Barthel will be leading a roster that consists of Juneau-Douglas high school players Tod Baseden, Christian Gould, Kyle Gould, Kellen Johansen, Tal Norvell, Tanner Petrie, Jeff Pusich, Jacob Thibodeau, and Kurt Vandor, and Thunder Mountain players Matt Cunningham, Collin Ludeman, Jake Macaulay, RJ Markovich, Patrick Millay, and Jackson Pavitt, The mixture of Crimson Bears and Falcons youth have merged to form a strong nucleus.
“This is the top 15 kids we thought would be best for the team and represent Juneau,” Macaulay said. “The kids are excited to be back on the field. We had direct discussion with parents making sure the players commitment would be for the entire season.”
Legion games are nine or seven innings; with a two-hour, 45 minute time length. A 10-run rule comes into effect after five innings. The 27-game season schedule features two league games against each opponent and Juneau will play a third game when teams travel here. On the road, teams from Fairbanks and Kenai will travel to Anchorage to lesson the cost of Juneau travel. Juneau will play three games every weekend and build for seeding in the state tournament July 25 - August 2 in Anchorage.
Juneau is in the Legion AA. The hope is to also have a Single A, or junior varsity team, in the future.
“I know we have enough younger kids in the community to play,” Macaulay said. “First we want to see how the varsity program goes.”
Macaulay stated that the team could not have come about without the support of the community. Operating costs, travel, accommodations, transportation, field rental, baseballs and bats, etc. will total over $40,000. The team will hold 50/50 raffles and have apparel for sale at games to help cover costs and sponsorships are available on the team’s website (www.post25baseball.org).
“The fundraising response from the community was amazing,” Macaulay said. “This town just loves to give opportunities to our youth. This year was a collective effort from so many people. There were volunteers that were fans of baseball who went out into the community, and the Midnight Suns Baseball Club, Post 25, and so many others.”
For Roger Grummett baseball is also about that same community. Roger’s father, Stan Grummett, was instrumental along with Lyle Hebert, among others, for staring little league baseball in the early 1950’s.
“I am very humbled to be asked to participate in something my dad had helped get going,” Grummett said. “It is very gratifying to be remembered from those days and to be called upon to kick off something that was done years and years ago and is now resurrecting itself. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to do that and help the program. I grew up on 10th street. We played baseball there every day at Fireman’s Park, playing work up, then we would cool down by swimming up at Evergreen Park.”
Grummett’s own early grey uniforms with yellow lettering and numbers will now be the navy blue and silver of the Midnight Suns Post 25. Some of the roster on the new team have fathers or uncles that Grummett coached on little league teams like the Elks in 1962, JD Telephone in ‘71 or Pete’s Pizzaz in ‘77.
“There is a lot of history in those players,” Grummett said. “What will never change are the friends you make on the field, both your teammates and opponents, they still remain over the years. The scrapbooks and the memories will always be here.”