Local Legion baseball tourney also a casualty of pandemic

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It's been a year when we've missed out on a lot of things we've had for years and years, both nationally and locally, the coronavirus pandemic forcing the changes. 

In Princeton, for example, there was no graduation ceremony for seniors, There won't be a Fourth of July celebration (complete with fireworks), the Rum River Festival has been canceled, there were no spring sports in the school district, the PHS boys basketball team won the section but didn't get to play at state because the tournament was canceled, and recently the Mille Lacs County Fair, held for more than 100 years, fell by the wayside.  

And in this, the third week in June, the thought came to me that for the first time since 1970 there would be no Princeton American Legion Baseball Tournament. It's been the longest-running tournament in Minnesota, having been played the past 50 years continuously, and has likely been one of the longest in the nation. A celebration was held last summer to commemorate the 50 years, as well as the 50 years that Solheim Veterans Field has been in existence.

For quite a few years now the tournament has been held in July. But when it began in 1970, and for many years afterward, it took place during the third week of June. And what a tournament it became, teams from all over Minnesota, and other states, seeking to come to Princeton to participate. If I'd thought of doing so a couple weeks ago, it would have been fun to count the number of teams, some of them with a very high profile, that have played in the tournament.

The tournament got off to a rousing start in 1970 with Edina and Little Falls, both with good baseball histories, meeting in the championship game. Edina won 1-0 when Paul Siebert, later a pitcher in the major leagues, pitched a shutout and hit a homer for the only run.

Sitting in the stands for the whole tournament, conversing with yours truly who did the announcing and scoring for all 11 games of the tournament, was Dick Siebert, father of Paul Siebert and legendary coach of the University of Minnesota baseball team that won NCAA baseball championships in 1956, 1960 and 1964, and was beaten in the 1973 title game by USC with Dave Winfield as U of M's star player.  We talked baseball the whole weekend, him questioning a scoring decision or two of mine, and Siebert making me feel good by remembering me from a state town team tournament game a couple years earlier

The tournament was a great success and its reputation grew by leaps and bounds over the next couple decades. Laudatory comments about the playing field and the quality of the tournament came from coaches and fans alike, college coaches becoming regulars at the tournament as they watched potential recruits. A good number of future professional (some who made the majors) and college players who became stars were participants in the tournament. A few years ago seven of the eight teams in the tournament were ranked in the top 15 in Minnesota. I wonder if any Legion tournament in the state ever had a field like that. 

A coach from a college in Iowa who was here regularly for a number of years told me it was the best tournament around. And a coach from a Minnesota college whose father played in the major leagues with the New York Yankees told me some stories over a couple years about the great Yankee teams of the '50s and '60s with Mickey Mantle, White Ford, Yogi Berra and others. The stories were wonderful. There were major league scouts regularly at the tournament in the early years 

The crowds, back in the day, were huge. One of those big crowds came the first year when Princeton, after shutting out Milaca in the first round, played Edina on a Saturday night. And the crowds were huge for years when Princeton was playing. There wasn't an empty seat to be had at a tournament in the late '70s when New Ulm played here with the three Steinbach brothers in the lineup, including Terry who became an All-Star catcher with Oakland and finished his career with the Twins.

It didn't hurt the success of the tournament that Princeton was very competitive against high-profile teams in the early years of the tournament and for years and years afterwards. And if you were lucky enough to be a Princeton player, for a number of years the tournament was the beginning of three weekends in a row at good tournaments. First there was Princeton, then Grand Rapids the next weekend, and then Alexandria the week of the Fourth each year. I counted 125 people from PrInceton at one game in Alexandria as fans came for the weekend, many staying at local campgrounds. On a Saturday night, after a game, the basement of the Alexandria American Legion club in Alex was reserved for Princeton people to have a meal and about 80 showed up.

Both Grand Rapids and Alexandria eventually ended their tournaments, although they've been revived, and Princeton just kept going for 50 years in a row, all because Howard Solheim, Princeton's legendary coach who is in the Minnesota American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame, started the tournament..

Princeton won the tournament for the first time in 1973, beating a very good Anoka team 2-1, Dave Mingo getting the win in relief after Princeton beat powerhouses Moorhead and Edina in the first two rounds despite coming into the tournament with only a 4-4 record.. And the team won again in 1974, the title coming in a 10-inning thriller with a 3-2 win over St. Cloud, Mingo getting the win in relief. The other wins were over White Bear Lake and Anoka. And 45 years ago this week, Princeton won the tournament for the third year in a row.

The 1975 title run started with an 8-2 win over St. Louis Park, Pete Steinhagen getting the win (he also pitched tournament wins in 1973 and 1974). Then Keith Julson pitched a two-hit 9-0 shutout over Willmar. That matched Princeton with Sleepy Eye, the team that knocked Princeton out of the state tournament in 1974 with a 2-0 win. Steinhagen turned the tables with a four-hit 2-0 shutout over Sleepy Eye in the championship game. The team then won the Grand Rapids tournament  the next week before a 4-3 loss in the second round at Alex that snapped a 17-game winning streak. At that time of the season Julson was 7-0 with an ERA of 0.40 and Steinhagen was 9-0 with an ERA of 0.14. Coach Solheim was blessed with a great pitching staff in all three years of those three straight tournament wins. 

There were 18 players on the roster in 1975. Kids were happy to be part of the team in that era, even if they didn't play much, something that has changed through the years as some high school players don't even play and others quit because of a lack of playing time.

Another part of the tournament that was wonderful for quite a few years was that about 40 patients of the VA hospital in St. Cloud would be bussed to the title game and then the local Legion post would treat them to a picnic dinner after the game. It was a typical gesture by the local American Legion post that has generously supported Legion baseball in Princeton over the years. Legion baseball has been in Princeton for about 90 years, thanks to the local post.

So now we're going through a summer without Legion baseball. I took a look back today at just those three teams in the '70s that helped put the Princeton tournament on the map. But there were many, many other good Princeton teams and players, and many other good tournaments. It's been a blessing to have that tournament in Princeton if you're a baseball fan. And the tournament has been nothing but good for Princeton as fans and players from other towns have offered praise through the years for the tournament that was the brainchild of Howard Solheim. In fact, last year fans of the Rogers team made a point of commenting on the Princeton tradition as they watched introductions of former players before the Princeton-Rogers game. 

Here's hoping the tournament will have a rebirth in 2021 and another string of consecutive tournaments will begin. 


PRINCETON SPORTS MEMORIES

June 24, 1965 - The Legion baseball team lost 5-4 to Milaca, that loss ending a string of 30 straight wins in North End League games over three years . . . Russ Anderson homeredand Phil Kobbervig struck out 15 as Princeton beat Zimmerman in town team baseball, 6-3.

June 24, 1970 - The Legion baseball team won its seventh straight game as Tom Meyer beat St. Cloud 1-0 on a four-hitter . . . The town team beat Nowthen 3-2 as Jeff Howard drove in the winning run and Luther Dorr went the distance while pitching a four-hitter. 

June 25, 1975 - The Legion baseball team won the Princeton Invitational for the third straight year, Pete Steinhagen beating Sleepy Eye 2-0 in the title game. Princeton also beat St. Louis Park and Willmar. Steinhagen beat St. Louis Park, 8-2, and Keith Julson pitched a two-hitter in a 9-0 shutout of Willmar.

June 26, 1980 - .Arnold and Jo Alferness, husband and wife, won the President's Tournament at Rum River Golf Club . . . The Ziggy's slow-pitch softball team, 35-7 for the season, won a tournament at Braham . . . Les Nelson shut out Atwater on a one-hitter, 9-0, and struck out 15 in a game at the Atwater Legion tournament.

June 27, 1985 - Chad Campbell was named to the St. Cloud Timesall-area high school baseball team . . . Donna Harris and Shirley Murray won the President's Tournament at Rum River Golf Club . . . Tim Vagle beat Bemidji 4-1 for Princeton's only win at the Legion baseball tournament in Grand Rapids.

June 27, 1990 -  Greg Remus and Jon Okan won the President's Tournament at Rum River Golf Club . . . Troy Kinney and Matt Skarohlid pitched wins for the Legion baseball team as it moved to 5-0 in league play. Then Tom Kluk got four hits and Curt Wilson homeredas the team beat Minneapolis Northside 11-2. 

June 29, 1995 - Named all-conference in baseball for PHS were Greg Sliter, Erick Sjoquist, John Vollan and Jesse Zimmer . . . Jon Huehn drove in two runs as Mark Stay pitched a two-hit shutout for the Legion baseball team in a 5-0 win over St. Francis.

June 22, 2000 - .  The Legion baseball team beat Sartell 13-7 as Derek Pederson and Darrick Weissenfluh each got three hits, and then beat Mora 8-3 as Brent Julson pitched a two-hitter and struck out 11, Dave Porttiin driving in three runs . . .  The Princeton Panthers beat Pine City 8-3 as Mike VanDeRiet got the win and beat Quamba 16-3 with Paul Deglmann getting the win. Chad Carling (3 RBIs) and Tony Stay (3 RBIs) homered in the Quamba game, while Brian Dorr homered in both games, including a grand slam and 5 RBIs vs. Quamba that was homer No. 8.   

June 30, 2005 - The Princeton Panthers stretched their win streak to 7, beating Nowthen 11-7 and Becker 18-8. The Nowthen win gave the team an 8-0 league record. Jesse Zimmer homered and drove in five runs against Becker and Jesse Donner had five hits. Zimmer, Todd Muckenhirn and Chad Campbell each drove in two runs in the Nowthen game . . . Scott Roehl struck out eight in a 5-2 Legion baseball win over North Branch and Brandon Knoll struck out seven in a 2-1 win over Mora.

July 1, 2010 - The Legion baseball team beat North Branch 4-2, beat Mora 1-0 with Josh Vickers getting the shutout, and beat Milaca 10-0 as Josh Hanus pitched a one-hitter . . . ThePrinceton Panthers beat Ham Lake 12-0 in a weekend tournament in Cambridge, beat the Minneapolis Blue Sox 9-1 and then lost 7-3 to the Bloomington Bandits in the title game. Jesse Zimmer was 6 for 10 with 4 RBIs as the No. 2 hitter, Jake Maros (No. 3) was 5 for 9 with 3 RBIs, and Brian Dorr (No. 4) was 5 for 9 with 7 RBIs.

June 25, 2015 - Luke Hallbeck struck out 12 in six innings as the Legion baseball team beat St Francis 11-6. Joe Bernard had three doubles and Sam Archer homered. Archer got the win in a 4-1 victory over Mora and had 13 strikeouts. .

(Dorr is the former editor of the Princeton Eagle (2 years) and Princeton Union-Eagle (31 years) and has covered sports in the area for the past 53 years.)

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