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Legion team hosts annual tournament

Sports writer

Team manager Jeff Cisneros (13) meets with Matt Jewkes during a Legion game last summer.

The heart of any sport is it's amateurs. The pros are what most players aspire to, but in the end the thing that keeps a sport strong and healthy is the people that don't do it for money. They play the game because the love it.

For baseball, it's basis is backed by the hundreds of thousands of kids that play little league, Babe Ruth ball and adults that play county recreation league baseball.

But probably nothing exemplifies baseball like the 5200 American Legion teams that vie for a national championship each year. Made up of high school and post high school players, most of the young men who play this type of baseball could be doing many other things, yet they decide to play the game they love. For the individuals still in high school, it is a good way to keep up and improve their skills against great competition. For those who have graduated, it is a chance to extend the thrills they found in high school sports and also another chance for them to be seen by college and some pro scouts as well.

On Thursday one of the most historic American Legion Tournaments in the state takes place once again. The Helper Tournament has been going on for years and Legion teams from all over the state look forward to coming each year to play at historic Gardner Field.

This year the field is once again ripe with improvements, including new bleacher seats that will make the fans that come to see the games much more comfortable than the old splinter filled boards they had to sit on in the past.

Probably one of the best things about Legion ball is how historic it is. Since the program began in 1925, in the small town of Milbank, S.D. 10 million young men have played baseball in the program.

In 1926, the first national tournament was held, with 16 states sending teams. By 1929 every state in the union had teams, and the program was extremely healthy because major league baseball had underwritten the league with up to $50,000 per year in expense monies. While not a lot of money today, at that time that was a considerable sum. Today, the costs of having teams come to the national tournament alone is at about $1 million dollars.

Matt Jewkes (5) from Carbon and Landon Watson (1) from Emery were two important players on last years American Legion squad and will also play this year. Here they are seen with some of their teammatesat a "mound meeting" in a game with Cedar City last year at Gardner Field during the tournament.

By 1938 the finals of the national tournament were broadcast on 3000 radio stations and that same year, major league umpires were used for the finals.

In 1949 an award for the American Legion Player of the Year was originated, and it became apparent from that time forward that Legion ball was having a great affect not only on amateur baseball, but was also a great addition to pro leagues as well. In an average year, 55 percent of the players who are active on major league rosters played American Legion baseball.

Players who participate must be between 15 and 18 years old to play in the league. In Utah players come from all the high school ranks (1A-5A) and basically three leagues are run. One is in northern Utah (north of Salt Lake) the Salt Lake Valley League and a southern league. Helper's American Legion team plays in the Salt Lake Valley League. Players on Helper's team are drawn from Carbon High, Emery High, East Carbon High and Green River High.

More players that have played in the American Legion ranks have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. than from any other amateur baseball program. These players include Dave Winfield, Sparky Anderson, Carleton Fisk, George Brett, Phil Niekro, Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Peewee Reese, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn, and Ted Williams, just to name a few.

This years Helper team has 15 players from Carbon's third place state team, six from Emery and one from East Carbon's state team from last fall.

Teams participating in this years tournament (that opens the season for many of them) are Viewmont, Judge Memorial, Cedar City, Tooele, Upper Valley, Cyprus, West Jordan and of course Helper.

Helper plays it's first contest against Cedar City Thursday at 6:15 p.m. On Friday the team faces Upper Valley in the nightcap game at 8 p.m. Then on Saturday they play Cyprus at 8 p.m.

The placement games for the tournament will be played on Sunday beginning at 10 a.m. with the championship game at 3:30 p.m. Where Helper falls in these games depends on how they do in the first three days of the tournament.

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