Legion ball strikes out

Season cancelled because of pandemic, but summer ball could go on

by Nick Wognum
American Legion baseball, which has been played in Minnesota for nearly 100 years and has a storied history in Ely, will go dark this summer.
The 2020 season was cancelled Saturday following action by the national and state American Legion organizations related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was a sad day, probably the worst I’ve been a part of in all my years of baseball,” said Tom Coombe, Ely’s longtime Legion coach and a member of the state American Legion Baseball board of directors.
Yet while there won’t be American Legion baseball in Ely or across the nation this season, activity continues around the state to hold a summer youth baseball season, if circumstances allow and perhaps under the umbrella of another youth baseball organization.
The American Legion season, however, is over before it began for more than 350 teams across the state, including two in Ely.
The American Legion World Series and associated multi-state regional tournaments were scrapped last month, but until Saturday, individual states had the option to continue their respective seasons.
In Minnesota, officials held off on a decision and there appeared to be steps toward playing baseball this summer - including a survey that showed overwhelming support for a season as well as a proposal circulating among the state board for a mid-June start.
But board members were never able to discuss the proposal, finding out Saturday that national headquarters had pulled all support and assistance for a 2020 season including insurance and registration. They also learned from state American Legion officials that they wanted the season to be cancelled.
“I’d say our legs got taken out from under us,” said Coombe. “We on the baseball board didn’t have an idea this was coming and it was just a bombshell. We had no other choice as we would not be able to proceed with Legion baseball. Our state director had a good analogy. He compared it to owning a franchise for a restaurant, then being told that you have to take the sign down, take the logos off and give back your inventory.”
Coombe said he believed the state board had a proposal in place that would have allowed for social distancing and games to continue.
“It may not have looked entirely the same but I think we had something that would have worked,” said Coombe. “You can spread fans out pretty easily at our ballpark.”
Several other youth baseball organizations have proposals on the table to start play this summer, and media reports suggest that a task force organized by Gov. Tim Walz was to begin looking at the plans May 15.
In the meantime, summer baseball is in a bit of a holding pattern, but programs across the state are hoping to get on the field within weeks.
“I’ve heard from at least a dozen coaches in our area who want to put something together if possible,” said Coombe. “The proposal that went to the state from the other youth baseball groups was done with medical consultation, so I’m hoping it will get fair consideration.”
Ely was set to field both Senior Legion (age 19 and under) and Junior Legion (17 and under) teams this summer. Its Junior League (age 15 and under) program is also on hold at the moment.
Both the Legion program and Ely’s ballpark - Veterans Memorial Field - are rich in tradition when it comes to American Legion baseball.
Just last summer, Ely hosted hundreds of people from around the state when it hosted the Division II State Tournament for Senior Legion baseball.
The ballpark has been home to numerous state tournaments as well as the 1980 Legion World Series.
In recent years, the field has been home to more than 125 games per year including several tournaments, all bringing teams, coaches, parents and spectators to the community for weekend events.
“You can’t underestimate what baseball means for our summer economy,” said Coombe. “That’s several weekends a year when people are coming here for multiple days, staying overnight and spending money.”
On the field, Ely’s teams have appeared in numerous state tournaments and the community has consistently put together one of the top small-town summer baseball programs in Minnesota.
Coombe is holding out hope that there will be baseball played at some point this summer.
“These kids have already lost so much, from the end of their school year to their spring sports seasons,” he said. “And we have a couple of college-age players who are eligible to come back and put the Ely uniform on for another season. I don’t want to tell them they’re going to lose summer baseball too. I want to be the one who calls them up at some point ot say it’s time to come back to the field.”