For many in Monroe County, the 4th of July has become synonymous with baseball.
The first week of July, Borsch Memorial Park has been “baseball heaven” for 42 years now with the Valmeyer Mid-Summer Classic.
“It means a lot. It’s baseball and I’m a baseball fan. I love baseball. I don’t think I’ve missed one game every year I’ve been down here,” Sylvester “Tuffy” Mueth, former Millstadt VFW coach and Mon-Clair legend, reflected. “On the 4th of July I saw the first pitch and I saw the last pitch.”
Tuffy’s team won the very first Valmeyer 4th of July tournament in 1972, defeating East Alton, 6-5, and etching the ball club into Southern Illinois baseball history.
But it was a team of 13 young ball players from Valmeyer that started it all.
Allen Goldschmidt (1B), John Asselmeier (2B), John Belk (SS), Gary Pieper (3B), Mike Degener (LF), Chip Bieber (CF), Allyn Rohlfing (RF), Willis Bundy (C), Ron Rohlfing (OF), Lou Sondag (P), Tom Vogt (P), Don Rains (P), and Dennis Pieper (Manager/ DH) entered at the last minute into an Independence Day tournament in 1971 in Riverton as a “lowly ranked, unknown and generally unnoticed group of young, talented, rural and small town Monroe County ball players,” according to the Mon-Clair League records.
During that time, the Mon-Clair League — which began just under five years prior–All-Star game was played during the holiday weekend. Dennis “Boog” Pieper, who is the Valmeyer Lakers’ manager to this day, scraped a team together of “non all-stars” that went up and shocked the teams from Springfield and Chicago. Valmeyer blazed through the tournament, even winning a doubleheader championship victory after getting rained out the day before.
“We went up there and had a great time and won the tournament,” Pieper remembered back. “We said ‘this was so much fun, let’s start our own.’
“That’s how it all began.”
The following year, the Valmeyer Lakers hosted their very first Independence Day tourney.
“It was a lot of fun because it was new,” Mueth explained. “Everybody just came in here and played good, hard baseball.”
The very first tournament included: St. Louis Collegians, Neunert, East Alton, Millstadt, Valmeyer, Fults, Shiloh and Columbia.
“We had some good teams in the tournament.” Mueth said. “I think there was more competition in the tournament 15-20 years ago, which there were more ball clubs years ago.”
Out of the Mid-Summer Classic baseball tournament, the Mid-Summer Celebration evolved.
The park’s trees, which were planted that first year, can take you back in time to the beginning, when Borsch Memorial Park was just a slice of what it is now.
“It began with a small checkerboard tent rented from Ralston Purina, a few picnic tables and eight hungry ball clubs eager to challenge for No. 1 bragging rights,” league history quotes.
There wasn’t even a grass infield for the first several years.
“I slept on top of the dugout most of the time, so I could get up early enough in the morning to water the diamond because there was no grass,” Pieper said with a laugh.
Four years later, the Valmeyer Jaycees got involved and helped morph it into what it is today.
“It’s unbelieveable,” said Pieper, who continues to organize the event with his brother Gary. “What it’s allowed different organizations to do, to fund their programs. And at the same time with the donations of the Jaycees Pavilion and the Luhr’s Scoreboard, we’ve got a nice little ballpark here.”
Throughout the years, the colossal fireworks show, parade — which has featured prominent groups like the Anhueser Busch 8-team Clydesdale hitch that is used on Opening Day ceremonies at Busch Stadium — and color commentary from league legends Mel Patton and Art Voellinger have been added to the list of attractions and entertainment.
“I think it means a lot, because it gives the kids a chance to play in front of quite a few people,” Pieper said.
It has also given players a chance to show off their skills to major league scouts. More than 30 Mon-Clair players have been drafted by MLB ball clubs over the years, many from the tournament.
“I definitely didn’t think it would last 42 years, that’s for sure,” Tuffy said with a laugh.
It is a tournament that has withstood the test of time, in a town that has withstood the wrath of Mother Nature and a community that is hoping for 40 more great years.