What started as a whim during the Independence Day holiday in 1971 has blossomed into what is regarded today as one of the best baseball tournaments in the Midwest.
The Valmeyer Midsummer Classic, which celebrates its 50th year in 2022, takes place this Saturday through Monday on Dennis Pieper Field at Borsch Memorial Park.
It was Pieper who had the idea in 1971 to bring his Valmeyer Lakers squad up to Riverton to fill a last-minute vacancy in what was known as a popular semi-pro tournament that featured teams from all over the state.
Another Mon-Clair League team from East Alton had played in the Riverton tourney before, but Valmeyer was an unknown addition. Due to a number of his players being unable to make the trek north that holiday weekend, Pieper scrambled to fill the Lakers roster with players from neighboring towns, as well as others he knew from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he had played in the late 1960s and served as assistant coach in the early 1970s.
“I remember Denny asking me to make that trip to Riverton,” Mike Degener recalled. “He was short of players because some of the regulars had conflicts and couldn’t make the trip. I was playing for Waterloo at that time, but knew a lot of the Valmeyer players. We went up to Riverton with a skeleton crew because the guys that couldn’t make the trip were some of the best players.”
Pieper’s team stole the show in Riverton – especially after handling the host squad without much trouble in the opening round.
“In the second round, we beat a pretty good team from Springfield,” Degener said. “After that we faced a team from Chicago and the crowd was all rooting for us. (The Chicago Orioles) jumped out to a quick lead and we went into the ninth inning trailing by several runs.”
But the scrappy Lakers squad put together a rally for the ages, coming from behind to win the tourney title by the score of 5-4.
Key to the title win was a late bases loaded triple off the bat of John Asselemeier.
“They had a hot-shot sidearmer who was drafted in the majors,” Asselmeier recalled of Chicago’s pitcher. “I dunked a looping liner to rightfield for a triple. He was a big shot, but we ended up hanging a loss on him.”
Following that impressive victory, the Chicago team contacted Pieper to request a rematch that upcoming Labor Day weekend.
“They wanted to play us a doubleheader and asked Denny to schedule some other teams to play,” Degener said. “They thought we got lucky when we beat them. They didn’t realize we would have our full roster for the rematch. We beat them in a double dip and sent them to get hammered by Waterloo and Millstadt the next two days. They came back the following year and had the same results. They were 0-12 in Southern Illinois and went back to Chicago thinking maybe we weren’t so lucky after all.”
Tom Vogt was another member of that historic 1971 tourney squad.
“I remember a bunch, even though it was only a dream,” Vogt said. “I was on the Columbia Merchants team with Harold Mathews. Was going to school at SIUE along with Denny Pieper, Will Bundy, Ron Rohlfing, Donny “Duck” Rains. Dennis Pieper called and said they needed an arm for the tourney. I jumped at the chance to play with my longtime rivals and friends from Valmeyer.”
Excited about the success from that Riverton tourney and subsequent rematch with Chicago, Denny and his brother Gary Pieper sought to start a similar experience in Valmeyer.
The Pieper brothers and the Lakers teamed up with the Valmeyer Jaycees to host the inaugural Valmeyer Midsummer Classic in 1972.
A July 12, 1972 article in the Waterloo Republican states the following:
“Millstadt, behind an exceptional pitching performance by veteran knuckleballer Elmer Sandheinrich, captured the top prize in the finals of the Valmeyer Midsummer Classic.”
Sandheinrich’s knuckler baffled the St. Louis Collegians in a 3-2 victory earlier in the day. Then in the tourney final, Sandheinrich came on in relief to shut down Van’s of East Alton by the score of 5-4.
Since then, over 100 future or former professional players have participated in the annual tournament at Borsch Park.
Asselmeier, who was inducted into the Mon-Clair League Hall of Fame in 1999, remembers the early days of the Classic as a player as “one big party.”
“The teams would stay after the games and have brats, pork steaks, plenty of beer and listen to live music,” he said.
John Conrad was a member of that Valmeyer Lakers squad in 1972.
“Of course, Denny and Gary Pieper were in the forefront in promoting the idea of the tournament and got the rest of us totally enthused,” Conrad said. “We played hard during the games and followed that by some epic partying with our teammates and the visiting teams. All the friendships developed during that period of time have also lasted 50 years, and I expect them to last a lifetime for most of us.”
Conrad added that this tournament has been embraced by the local community and has a “widespread reputation as a premiere amateur baseball showcase.”
Mon-Clair League Hall of Famer and historian Art Voellinger was a player-coach on Millstadt’s 1972 team that won the inaugural classic under manager Tuffy Mueth.
“To many of us, baseball is a family affair that has become a staple each July Fourth weekend since 1972 – with the exception of 2016 when rain cancelled the action after the first two games,” Voellinger said. “In 1993, the tourney was held but shortly thereafter the flood hit Old Valmeyer, although the ballpark survived and again served as a host in 1994.”
Voellinger lovingly refers to the Classic as “the best men’s baseball tournament in the Midwest.”
“Anyone who doubts that does not appreciate all the effort that goes into the weekend,” he said. “From baseball games to an annual parade to music, dancing and fireworks, the Classic is a classic.”
Voellinger cited such memories as watching Wayne Rohlfing share the 1978 MVP with Scott Posey of Valmeyer before signing a pro contract with the Chicago Cubs.
Memorable events include when a helicopter was used in 2009 to dry the field, which was unplayable after the first round games.
“There have been former major leaguers who played in the Classic – my mind is too senile to recall – but I always enjoyed knowing that Gary Gaetti of Centralia played at Valmeyer before signing with Minnesota in 1979,” Voellinger said.
Event organizers will honor members of those 1971 and 1972 Valmeyer Lakers teams prior to the title game of this year’s tournament, which is expected to start about 3 p.m. Monday.
For a full tourney bracket, click here.