For the Love of the Game

by Jonathan Wright

The Peoria Sunday Morning League embodies the tradition, longevity and pride of our national pastime.

On a sunny day in May, I sat around a table at Sky Harbor Steakhouse, listening to four veterans of the Sunday Morning League swap stories. “Funny how I can remember something from 40 years ago like it was yesterday, but I can’t remember where I parked the car!” quips Daryl Klusendorf, who joined Mike Olson and brothers Gary and Ron Sullivan for an afternoon of nostalgia.

Each of them played ball for 15 to 20 years, with a passion for the game that’s unmistakable. “It was a chance to play beyond high school,” explains Olson, now a scout for the Seattle Mariners. “For the average athlete coming out of Peoria in the sixties, this was our avenue to compete.”

Back then, the league was split about 50-50 between young players coming out of high school or college, and older guys who wanted to keep playing into their 30s and 40s. Just about every player who took a crack at pro ball came back and played in the Sunday Morning League. Today, says Klusendorf, “it’s mostly a 28-and-under league.”

But the caliber of play remains high, as young players who enter the league—accustomed to being stars—soon discover. “I wish I had a dime for every high school pitcher who came into the league with a 22-2 record…and about halfway through the first inning—with seven runs in and the bases loaded—the manager comes out and says, ‘Give me the ball, son,’” Klusendorf laughs.

And while the league remains strong, it inhabits a much different world. “In the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, baseball was the game that every athlete played,” Olson explains. Today’s kids, however, are much more likely to specialize, playing and training for a single sport year-round, beginning at the age of 14 or 15.

“There was a time when basketball and football guys played baseball in the summer,” adds Ron Sullivan. “Then the other sports started wanting their kids during the summer,” which left little time for other activities, sports or otherwise.

The Pastime in Peoria
A lot has changed since its pre-Civil War origins, but the game of baseball endures. Here in Peoria, the grand old game goes back nearly as far. It was a banker named Ben Blossom, inspired by a visit east, who first brought baseball to central Illinois. The Celestial Base Ball Club of Pekin was the area’s first official ballclub, organized in September of 1860. According to files at the Peoria Public Library, the first game in Peoria was played on May 17, 1862. It ended in a tie: 39-39.

Baseball’s popularity spread like wildfire, as it did across the country, and in a few years, a network of teams had formed, sparking intense rivalries. Soon, Peoria was holding its own against teams from much larger cities. The 1878 Peoria Reds was the earliest professional team, led by Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, who played in the first World Series and still holds the major league record for wins in a season—an astonishing 59!

Other early teams included the Peoria Canaries and the Peoria Blackbirds. Several incarnations of the Peoria Distillers existed from 1894 to 1917, when the team disbanded due to the war effort and the need for help bringing in a record harvest. It returned several years later as the Peoria Tractors, the new name reflecting the era of Prohibition and a shift in local industry.

In the early years of the 20th century, no option for leisure was as popular as the game of baseball. It was played on the sandlots, in the schoolyards and even in the cow pastures. Crowds of hundreds, even thousands, would stand along the sidelines or watch from their buggies. “Nearly every block had its own team,” recalled Alice Oakley in Peoria’s Penny Press in 1975. “Every day in the summer, unless it rained or Mom called you for supper, kids played ‘til sundown.”

A Golden Age
“May 17, 1888: The burning question of the day was whether Peoria should have Sunday baseball or not,” reads another entry in the library files. The issue divided the public, with most of the churches on one side, the saloons and newspapers on the other. “Pastors preached from their pulpits, newspapers harangued it from their columns and the people argued it in the streets. Then came next Sunday, and there were overflow crowds at the baseball games at Lake View Park…”

Twenty-eight years later, with that argument long settled, there was great demand for a league in which men of all ages could participate and still have time for their families on Sunday afternoons. And thus the Peoria Sunday Morning League was born in 1916.

Six company-sponsored teams comprised what was initially known as the Sunday Commercial League, including Avery Manufacturing and B & M Clothing, which won the first pennant in 1916. With the exception of 1920, the league has been active every year since, making it the oldest continuously- running amateur baseball league in the country.

Over the years, teams have come and gone with the ebb and flow of their sponsors, some of which hired men solely for their ability on the field. In 1927, the Caterpillar Tractor Co. took its first championship and became one of “The Big Three” teams that dominated the league for the next 22 years. During that span, Caterpillar and Cohen Furniture each claimed nine championships, while Hiram Walker took three.

During its heyday from the ’30s to the ’50s, throngs of up to 4,000 would flock to Sunday morning games. Ushers walked the crowds collecting donations in cigar boxes, and their coffers were full. It was a golden age for baseball—and true to form, Peoria reflected the national mood.

Mr. Sunday Morning League
Every era has its iconic figures. In the early years, Harlan Jones, Ed Saurs, Lew Williams and Harold Lintz were the legendary names of Peoria baseball. For the generation that followed, another name pops up over and over again. A three-sport standout at Woodruff, the late Don Wyss started in the Sunday Morning League as a teenager, played at Bradley University, and later coached at Richwoods. “Don was the quintessential Sunday Morning Leaguer,” declares Olson.

Our conversation drifts to a championship game that pitted Olson’s Illinois Valley Glass against United Ready-Mix, led by Wyss and the brothers Sullivan. The year was 1975. The teams were rival dynasties that won 11 of 12 league championships between them from 1974 to 1985. “Don was our manager,” recalls Gary. “That was a heckuva ballgame!”

“I still remember when you threw me out at home plate in the first inning,” Ron says to Mike, laughing, the decades-old memory as fresh in his mind as the morning paper.

“Ron thought he was safe,” Mike tells me. “If he‘d been called safe, they would’ve won the game in nine innings. But we ended up winning 1-0 in the 11th.”

“And this sucker got the hit to win the game!” Ron exclaims, pointing to Mike in mock bitterness.

“Then I had to go work with Don the next morning,” laughs Mike. “He was a hard loser, too. It was kind of intimidating.”

Don Wyss played in the Sunday Morning League for an astounding 35 years, setting a long string of hitting records. As manager, his eight championship titles are evidence of a knack for recognizing talent. “If a good player moved to the area,” says Gary, “the second day he was here, Don was trying to get him on his team.” Wyss also served as league president for many years, capping off an unparalleled record of service.

“Don was 52, the last game he played,” recalls Ron, “and he pitched a good part of that game. That was 1987. He was a legend for his ability—but also for his longevity. Nobody ever played that long.”

“…And I guarantee you,” adds Olson, “no one will ever play that long again.”

A Family of Stars
Around 5,000 players have come up through the ranks of the Sunday Morning League; 46 have made it to the big leagues. Zack Monroe pitched for the Yankees in the ‘58 World Series, the only Peorian ever to do so. Bill Tuttle roamed the outfield in the Sunday Morning League before and after a solid 11-year career in the majors. Danny Goodwin, a standout at Peoria High in the early ‘70s, is still the only person ever selected twice as the No. 1 draft pick. Joe Girardi played in the league briefly, as did Mike Dunne, the 1987 National League Rookie of the Year, who remains involved today.

But when it comes to Peoria baseball, one name towers above them all. Jim Thome, eighth on the all-time home run list, is still slugging for the Phillies at age 42, but he’s only the latest Thome to make his mark. Uniquely, the entire Thome clan was inducted into the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame—as a family—for a record “unequalled in the annals of area sports.”

Jim’s grandfather, Chuck Thome, Sr., began his Sunday Morning League career back in 1923, played regularly through ‘48, and managed Hiram Walker for many years. He is still the league’s all-time home run champion. Jim’s father, Chuck, Jr., was a standout for 15 seasons, while his Uncle Art played 18. Meanwhile, his Aunt Carolyn was so talented that, according to lore, a mailroom job was created for her at Caterpillar when she was just 15 so she could play on the company softball team. Jim’s older brothers, Chuck III and Randy, were very talented athletes as well.

Big Jim himself played in the Sunday Morning League in the late ‘80s, knocking seven balls out of the park in just 70 trips to the plate, hitting a lofty .486. But the majors called, and in 1989, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians, kickstarting a spectacular career that has outlived all expectations.

Back at Sky Harbor, Olson, Klusendorf and both Sullivans speak warmly of the Thomes. The great thing about Jim Thome, they agree, is that the success never went to his head, even after two decades of stardom. Don’t be surprised, says Olson, if Jim swings an occasional bat in the Sunday Morning League when his professional career is over. “Jim Thome will do that,” he says, “because he plays for the love of the game.”

Indestructible Pride
These days, not much is built to last. When the Sunday Morning League got its start, Woodrow Wilson was president. A world championship was fresh in the minds of Cubs fans. Radio didn’t exist, much less television, video games or the Internet. “It’s amazing the Sunday Morning League has survived,” says Gary Sullivan, “when you look at all the competition it’s up against.”

And survive it has, though the league is much different from years past. It’s been decades since games were exclusive to Sunday mornings. Aluminum bats went out about ten years ago, and the average age of the players continues to trend younger. Most of today’s players weren’t even born when Don Wyss threw his last pitch, but they have a tremendous respect for the Sunday Morning League, says current league president Doug Sluser. “There are a lot of guys who have not only a love for the game, but a love for the league. It’s the oldest amateur league in the country, and we’re not going to let that die.”

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