From its humble beginnings 40 years ago, the Gopher Classic has mushroomed into the largest American Legion Baseball Tournament in the United States.
The man who made that happen is Jim Peck, the former coach and current general manager of the Excelsior American Legion team. He is set to host this year’s event July 7-11 in the Twin Cities area.
“Fritz Soule and I founded the Gopher Classic as an eight-team, double-elimination tournament,” Peck said in a recent interview. “It started out as a tournament for some of the good local teams. I couldn’t even tell you know who won the first championship.”
What Peck can tell you is that Wayzata won the championship last summer. The Trojans’ pitching staff was deep enough to win nine straight games.
Looking at the field for this year’s event, which will be played at 16 sites, Peck tabbed Creighton Prep from Omaha, Nebraska as the favorite.
“They’re the big-school champs from Nebraska,” he noted. “Rapid City [South Dakota] is another good team.”
Who’s tough among the Minnesota teams?
“Woodbury,” said Peck. “Boy, can they hit the ball.”
The host team, Excelsior, is another contender after winning 19 of its first 20 games. Coach Bruce Barron has a deep pitching staff, led by Division I recruits Nate Shoemaker [Creighton University] and Sam Thoresen [University of Minnesota].
Peck said the dark horse teams include local favorites Waconia and Shakopee.
“You never know which teams have college players,” said Peck. “That can certainly be a factor. One reason teams like the Gopher Classic is that we don’t allow travel teams.”
The format for the Gopher Classic guarantees each of the participants five games. The winners of each of the six-team pools advance to championship-round games on Monday, July 10, and the semifinals and finals are scheduled for Tuesday, July 11.
“A team that reaches Tuesday gets to play eight or nine games,” said Peck. “So you have to have a lot of pitching.”
Peck mentioned that the Gopher Classic is named in honor of a former Excelsior Legion assistant coach, Jim Hanus. For years, during the Peck’s time as the head coach, Hanus served as Excelsior’s first-base coach.
“Jim had a heart of gold,” said Peck. “Whenever we were short on funds, Jim would ask, ‘How much do you need? Let me know and I’ll write a check.’”
Following are the pool play schedules for each of the West Suburban Gopher Classic participants.
Game times for Excelsior Legion, with all games at Veterans Field, are 9 a.m. Friday, July, 7 vs. White Bear Lake, 7 p.m. Friday, July 7 vs. Watertown, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 8, vs. Fargo, North Dakota, 4:30 p.m. Sunday, July 9, vs. the Rochester Patriots and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 9, vs. Waconia.
Game times for Hopkins Legion, with all games at Big Willow Park, are 9 a.m. Friday, July 7, vs. Nisswa, 11:30 a.m. Friday, July 7, vs. Omaha, Nebraska Burke, 9 a.m. Saturday, July 8, vs. Owatonna, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 8, vs. Sioux Falls, South Dakota West and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 9, vs. West St. Paul.
Game times for Wayzata Legion, with all games at Prior Lake’s Memorial Park, are 7 p.m. Friday, July 7, vs. Prior Lake, 9 a.m. Saturday, July 8, vs. Andover, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, July 8, vs. Helena Montana, 9 a.m. Sunday, July 9, vs. Mitchell, South Dakota and 11:30 a.m. Sunday, July 9, vs. Wausau, Wisconsin.
Game times for Westphal Armstrong Legion, with all games at Northwestern University in Roseville, are 7 p.m. Friday, July 7, vs. Mankato National, 4:30 p.m. Saturday, July 8, vs. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 8, vs. Lincoln, Nebraska, 4:30 p.m. Sunday, July 9, vs. Hamline Purple and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 9, vs. Eagan.