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Have Bats, Will Travel : Claremont Cardinals Give an Extended Dimension to American Legion Baseball

July 31, 1993|ERIC SHEPARD | TIMES PREP SPORTS EDITOR

It started with a vision and a broken-down school bus in 1980.

Fourteen years and tens of thousands of dollars later, Jack Helber has one of the most admired American Legion baseball teams in the nation. Locally, his squad is the envy of every Little League player in the San Gabriel Valley.

Dozens of hopefuls are turned away every summer at a chance to play for the Claremont Cardinals, whose 18 players range in age from 16 to 18.

What's the big deal?

Helber, 52, turned an ordinary legion team into a band of traveling teen-agers that spends three weeks every summer taking its show on the road.

Instead of filling the schedule with local squads, the Cardinals face teams from Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Texas, to name a few. There is talk of heading to West Virginia next summer.

"Several years ago no one had ever heard of the Claremont Cardinals," said Helber, who started the team shortly after getting out of the Army in 1971. "Most people didn't even know where Claremont (40 miles east of downtown) was. But we've gained a reputation and not just because we've played well but because we haven't done the norm. We haven't stayed home."

Although Helber, who still sports a military-style crew cut, had fond memories of vacationing across the country as a youngster, his concept of a traveling baseball team happened by accident. A conversation with a cousin in Laramie, Wyo., eventually led to an invitation for his team to play in a tournament there.

The transportation problem was solved when the coach bought a used school bus for $2,000 in Ontario. He had it repainted in the team colors of red and white. One of the player's parents helped with mechanical repairs, and several seats were taken out and replaced with card tables and bean bag chairs.

While details of the journey to Laramie were being ironed out, Helber received additional calls from legion coaches in Salt Lake City, Billings, Mont.; Casper, Wyo., and Sheridan, Wyo. All wanted the Cardinals to stop by for a game.

"My biggest problem is that I couldn't say 'no' to anyone," said Helber, who did all of the driving on the first trip. "Before I knew it, we were zigzagging everywhere. We did eventually make it to Laramie."

Helber, who started his coaching career in 1961, recalls the team's first stop as a disaster. The Salt Lake City team was undisciplined, with most of its players taking off their shirts. The coach was worried "my kids would pick up a bunch of bad habits."

His fears proved unfounded, however. The next stop, Billings, was a success. The team bus was met by a mob of autograph-seeking Little Leaguers. Mark McGwire, now with the Oakland A's, pitched Claremont to a victory. The rest of the inaugural journey went off like clockwork. There was even time for some sightseeing.

The team returned to Laramie the next summer on the same bus. Stops were added in Ogden, Utah, and Miles City, Mont.

By the third year, the Cardinals had a new bus and a busier schedule. That summer they drove all the way to Alberta, Canada.

What began as an unknown adventure turned into a tradition. Claremont quickly gained a reputation as a traveling team, and players from three local high schools--Claremont, La Verne Damien and La Verne Bonita--lined up for a chance to participate.

The legion season begins in mid-May and concludes with the World Series in late August. Most squads play teams in their area, with their only hope for travel being qualification for the State or Regional playoffs.

But Helber wanted a different kind of legion team.

"Our players have seen parts of the country that they might not ever have had a chance to visit," said Helber, who attended Claremont High and now teaches physical education at the school. "They've learned to become more independent and how to solve their own problems. They've learned a sense of responsibility."

When Helber accepted an invitation to play in Fargo, N.D., in 1985, he decided it was time to give up on the bus. The Cardinals flew to Minneapolis that summer, attended a Twin game and then drove to Fargo. They have flown every year since.

Claremont's favorite stop has been Miles City, site of an eight-team tournament early every July. The Cardinals have participated the last 12 summers and use the city as the focal point of their trip.

Players are asked to sell ads in the team program to raise money. Parents also help raise funds. Cathie Simonson, whose son Chris Hirz-Simonson is a member of the team, secured a soft-drink company as a sponsor this season. Helber usually makes up the difference, between $3,000-$5,000 a year.

Although the annual treks have included stops at Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Mt. Rushmore, it is not all fun and games. The Cardinals played 19 games in 21 days this summer. Six games were rained out.

As a result, Claremont plays 10 to 15 games more each summer than most of its opponents. The additional playing time helped the Cardinals win their league title this season. They added the district title last Sunday, and opened the area playoffs Thursday at UCLA with a 10-0 victory over Westchester.

Bill Walkenbach, a junior shortstop from Claremont, said he waited three years to join the team. His first season has been memorable.

"We were really appreciated in all of those small towns," he said. "The people came out to watch and support everyone. It was more than just another legion game."

Helber coached baseball at Claremont from 1977-85. He has been an assistant at Claremont-Mudd College the last six years. But it is the legion team that has brought him the greatest satisfaction.

"I've come close to getting married twice," Helber said. "But it never happened. Coaching these kids has been like having my own family. This team has given me an excuse to take a summer vacation."

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