From Joel Adamson of Phoenix, to George Zuverink of Tempe — the last player listed in the Baseball Encycolopedia — more than 400 former major league alumni make Arizona their home. This includes the 120 or so who live in the East Valley alone, according to information from the Arizona Major League Alumni Association.
For the core of former players active in that association — a group ranging in age from their mid 30s to late 80s — they don’t hesitate to step up to the plate, or cover the bases, if you will. In addition to moving forward with its mission of helping a new generation of Arizona youth ballplayers better learn the game, the association also aims at aiding former Major Leaguers or their family members who have fallen on hard times.
That’s the genesis for the participation of about 50 former players in Sunday’s 26th-Annual Kleven Construction Celebration of Baseball All-Star game at Surprise Stadium. The festivities surrounding the event will include a hitting contest featuring some of the alumni, top-ranked college players from Arizona State University and two local high school baseball stars in the Valley — Mitch Nay of Chandler Hamilton and David Graybill of Phoenix Brophy.
For the last 15 years, Tempe resident Lou Klimchock, a former infielder in the 1960s has been the glue to galvanize the Valley’s community of former baseball players as the president of the association. Klimchock said he also has seen the number of current players living in the Grand Canyon State grow as the nonprofit organization is seeking to acquire more sponsorships so it can continue to thrive in the future.
“It’s my passion,” said Klimchock, now 72. “We’re a pretty well kept secret in the state, and despite hard economic times, we’re still able to do the things and help others out.”
As an 18-year-old rookie with the Kansas City Athletics in 1958, Klimchock said he made the then-minimum league salary of $6,000; in his last year in 1970, he made $24,000. He later worked in marketing for the Adolph Coors Co. and Coca-Cola, picking up skills he said has helped him make the alumni association more viable with the help of a volunteer board of directors.
The Arizona Chapter of the Major League Alumni is said to be among the oldest and largest chapters in the country. Many of its members were hardly household names — playing long before multi-million dollar contracts — and left the game before they played four years, the minimum amount of time required to receive a pension from the league.
That’s where the Arizona Major League Alumni has come in, surpassing $600,000 in contributions to its members in need. To date, 24 members have received assistance, mostly with medical care costs, and the organization also supports BAT (the Baseball Assistance Team, also helping former Major Leaguers suffering hardship), and youth baseball programs throughout Arizona.
The money is raised through its annual golf tournament — slated this year for Feb. 27 at Scottsdale’s Troon North Golf Club Feb. 27 — and from various other events, like the annual Arizona Baseball Awards Dinner. Come November, this year’s event will again honor the top Major League, Minor League, college and high school players from Arizona.
Klimchock, who played second and third base for the Athletics, Washington Senators, Milwaukee Braves, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians, jokingly said that if the Celebration of Baseball game is rained out again this year — it would be the third year in a row — that maybe someone is trying to tell them something.
“If we’re rained out this year, the guy upstairs is telling us we’re too old to do this,” Klimchock said. “We need more younger players to participate in the game. ... The ages of most of the guys getting out of baseball are 30 to 50, and it takes a while for them to return to the game. They’re not quite ready to be called old timers.
“But, we really need the younger guys to help keep the alumni going, and we’re looking for more corporate sponsorships to grow.”
Included among the players participating in Feb. 26 game are former pitcher Dave Burba, now coaching for the Colorado Rockies and residing in Gilbert, former San Diego Padres outfielder Kory DeHaan, now a coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates who lives in Chandler, and Jack Heidemann, a former big leaguer who lives in Mesa.
Klimchock has said that one of the alumni goals is to raise more money for scholarships to send nationally-ranked high school players from Arizona to the annual Wood Bat Tournament in Florida in October, where they can showcase their skills before pro and college scouts. Sponsored by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team is overseen by R.J. Harrison, an Ahwatukee resident and director of scouting for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Laurel Prieb, vice president of operations and special projects for Major League Baseball’s Western Operations Office in Phoenix, said that it is important that the mission of the Arizona Chapter of the Major League Alumni continues into the future.
“The Valley has so many players living here and that underscores the importance of the chapter,” Prieb said. “And Lou (Klimchock) has done so much in making sure the needs of the players’ needs are met and bonding them together.”
Added Klimchock: “It’s all about passing on what we’ve learned and keeping the alumni association going. What keeps the alumni involved and doing things? Because we can.”