There was once a time in St. Louis when American Legion baseball was the standard for summer action on the diamond.
With the rise of traveling “select” teams over the past decade, Legion baseball has lost some of its luster. Despite these select teams drawing more and more players, often for a hefty fee, one organization that remains as strong as ever is the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association.
“SLABA is a really, really good league,” said Grayling Tobias, head coach of the local South-West Stars 18-and-under team. “There have been some really good players go through the SLABA organizations. There is a very good tradition and history in SLABA.”
The Stars draw players from the Parkway school district, Kirkwood and some of the city private schools. Their home games are played at Parkway West, Missouri Baptist University and Principia.
SLABA was established in 1987 to provide St. Louis-area high school players and younger teams with maximum exposure to the toughest competition. This was accomplished by affiliating with nationally recognized and sanctioned youth baseball programs.
SLABA currently has national affiliations with PONY Baseball, Inc., the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC), and the National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF). The league sends teams from each of its age groups to various postseason tournaments hosted by these affiliations throughout the country. The PONY and NABF affiliations give teams an opportunity to play in national playoff tournaments.
Membership is limited to organizations which are assigned specific boundaries based on two public high schools in their area. SLABA organizations draw players from two base school districts, private school players and players ages 13-to-18 from “open” school districts.
The league has 10 teams: Jefferson County Barnstormers and Blazers, South-West Stars, American National Eagles, Eagles West, Lincoln County Raiders, Stallions, Johnny Mac Thunder, St. Louis Tigers and Meramec Valley Travelers.
SLABA Baseball Serves as Path to Major Leagues
Former SLABA players include St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan, who is a native of Florissant, attended Hazelwood West and currently resides in Maryland Heights, and Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who is a graduate of Lafayette High School.
Perhaps the most prominent local player who played SLABA baseball is another Lafayette graduate, Philadelphia Phillies all-star first baseman Ryan Howard.
Howard played three seasons for the Ellisville Redbirds from 1996-1998 before moving onto Southwest Missouri State. On the SLABA website, Howard said the organization gave him “the chance to improve my skills and get noticed by college coaches.”
The 18-and-under postseason awards are named after several SLABA alumni, including the Kyle McClellan Pitcher of the Year, the Ryan Howard SLABA MVP and the coach of the year award named for Jim Medlock, a former insurance agent who founded the American National Eagles in 1975.
The Stars, meanwhile, have been “decimated by injury” this season and are 4-18. One of those victories is a win over the league-leading Stallions.
“We’re not doing very well, but our boys are progressing and improving,” Tobias said.
A member of the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as the University of Missouri-St. Louis and McCluer Halls of Fame, Tobias was part of the 1977 UMSL team that reached the NCAA Division II College World Series. He played basketball and baseball at UMSL before playing in the Detroit Tigers organization. During his SLABA days, he played for Medlock, who is largely considered the founder of the league.
“I enjoy coaching and I enjoy giving back,” said Tobias, a 30-year coaching veteran and member of the Boys Club ring of honor. “That’s why I continue to coach even though my boys are not playing baseball. They’re soccer players.
“I wanted to give back to an organization that’s been so helpful for me. If I didn’t play in SLABA, I don’t think I would have had the success that I had. I feel like I have an obligation to help other players get better through baseball and help them become better citizens and players through baseball.”
SLABA Offers Plenty of College Preparation
Tobias’ 17-and-under team is atop the division with a 5-1 league mark. He said SLABA is comparable to Legion baseball as a neighborhood-based organization. What SLABA has that others don’t have is the fall showcase event, where the top players from each team can display their talents in front of college scouts at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O’Fallon, Mo.
The Meramec Valley Travelers get their players from the Rockwood school districts, as well as Lindbergh, Pacific, Valley Park and Washington. Jeff Parker, a six-year SLABA coaching veteran, is in his second season as the head coach of the Travelers 18U team.
Despite the team name, Parker agrees that playing locally can ultimately be more beneficial for most players. Instead of being redshirted at big universities in the Big 12, ACC, SEC or Conference USA, players can play “right away” at a local school.
“The talent level in SLABA is definitely something that the colleges in the area are interested in,” said Parker, adding that many coaches have connections to MLB teams. “If you stay local and you don’t have the money to travel, you still get the exposure.”
SLABA will hold its all-star games for each age-group level on July 31 and Aug. 1 at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O’Fallon, Mo. Other games can be heard regularly on Prepcasts.com and 101 ESPN broadcasts a game of the week every Friday. The league also puts on a showcase each October for select juniors and seniors to play in front of college scouts.