by David Krival
(This article appeared in the Spring 1993 issue of HardBall Magazine.)
Val Lewis, founder of the Sacramento MSBL
National MSBL Board Member Val Lewis was born and raised in Sacramento, where he still lives. His father, Newell Lewis, played professional baseball in Montana and migrated to California before World War II, looking to latch on with one of the PCL clubs. A serious factory accident cut his baseball career short. Mr. Lewis made the best of things, got married, and raised a family.
Val was the second of four boys. With his older brother Dee, Val played Little League the first year it came to Sacramento, 1952. "There were four teams, from Roseville, which is north of us, to Lodi, which is south and east,” Val remembers. "Now there are hundreds in the same area.” Newell was the Coach.
"Dad wanted to take a team to the Little League World Series.” In 1966, youngest brother Glen's team, coached by Newell and Dee, won the California title and went to Pennsylvania for the Series. They finished third, beating Japan in the consolation game. "It was his last chance,” says Val, "his youngest son.”
Val Lewis (left) in Little League
As a high school senior, Val led the city league in hitting. He played a lot of ball—American Legion, Connie Mack. Bob Oliver played against Val in high school and American Legion and was Val's teammate in the Connie Mack League. In a 1959 game that became a local baseball legend, another area Legion team defeated Val's and advanced to the National Tournament.
Lewis attended UC-Berkeley and played four years in that program, mainly at the JV level. Slated for second base as a senior, he injured his ankle, and could not make the pivot. His running speed otherwise unimpaired, Val found himself in center field. "It's hard to believe now, but I could run down just about anything in those days,” says Val.
After college, he returned to Sacramento, where he played County and Rural League, then fast-pitch softball for fifteen years. He married Ann Holt, and, like his father, raised four sons, all ballplayers.
Val earned a degree in Civil Engineering at Berkeley and then went to work for the California Department of Water Resources designing electrical substations and transmission lines for its aqueduct system. In 1968 he was hired by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, where he is still employed.
Second Generation Coach
Val coached Little League and Babe Ruth League from 1970 until the latter 1980s. With sons Mike and Todd, he competed in the 1984 Babe Ruth World Series in Shelbyville, Indiana. Two years later, when the Series moved to Oakland, California, Val and Todd returned for a second shot.
As satisfying as coaching was for Val, it wasn't enough. In 1984, he told his wife, "I don't ever get to play this game. All I do is coach. I want to go to a fantasy camp.”
"How much does it cost?” she asked.
"About four thousand dollars,” Val replied.
"How long do you get to play?”
"About a week.”
Ann and Val have a large family, eleven children—four boys and seven girls. Perhaps, thought Ann, there was a less extravagant way for Val to play baseball. "Why don't you form your own league, honey?” Ann said, and the Sacramento MSBL was born.
Sports Editor Don Bloom of the Sacramento Bee had followed Val's coaching career closely. As he does with most people, Val became a good friend of Bloom's. Bloom wrote a promotional article for the prospective baseball league for men 35 and older. Fifteen men met at a Sacramento pizza parlor, formed the nucleus of four teams, and went forth to fill their rosters.
Within a week, Lewis received an extraordinary letter. Unaware of Val's need for players, two local American Legion posts had decided to sponsor a replay of the legendary 1959 championship game. Val's recruiting problems were over. Many American Legion alums joined immediately.
The Sacramento MSBL began life as a Stan Musial affiliate. "That didn't work,” Val says. "They didn't care about us at all.” In 1985, Val renamed the organization the Sacramento Veteran's Baseball League. In late 1987, Steve Sigler invited Val and his league to the first MSBL World Series, to be held the following November. IN 1989, Sacramento joined the MSBL and lowered its age limit to thirty.
"The first 1988 MSBL World Series revitalized our league,” says Val. "We were not far from collapsing when Steve Sigler called me.” So close to disbanding were they that Lewis loaned the league $3,000 to cover some bad debts incurred when one of the teams folded. "Some of the guys were very suspicious of the idea of a national organization,” recalls Lewis. "They thought Steve was going to take our money and disappear. But when we got back from Arizona that year, everything changed. The league doubled in size twice in the next four years!”
Val Lewis (left) and Steve Sigler at Tempe Diablo during 1988 MSBL World Series.
Val played on the Sacramento 40-plus team that too second at the 1988 Series, then got a championship ring in 1989 and 1991. In 1990 and 1992 he played on the Sacramento 40+ American team.
Luis Tiant played in the Sacramento MSBL in 1988. That year, he and Lewis traveled to Japan to meet brothers Leon and Leron Lee and Matt Keough, all playing Japanese baseball. From Japan, they flew to France, and then to Boston, where Tiant pitched batting practice and hit ground balls to Val at Fenway Park, constantly chomping his foot-long Havana special. "I don't generally allow this,” the groundskeeper said, "but Luis and me go way back.”
In 1989, Lewis accompanied Sigler, Ron Dunn, Mike Pinto and others to the Dominican Republic for a week of baseball and fun. Minnie Minoso and Jose Cardenal played with that MSBL team, while the Dominicans featured Cesar Geronimo and Rico Carty. All the Alou brothers attended the nationally televised championship game. Juan Marichal threw out the first ball. "That's the first time I met Val,” recalls Dunn, President of the neighboring San Jose MSBL. "He is simply the nicest, most considerate guy I have ever known. Not a bad hitter either.”
In 1990, Val managed the MSBL team that visited Holland. "We played in Kinheim, Rotterdam, The Hague. The Dutch were tremendous hosts,” Val recalls.
Val served as President of the Sacramento MSBL until 1990. He is still a member of its Board of Directors. He also sits on the National MSBL Board of Directors, and is the Western Region Expansion Director. In 1991, Val produced the MSBL Scorebook.
At the 1992 MSBL World Series, Lewis played in the memorable 50+ Exhibition Game, and also did the color commentary of the telecast of the 30+ American Division championship game.
Although he would be the last to say it, Val Lewis is one of the true leaders of the MSBL, and one of Steve Sigler's closest and most valued associates. "His many contributions aside, Val is a truly decent man. His life proves that you don't have to be ruthless to be successful,” Steve said recently.
"It keeps me real busy,” admits the father of eleven, referring to his commitments to family, career and MSBL. "If I had twelve kids, I just don't think I could have managed it all.”
"It's been fantastic, and none of it would have happened if Ann hadn't talked me out of that fantasy camp and suggested that I start a league for men like me.”