How it all Began: A 35 Year Celebration of MSBL, Val Lewis, Sacramento MSBL (First in a series)

By Steve LaMontia, Director of Communications

Val Lewis is the 1986 founder of the ultra-successful Sacramento MSBL and the headmaster of the popular Father/Son concept utilized for the first time at the MSBL World Series in 1998 with a dozen teams.  At 80 years ‘young’, Val has remained an active part of the Sacramento MSBL landscape (Sacramento Hall of Fame 2006) and has amazingly attended every World Series in MSBL history, 1988 through 2021.  He most recently won yet another ring in the 75+ division of the 2021 World Series! 

Val has been inducted into the MSBL National Hall of Fame (1997), MSBL World Series Hall of Fame (1999) and was the recipient of the MSBL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.  There is no more qualified participant to discuss ‘how it all began’ than Val Lewis.  I was fortunate enough to corner Val for a couple of hours and we discussed his journey.  With advance apologies, this is a long article, accented with many great photos, but Val’s story is well worth your time.  Pull up a chair, grab a beverage, and enjoy the ride!

How did your adult baseball career begin?  “In 1984 I had been playing fast-pitch softball but got the itch to get back into the game,” explained Val.  “I saw an article advertising the Dodger Fantasy Camp in Florida and asked (begged) my wife for permission to go.  To my surprise, she said rather than spend the money for a fleeting week of baseball, why not start a league!  I was floored, but the idea took root.  One advertised pizza party later, a meeting produced four teams and we were off and running.”

Sports Illustrated then published a now-famous article written about Steve Sigler and MSBL.  Steve Sigler found out about Val and his league and called him up and asked him to join a new nationwide league of baseball aficionados.  In 1986, after multiple conversations and Steve’s salesmanship, Val was on board.

“In 1988 Steve called and said they were going to hold a World Series in Arizona and asked if we could send some teams.  I couldn’t recruit the guys fast enough!  By this time, we had helped found the Woodland-Davis MSBL, which is only about 30 miles away, as a couple of our teams broke off to play there since it was closer to their homes.  This is an important fact because lo and behold, at the very first World Series in Arizona we had to play against a Woodland-Davis team in the championship!  We lost but we all knew each other and it was one of the special moments in my life.”

In 1986 the new Sacramento MSBL had grown to six teams and after that first World Series appearance in 1988, and the SI article, baseball in Sacramento started to take off.  They have grown a couple of teams every year and the league now boasts north of 60 teams in multiple age divisions, with many thanks to Val’s springboard.

“We are one of the few leagues that can say they have their own ball fields,“ said Val.  “We built a couple of fields on our own on some empty lots but then eminent domain took that space from us but the local government promised they would rebuild us somewhere else.  Over the past few years, we have been able to call a new $12 million dollar complex our home, complete with clubhouse, our own grounds crew, the works.  That little four-team league in 1986 has grown to be quite a success.”

Val discontinued his leadership as league president in 1991 and there have been a few successors since then.  The Sacramento MSBL is currently under the leadership of Alan Van Ness

“Alan is a very detail-oriented person and very intelligent.  We have grown to the point where someone with his capabilities is necessary.  We are a full-time business now so a part-time hobby from the kitchen table won’t cut it anymore.”

That brings us to an important topic of this discussion, and a topic that is very dear to Val.  The Father/Son tournament concept, which was his baby.  I’ll bow out here and let Val discuss his passion.

“My dad was an outstanding ballplayer in Montana and was good enough to be a pro.  I always wanted to play alongside my dad but he had an accident on his hand as a welder so we never got the chance.  While playing alongside Steve Sigler in 1998 in Oregon at the Nike games, I discussed the concept of fathers playing alongside sons to Steve and he said to try it.  So, in 1998 in Arizona at our World Series we hosted the first Father/Son division with a dozen teams and it was an instant hit.

It has grown every year to now include different divisions for varying skill levels.  Not every dad wants to face a college kid that throws 90.  The varying divisions allow you to play where you are most comfortable.  The concept is to enjoy playing alongside your kids and grandkids first and foremost while creating lasting memories.  I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Val said he had two of his sons on that very first team in 1998 and over the years his teams have included all four sons and assorted grandkids.  He continues to play alongside the whole crew.

“My youngest son ran the team for 18 years and now my grandson is the manager of the team.  You can’t draw up memories like that.”

One interesting story Val conveyed to me is of great interest to those of us who are well over 50 and still playing in the dirt.

“Back in 1993 John DeBenedictis and I approached Steve Sigler with the idea of having a 50-over division in the World Series since John and I were both over that threshold and could see the need,” said Val.  “John was from the east and I was out in California so we had a pretty good cross-section of interest. 

Steve didn’t think the players would be that interested in an older division at that time (how far we’ve come!) so he was reluctant to go there.  John and I persisted and Steve agreed to stage a demonstration game for that age division and it was a rousing success.  That is the last time increasing age divisions became an issue, as we are now playing in a 75-over division.”

With nearly 40 years of MSBL memories, Val must have some funny moments on the diamond.  I asked him and wasn’t disappointed.

Louis Tiant came and pitched in our league in 1991.  My first time up I got a hit off him and he turned to me at first base, wagged his finger at me, and said ‘no mas!’, meaning ‘no more.’  The next time up I worked him to a 3-2 count and he threw me a pitch that was so far outside I knew I had a walk but the thing broke like nothing I have ever seen and caught the plate for strike three.  All I got for my effort was Louis’ amazing smile.  We became good friends and even shared some time at Fenway with him throwing some of us batting practice and him hitting infield.  He was a great guy.”

“In my career, I have played alongside Minnie Minoso and Dick ‘Richie’ Allen and against pros like Cesar Geronimo, maybe back in about 1989.  I also played alongside Steve Sigler as we went to Holland to play in hopes of creating an international tour, which unfortunately didn’t catch on.  But their fields were outstanding and they truly embrace baseball.  They have sent teams to the MSBL World Series in recent years.  It was a wonderful experience.”

Any other funny moments?

“At our very first World Series in 1988, ex-major leaguer Jim Barr was pitching for us and I noticed he was icing his elbow in the ice bucket between innings.  The funny part was that nobody else seemed to notice and continued to drink the water that was mixed with his sweaty elbow.  I decided not to drink any more water!

We also had a lefty pitcher in later years named Brian Ross who made it to AAA with the Cardinals back in the day.  He had a pickoff move that was incomparable.  I have never seen anything like it.  Guys in our league literally stood on first base without taking a lead.  So, at the World Series, he was literally picking off five guys per game!  There was one semi-final game somewhere around 2004 and we were holding on to a one-run lead in the last inning and the bases were loaded with two outs and we brought Brian in with one purpose.  He promptly picked the guy off and we went on to the championship game.  We played Berry’s in the finals with Brian the starter and after he picked off a few guys, Berry’s manager yelled at his guys to stay on the bag!  He was amazing.”

I asked Val who Influenced him most during his storied career.  Number one came easily.

“My wife, Ann was my biggest influence.  If she wouldn’t have urged me to start my own baseball league, all of this wouldn’t have happened.  I asked her recently if she ever regretted steering me toward another baseball career and she said of course not, because it keeps me active, in condition, and keeps a twinkle in my eye.

Steve and Brian Sigler are like family to me and have always been there along this journey.  They are very special, caring people.

Lou Zabbia was the manager of four of our first five championship teams.  He was such a positive influence.

Jerry Karnow took over as president after me and took the league to the next level by leading the charge for us to secure our own complex

Irv Scott is my hero who is still out there doing it on two artificial knees!

MSBL Hall of Famer and Sacramento and Woodland driving force Lanny Ropke wears his passion on his sleeve.  I am honored to call him my very good friend and teammate. 

Jim Barr and Lowell Palmer are two ex-major leaguers who really helped get the league going when we needed it most.  I still remember Lowell hitting the most magnificent home run I have ever seen.  He hit a line drive over the center-field fence and into the batter’s eye at Tempe Diablo Stadium!  It was still rising when it hit!

Ron Brand is an extremely smart baseball man who taught me so much about this game.  He played for five major league teams and has played every position in the bigs.  He also managed in the minor leagues.

Brian Ross, Jim Lortz, and Jim Tygrett were and are passionate Sacramento players and past presidents who have brought so much to the league and to me personally.

Bart Zeller and I served on the early MSBL Board of Directors in the early 90’s and I continue to enjoy his friendship and unbridled passion.  Bart is a tremendous baseball mind.

One guy who stands tall in my estimation is the World Series Tournament Director Tom Prendergast.  Tom is one of my best friends of all time.  He embraces the impossible task of running the show and keeping everybody happy, which as most of you are aware is truly impossible.  Under the toughest of odds, Tom makes it work, year in and year out.  I admire Tom’s dedication and he has been a very positive influence on me.  Thank you, Tom.

Greg Elmasian is a guy who helped form our league in 1984 and promoted it as nobody could.  He stopped playing 15 or 20 years ago but his hard work early on continues to be one of our cornerstones of the league.”

We had reached the part of the interview where I asked Val if he had any words of advice.  His years of playing, managing, and leading have certainly earned him the right to share his thoughts for all to eagerly hear.

“When we were younger we were hotheads and said things we regretted, but as the years go by, we come to realize this is the best game ever developed and now we play the game out of love and friendship.  In Sacramento, we even have our umpires inducted into our hall of fame. 

My advice is to play our great game for fun and treat the other team like close friends.  They may, after all, be a teammate someday!  This game is so fun I can’t stop!  It isn’t what our lifetime batting average is, it’s about the enjoyment.  Treat everybody with respect.  The ring isn’t the end-all now in my baseball career, it’s the friendships made.

This year at the World Series we are assembling a vintage Sacramento Solons team for the 70’s division that will be made up of teammates throughout the years.  We aren’t doing it for the ring, and will in fact place ourselves into one of the lower divisions because we are playing for the love of getting back together.  That’s the key.”