A Legendary League Celebrating a Century of Baseball

by Dr. Timothy Cundiff
Peoria Sunday Morning League

The Peoria Sunday Morning League has been making baseball dreams come true for 100 years.

Field of Dreams was a classic, inspirational film depicting an Iowa farmer who transformed his farm into a baseball diamond. He built it… and people came. The game of baseball is filled with boys and men having dreams of making the big leagues. America’s pastime is a beautiful sport combining skill, athleticism, hustle and most importantly, passion.

The journey to the big leagues is not easy. Countless men have played the game for many years, only to call it quits having never received “the call” (to the major leagues). It could be said that those men who have succeeded on their journey to the highest level of the sport have found their “field of dreams.” Those who made the majors certainly didn’t do it on skill alone. It is the drive, the passion, the pride, the desire that gets them through all of the bumps along their long road.

Extending a Kids’ Game
Baseball is a kids’ game. The men who grew up with baseball in their blood have been playing the sport since tee-ball and Little League. But it’s hard to simply hang up the cleats after high school or college. According to statistics from 2013, only 6.8 percent of all high school senior baseball players will go on to play NCAA college baseball—and just 9.4 percent of all NCAA senior baseball players will be drafted by a Major League Baseball (MLB) team. It is clear the grand majority of baseball players don’t make the cut. Baseball has had such an impact on these guys’ lives that it’s difficult to let it go.

But just because a ballplayer didn’t make the major leagues, their baseball career isn’t necessarily over. While their dreams of the big show may not have come true, they can still find their own personal “field of dreams.” The Peoria Sunday Morning League has been making baseball dreams come true for men in central Illinois for over a century.

In 1916, a group of six local businesses formed a baseball league to provide an avenue for their employees to compete at a high level and play a competitive form of America’s pastime. Thus, the Peoria Sunday Morning League was founded. One hundred seasons later, the League is alive and well—providing an opportunity for men to continue playing this game they love. Celebrating its 100th season this summer, there are seven teams competing in this historic league. Peoria is home to this baseball institution—the oldest amateur baseball league in America, and recognized as such in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The only baseball leagues still in operation that are older than the Sunday Morning League are the National and American leagues of MLB.

A Notable Roster
Over the years, plenty of baseball legends have participated in the Peoria Sunday Morning League (PSML). In fact, over the past century, there have been 46 players who’ve gone on to play in MLB, after cutting their teeth in the PSML. Ultimately, this league has been baseball’s version of the vaudeville circuit. To make the big leagues, one must prove he can “play in Peoria.” Some notable legends who made this very trek include:

  • Zach Monroe, pitcher for the New York Yankees, is the only Peorian to pitch in the World Series (1958).
  • Bill Tuttle had an 11-year MLB career playing for Detroit, Kansas City and Minnesota.
  • Danny Goodwin holds a piece of baseball trivia as the only player to be drafted #1 twice in two separate MLB drafts; he then went on to play professionally for seven years.
  • Mike Dunne pitched in MLB—most notably in his terrific rookie season for Pittsburgh—as well as pitching for the U.S. Olympic team.
  • Joe Girardi played one season in the PSML prior to embarking on a 15-year playing career. As the current New York Yankees manager, he has won four World Series championships.
  • Jim Thome played in the PSML for three years, prior to being drafted by the Cleveland Indians. His phenomenal career includes 612 home runs, seventh on the all-time list. In 2014, he had a statue unveiled at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
  • Ben Zobrist is a two-time All-Star in MLB.

All of these baseball legends made their impact in the PSML, in addition to having an impact on the game nationally. They all passed the test; they “played in Peoria.”

Being a legend does not require one to make the majors, however. There are legends who never played professionally, but rather, devoted their life to this amateur league. Here, one man stands out above the rest. Known as “Mr. Sunday Morning League,” Don Wyss was a true legend. In 2012, the PSML Advisory Board researched statistics to vote on an All-Time Top 50 list, and Wyss was the unanimous choice to top that list as the greatest Sunday Morning Leaguer. He played in the league for an unprecedented 35 years, managed eight championship teams, and served as league president for five years. As a player, his numbers are staggering—he is ranked in the Top 25 in 11 different categories, including first place all-time in RBIs, at-bats, runs scored, doubles and triples, and second place all-time in hits and home runs. “Mr. Sunday Morning League” is an understatement with Don Wyss.

A Part of History
The mission statement of the Peoria Sunday Morning League is two-fold: “For aspiring young ballplayers to prepare for a professional baseball career” and “For men to continue to play baseball for the love of the game.” When the league began in the early 1900s, it was split fairly evenly, with about 50 percent young players right out of high school or college, and 50 percent older guys playing into their 30s and 40s. Today, the league has shifted more towards the young collegiate athlete, while still maintaining a good presence of dedicated baseball veterans.

When it comes to the PSML, legends are found all over. Legendary status doesn’t require a contract with the major leagues. Legendary status doesn’t require a spot on the Top 50 of all-time. Legends are the thousands of men who have kept this amateur baseball league in existence for 100 years. To keep a baseball league in operation for a century isn’t a fluke. It takes dedicated individuals with a love and a passion for the game. It takes people willing to go out on a limb and make sacrifices to keep this institution thriving. That is what deserves the legendary title.

To the thousands of players in this league over the past century; to the coaches and managers; to the umpires, administrators and sponsors; to the fans and family that make up the Peoria Sunday Morning League, we say “thank you” for 100 seasons! Literally everyone who has participated in this league over the years is a baseball legend. They are a part of baseball history, and that is legendary.

Sending his congratulations on this historic achievement, Major League Baseball Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig sent a letter to the league. An excerpt from the letter reads:

For the last century, the Peoria Sunday Morning League has undoubtedly served as a beloved and constructive force within its community. As a platform, it has instilled values like teamwork, sportsmanship and determination amongst the people of Peoria. Most importantly, the spirit of kinship and unity inspired by this League within this community is what truly merits commemoration.

This excerpt summarizes the skills and values needed in the game of baseball and needed in any entity hoping to survive a century of existence. In 1916, when Harlan Jones—first president of the league—opened the doors on the first season, a dream became reality. It was built, and people came. Now 100 seasons later, the dream is celebrating a milestone. These baseball fields in central Illinois are proving to be fertile grounds filled with many dreams—not too different from the Iowa cornfield in the movie. But to answer the famous question: “Is this heaven?” No, it’s not Iowa. It’s Peoria, the All-America City. Baseball plays in Peoria… for a century and counting. iBi

Dr. Timothy Cundiff is president of the Peoria Sunday Morning League.

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