SIDNEY — Thanks to the efforts of “angel” volunteers like Jim Muhlenkamp, baseball donations soared to new heights for Post 217 of the Sidney American Legion.
Legion’s baseball regional history
American Legion baseball began in Sidney around 1948, before Little League. Over the next 61 years (except 1992 and 2009), the local Legion helped sponsor young men to engage in America’s favorite pastime. That is, until 2009, when the Legion’s financial issues led to a two-year baseball hiatus.
“I’ve been a Legion member for 40-some years,” said Jim Muhlenkamp, who joined the Legion after serving six years in the Army Reserve/National Guard at the end of the Vietnam War. Being in the Legion, Muhlenkamp said, has helped him stay in touch with friends and others who served, when it hosts social events and activities in “a relaxing and calm atmosphere,” including baseball games, that helps to promote camaraderie and sharing of wartime stories among fellow veterans. “Being in the National Guard Reserve units, we never went in the really dangerous areas, like some of the guys that went over to Vietnam and North Korea,” said Muhlenkamp.
As part of its social club theme, one of the American Legion’s activities includes watching sports. Sponsoring the baseball, then, is a good fit with the American Legion’s mission, which is “to enhance the well-being of America’s veterans, their families, our military, and our communities by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.”
The Legion games provide a place for members to watch their kids and grandkids play.
A new idea, a new hope
Operating a team between 2009 and 2011, could cost between a minimum of $15,000 and up to $30,000 a year to cover the expenses like uniforms, hundreds of baseballs, and tournament entry fees, said Muhlenkamp.
“First we started to reach out to local businesses for donations, but then realized that if we could offer a tax incentive that they might feel a lot better about donating,” Muhlenkamp said.
Therefore, he, along with William “Bill” Lonsbury, Jim Butler, and Rick Lunsford, formed Sidney Post 217 American Legion Baseball, a 501(c)(3) as a separate community charity organization on August 18, 2010, because it would be better situated than the Legion, which is designated a 501(c)(19) veterans’ organization, to make it easier to collect donations from community businesses and individuals for tax deduction purposes. Later, Denny Monnin became an active committee member.
Kent Knight graduated from Sidney High School and the University of Toledo. He later earned Bronze stars while serving in the Army 25th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. Beginning in January 2011, Knight spearheaded a funding drive, hoping to raise up to $19,000 to rekindle the Legion’s baseball team by raising funds for the needed uniforms and equipment. He started a 150 Club, modeled on Sidney High School’s Athletic 200 Club, an organization in which he also participated in raising athletic funds.
Knight’s work, along with the planning and efforts of other committee members who included Muhlenkamp, Lonsbury, Butler, and Lunsford, along with Bill Hoying, Scott Mann and Tom Clay, raised monies in the first year amounting to $18,61.33 that kept the baseball team afloat by enabling them to meet their expenses which amounted to $15,563.08, and left $2,498.25 for the following year.
“Kent worked his tail off, as did all of us,” Muhlenkamp said.
Tom Clay, for example, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, served as chairman for the second district American Legion baseball team for 36 years.
“But getting donations for the first year was easy compared to the second year because you can only ask people and companies so many times to open their wallets,” Muhlenkamp said. “So, I started looking for other ways to finance baseball. In 2013, laws were passed to open casinos in Ohio, and under that same law, 501(c)3s were allowed to sell bingo tickets, or, in our case, pull tabs, to local businesses in our county if all requirements were met, including a license. We currently have five locations: Meyers Tavern in Botkins, The Heidout Restaurant & Bar in Jackson Center, Cruizers Bar and Grill and The Russia Inn Bar and Tavern in Russia, and Sharp’s Bar and Grill in Sidney.”
Fundraising reaches new heights
“My dad (Jim Muhlenkamp) has always been a huge family man, who treats everyone like family. He has been a very successful businessman and hopes by helping these kids it will point them in the same direction,” said Jason Muhlenkamp. “These men don’t do this for money or fame, but because of the passion they have for the kids, the community, and for baseball.”
Today, Muhlenkamp volunteers 15 to 20 hours a week managing the finance and record keeping side of the organization, having entered between three and five million entries which are audited by the Attorney General’s Office, a CPA, and a bookkeeper — a lot of pressure on a volunteer that resulted in a huge learning curve since his professional background was not as an accountant.
The enormous increase in funds they are raising allows the organization to not only pay for uniforms and equipment for one team but has enabled the Legion to expand so that it now sponsors three separate teams — one for students aged 15, one for students aged 16, and one for high school seniors, and depending on their birthday, one year beyond graduation.
For a baseball organization, Sidney Post 217 American Legion Baseball has generated a lot of money (nearly $100,000 in 2019 according to the IRS 990 EZ tax form, which is public record) that has been donated to many community organizations.
In addition to their primary donations to Sidney Post 217 American Legion Baseball, over the years, donations were also made to Sidney Amateur Baseball, Buckeye Boys State, Buckeye Girls State, Fort Loramie Athletic Boosters (for their baseball field), The Community Foundation of Shelby County, Agape Distribution (food pantry), Fort Loramie Rescue Squad, Botkins Athletic Boosters, Hospice, Minster Youth Baseball/Softball Organization, the Sidney baseball field, The Sidney fire training facility, Fairlawn High School, RCJAA baseball in Russia, Clear Creek Farm children’s home, STAR House addiction and treatment facility, Random Acts of Christian Kindness (RACK), Rustic Hope charity for single mothers, and in the last eight years, 50 $1,000 scholarships to the senior players who go on to college.
Paying it forward
William “Bill” Lonsbury, the former team manager, is training the current manager, Jason Taylor, to handle the operations, supervision of eight coaches, and scheduling of tournaments. Lonsbury served in the Reserves with Muhlenkamp in the same unit but in different companies. The two were friends for many years and together formed the committee to revitalize the baseball team. After the indoor training facility at Sidney High School was built two years ago, thanks in part to Legion donation monies, players can train there three days a week during the winter.
Both of Bill’s sons, Jason and Brett, had played Legion baseball and then college baseball.
“Baseball is a family sport. It’s been a good thing for my family, and we’ve been very blessed with great families in our Legion’s baseball organization. The parents are a big part of why we’ve had so much success. If it wasn’t for them, and the great kids they bring to us to play, our program would not be nearly as successful as it is,” said Lonsbury.
Jason McLain who played in the 1990s, attended the University of St. Francis, and, after restarting, became the first head coach for Legion Post 217 from 2011 to 2015. McLain said the Legion is comprised of some of the most elite and committed players in the region, playing 40-50 games in a month and a half. During Legion games, “the kids are playing at a high level, and are getting an opportunity to be looked at by college recruiters,” McLain said.
McLain specifically credited his coach, Steve Partington, who now is the Tournament Director at Snowbird Baseball in North Port, Florida, where college recruiters often go), was “instrumental” in helping kids — including himself — get scholarships, “helping them become who they are today, and molding them to be successful.”
According to one Legion’s website, www.montanalegionbaseball.org/legionhistory, “nearly 75 percent of all college players played American Legion Baseball as teenagers,” and “55 percent of Major League Baseball players played American Legion Baseball as teenagers.”
Among the Legion’s local baseball players, several progressed to play Major League Baseball (MLB).
Craig Stammen, 37, is a pitcher from Versailles who attended the University of Dayton and was drafted by the Washington Nationals and later changed teams to play for the San Diego Padres in 2016, where he continues to play in the MLB.
Brian Garman, 33, is a “leftie” relief pitcher from Wapakoneta who attended the University of Cincinnati and was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in June 2010 and played with them until September 2013. From 2014 to 2018 Garman served as the general manager of Locos Express and as head coach of the Lima Locos in Lima, Ohio.
Jared Hoying, 32, from Fort Loramie, attended the University of Toledo and was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 2010 and stayed with them for seven years, playing during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. In 2017, Hoying was offered a spot playing professional baseball in South Korea for the Hanwha Eagles in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). He played for them for three years before securing a 1-year, $1.5 million contract in 2020.
Corey Luebke, 36, is a “leftie” pitcher from Maria Stein. He attended The Ohio State University and then was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2007, where he stayed until 2014. Luebke migrated to the Pittsburgh Pirates and then the Miami Marlins in 2016 before finally settling in with the Chicago White Sox in 2017.
The charity’s continued fundraising efforts, they believe, will continue to create opportunities for the next several generations of baseball players.