By NATHAN REITER
This article was inspired and written in memory of my father, Scott Reiter. Scott was raised in Picture Butte, Alberta and played a lot of baseball growing up. In high school, he was one of the first members of the Lethbridge Elks ball club, and he traveled to Montana to compete for a state title when the team joined the Amerian Legion in 1981.
Following his playing career, Scott attended the University of Lethbridge and received his degree in Computer Science and started his own business, Reiter Computer Associates, a consistent sponsor of the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA).
After a heartfelt conversation with his father, Barry, Scott gave back to the game in several forms for the remainder of his life. He served as a board member with Lethbridge Southwest Little League, coached for nearly 30 years, and later served as an umpire.
Scott was diagnosed with stomach cancer in April of 2018. He passed away on January 16, 2019.
It was a rocky start for American Legion baseball in Lethbridge … literally. The team bus was pelted with rocks thrown by angry American fans who couldn’t stomach the thought of losing to a young bunch of Canadians.
So furious was the mob that police had to be called in to provide safe passage for the visitors.
Such was life on the road during the Elks inaugural campaign against Montana’s best high school moundsmen and baseball mashers.
Decades later, it’s a bit easier for Elks teams who cross the U.S.-Canada to square off against baseballers in Bozeman, Billings, Missoula, Kalispell, and Helena.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of American Legion baseball in Lethbridge.
The Lethbridge Elks were a dominant force in Little League’s “Big League” division following the founding of the team in 1978. The team won the national championship and a trip to the World Series in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1979 and 1980.
Reed Spencer, the manager of the Elks at the outset of the 1981 season, said the decision to move Lethbridge into the American Legion was made because the Calgary Big League board informed him they were essentially too good and needed to be split up.
“They told me I had to break up the team in Big League,” said Spencer.
“They told me they didn’t want us up there because it was demoralizing to their players.”
Spencer noted there were pre-existing links between Lethbridge and several American Legion teams because the Elks had been competing in exhibition matches against U.S. opponents.
“We’d always played exhibition games against teams in Montana. So, I talked to (Kalispell Lakers coach) George Haegele and we talked about becoming an American Legion team. They applied to see if they could let us in. And in November or December, George told me we were in,” recalled Spencer.
STONE COLD EXIT
The Elks won the state tournament in Helena that first year and the locals were less than impressed that their neighbours to the north were crowned champions.
“We literally had police escorts, sheriffs, because the bus was getting stoned. People were literally throwing rocks at us because they couldn’t believe a Canadian team could waltz down into Helena and win the Montana state championship,” said Bruce Lyon, who was an 18-year-old catcher on the Elks at the time.
With Lethbridge’s introduction into the league, it was the first time a Canadian team had been permitted into American Legion baseball in the state of Montana. Lyon said many people south of the border underestimated the competition from Alberta.
“The misconceptions they had, a lot of them thought we still rolled around in the winter on dogsleds and that we couldn’t play ball. It worked completely in our favour,” he said.
The Montana squads also doubted the capabilities of a Canuck team that was made up of very young players, added Lyon.
“We only had three 18-year-olds on our team. Our primary team was made out of 16-year-olds. They thought, just by looking at the roster, ‘We’re playing these kids.’ But these kids showed a different light once they hit the ball field,” said Lyon, who played professional baseball in the New York Mets system after he left the Elks.
Jim Kotkas was one of the 16-year-old players on the Elks in 1981. He remembered the Lethbridge club catching their counterparts in Montana off guard with their skill and work ethic.
“There were two divisions. I’m pretty sure we were undefeated in the west. They knew we were good, but it happened fast, so I think we kind of shocked everybody. There was definitely a sense of surprise,” said Kotkas, who was named the Montana-Alberta American Legion Coach of the Year, along with Elks skipper Scott Oikawa, in 1999 and 2004.
Kotkas also remembered American Legion officials being very thorough in looking over the credentials of the players on the roster after the Elks won the state title. The powers that be wanted to be sure that all of the Elks players were indeed from Lethbridge.
“There was a lot of people checking our paperwork. They thought we were an all-star team from across the country. They didn’t understand we were one team from Lethbridge. They said there’s no way you bring a team first year and win the state tournament,” laughed Kotkas.
Since Kotkas was only 16 in 1981, he played another two years with the team. He was a member of the 1983 Lethbridge Elks side that captured its second state title in three years. Kotkas, who has been a hitting and outfield coach with the Elks since 1993, said the league has warmed up to Lethbridge since the team first entered the circuit.
“We’re accepted. They don’t even bat an eye that we are from Canada anymore. As the years have gone on, the talent may have shifted a little and it cycles for sure,” said Kotkas.
The 1981 Lethbridge Elks faced several future major league players throughout that first campaign. Jeff Ballard of the Billings Scarlets defeated the Elks in the state tournament, while Mark McGwire took the field against the Elks in Ogden, Utah and represented his hometown of Claremont, California. Sid Fernandez was a member of team Hawaii during the regional tournament in Sheridan, Wyoming.
The Elks, meanwhile, continued to prove themselves over the years, capturing championships for Lethbridge again in 1987, 1999, and 2004.
EDITORIAL NOTE: We would like to thank Nathan for serving as a guest columnist for Alberta Dugout Stories and providing a glimpse into the early days of the Lethbridge Elks.