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It takes a village: SAMBA celebrates 50th anniversary

Festivities this Saturday to include a celebrities-versus-first-responders showdown.

The St. Albert Minor Baseball Association is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary — albeit a few months early — with a day of gathering, games, and a celebrities-versus-first-responders showdown this Saturday.

The day of festivities begins at 10 a.m. Sept. 10 at the Legion Memorial Diamonds, and will also include a skills competition, food trucks, a beer garden, and a dunk tank, which SAMBA president Kurtus Millar said may offer kids the chance to get revenge on some local umpires.

"Those guys are always fun to dunk," Millar joked. "I hope they don’t ask me to go in the dunk tank because I’m sure there’ll be a lineup.”

The celebrity team roster includes former Edmonton Elks running back Calvin McCarty; former Edmonton Oiler Rob Brown; SAMBA alumni and current co-host of the Oilers Nation podcast Tyler Yaremchuk; Rob "Pepper" Patrick, from the Pepper and Dylan show on KISS 91.7; Matt DeBeurs, radio host with CISN Country 103.9; Coun. Mike Killick; Coun. Ken MacKay; Matt Rindero, son of the Larry Rindero Memorial Tournament's namesake; and former St. Albert Tiger Jessy Beley. 

Mark Spector, Sportsnet columnist and former radio host with TSN 1260, will serve in a coaching capacity for the team, as a nagging knee injury will keep the veteran sports reporter on the sidelines.

SAMBA's former director of marketing and current house league director Cori White told The Gazette the celebrity team may have their work cut out for them against the first responders.

"We've got a mix of athletes and non-athletes, and some silly people in the middle," White said. “I told [Millar] he’s coaching that team, so he’s got to figure it out.”

Seventeen RCMP personnel and firefighters will play for the first responders. “We actually had to turn some away. They were very eager and very excited,” said White.

Also taking part in the celebrations, White said, is as many past SAMBA board members and presidents as she could contact.

“There’s so much history that’s come through that place and I’m really excited to see and hear the stories," Millar said. "I kind of wish it was like a full weekend event just to try and meet everyone and hear their stories of when they were at SAMBA."

Participation in events and activities is free, but food and drink is for purchase.

Humble beginnings

SAMBA, which was first called the St. Albert Minor Baseball League, originally formed in 1973. 

In 1973 St. Albert was still a town, Paul Kane High School opened its doors in the spring, The Gazette was owned and published by Ernie Jamison (who was also St. Albert's MLA), and kids could be registered to play baseball for $10, or about $65 in today's cash.

Indeed, a lot has changed in 50 years. 

Bert LaBuick, SAMBA board member from 1974-1983 and president in 1981, holds many fond memories of the organization's early years, which he described as being somewhat "loosey-goosey."

"I think it was the '74 or '75 meeting of St. Albert ball, our treasurer was a man by the name of Henry Matoga, and he signed cheques to pay for stuff we wanted from the sports shop that was down on Perron Street at the time. If you were a coach you could go in there and pick up a baseball bat or whatever and put it on the tab and so on," LaBuick said. "Well, at the end of the year we had a financial report by [Matoga], and his report was written on the back of a cigarette package."

“That’s how it operated, if you can imagine,” LaBuick said with a chuckle.

Under president Bob Burns, SAMBA adopted its name in 1977 — the same year St. Albert was elevated to city status. 

In 1979, St. Albert hosted the third ever Alberta Summer Games, and SAMBA was tasked with organizing the baseball portion of the competition.

"All we had was the Mission Diamond [near Ecole Father Jan], and about all it was was a patch of dirt with a hill in right field," LaBuick explained. "The facility was not very good, and the Summer Games committee was wanting us to move the baseball portion of the Summer Games to Morinville — that didn’t go over very big with me.

"On the final day of the Summer Games we had rain overnight, and Mission Diamond was mud, and the city came out with a truck with a barrel of diesel fuel mixed with gasoline, and we sprayed that over the diamond, set it on fire, and raked the hell out of the dirt," LaBuick said. 

"I don’t want to get anyone in trouble now for contaminating the ground out there, but back then you did what you had to do to get the day done. We went through nearly half or two-thirds of the barrel of gasoline and diesel fuel, and the black smoke I can imagine you could see it all the way from Morinville, but we dried the diamond off that way and played the final game.”

Playing first base for the winning team from Spruce Grove, LaBuick said, was none other than Grant Fuhr, who would go on to have a historic career as an NHL goalie.

The fuel-burning fiasco really emphasized the need for better baseball facilities in St. Albert, LaBuick said, but before the board got to work planning proposals for new diamonds, a new treasurer had joined and brought with him an air of legitimacy: Larry Olexiuk.

Olexiuk, known to many St. Albertans as "Coach O," has been referred to as the man who brought football to St. Albert. His coaching career began in 1967 — although in Edmonton — and his list of accomplishments included the formation of St. Albert's first high school football team, and the foundation of the St. Albert High School Football Association in 1985. The association allowed the creation of school-specific football teams. 

Olexiuk was inducted into the Football Alberta Hall of Fame in 2017, and that same year the city named Larry Olexiuk Field in Riel Park after him. Olexiuk died in 2017 due to cancer.

“Prince of a man,” LaBuick said of Olexiuk.

“[He] took over as treasurer [in 1980], and the first thing he did was he went down and told [the sports shop on Perron Street] that if anybody came in to buy something, they had to have a purchase order number," LaBuick explained. 

"Well, that put the nose out on many of us, we were really upset with this guy Olexiuk — ‘who the hell does he think he is’ — but anyhow, we realized we had a gem looking after our money, and things became a lot more organized after he came along.”

Olexiuk, a chartered accountant by trade, registered SAMBA as a non-profit in March of 1980, according to the SAMBA fonds housed at the Musée Heritage Museum archives.

SAMBA meets the Legion

After the 1979 Summer Games and SAMBA's approval as a non-profit organization, LaBuick said he and a few other board members started working with the city to develop a new facility. 

"People like myself, Ben Tooth, Lorne Ross, Dennis Cockwill ... we went out and found this piece of dirt between Sturgeon Road and the Sturgeon River one fall and walked out there in two feet of snow and decided that there would be enough room for a ball diamond out there, if they would rezone the thing for sports," LaBuick said.

"My wife [Betty] and I, along with some others, used to go to the Legion [and on] Fridays and Saturdays they would have dances there and so on, and I bumped into a guy called Bob Manzel, who was the sports director, allegedly, with the Legion. He said they had come into some money and they didn’t know what they could do as a public service project."

"I said ‘Boy, oh boy do I have a good suggestion.'”

LaBuick, who taught at W.P. Wagner School in Edmonton at the time, said he asked some drafting and design students at the school to develop a model of a baseball facility that SAMBA could propose to the Legion.

“At the next general meeting of the Legion, I brought this model in there, and presented it along with Ben Tooth and Lorne Ross, and we said, ‘This is what we would like to see built, but we need the support of the Legion,’ and they came in with us with a promise of $15,000 over a three-year period to ensure there was a baseball organization that would still be around if and when the city built a facility.”

Well, a facility was built, and the Legion Memorial Ball Diamonds in Woodlands has served as SAMBA's home for the past two decades.

Included in the SAMBA fonds at the Musée Heritage Museum are more than 20 years' worth of meeting minutes; financial records; history of fundraisers such as the annual dance and parade; letters from MLAs, MPs, the city, and in 1986, a letter from one "Basil Chiasson" who wrote SAMBA's then-president Gord Waples requesting a spot on the "Beaver Rep Team" (ages 12-13) be reserved for him as Chiasson and his mother were moving to St. Albert from Texas that June, and he didn't want to miss the summer ball season.

For Millar, who is nearing 10 years of service as the association's president, making sure everybody who helped make SAMBA what it is today receives their deserved recognition is impossible.

“I think it would be crazy to try and figure out how many volunteers have made SAMBA happen over the last 50 years. It’s easily in the thousands,” Millar said.

"There’s probably tons of people out there — like the Chalifoux family — I don’t think SAMBA is what it is today without families like that," he said. "I wish there was a way to give these people more recognition, because without them we definitely are not what we are today.”

Past SAMBA presidents such as LaBuick and Burns will attend the 50th anniversary celebration, sharing what LaBuick jokingly described as a "variety of truths."

"It’ll be good to see everybody,” LaBuick said.

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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