Leighton, five others earn inductionFor 34 years straight, Kevin Leighton played in the state’s amateur baseball tournament.
By: Luke Hagen, The Daily Republic
For 34 years straight, Kevin Leighton played in the state’s amateur baseball tournament.
South Dakota’s all-time career home run leader retired after last season, a year where he helped Canova win its first Class B state amateur title in 30 years.
It was a season where he hit career home runs No. 500 and 501, before helping the Gang defeat Dell Rapids PBR 11-7 in the state championship.
“I think about last year every day,” said Leighton, who played with Canova for six years after playing with Madison for 28. “It’s been hard on me not playing this year.”
Despite not playing actively any more, Leighton will be enshrined in the game forever.
Only one year removed from baseball, he is being inducted into the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame Saturday.
He, along with five other individuals who had large contributions to amateur baseball in the state, will be honored after the first session of the quarterfinals of this year’s state tournament, which starts at 1 p.m. at Sioux Falls Stadium.
“It means everything to me,” he said of being in the 2010 class. “When I was like 16 or 17 and first started playing, I told my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, I told her I’d like to be in it someday.
“I guess it came true for me.”
With a Canova win tonight — which Leighton predicts will occur — he will be watching his former team before his induction Saturday.
Tonight’s game will be Leighton’s third time watching Canova this season. The most recent was when the Gang beat the Dell Rapids Mudcats in the district finals. He also attended a game earlier in the year when Madison — the town he resides in — hosted the Gang.
“We had a hole to fill here not having his enthusiasm,” said Canova’s manager Dave Gassman, who holds numerous state amateur pitching records. “After so many years of seeing him in the dugout, it has left an empty feeling to a certain extent. Everyone’s had to pick up a little slack to make up for it.
“It’s Kevin Leighton. It’s a big hole to fill.”
So what has the 52-year-old been doing in his first year away from amateur baseball since he was 16?
Baseball, of course.
Leighton’s youngest son, Jacob, plays on the 15-16-year-old teener baseball team in Madison. The South Dakota Home Run King is helping coach.
“The kids ask me if I can still hit, and I get out in the field and in the batting cage with them and hit it a little bit still,” said Leighton, who had a lifetime batting average .480. “I still enjoy the game a lot, and I try to put a lot of time in with the kids.”
Besides coaching, Leighton said later this month he’ll play in the over-40 and over-50 state tournaments, which are both held in Canova.
Here is a capsule look at the other five to be inducted into the Hall of Fame:
- Duane “Stub” Miller, of Canova, helped start the Gang’s amateur team in 1946 and played with the team until 1963. He became the voice of the Canova’s team in the 1980s and is still active with baseball in the town.
- Luverne “Lou” Locken, of Mitchell, played amateur baseball for more than 30 years. He lost the ring finger on his pitching hand in 1950, but returned to the mound. He played for Dimock, Alexandria, Ethan, Canova, Renner and Spencer.
- Al Merriam, of Huron, played 27 years of amateur baseball with a .334 batting average, 103 homers and 584 RBIs. In 1975, he became the oldest player in the state’s history to hit three home runs in a state amateur tournament game at 32.
- Robin Ackman, of Mitchell, never had a batting average below .400 in his amateur baseball career. He was instrumental in starting the Mitchell Baseball Association in 1994, which funs the teener and American Legion teams.
- Jim Wilber, of Dell Rapids, started his amateur baseball career in 1967 and ended it in 1988. He served as a South Dakota Amateur Baseball Association commissioner from 1970 to 1988 and has managed the Dell Rapids Mudcats since 2001.