Over MLB Draft's History, Michigan High Schools Graduate 25 1st-Round Picks
By Ron Pesch
May 6, 2022
Long before today’s travel ball captivated the scene, recreation sandlot baseball programs – often sponsored by local businesses and guided by volunteer coaches – sparked the dreams of countless kids, instilling a love of the game and a hope they might, one day, grace a bubble-gum card.
Hundreds of thousands of prep ballgames have been played since Major League Baseball instituted the amateur draft in 1965. Since that time, 25 Michigan high school ballplayers have been chosen in the first round of the league’s annual draft. Without a doubt, Derek Jeter, who played for Kalamazoo Central and spent 20 seasons with the New York Yankees, stands as the most accomplished. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice’s Nick Plummer is the most recent to join the list. Selected by St. Louis in 2015, the outfielder spent seven seasons in the minors before making his debut this spring with the New York Mets. He is the 13th on the list to see time in the Majors.
“Prior to the implementation of the First-Year Player Draft, amateurs were free to sign with any Major League team that offered them a contract,” notes the Baseball Almanac detailing the process’s history. “As a result, wealthier teams such as the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals were able to stockpile young talent, while poorer clubs were left to sign less desirable prospects.
“Originally, three separate drafts were held each year. The June draft, which was by far the largest, involved new high school graduates, as well as college seniors who had just finished their seasons. … A second draft was held in January for high school and college players who graduated in the winter.”
The January draft lasted until 1986. For just the initial two seasons, a draft for players participating in amateur summer leagues also took place.
Navigating the Basepaths
Baseball was a favorite pastime in cities and small towns all across the state years before the turn of the 20th century.
Depending on the time and place where they grew up, the way kids were introduced to playing the game differed.
The Detroit Amateur Baseball Federation (DABF), started in 1915 and active into the 1970s, was a well-organized sandlot program. Split across age groups and classifications, games were played on diamonds spread around the city. Detroit Tigers legend Willie Horton was just one of the sandlot legends to emerge from the DABF, with stories of his performances carving space in Detroit newspapers.
For many others, baseball sponsored by local American Legion posts served as their introduction to organized ball. First proposed at a Legion convention in 1925 in South Dakota, and introduced a year later, Legion baseball had expanded across the nation by 1929.
Little League baseball, famously first organized in 1939 in Williamsport, Pa., targeted boys under 12. By 1950, it had spread to 37 states.
The Babe Ruth League – originally organized as the “Little Bigger League” in 1951 in Hamilton Township, near Trenton, N.J., was for boys ages 13-15.
NABF (Started 1914)
The DABF was a member of the National Baseball Federation, established in Louisville, Ky., in 1914. Later renamed the National Amateur Baseball Federation, the organization required membership by league instead of team, governed sandlot baseball in a dozen cities across the United States, and sponsored tournaments designed to name national champions. In 1922, the NABF barred member teams from paying players to play.
From 1914 through 1943, a single NABF national champion was named, and winning the tournament was a source of great civic pride during the heydays of the game. In 1944, the tournament was split into two, with a “Major Division” designated for players of any age, and a “Senior Division” for players 18 and younger. In 1962, a Junior Division was added for those 16 and younger.
From 1960 through 1973, the Detroit Metro area won nine of 14 Senior championships, while Michigan teams won nine of the 11 Junior titles between the inception of the division through the 1972 tournament. The NABF is still in operation today, and since 2014 Battle Creek has hosted the Major Division World Series at the city’s John W. Bailey Park.
AABC (Started 1935)
The American Amateur Baseball Congress began organizing amateur baseball when it was founded in Chicago in March 1935 with approximately 450 teams from 10 states, including Michigan. In March 1937, under the guidance of Cooper Othniel ‘C. O.’ Brown (the AABC’s first and only president until his passing in 1966) the AABC found a long-term home for its annual National Championship Tournament in Battle Creek.
The all-ages tournament quickly became a regular stop for big-league scouts looking to sign talent. In 1951, hosting the finals for an organization with well over 2,000 teams in 33 states and Cuba, Battle Creek was known as the “Amateur Baseball Capital of the World.” That year, the organization split play into two divisions – a Major Division for those over 18 and a Minor Division for ballplayers 18 and younger. Niles served as home for the Minor Tournament in the initial years. Following the 1954 season, the Minor Division was renamed the “Connie Mack” league, in honor of the “Grand Old Man of Baseball” who had celebrated his 92nd birthday in December. In 1963, Stan Musial lent his name to the Major Division. The Cereal City continued to play host to the “Stan Musial World Series” until 2005.
Corralling Amateur Baseball
In 1954, at the urging of MLB commissioner Ford Frick, the National Committee for Amateur Baseball was formed to corral and coordinate the country’s wide assortment of amateur baseball programs. The organization was comprised of Vince Williams of the Babe Ruth League, C. O. Brown of the AABC, Lou Brissie of the Junior American Legion program, Colgate University’s Eppy Barnes, secretary of the National Association of College Baseball Coaches; Henry Van Arsdale Porter, president of the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations; Vern Hernlund, head of the National Park Executives; Clarence Brewer, president of the National Recreation Association; and Pete Moser, president of the American Recreation Society.
The group quickly worked to standardize cutoff birthday dates for eligibility within the various national junior leagues, and rules for participation in state or national competitions.
These organized baseball programs gave kids summertime activities and groomed them on the intricacies of the national pastime. Showcasing their skills on high school ballfields, in summer-league games, and in national tournaments, multiple players caught the eyes of scouts representing Major League ballclubs.
Bernie Carbo of Livonia Franklin was the state’s first first-round draft pick, plucked from the list of candidates at No. 16 by Cincinnati in 1965. He spent 12 years in the big leagues, playing in 1,010 games and logging time with six teams.
Not All Picks Reach the Majors
Two Michigan players were selected in the opening round of the 1966 draft. Jim DeNeff, a star in American Legion ball and an all-around athlete at Holland High School, played shortstop at Indiana University. Standing 6-foot-1, the 190-pound DeNeff led the Hoosiers in a host of categories and earned second-team All-America honors in 1966 before he was selected by California with the eighth pick of the draft. He spent six years in the minors, including two in Triple-A ball, before retiring.
Richard ‘Rick’ Konik, a 6-foot-1 18-year-old, chosen six slots later, is perhaps, the most intriguing of Michigan’s first-round picks.
A pitcher and all-purpose player, Konik was playing for American Legion Thomas A. Edison Post No. 187 when he impressively became the first to earn the Michigan Legion’s Hazen ‘Ki-Ki’ Cuyler plaque in successive years – 1964 and 1965.
“Cuyler came out of Harrisville, 21 miles south of Alpena, to play 18 seasons in the National League. He was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1968,” wrote Hal Schram of the Detroit Free Press, recalling the player and the origins of the award first presented in 1929.
“For the past 45 years, the walnut-based bronze plaque has been awarded each season to the American Legion player judged the most valuable to his team in the annual state championships.”
Future MLB players Mike Tresh (1930), Hal Newhouser (1937), and Milt Pappas (1956), all from Detroit, Neil Berry (1939) from Kalamazoo, Merv Rettenmund (1961) from Flint, and Dick Lange (1967) from Midland were all winners of the award.
The 1964 Edison Post team won the American Legion state tournament, then advanced to the semifinals of the Legion’s Junior World Series played in Little Rock, Ark., before being defeated by Charlotte, N.C., Post 9. The Edison boys repeated as Michigan’s Legion champs in 1965, and advanced to the Regional finals before elimination by Arlington Heights, Ill., in 11 innings. Konik was named MVP of that Regional tournament.
From his sophomore year, Konik’s star shone on the basketball court and baseball diamond at Detroit St. Andrew.
“(I)t’s a rare year when the Flyers aren’t led by a boy who could be even a bigger star at a larger high school,” said the Free Press in May of 1966. “Rick Konik is the top Flyer this year. An (All West, Second Division) All-Catholic basketball player, Konik is drawing even more attention as a pitcher. … He scored the winning run and pitched a no-hitter Thursday to give St. Andrew a 2-0 victory over Our Lady of Sorrows. It was his fifth straight shutout. Konik struck out 15 batters in the seven inning game.”
In June 1966, Konik was picked by the Detroit Tigers in the opening round of the Major League draft at No. 14.
“… Konik of St. Andrew High has been called the best local player wooed by the Tigers since they signed Bill Freehan off the University of Michigan campus,” noted the Free Press following the draft.
According to the Washington, D.C., Evening Star, “the Tigers went as high as $20,000” in their attempt to sign Konik following the draft in ‘66, but Konik rejected the offer.
In January 1967, Konik was a student at Schoolcraft College, when he was drafted for the second time, when the Kansas City Athletics selected the left-handed-hitting infielder in the first round of the Secondary draft. Once again, he couldn’t come to terms and went unsigned.
Konik was drafted yet again, this time by the Washington Senators in the fifth round of the Special Phase draft, in June 1967. Still, they could not come to terms.
In the summers of 1966 and 1967, Konik could be found playing amateur ball in the Free Press Baseball League with A&B Brokers, then was picked up by Detroit Harper Sports for the ‘67 National Baseball Congress (NBC) tournament. Playing first and hitting .500, he was one of 16 players selected to the NBC all-star squad named by the tournament committee in August.
He then enrolled at Eastern Michigan University, where he earned varsity baseball letters in 1968 and 1970. Under head coach Ron Oestrike, the Hurons posted a 41-11 record in 1970, emerging from the District 23 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics playoffs to advance to the NAIA National Tournament in Phoenix, Ariz. In the championship game, EMU won five straight in double-elimination play, downing Northeast Louisiana State College, 1-0, to win the 14th Annual NAIA College World Series.
While the numbers may be greater thanks to today’s analytic-driven league, a 2012 report by Mike Rosenbaum for Bleacher Report stated, “Only 66 percent of first-round draft picks play in the major leagues.” According to the online database Baseball-Reference, Konik never played professionally.
The 1967 draft included a pair of three-sport stars picked in the first round. Detroit Northwestern’s big first baseman, John Mayberry, was taken at No. 6 by Houston, followed by Southfield catcher Ted Simmons by St. Louis at No. 10. An All-City basketball selection, the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Mayberry signed a tender in May to play at the University of Michigan, but few expected him to see the court in Ann Arbor.
“Every team in the major leagues came to see Mayberry,” said Fred Snowden, his coach at Northwestern, to the Free Press. Mayberry had posted a .487 average with three home runs and batted in 21 runs. As a pitcher, he gave up only one hit across 11 2/3 innings in relief. “Mayberry was simply too good a hitter to use as a pitcher, so I had him play first base to capitalize on his bat in every game,” added Snowden.
The Colts were still in the thick of the prep baseball season at the time of the draft. Northwestern ultimately downed Detroit Denby, 9-2, to win the City League championship in a game played at Tiger Stadium. It was their first city title since 1959. (In that ’59 league championship game, Willie Horton, then a sophomore, and teammate Matt Snorton, a junior, both smacked tape-measure home runs into the stands at the stadium, located at Michigan and Trumbull. Snorton would later play pro football for the Denver Broncos.)
A starter at first base, Mayberry was called in to relieve in the title game, allowing just a single hit in 5 1/3 innings, as well as ripping a single and a 415-foot triple “to the screen in deep right center.”
Simmons had played ball with Konik on the A&B Brokers team in the summer of 1966. A switch hitter, in 1967 he was hitting at a .490 clip across 18 games at Southfield. The Blue Jays had wrapped up their prep season with a 19-2 record when he was selected by St. Louis. Simmons spent 21 seasons in MLB – including 13 with the Cardinals – and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. – along with Jeter – in 2020.
Like his father Frank Richard, who had starred at Detroit St. Andrew in the early 1950s, Frank Daryl Tanana excelled in basketball and baseball. The 6-foot-2 left-handed pitcher had posted a 23-1 mark entering his senior year at Detroit Catholic Central. That past summer he pitched the Larco’s Inn team to the National Amateur Baseball Federation Senior Division championship, played in Cincinnati.
As a high school senior, he had upped his prep mark to 32-1, boasting a sparkling 0.30 ERA, with an average of two strikeouts per inning.
“Tanana started on the mound for Catholic Central,” in a 4-0 loss to Holy Redeemer in the Catholic League First Division baseball championship, played at Tiger Stadium at the beginning of June, “but shifted to first base with a sore arm after pitching hitless ball and striking out eight in four innings.”
The issue was enough for the Tigers – holding the No. 11 pick– to pass over the hometown southpaw in the 1971 MLB draft a week later.
Instead, Tanana was chosen by California. He debuted in the majors in 1973 and spent eight years with the Angels, posting a 102-78 record with a 3.08 ERA during the span. In 1974 – his first full season in the league – he was the team’s No. 2 starter behind Nolan Ryan. He spent 21 years in the majors – including eight in Detroit from 1985 to 1992 – before hanging up the cleats following the 1993 season.
Others from the list of Michigan first-rounders who reached MLB include Chris Knapp from St. Joseph (selected at No. 11) in 1975, Detroit Cody’s Bob Owchinko (5) in 1976, and Waterford Kettering’s Kirk Gibson (12) in 1978.
Rick Leach (13) from Flint Southwestern and Steve Howe (16) from Clarkston advanced to the Big Leagues out of the 1979 draft. Four Michigan players were selected in the opening round that year– the most ever in a single draft.
Steve Avery from Taylor Kennedy at No. 3 – the highest selection among the 25 – and Jim Abbott from Flint Central at No. 8 were both picked in 1988.
Jeter was the sixth pick in 1992, while Plummer was the 23rd player selected in 2015.
The 2022 MLB draft kicks off July 17. MLB.com currently projects Orchard Lake St. Mary's pitcher Brock Porter as the 13th-best prospect eligible for selection.
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from left: Detroit Northwestern’s John Mayberry, Northwestern’s Willie Horton (a three-year player who, as noted in his senior high school yearbook, “During this entire time in all the league games, he never struck out at bat.”), Livonia Franklin’s Bernie Carbo, and the 1971 Detroit Catholic Central team with Frank Tanana standing second from right. (Middle) Bob Sobditch, left, and Rick Konik, American Legion Edison Post teammates. (Photos collected by Ron Pesch.)
Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing
By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com
May 24, 2023
Kenna Bommarito remembers how many people were in East Lansing a year ago to support her and her Algonac softball teammates at the Division 3 Semifinals.
So, she has an idea of how many people from the town would show up if both the softball and baseball teams were there this time around.
“I think everyone would be,” the junior pitcher said.
There’s a decent possibility that Bommarito’s theory could be tested. The Muskrats softball team is ranked No. 2 in Division 3, and Tuesday night clinched the first Blue Water Area Conference title in program history.
That came one night after the baseball team – ranked No. 1 in Division 3 – also won its first BWAC title. The BWAC was created in 2002, and Algonac was an original member.
“It’s amazing – this town loves it,” said senior baseball player Tyler Schultz. “We’ve got a small community, and everybody is tagging along. I remember last year, a couple of our final postseason games, that was the most people I’ve ever seen at a game. All of the sports here are starting to build up. We have athletes all around the school. I think as time goes on, I think each sport will get better and better.”
Bommarito’s imagined scenario nearly played out a year ago, as both teams made their deepest postseason run.
While the softball team was making its historic run to the Semifinal, the baseball team was making one of its own, advancing to the Quarterfinal for the first time in program history.
The baseball team’s movement toward this started with the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when the Muskrats won back-to-back District titles.
“We had a couple DI (college) players, and when you have those players come through, it generates excitement through the youth,” said Algonac baseball coach Scott Thaler, who took over the program in 2017. “It’s been a trickle-down effect from that initial first two years. That really set the bar. We’ve had some really good baseball players come through, and I have a great staff.”
Thaler had stressed back then that he wanted to build a program at Algonac and not have it be a flash in the pan. That certainly looks like it’s happening, and not just because his Muskrats are winning and sitting atop the state rankings.
Algonac – which has fewer than 500 students in the entire school – has junior varsity and freshman baseball teams. Thaler also said there are 25 eighth graders coming into the program next year.
“I think that when I was smaller in little league, we didn’t really have that where we went out on the field with the varsity players,” said junior pitcher Josh Kasner. “Now, that’s gotten a lot better. A lot of the smaller kids we see around town, they know who we are and about (the program).”
Of course, talent wasn’t enough to get there. Thaler needed to instill belief in his team in order to help the younger generation see what was possible.
“I was a (football assistant) coach under Scott Barnhart, and one of the things we preached to the kids back then is ‘To believe in the things you haven’t seen before,’” Thaler said. “That’s the mantra we brought to them last year, ‘Why not us?’ Just because it hasn’t happened before here doesn’t mean you can’t believe in that. We had to get them to believe.”
The Quarterfinal run provided proof beyond the belief for the Muskrats, and then the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association added to it all, naming Algonac the preseason No. 1 team in Division 3.
Luckily for Thaler, his team took it in stride.
“I mean, it was a great feeling, but part of me had some doubts,” Schultz said “We’ve got some younger kids on the team, and I thought that maybe they might look at that and might get complacent, but me and some of the other seniors have done a good job of keeping all of these guys looking forward. We’ve still got one goal, and that’s to finish (with a Finals title).”
While the softball team didn’t enter the season with a No. 1 ranking, the expectations were certainly there, as was a new target on its back.
But bigger than both was motivation following a walk-off loss to Millington in the Semifinal.
“I think it just shows us that in those big games with those types of teams, you can never say never,” said first-year softball coach Natalie Heim, who was an assistant on last year’s team. “You really have to bear down. That Millington team that beat us, they fought hard. But I definitely think it fuels us more to get back.”
The softball program’s rise may have seemed more sudden to those on the outside, but senior Ella Stephenson said it had been bubbling for a while.
“My sophomore year, we had some talent for sure,” she said. “We had a really good season, but not as good as junior and senior year. The class above me was really talented. But they kind of turned the program around in my eighth-grade year, and it kind of kept building from there.”
During Stephenson’s sophomore season, the Muskrats lost a tough District game against Richmond, which went on to win the Division 3 Finals title. Not only are the Blue Devils a common early postseason opponent for the Muskrats, they’re also a conference rival. As is Almont. And Croswell-Lexington. And … It’s a brutal conference.
So, much like the baseball team, even during the softball team’s historic 2022 season, winning the conference this spring proved to be tougher than making a deep postseason run.
That made Tuesday night’s sweep of North Branch to clinch the BWAC that much sweeter.
“Honestly, it’s a rush of just happiness,” Bommarito said. “We’re all so excited and just can’t believe we did it. We just played game-by-game today, and really took it one pitch, one out at a time.”
Not only has the BWAC prepared the Muskrats for the possibility of another deep postseason run, it helped keep them focused throughout the season.
“I think a lot of teams don’t have that luxury of facing the best competition during the season,” Heim said. “I think it keeps (the Muskrats) not looking too far ahead. We try to have that approach of one game at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. It helps with having goals that are a little tougher to achieve. Winning our league, it’s tough. It’s not an easy feat. Especially after last year’s success, it would have been easy to look ahead.”
Now, with league titles secured, both teams can focus on their ultimate goals and the postseason that is directly in front of them.
All with the hope that their similarities – on top of the league titles, both teams are 29-2 as of Wednesday, and both have a University of Michigan-bound player (Kasner and Stephenson) – continue through the third weekend of June with matching trips to East Lansing.
“That’d be unreal. That would be so cool,” Stephenson said. “We all have really good friendships on the baseball and softball teams. Our records are identical. We both won our conference. It’s just really cool. I’m really happy for their success, and ours, too.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Algonac pitcher Kenna Bommarito makes her move toward the plate during last season’s Division 3 Semifinal against Millington. (2) Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in. (3) The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield. (4) The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo. (Baseball photos and softball team photo courtesy of the Algonac athletic department.)