Peck, McKeel bring more than 2,500 career wins to Alaska
Posted by Van Williams, ALB Media Director | Jun 28, 2018
Iconic American Legion Baseball managers Jim Peck of Minnesota’s Excelsior Post 259 and Mickey McKeel of Tennessee’s Columbia Post 19 have each brought three teams to Alaska over the years. But never at the same time.
The national powers are both participating in the Alaska Airlines Tournament Tour along with Utah’s Lone Peak Post 19.
This is the most star-studded talent in the history of the series, with Peck and McKeel combining for more than 2,500 career victories.
The 78-year-old Peck ranks No. 5 all-time in Legion history with 1,778 wins and the 58-year-old McKeel has racked up more than 750 wins and owns a Legion World Series title from 2007.
Neither general manager is on the field these days, but they remain in the dugout and their shadow looms large over the programs they made famous.
Peck is in his 55th year of coaching baseball in Minnesota, where he has turned Excelsior into a national powerhouse. Twice he led the team within striking distance of a Legion World Series title, advancing to the title game in 2002 and placing fifth in 1998.
The Excelsior program was in bad shape when he first took over in 1974. The team had won just three games the year before he coached.
“It was mostly a joke,” Peck told me.
From joke to juggernaut.
“We haven’t had a losing season in well over 40 years,” he said.
Peck started coaching as a way to volunteer in his community. Giving back was something he learned from his dad. He called it being a do-gooder, and he’s done well at it.
The coaching legend has been inducted into the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, the Minnesota American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame and the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Post 259 retired his No. 39 jersey.
“We changed in the fact that it was going to be more baseball oriented and we were going to start playing more games,” Peck said. “You can’t play 15 games a year and expect to be halfway successful unless you’ve got a really small roster. We usually have 18 kids and try to play as many games as possible against real tough competition.”
In 1977, Peck created the Gopher Classic, which is now the largest Legion tournament in the country with 98 teams. His teams have played opponents from 49 of the 50 states.
He also taken his players to Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the Dominican Republic. This is his fourth trip to Alaska.
“We do all kinds of things to make it fun and interesting for the kids,” Peck said. “You can’t do that in high school ball because you’re limited how many games you can play. In Legion, we are only limited by our imagination.”
McKeel has a wild imagination. He was crazy enough to think a small town in Tennessee could contend with the most storied programs on the national stage. Then he made it happen, creating a championship culture and a standard for excellence for the last 19 years.
He led Columbia to the Legion World Series title in 2007 and a fifth-place showing in 2014. His teams finished second in the Mid-South Region five times, meaning it was one win away from advancing to the World Series.
“His goal was always to win the World Series,” Columbia head coach Scott Beasley told me. “Nothing else was acceptable.”
Beasley, who played for McKeel on the 2007 national championship team, is one of three former players on the current coaching staff along with assistants Garrett Ammons and Alex McKelvy. McKeel also hosts an annual alumni game to stay connected.
“A testament to Mickey and his approach to the family side of Post 19 is shown in our coaching staff,” Beasley said. “He cares deeply about his former players and tries to keep up with as many of them as possible.”
Last fall, the Columbia family lost Bobby Bratton after a battle with cancer. He was just 31. He left behind a wife and two young daughters.
Since then, McKeel held a fundraiser in honor of Bratton and donated all the proceeds to the family. He created the Bobby Bratton Memorial Scholarship. He retired Bratton’s No. 8 jersey and the team is wearing a No. 8 patch this year in his honor.
“This is just one way to see the type of person Mickey McKeel represents,” Beasley said. “On the field, he was a grizzly bear. Off the field, Mickey is one of the greatest people you will ever know.”