50th Video By COBB&Associates
53 years ago, Jay Tolman, a member of the NJCAA executive committee and Dean of students at Mesa Junior College attended the first junior college baseball championship in Oklahoma.
He knew the tournament needed more attendance in order to survive.
He came back to Grand Junction and contacted D.S. Dykstra from the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce.
Jay was looking for town support in sponsoring the event.
At an informal meeting at the Mesa Drug Store on Main Street, Dykstra talked to Boots Kellogg, Chamber President; and Dale Hollingsworth, Chamber Director; along with local baseball experts Bus Bergman, Hurst Otto and Sam Suplizio about pitching the NJCAA to host the tournament in Grand Junction.
Daily Sentinel publisher Preston Walker agreed to underwrite a large part of the first event’s expenses and volunteers worked out a plan to house, feed and transport seven teams.
In October of 1958, Toleman and Dykstra boarded a train to the NJCAA national meeting. The organization and groundwork done by the Grand Junction volunteers, plus Toleman’s extensive knowledge of the NJCAA’s processes overpowered the association’s only opposing argument: where in the world is Grand Junction, Colorado? On October 28, 1958 the bid for Grand Junction to host the tournament was officially accepted.
Suplizio became the tournament’s director, and 4,700 fans attended the first tournament held in Grand Junction in 1959. That year, the tournament netted a profit of $137.53 according to the June 12, 1959 issue of the Daily Sentinel.
With that premiere event, the first seeds of baseball fever were planted in Grand Junction, and the original JUCO fans were born - sitting on splintered wooden bleachers around a small town’s baseball diamond off of North Avenue.
A Daily Sentinel quote from the late 1950s accurately described the next step when sports writer Frank Gibbs wrote:
“It is our fervent hope now that Grand Junction possess the plumb of a national junior college baseball program – that we expend as much energy, enthusiasm and skill in promoting and carrying out the tourney as Jay Tolman has in getting this classic here”
The challenge back then was the same as it is today. How can Grand Junction build and maintain facilities worthy of a national championship tournament? The tournament’s local founders were committed to keeping JUCO a community-supported event, and equitably sharing the facilities with all of its community partners was key.
In 1960, the Park Improvement Advisory Board, or PIAB, was formed. Within its lengthy and generous mission statement was a primary purpose: to develop major recreational facilities in the Grand Valley.
Today, Mesa County, the City of Grand Junction, Mesa County Valley School District 51, Colorado Mesa University and JUCO work together and pay into the park improvement fund to make the recreational facilities throughout the Grand Valley better.
The tremendous improvements made to Stoker Stadium and Suplizio Field over the years are perfect examples of these funds going to great use.
In the 60s, the splintered wooden bleachers were slowly replaced behind home plate, and the trees along the first base line were removed.
In the 70s, new ticket booths were added, new lights were installed on metal poles, outdoor booths and press boxes were improved, and a better playing surface was installed. New metal bleachers slowly replaced the sprinter ridden wooden bleachers along the third base line.
The 80s brought the mighty Casey statue to the park to remind young and old alike that Grand Junction was the hot-bed of baseball.
In the 90s, chicken wire backstops were removed, bandbox dugouts and the last of the splintered bleachers were replaced.
The past decade introduced the installation of new electronic scoreboards, bleachers in the outfield, bathroom upgrades and other general improvements including new sound systems and press boxes. The football field received new turf and track resurfacing, a scoreboard, lighting, and sound system.
In total, JUCO’s investment to these additions amounted to almost two million dollars, not including the work being done today.
Throughout the decades of building, improving, and thousands of volunteer hours, amazing things were happening on that baseball field and in the stands.
Attendance reached over 8,000 fans in the 1960s; 40,000 in the 70s; 80,000 in the 80s; and the over 100,000 attendance record was broken in the 1990s.
Imagine that. Over 100,000 fans from our community sitting in the rain, wind, and sweltering heat to support teams from all over the country. They weren’t just there to watch the home team. They came to watch kids they’d never met or heard of play a week of baseball. And by the end of the week, those players were no longer strangers.
Maybe the original JUCO founders were on to something. Somehow they knew that if they ignited a spark, a passion for America’s game would begin to burn in the heart of this community.
Because of JUCO, Memorial Day weekend in Grand Junction became a time to head to the baseball park instead of the hills.
This community has also been rewarded over the years as we watched legends of the game often began their journey on that diamond off of North Avenue. Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox, Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins, Eric Gagne of the Dodgers, Adam Laroche and many more professional players got their start right here in Grand Junction.
The community has even gained national exposure over the years from nationally televised coverage of the games, to stories in Sports Illustrated magazine. Every year people from across the nation are treated to Grand Junction’s unique hospitality, and they take that experience back home with them to share with family and friends.
Today, we are looking forward to the next era of JUCO and baseball in Grand Junction. The same spirit and community cooperation that brought baseball to this community over fifty years ago has lead to the new stadium improvements being done today.
Can you imagine what Mr. Toleman would say if he were to venture down North Avenue today and see the fantastic expansions taking place? It sure would be something if he could see what the JUCO committee and the community partners he assembled all those years ago are doing today.
An 8.3 million dollar project is underway. The stands along the first base line, which have experienced so many changes over the years, are now being replaced with modern stadium seating.
A two story structure now rises above the new seats to house a mezzanine level for fans, improved handicap access,
a hospitality suite, and modern press facilities that benefit both Stocker Stadium and Suplizio Field.
The home stands have been replaced on the Stocker Stadium side, and new restrooms and concession areas are now available under both sections.
Teams that come to play will also be treated to new dugouts on both sides, which are over 20 feet longer and easier to access.
Long-time JUCO fans will notice that the view of the field has changed as well. No longer will you have to strategically maneuver in the stands to avoid a pole obstructing your view. Lighting and netting structures are now located behind the stands.
These improvements have lead to the NJCAA signing a multi-year agreement with Grand Junction to remain the tournament’s host. I am just thankful I don’t have to board a train and travel across the country to secure these deals today.
When JUCO started this project, we had no idea it would pave the way for a minor league baseball team to make its home in the Grand Valley. We are excited to welcome them, and look forward to them becoming part of Grand Junction’s rich baseball history.
The partnerships that have been forged, the fans that have filled the stands, and the countless hours of work by volunteers for over fifty years is really something special. It’s more than special - it’s remarkable.
JUCO baseball is proud to continue the spirit of Grand Junction’s baseball partnership by sponsoring this evening with the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, and we look forward to the future of baseball in this community.