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In 1925, American Legion Baseball was born of a need to strengthen young people and the nation

 

In 1925, American Legion Baseball was born of a need to strengthen young people and the nation

The origin of American Legion Baseball is traced to June 17, 1925, when former Army Maj. John L. Griffith, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, addressed the American Legion Department of South Dakota’s summer convention in Milbank.

“There is nothing in our national life which stresses certain qualities that are expressed in our athletics,” said Griffith, a strong promoter of improved physical fitness among Americans, given the typically poor health of many who had gone on to serve in the Great War. “Intelligent courage, fighting instinct and cooperation are some things which I believe are visibly expressed in our athletic games ... American Legion posts, as a matter of citizenship training, could easily carry on such athletic activities throughout the United States.”

Thus was born American Legion Baseball.

The idea quickly advanced to the national stage that same year, when the Americanism Commission proposed organizing a Junior All‑American Baseball League. Its purpose would be to promote “citizenship through sportsmanship,” the commission reported at the Legion’s 7th National Convention in Omaha, Neb.

Nearly a century later, American Legion Baseball is one of the nation’s most successful and tradition‑rich amateur athletic programs, with teams in all 50 states and Canada and many alumni who went on to play college and professional baseball. There are now 81 former American Legion players in the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the inductions of Lee Smith, Harold Baines, Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay in July. 

American Legion Baseball is also a champion of equality, making teammates out of young athletes from all socioeconomic backgrounds. The program has been a stepping stone to adulthood for millions of young people who would go on to serve their country, raise families or play the sport at the highest levels.

In the October 1975 American Legion Magazine, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn weighed in on The American Legion’s role in shaping character. “On Legion diamonds across the country, these young men are learning not only the skills of baseball but the valuable lessons of sportsmanship, self-discipline, teamwork, courage and integrity which will make them better American citizens.” 

‘SO TRULY AMERICAN’ Veterans of The American Legion and baseball were a natural fit. During the Civil War, their predecessors elevated baseball from a regional sport to a national pastime. In fact, Cooperstown, N.Y., was selected as home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame due to the mistaken belief that Civil War hero Abner Doubleday, a resident of Cooperstown, invented the game in 1839.

“Legion Baseball is a part of baseball and its history and its development over time,” says Jon Shestakofsky, vice president of communications and education at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “We don’t just celebrate the Major Leagues. That’s why it’s so important to us to recognize The American Legion and all they’ve done to help people. Not everyone who played Legion baseball ended up in the Hall of Fame, but Legion baseball made a huge impact on so many people. The fact that veterans come back from service and want to build up their communities through baseball goes to show what baseball means. It’s amazing to see those connections between the great institutions of our American culture coming together to benefit people.”

Hundreds of athletes gave up their baseball careers to serve in the armed forces. Sixty-nine veterans from the Civil War, both world wars and the Korean War are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, 14 of whom were former American Legion Baseball players. Among them was Bob Feller of Iowa, known as the “Heater from Van Meter.” Feller started playing baseball on his family farm and by age 12 was good enough to play Legion Baseball. He did so through 1934 and reached the Major Leagues as a 17-year-old before even graduating high school.

Two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Feller enlisted in the Navy – the first Major Leaguer to join the war effort. By doing so, he gave up nearly four seasons of baseball in the prime of his career. But Feller had no regrets. “I’m proud of that decision to enlist,” he said. “I didn’t worry about losing my baseball career. We needed to win the war. I wanted to do my part.”

In 1962, Feller became the first American Legion player inducted into the Hall of Fame. “I may have been the first Legion Baseball graduate in the Hall of Fame,” he said, “but I won’t be the last.”

Feller was a member of Variety American Legion Post 313 in Ohio and served as a Legion baseball chairman in Cleveland. 

“What impresses me most about the Legion’s baseball program is that it is so truly American,” he said. “It contains all the principles which are basic to democracy. Here are grown men, soldiers and sailors who have been through wars, handing bats and balls to youngsters so they can play a fun game.”

Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra played Legion Baseball for Fred W. Stockholm Post 245 in St. Louis, on a team that reached the regionals in Hastings, Neb. After graduating high school in 1943, Berra joined the Navy and served as gunner’s mate on USS Bayfield during the D-Day invasion.

Berra once told The American Legion Magazine that he loved American Legion Baseball because he was able to travel with his team as it advanced through the post-season. “I thought, ‘Just think – if you make it to the big leagues, you get to travel to all them cities,’” he said. “I never would’ve left St. Louis without The American Legion.”

Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams famously said, “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.’” The 1960 American Legion Graduate of the Year got his wish.

The only Hall of Famer who fought in two wars, Williams served five years as a Navy and Marine fighter pilot. Years later, he served in Korea as wingman for future astronaut John Glenn.

 “He did a great job ... Ted was a gung-ho Marine,” Glenn said of Williams.

Feller, Berra, Williams and thousands of other young men left American Legion ballfields around the country to join the military, but there was a young woman who also served and made national headlines for her Legion Baseball experience.

In 1928, 13-year-old Margaret Gisolo joined the Blanford Cubs, an American Legion team in Indiana. Nicknamed “the girl Babe Ruth,” her eligibility was questioned after Gisolo’s prowess angered a rival team. After consulting Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Legion officials decided Gisolo was eligible to play, “in view of the services of our women in the World War and The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary.”

Thanks in part to Gisolo’s outstanding play, the Cubs won the Indiana state tournament and advanced to regionals. “The real benefits by those who participate can never be measured.” Gisolo said after she joined the Navy WAVES during World War II and served as a lieutenant commander.

A baseball given to Gisolo by Landis is on display in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE Babe Ruth was too old to join when Legion Baseball started, but he spent the final years of his life promoting the program as its director of operations. Ruth traveled the country, sharing the values of American Legion Baseball, from the American Legion All-Star Game in Philadelphia to the American Legion World Series in Los Angeles.

The Ford Motor Co., a national sponsor of the program, paid Ruth $20,000 to promote ALB in 1947 and 1948. He attended tournaments and signed autographs, and in his farewell address at Yankee Stadium was introduced by an American Legion Baseball player as the program’s national director. His final promotional visit for Legion Baseball was in Spencer, Iowa, in 1948. A few weeks later, he passed away at 53.

The following year, Past National Commander James O’Neil presented the Distinguished Service Medal to Babe Ruth’s widow, Claire, saying, “The kids loved Babe Ruth. They looked to him for encouragement and example, and he never let them down. In the final accounting, I think that will be numbered the greatest record of them all. When his health had failed and time was short, he became a consultant to American Legion Junior Baseball. His finale came where he wanted it: working with kids who meant so much to him, and to whom he meant nearly everything.”

Shelby, N.C., has been host city of the championship series since 2011 and has taken the event to a new level. The city’s Keeter Stadium was redesigned, new lights were installed, and attendance records were shattered. The series exceeded 120,000 spectators in 2017 and 2018.

A decade ago, the ALWS was streamed live online for the first time. In 2011, ESPN picked up streaming rights and now broadcasts the tournament live on TV, giving the eight regional champions an opportunity to play on national television on ESPNU. In 2018, millions of fans watched two stellar plays from the championship game, which ranked as the top and third-rated plays on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

While most ALB players choose careers outside sports, some of today’s biggest stars – including Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Albert Pujols – credit much of their success to their time as Legion Baseball players. “It was a great experience,” Pujols said of his ALB experience in Independence, Mo. “It took my game to the next level.”

National American Legion Baseball Committee Chairman Gary Stone of Missouri coached Pujols when he played Legion Baseball. Reflecting on the past 100 years of The American Legion, most of which have included ALB as a cornerstone program, Stone says, “We are still teaching the same things. You always have sportsmanship, citizenship and working together for a goal, and that’s not going to change. 

“That pillar of The American Legion is going to continue. That is what American Legion Baseball is: the best amateur program in the United States.”

Jeremy Field is an assistant editor in the American Legion Media & Communications Division.

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