American Legion & M L B, Two Peas in a Pod
I was especially proud and honored this past weekend to hear that Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon decided to honor the “American Legion” brand of baseball spirit.
American Legion unique style of baseball was first proposed during a speech by Major John L. Griffith (then collegiate commissioner of the Western Conference or called the Big Ten today) during a state convention in Milbank, South Dakota back in 1925. Griffith centered his comments towards the role athletics can play in the development of youth.
Griffith stated to the assembled American Legion members: “Athletic competition teaches courage and respect for others, fostering their growth into active citizens.”
The South Dakota convention agreed and passed a resolution urging the Legion to create an organized summer baseball league that started each June and ended with a World Championship series. American Legion’s 1925 National Commander James A Drain backed the resolution and was easily passed during that year’s National Convention in Omaha, Nebraska.
The American Legion held its first World Series in 1926 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where a team from Yonkers Post 321 defeated a squad from Pocatello, Idaho. A World Series was not held in 1927 due to the rising costs of attending the American Legion’s National Convention in Paris, France, but soon the Legion found a common ground benefactor to help nurture the development and funding of its young baseball program.
Early in 1928 the Legion’s Americanism Director Dan Sower had a plan to help keep the Legion baseball league solvent. Sowers attended an executive meeting of Major League Baseball hoping to catch a sympathetic ear of then Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The M L B Commissioner pledged a $50,000 annual donation and within 2 years’ time the Legion baseball program expanded to include teams from every state plus the District of Columbia.
During the lean years of the Great Depression, MLB had to rescind their $50,000 a year endowment, but as the economy rebounded so did their contribution that started again at $25,000 in 1935 and gradually worked its way back to the original donation amount. M L B now contributes about 3 % of the total budget.
Since its inception in 1925, the American Legion baseball program has grown tremendously to now sporting over 5,400 teams from all 50 states, Canada and Puerto Rico. Almost 100,000 young players ages 15-19 pull on American Legion jerseys annually. Nearly 60 % of all current college players are graduates of the Legion baseball program.
M L B has help fund American Legion baseball almost since its inception and Legion baseball has produced a huge bevy of M L B prospects. The amount of former Legion ballplayer who go onto the professional ranks increases with every season and it is estimated more than half of all current major leaguers have Legion roots.
From fresh-faced M L B rookies playing short season summer baseball to current M L B players and Baseball Hall of Fame members, many got their true starts towards a professional career by playing Legion ball.
Hall of Famer Yogi Berra played for the Fred W. Stockholm Post 245 in St. Louis, Mo and was once heard saying American Legion ball was” the most fun he ever had.” Ted Williams pulled on a Legion jersey for a post back in San Diego, California.
Frank Robinson helped lead his Oakland, Calif. Squad to the only back-to-back World Series win in Legion ball history.
Babe Ruth however never got a chance to play Legion baseball as he was too old to participate during its younger years but spent the final years of his life promoting the Legion program as its director of operations.
Even though Maddon chose Post 14 as his local Post, it is not one of the most prolific American Legion baseball programs in Tampa Bay. That honor goes to Post 248 in Tampa, Florida which produced such future M L B players as Luis Gonzalez, Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield.
American Legion baseball even has another great ambassador who played on the gridiron in Bob Griese who played for the Evansville, Indiana post who were the American Legion champs in 1964.
Here is just a small list of some of the current M L B players who have their baseball roots firmly planted within the American Legion program: Cliff Lee (Benton,Ark), Justin Verlander (Post 201), Drew Stubbs and Will Middlebrook (Texarkana), Craig Kimbrel (Post 15), Jason Motte (Post 152), Chad Billingsley (Post 300), Jackie Bradley Jr. (Post 146), Brian Wilson (Post 27), Madison Bumgarner (Post 29) and many, many more…..
American Legion baseball is something truly special and I was thrilled to be a part of it back in the late 70’s playing for Post 14. And even though Post 14 never advanced to the World Series while I was playing Third Base, it solidified my personal growth and life foundation through competition, unity of team and created experiences I have used throughout my life.
Playing Post ball helped mold me tighter and wiser as a person while also embracing the spirit of the organization and embracing as well as respecting and honoring for those who fought bravely for our freedoms.
Some people see the High Schools and college systems as the feeder systems towards a M L B career. I hope this post shows that the American Legion program has deep roots within the American game of baseball and its presence is only going to increase.
I am glad Maddon decided to embrace this past weekend as an American Legion weekend and that he rewarded those in attendance Friday night in Post 14 by picking up that night’s bar tab of over $550.
I wasn’t there that night but if I was, I would have raised my glass high and saluted Major Griffith for having the foresight to embrace a Legion baseball program and giving so many of us great Legion memories.
I mean as the banner said that was displayed in the Rays Clubhouse, Post 14 is “The Fun Post”.