Saturday, May 30, 2015

Legion ball, part 2: On the road to the majors

Seth Morehead, his last year
in the majors -- 1961
      Seth Morehead might have laughed at this description, but it's my opinion: He was an icon of baseball in Shreveport, La.
      In 1952, he was the star pitcher -- a hard-throwing left-hander -- for the Seven-Up Bottlers, the only Shreveport team to win the Louisiana state championship in American Legion junior baseball.
      Five years later, he became the first Shreveport Legion baseball player to reach the major leagues.
      He wasn't a star in his five-year MLB career; it wasn't easy to star in those years (1957-60) for the Phillies and Cubs and he got in only 12 games for the '61 Braves. But he was an example -- you could be a major leaguer -- for the kids that followed him in Shreveport's Legion program.
      One of those kids, just four years behind Seth, was another Byrd High School pitcher, Dick Hughes. He, too, was the star of a state championship team -- the 1956 Byrd Yellow Jackets.
      Like Morehead, Hughes also pitched in the majors. It took him longer to get there (eight years) and he stayed only three years (1966-68) with the St. Louis Cardinals before a torn rotator cuff injury ended his career. But he was a star, at least in 1967.
      On a Cardinals team that won the World Series, he was the top winning pitcher -- 16 regular-season wins ... more than Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles (14 each) and even Bob Gibson (injured much of that season, 13-7 record, but Series wins in Games 1, 4 and 7).
      Morehead and Hughes -- from the Shreveport (and Bossier City) Legion program to the majors. But, as I noted in the previous blog, the last ones to make that jump for 23 years.
World Series champion, 1967
     (That's an unofficial count. If you're reading this, and you know better, let me know.)
      If I have this correct, the only player in that time to play Legion ball for a Fourth District (Northwest Louisiana) team and make the majors was Lee Smith -- who came out of tiny Castor, La., about 35 miles from Shreveport, and pitched only a couple of games for the Minden team in 1975 before he was drafted into pro baseball by the Chicago Cubs.
       You might've heard of him. When he finished his 18-year major-league career -- he got to the Cubs in 1980 -- he was the all-time saves leader (478). And he's still No. 3, and still waiting for his Hall of Fame call.
        Another pitcher from North Louisiana -- and Legion baseball -- who reached the majors played in the Fifth District (Monroe area). George Stone was the stylish left-hander from Ruston High and the T.L. James Contractors, the star of two Legion teams that came close to state championships. He went on to Louisiana Tech and then to the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets (and the 1973 World Series).
        An infielder from Monroe, Wayne Causey, came out of Neville High and Legion ball as a "bonus baby" to make the majors at age 18 and had an 11-year career with five teams.
         But some explanation is needed here. There were several players from North Louisiana who made the big leagues, but did not play Legion ball.
        One was Cecil Upshaw, George Stone's cousin, who grew up in Spearsville, moved to Bossier City and starred in basketball and baseball for Bossier High and Centenary College. However, Bossier did not have a Legion team at the time; most of Cecil's development as a pitcher came at Centenary and on area semipro teams.
        Then there was this: segregation. Black players could not play Legion ball in the 1960s. So that wasn't a step to the majors for outfielder John Jeter (Coushatta and Shreveport ties, Grambling College), third baseman/pinch runner deluxe Matt Alexander (Bethune High), the National League batting champion and blazing "Roadrunner," outfielder Ralph Garr (Ruston, Lincoln High, Grambling), and some North Louisiana pitchers you might know -- Vida Blue (DeSoto High, Mansfield), James Rodney Richard (Vienna, near Ruston, Lincoln High) and Don Wilson (Monroe) -- and one who made one September appearance for the 1969 World Series champion Mets, Jesse Hudson, who was Blue's teammate at DeSoto.
         When schools and Legion ball integrated in 1970, first baseman Wayne Cage went from Ruston High and the T.L. James Contractors to an MLB career.
         Another to reach the top level of professional sports was the coach of the 1952 Seven-Up Bottlers: the then-young Scotty Robertson. If you are familiar with North Louisiana sports, you most associate him with basketball.
         For almost 25 years, after he left as basketball coach at Louisiana Tech, Scotty coached (or scouted) in the NBA. But he was a baseball man, too. 
        Scotty played high school and college baseball, played a year of pro ball, and began coaching Legion ball -- the Byrd-based Bottlers -- when he was the Vivian (La.) High School basketball coach, even before he returned to his alma mater (Byrd) as the basketball coach/football assistant in 1955.
         At a time when Shreveport had only two Legion teams -- Seven-Up and the Fair Park-based Waltrip Tire/Optimist Club (because I don't have the records/research I had access to decades ago, I'm not sure of the sponsorships) -- Scotty had many competitive teams.
         And if you knew him, and knew how competitive and driven/detail-oriented he was, you knew those teams were well-coached. But the 1952 team succeeded like no other.
         I don't remember much about the team, but it won the best-of-three state championship series, and I think it also won the regional tournament to reach the Legion World Series. There, it lost its first two games in the double-elimination tournament, one as I recall to a Sumter, S.C., team whose shortstop was Bobby Richardson (in a few years, a star second baseman for great New York Yankees teams).
         Even Seth Morehead couldn't get the Bottlers through in the nationals.
         Scotty coached Seven-Up through the 1950s, but then left baseball coaching. And as he left, Shreveport's Legion program began to change.
          In the 1950s, the Byrd players were on one team, the Fair Park players were on a team, and the private-school St. John's High players good enough for Legion went with the team in the district where they lived.
         Shreveport teams did well in high school ball; the Byrd '56 and Fair Park 1957 teams won Class AAA state titles; the St. John's 1957 team was the state runner-up in a hard-fought Class AA best-of-three series. The 1960 Fair Park team was maybe the best team of the decade; it got a raw deal in the playoffs (long story).
         But in Legion ball, except for 1952, the Shreveport Legion teams could not top the traditionally strong New Orleans Catholic-based Legion teams, and occasionally a strong team from Baton Rouge.
         Then, and for the next few decades, there was a distinct difference: In New Orleans, the high school baseball coaches -- in most cases -- were also the Legion coaches; their teams were much the same. Maybe that was true in the Baton Rouge area, too. Not in Shreveport.
         That began to make even more of a difference when, beginning in 1961, I believe, the Shreveport program expanded from two teams to eight. The Legion teams were based not only the high schools, but on the junior high districts.
         That gave many more kids a chance to play, but it also watered down the teams. Byrd players made up three teams (Broadmoor, Youree Drive, Hamilton Terrace); Fair Park had three teams (Lakeshore, Midway, Linwood-Caddo Heights area); and Woodlawn, opened in the fall of 1960, had two (Oak Terrace, Linwood-Cedar Grove area).
         Fair Park won Class AAA state high school titles in 1963, 1965 and 1970, and the '64 team made the semifinals. If those teams had stayed together to make up one Legion team -- especially the 1963 team -- they might've dominated the state; there was that much talent.
        Jesuit won Class AA in 1964; four of its best players played for one of the Woodlawn teams (Industrial Sheet Metal).   
         As it was -- and as I recall -- the 1962 Royal Crown Cola team (Fair Park/Midway) was the state runner-up; the 1963 Optimist Club team (Fair Park/Lakeshore), the 1964 Industrial team; and the 1965 Cobbs Barbecue team (Byrd/Youree Drive) all made strong challenges for state titles.
         But no Shreveport-Bossier teams got close again until the 1977 Bossier team lost in the state-finals series, and another mid-1980s Bossier team also was the state runner-up.
         As new high schools began opening, Legion franchises in Shreveport-Bossier began shifting districts and changing sponsors in the late 1960s/early 1970s when I covered the program. Integration meant a couple of teams for black players, and Jesuit High finally got its own team (sponsored by Ricou-Brewster).
         But I have spent much of these two blog pieces telling you how good the baseball was for all those kids, and I'll stick to that. I was told that by the mid-1980s, Legion ball had become bigger than high school baseball ... at least for a time.
         There were talented Legion players from Shreveport who went into pro ball after Morehead and Hughes, and some got close to the majors. Among those getting to Triple-A: third baseman Bill Hancock (Byrd '60/Seven-Up/Texas A&M); infielder Buddy Nelson (Fair Park '64/Optimist); first baseman Wayne Burney (Fair Park '66/RC Cola/Northeast Louisiana University); and two Northwestern State pitchers Don Shields (Woodlawn '66/Industrial) and Jimmy Stewart (Doyline '67/Minden Legion team).
         Another Triple-A player who wrecked a knee on the night he got a major-league call-up was Ike Futch, the "man who never struck out" out of Spearsville, La., who played for a Legion team in nearby Farmerville.
         One of Shreveport's great 1950s high school athletes (Fair Park) and later a longtime coach there, Jimmy Orton, was an infielder for five years in the loaded New York Yankees farm system.
         The gap of MLB players who came from the Shreveport Legion program ran from 1966 (Dick Hughes) to 1989. That's when outfielder Albert "Joey" Belle (Huntington High/LSU) began his tempestuous but highly successful career in the majors; he is, in my estimation, the best player to come out of Shreveport-Bossier. We're not talking attitude.
         For second-best, an old-time choice would be Willard Brown, the Negro League outfielder/slugger who played briefly in the majors (St. Louis Browns) in 1947. He's in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The modern-day choice is second baseman Todd Walker (Airline High '91/LSU), now the baseball coach at Calvary Baptist. He got to the majors in 1996 and, like Belle, was a 12-year player.
        In the last 26 years, by my count, nine Shreveport-Bossier high school players have gone on to the major leagues.
        Other than Belle and Walker, here's the list (with high school/college and team-year  they reached the majors:
       -- outfielder Shawn Jeter (Woodlawn '85, White Sox '92)
       -- third baseman Josh Booty (Evangel '94, Marlins '96)
       -- pitcher B.J. Ryan (Airline '94, Reds '99)
       -- pitcher Scott Baker (Captain Shreve '00/Oklahoma State, '03, Twins '05)
       -- first baseman Michael Aubrey (Southwood '00/Tulane '03, Indians '08)
       -- pitcher Sean West (Captain Shreve '05, Marlins '09)
       -- pitcher Josh Stinson (Northwood '06, Mets '11).
         I know that Belle, Walker and Jeter came through the Legion program. Not sure about the others.
         Seth Morehead, an affable man who returned to Shreveport and had a 36-year career in banking, died in 2006 at age 71. He always enjoyed coming to the ballpark and he would have been proud of these young men who followed his path.
        Like me, he would have said that Legion baseball was a part of his life he treasured.
        (Thanks to John James Marshall -- former Legion player, coach, sportswriter -- for providing information for this blog.)


  1. From Ron Hill: Thank you for an excellent article. When I followed baseball in my younger days, I recall some of these players. I even had Seth Morehead's baseball card when he was with the Braves. When Seth was with the Phillies, his roommate on road trips was Robin Roberts.

  2. From Tim Brando: Great piece. Brought back many fond memories. As a fan while watching in the '60s and toward the end while playing for Fair Park, and Herren Metals.

  3. From Jimmy Russell: I enjoyed reading this. Another Louisiana guy who went to the majors as a bonus player was Art Swanson from Monroe, pitched at Neville HS. I saw him pitch for the Pirates in about '61 or '62. Also, Cecil Upshaw and some other local kids (Ringgold and some other places, none from Minden that I can remember) played in the National Teener League sponsored by the VFW and won a national championship in Hershey, Pa. A guy named Jeff Krumpleback, left-hander who pitched at Jesuit, also pitched on that team. A kid from Ringgold named Hickman was the catcher.
    Anyway, your writings stir memories. Pitcher Ronnie Ruth (Fair Park/Waltrip Tire) signed a pro contractip, and so did another Fair Park pitcher, Sammy LaDatta (believe he died recently), plus Danny Kanapkey (St. John's).
    Phil Johnson was a good catcher for Waldrip tire when I played. Another name Don Greene. Don’t know where all of these fit, but I remember them. Here is a guy who was a great ball player in the early '50s at Minden HS and signed a pro contract and was in AAA when it was good competition: “Pinky” Wilson.
    As for Jimmy Orton, maybe the best all-around athlete ever to come from Shreveport; he played them all and excelled.