Friday, May 29, 2015

Legion baseball was our foundation

     It is the last weekend in May and my thoughts turn back to a few decades ago when this was the start of the American Legion baseball season.
     For 12 years (1963-75), that was a big deal to me. It was worth waiting for, that first Saturday of games -- four games at old SPAR Stadium in Shreveport.
     Man, those were fun years.
     This topic might not interest many of my blog readers. You can stop here. But looking at my mailing list and Facebook friends list, I know there are about 100 once-young men who might like this brief history of junior baseball in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana.
     I was involved as a scorekeeper, public-address announcer, newspaper writer, foul-ball chaser. For more than half of those 13 seasons, I was in charge of Legion ball coverage -- in the Fourth District league -- for The Shreveport Times
     So I saw, easy estimate, more than a thousand kids play baseball in the summer. Saw some darned good players and great games. Saw some mediocre players and badly played games.
     For some players, it was part of the road to college scholarships and/or pro contracts. For most, it was just a chance to keep playing a game they'd played for years.
     For me, in the summer of 1963, it was the start of a career in newspapering. And I actually got paid to do it. (It also was the start, I was reminded this week, for several others who wrote sports in Shreveport.)
     Loved it all. In the neighborhood, we played wiffle ball in the heat of the day. At night, for me, it was off to cover doubleheaders at SPAR Stadium or Centenary Park, Cherokee Park,  Blanchard, or one game at an out-of-town location (Mooringsport, Minden, Springhill, Homer, Ruston).
     Except on Saturdays. Then it was that four games-in-a-day fiesta at SPAR Stadium ... at least in the mid-'60s years when there was no pro baseball in town. Long days, great days.
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      Here are two facts that might surprise those who followed Legion baseball in Shreveport-Bossier:
      (1) The only team from our twin cities to win a Legion state championship was in 1952 -- the Seven-Up Bottlers (the Byrd High team);
      (2) to the best of my knowledge, no Shreveport-Bossier Legion player from 1957 through the mid-1970s -- in other words, no one in the time I was involved -- played in major- league baseball. There were a couple of area kids who made it (I'll get to that).
       Amazing, because we had a very competitive eight-team league in Shreveport, and some talented players and teams.
      Shreveport-Bossier has had a dozen kids make the majors in the past three decades, So maybe the game -- and the opportunities -- improved, and the interest in baseball -- which some people think has declined over the years -- is still there.
      As I was thinking of writing this piece, I was wondering: Do they still play Legion baseball? Because I haven't seen anything on it in years. Had to Google it.
       The answer is yes -- nationally. They still play for state championships, and the champions go to regional tournaments, and those eight winners go to the Legion World Series, which has been played annually since 1928 and after being moved around the country from year to year has been based in Shelby, N.C., for several years.
       The answer is also yes for South Louisiana, the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas.  In fact, a New Orleans team won the national championship in 2012 (another won in 2006).
       However, a sportswriter friend from there told me that the league is not nearly as competitive as it was decades ago. Many coaches -- who also coach the high school teams -- now choose not to play seniors (who just graduated from high school), preferring to play the kids who will return to high school this fall.  
       But, no, they don't play Legion ball in North Louisiana anymore. Interest waned in the early 2000s, and the program folded 6-7 years ago.
       That's not necessarily a negative. There are plenty of baseball chances for kids these days -- the Dixie Seniors program (which always existed in Bossier City), select teams, travel teams. If parents are willing to pay, and kids are willing to invest their time, they can play a lot.
       For at least half a decade, Shreveport's program was backed by the American Legion post -- Lowe-McFarland Post No. 14 -- which underwrote the program (with the various team sponsors). I only knew a few of the veterans at that Legion post near Cross Lake, but I thank all the men there for their service, period, and their service to baseball (and many other ventures).

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     I already loved baseball when I saw my first Legion game in late summer 1962 -- Royal Crown Cola, the Shreveport city champion and one of the Fair Park High-based teams, vs. the Tulane Shirts, the Jesuit of New Orleans-based team that two years earlier (with a lineup that included Rusty Staub and future LSU quarterback Pat Screen) had won the Legion national championship.
      I went with Dad to SPAR Stadium to watch the first game of a best-of-three series for the state championship. R.C. Cola won that night -- fireballing Tommy Chiles pitched and big Frank Neel hit a home run, which was incredible to me, that a high school kid could hit one over the right-field fence (hey, I was 15, a little naive). But Tulane won the two games in New Orleans and advanced to the regional tournament.
      The next summer, after my sophomore year in high school, I was the scorekeeper for Industrial Sheet Metal -- one of the two Woodlawn High-based teams (the Linwood Junior High district), but not the team based on my junior high (Oak Terrace).
      Explanation: The Industrial coach was a Legion legend of sorts, a somewhat crochety, wrinkled, older man -- Milo Whitecotton, who came to every Woodlawn home game and some practices to scout his potential players. He also talked the scorekeeper into joining his team. 
      (He also "recruited" the sophomore Woodlawn catcher, who like me lived in the Oak Terrace-based district, to play for his team that summer. Not sure how that worked, but I saw a box score on a clipping I saved and the Industrial lineup had "Prather CF." Trey Prather was in the outfield because the Woodlawn football coaches -- thinking of their starting quarterback that fall -- preferred that he not catch that summer.)
      Milo was known among Legion followers to some as "the sage of Cedar Grove." The kids also called him -- not to his face -- "Limo Quiterotten." He loved his ball; he enjoyed working with the kids, and he coached some wonderful teams.
      Guarantee you that if I asked my friends from that time and that area what they remember about Legion baseball, the first thing they will say is "Milo Whitecotton."
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     Over the years, I learned to appreciate the other dedicated Legion coaches in the city; they all worked at regular jobs, but summer baseball was their passion.
     Woodrow McCullar became "the dean" of Shreveport Legion coaches and the most successful of my era (five city championships). He had the Broadmoor/Byrd-based B&N Barbers for a few years, then switched to the Youree Drive/Byrd (later Captain Shreve)-based Cobbs Barbecue team and then used his own company's money, Glenwood Drug Store, as a sponsor.
     Other Legion coaches with a good number of years in the program: Bill Zeigler (Optimist Club, the Lakeshore/Fair Park team), my Shreveport newspaper artist buddy Ron Rice (Cobbs, then B&N in a swap with Mr. McCullar); Gene Stevens (Kay's Cookies, the Linwood/Fair Park-based team); Don Farrar (R.C. Cola); Harvey Johnson (the Oak Terrace/Woodlawn team); Pat Looney (the Hamilton Terrace/Byrd team); Butch Williams in Minden; Matt Martin in Homer.
      Some of them -- Coach Zeigler, Stevens, Farrar -- won city titles. Ron Rice was the organizer of one city playoff championship team.
       It was really neat for me to see some of the players I had covered later coach teams, guys such as Ronnie Warren, Sonny Moss, Don Birkelbach and Perry Peyton.
      But the most successful Legion coach in North Louisiana -- and the most successful team -- was Billy Henderson and the T.L. James Contractors of Ruston. The James Co. sponsored that Fifth District team (Monroe area) for 19 years and was a state-championship contenders often, finally winning in 1972 -- only the second North Louisiana to do so. Ruston was the spoiler for several Shreveport contenders.
     The umpires became familiar to all of us, too: Bob Molcany, Lloyd Boyce ("Sarge"), Jack Ferrell (the Colonel), Phil Risher, Bob Brittner, Alex Huhn and, starting in the 1970s, my good friends John W. Marshall III and Clyde Oliver "T-Willie" Moore (the "snake doctor" pitcher for Cobbs when we were in high school). Also, Mike Bonner and Jerry Carlisle -- two North Caddo High athletes of the '60s.
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      But perhaps the most legendary Legion figure of the 1950s and '60s was the man in charge. Most everyone who ever played or coached a kids' sport in Shreveport knew him: Marvin "Hoot" Gibson. He was the commissioner of baseball in the Fourth District.
      Hoot was a small man, white-haired by the time we knew him, wore thick glasses because he had terrible eyesight, and had a nasally, high-pitched voice that was widely imitated.
      He had been a team manager at Centenary College in the 1930s when Centenary was a football power, and had been the head of the Shreveport Parks and Recreation (SPAR) department for a couple of decades.
      He had officiated some sports, which left many people wondering because he clearly couldn't see clearly, and so he was always protective of the referees, umpires and officials who worked games. Don't know if he was an American Legion member, but he represented Lowe-McFarland in the sport and he was proud -- and rightly so -- of the Legion baseball program.
       His "Recreation Ramblings" column was a Sunday sports staple in The Times, and I can tell you that Hoot was good to a young sportswriter, who after some years even dared to offer mild criticism. Don't think he was too fond of me suggesting that the Legion program be integrated once the area high school integrated in 1970.
       But we all should have gratitude for the job Hoot did all those years.
      And once he retired, Russell Neely (who was a Legion member) and then J.R. Heflin did fine jobs as the Fourth District baseball commissioners.
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       I mentioned Phil Risher in the umpires listing above. He had another distinction: He was an infielder on the 1952 Seven-Up Bottlers, the state Legion champions. And in Part 2 of my mini-history, I will begin with two legendary names linked to that team: Seth Morehead and Scotty Robertson.



     
    
      

11 comments:

  1. From Patrick Locke Sr.: Loved the Legion story. Phil Risher was my Legion coach in 1976 for Holloway's Oilers (Byrd-based) and his son Steve, played second base. Also on the Seven-Up Bottlers was Dale Sandifer, whose brother Dan was a star at LSU and NFL. Dale and Mr. Risher coached our "Elks" teams in SPAR from my 8th grade until Legion. We won the championship every year. Coach Dale had guys like Seth Morehead come out to work with his pitchers. ... I remember "Hoot" Gibson. and Sarge officiated MANY of our football games as well.

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  2. From Jim Shaw: Where have you had place and time to store all of this data? I love reading it and even though I was not a Shreveporter back then, I feel as I know so many of these people from my later days at Tech (1968-72). I am familiar with Seth Morehead and Scotty Robertson ... I became familiar with Seth Morehead thru another writer, Willie Morris ("Always Stand in Against the Curve").

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  3. From Ron Hill: My father (F.A. Hill) played one year of American Legion ball, winning a playoff game for the Cedar Grove Cardinals. He also was the winning pitcher in the 1939 state championship for the Fair Park Indians. When I was a little boy, I asked Dad why he never played professional baseball. He told me that World War II came around and he enlisted. Shortly after the war, he met my mom. You also mentioned Coach (Bill) Zeigler. He was one of the P.E. coaches at Lakeshore Junior High when I went there. Coach (Joe) Langdon was the other coach. Mr. Zeigler along with Mr. Langdon went to Northwood High School when it opened, along with Mr. Powell Leyton, who was principal at Lakeshore when I was there. Thank you for an excellent article.

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  4. From Reg Cassibry: Really enjoyed this article and appreciate the reference to the Ruston Legion team which did win the state championship in 1972, having been runner-ups in '63, '64, and '68. The '63 and '64 teams had no less than eight players who played in college, with the star of those teams, of course, being my good friend George Stone, who made a career of baseball with the Braves and Mets. The '63 team won the North Louisiana championship, beating the Shreveport Optimist team, with guys like Jim Rushworth, Dick Hicks, Jim Pruett and Joe Huffman, in the final two games, but then lost to the Baton Rouge Welsh team in the state finals. The '64 team lost our first game in the eight-team state tournament in Baton Rouge, but then came back to win four in a row to put us in the finals against the DeLaSalle team from New Orleans. We won the first game when Jimmy Martin hit a two-out, two-run homer in the ninth, but then lost the next night. My brother John played on the '68 team, also coached by Billy Henderson, with Don Howard, Ed Sexton and others, and also was the state runner-up (or was that the '67 team?). Many thanks for the memories you have brought back with this article.

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  5. From Jack Thigpen: This brings back so many fond memories of playing Legion ball. Glad to see mention of our Ruston team and Billy Henderson. It was always fun to play those teams from Shreveport. Remember having to beat the Optimist Club team twice in a row in the district tournament in Lake Charles in 1963 to make it to the state championship.

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  6. From Earl Hebert: Great article. Playing American Legion baseball was a blast and some of my fondest memories are from games at the old SPAR Stadium.

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  7. From Teddy Allen: This is so beautiful. Everitt-Witte Dentists? Bossier Phillies? Wow. We covered them good, too.
    In July I’m scheduled to go to Shelby N.C., for a family reunion, as I have for several years. Ballpark is REALLY nice. Set in a pretty spot. And they are very proud to have the Legion World Series there.

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  8. From Jay Cheatham: I think about Woody (McCullar) and Mr. (Jack) Ferrell often. I really liked them. Thanks for the memories.

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  9. From Frank Bright: I played every summer for RC Cola, including the summer of my senior year, I believe. We were Midway Junior High-based. We were pretty good simply because our opponents could not hit Charlie Johnson. He went on to pitch well
    for NSU. Larry Tulley played at Panola JC and Centenary. Donnie Carroll threw the javelin in the spring, but played summer baseball. Jerry Downing was our catcher until his junior year (he was a year younger than us) when he went to the new school (Woodlawn).

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  10. From Jimmy Russell: Good piece for me. I played on the Minden American Legion team in 1960 (I had graduated but was still young enough to play) and we won the Fourth District and beat Milo Whitecotton’s Industrial Sheet Metal. team two out of three in the playoffs. We had kids form Ringgold, Heflin, Castor and Minden. A few of the Minden players: David Lee, Billy Ray (Ringgold), Bo Jenks (Castor), Mike Smith (Sibley), Jim Pat Boley (Heflin), Buck Horn, Freddie Frye, James Corley (Ringgold),
    Ronnie Daniels (Castor). Also, Homer and Haynesville had American Legion teams that year.
    Industrial had Kyle Stephenson, Jimmy Caskey, Ken Luker, Billy McCullar.
    I know American Legion baseball was big in the '50s around Minden and Shreveport. I saw a lot of games growing in the summer time.

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    Replies
    1. Correction by Jimmy Russell: The player from Sibley was Mike Brown. My memory has begun to work. Add another name from Sibley, Eddie Lee, and from Heflin, Eddie Jones.

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