What former Gastonia Post 23 star is a N.C. Legion pioneer and local sports legend?
By Richard Walker
J.K. “Buddy” Lewis’ deep roots to American Legion baseball in North Carolina are second to none.
Not only was Lewis the first North Carolina major leaguer ever produced by the state’s Legion program but after he concluded a 12-year professional career he served as a Legion coach, athletic officer and commissioner.
As a Legion player, Lewis starred for Gastonia Post 23 for three years from 1931 to 1933, helping Gastonia to a West runner-up finish in 1931 and state titles in 1932 and 1933. He hit .519 for the 1933 team that also finished as Eastern runner-up to eventual American Legion World Series runner-up Trenton, N.J.
Lewis would eventually sign a free agent contract with the old Washington Senators in 1934. After parts of two seasons with the Senators’ Chattanooga, Tenn., farm team, Lewis spent 11 years with the Senators.
His tenure in the major leagues was interrupted by 3 1-2 years of military service during World War II. Lewis served for the U.S. Army Air Forces as a transport pilot. He received military honors for flying more than 500 missions in the China Burma India Theater before being released from the army on July 20, 1945. One week later, Lewis was back playing baseball in the major leagues.
A .297 hitter with 71 home runs and 607 RBIs in 1,349 major league games during his career, Lewis was an American Legion All-Star starter in 1938 and 1947. In the 1947 game played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Lewis played alongside future Baseball Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in the American League outfield.
After his retirement from baseball, he returned to Gastonia to run Lewis Motors, Inc., a Ford dealership that he would run until 1974 while also being involved in Legion baseball.
Lewis coached Kings Mountain Post 155 before getting involved in local Legion leadership as N.C. Area IV commissioner in 1954 and 1956 and later was Gastonia Post 23’s athletic officer and head coach.
In 1963, Lewis was head coach for a Post 23 team that finished 22-11 after losing a seven-game Western N.C. title series to eventual American Legion World Series participant Greensboro Cone.
By the late 1960s, Lewis started being honored for his athletic success. He was the third inductee into the Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame in 1967, he was a part of the inaugural induction class of the N.C. American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame in 1968 and he was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1976.
In the Jan. 23, 1967 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame ceremony at the Gastonia YMCA, event organizers didn’t inform Lewis of his induction until it was an announced at a banquet that had New York Yankees major leaguer Bobby Richardson as speaker and guests like major leaguers Tony Cloninger and Jimmie Hall, 1966 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier of Florida, 1966 ACC athlete of the year Danny Talbott of North Carolina, N.C. State All-American defensive lineman Dennis Byrd of Lincolnton and N.C. State quarterback Charlie Noggle of Shelby.
In the Feb. 9, 1968 inaugural North Carolina American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame banquet at Charlotte’s White Horse Inn, Lewis was part of 15-person class that included Forrest “Smoky” Burgess and B.E. “Pop” Simmons of Shelby and A.L. “Roy” Sudduth of Gastonia. Other inductees were Jim Austin of Salisbury, Willie Duke of Raleigh, Joe Ferebee of Rowan County, B.E. “Ed” Hamrick of Hickory, D.D. Lambert of Concord, Joe Moody of Charlotte, Charles Odum of Laurinburg, R. Bruce Ruffin of Raleigh, Lewis Spencer of Siler City, Bill Stoner of Greensboro and Bill Timmons of Charlotte.
In the Feb. 17, 1976 North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame ceremony held at the Durham Civic Center, Lewis was inducted with Duke basketball coaching legend Vic Bubas, Harlem Globetrotters basketball star Meadowlark Lemon of Wilmington and North Carolina and U.S. Olympic track coach Dr. Leroy T. Walker.
An avid golfer who frequently played the sport at Gaston Country Club, Lewis lived out the rest of his life in Gastonia.
On July 22, 2003 before the Coastal Plain League All-Star game in Gastonia, he was honored again with the christening of “J.K. ‘Buddy’ Lewis Field” at Sims Legion Park.
Lewis died at 94 on Feb. 18, 2011 after a long battle with cancer.