Before Gastonia Post 23 became the state’s first baseball power, it had to win its first title
By Richard Walker
Longtime North Carolina American Legion baseball fans know that Gastonia Post 23 was the state’s first power.
That started in just the second year Gastonia sponsored a team of 1930.
It started a stretch of five titles in nine years and nine titles in 25 years.
How dominant was the Gastonia program in North Carolina in those days?
With 12 state titles overall, Wilmington Post 10 is the state’s all-time winner. Wilmington’s first state title came two years after Gastonia’s last of its nine titles in 1954.
Extraordinary organization had much to do with Post 23’s early Legion success.
Four of Gastonia’s 16 North Carolina Legion Hall of Famers were involved in those early years – J.K. “Buddy” Lewis and a player, coach and administrator, Lawrence “Crash” Davis as a player and coach, Williams “Doc” Newton as a coach and A.L. “Roy” Sudduth as an administrator.
Additionally, Gastonia’s first athletic director Allen Sims is better known today as part of the family for whom Sims Legion Park is named; In 1946, Gastonia Post 23 commander Brown Wilson donated the tract of land where the stadium is located and bestowed naming rights in honor of Sims, a Legionnaire who had lost a son during World War II combat in China.
Becoming head coach of the first two Gastonia teams had to be earned, as Guy Ballard had to coach his Victory-Winget team to Gastonia Legion league title in 1929 and 1930 to become the Post 23 head coach.
In a method similar to the way youth baseball leagues have for years held regular seasons and then choose an postseason All-Star team to represent them in national playoffs was how Gastonia chose its teams from 1929 until 1946.
Gastonia’s inaugural 1929 team was swept out of the state playoffs by eventual state champion Asheville in a best-of-three series by two games to none with a tie contest in the second game that was replayed. At the time, Asheville and Gastonia were the lone Western N.C. teams and eventual state runner-up Fort Bragg along with Greenville, Raleigh and Wilmington were the only Eastern N.C. teams.
The next season, more teams joined and the state was split into three regions – Central, Eastern and Western.
Gastonia had three returning players on the 1930 team – Porter Sheppard, Marvin Dameron and Lester Hoyle. Others were added to fill out Ballard’s 14-player roster, among them June Badger, James Broom, Woodrow Grigg, Otis Phillips and Carson Withers.
Post 23 had to survive a close shave in the opening round of the state playoffs before advancing all the way to the Eastern Sectionals in Charlottesville, Va.
Badger became the first hero, winning 14-9 in the opening game of a best-of-three first round series against Charlotte Post 9 and then pitching six innings of relief in a 6-5, 15-inning victory in the decisive third game. (Badger would go on to play one season for Greenville, N.C., in the Coastal Plain League in 1939 before becoming a beloved Gastonia Recreation Department director and the city’s youth baseball league was named in his honor after his death in 1968 at 54.)
A week later, Badger shutout Albemarle 21-0 in the opener of a best-of-three series closed out in a 13-3 win pitched by Grigg.
Badger and Grigg combined again in Gastonia’s two-game sweep of Durham to set up a best-of-three state championship series against Rosemary-Roanoke Rapids.
Phillips won the July 31 opener 20-3 before Badger’s two-hitter and Withers’ three hits and three stolen bases in an 11-0 series-clinching victory.
Two weeks later in a regional Gastonia hosted a regional for state champions from North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. It was the first of eight national Legion tournaments to be held at Gastonia’s old high school stadium that is now a parking lots behind Ashley Arms Apartments on Garrison Boulevard.
In 1930, Badger pitched Gastonia past Columbia, S.C., 6-4 in the opening day and Phillips pitched Post 23 past Alexandria, Va., 13-6 to win the regional title.
A week later in a sectional in Charlottesville, Va., Gastonia’s season ended with an overall record of 14-3-1 that included games against local mill teams as Broom and Sheppard picked up two hits apiece for Post 23.
Sheppard, who played at Boiling Springs Junior College and Wake Forest, played one season of minor league baseball before returning as a Gastonia High and Post 23 coach in the 1940s. He died at 47 in 1964 as athletic director of Charlotte’s Myers Park High School.
Sheppard would guide Gastonia High to its first football conference titles in 1942 and 1944 and led Post 23 to the 1941 state title and to an 89-53-2 record in five seasons as head coach.