Gastonia has a long, successful Legion baseball history and it’s last state finals team added “Comeback Kids” to that story
By Richard Walker
In the early days of American Legion baseball in North Carolina, Gastonia Post 23 was the program by which all others were measured.
After all, Gastonia advanced to the state championship series 11 times from 1930 to 1956.
The last time Post 23 advanced that far came in 1972 when a group called “The Comeback Kids” made that one of the most special summers in Gastonia’s Legion history that dates to 1929.
Hall of Fame coach J.V. McGinnis guided the team to two comeback playoff wins before Post 23 was eliminated in the state championship series by a powerful Hamlet Post 49 team that featured a future NFL player.
McGinnis, a 1973 N.C. American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and 1976 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame inductee, was hired by Post 23 for the third time in hopes he could rekindle local Legion baseball fortunes. (McGinnis also had coached Legion baseball at Belmont and Cherryville and retired after the 1975 season with 158 overall victories and four Area IV championships.)
Post 23 had losing records in three of the previous four seasons entering 1972.
Much of the talent drain was because Gastonia Post 198 also fielded teams in 1970 and 1971.
In May 1972, Post 198 announced it wouldn’t have a team and all Gastonia players would be on one team.
Combining those teams was expected to rebuild the city’s winning program and unite Ashbrook and Huss baseball players.
It took about a month, but that’s exactly what happened as the team caught fire in the postseason after a losing regular season record of 7-8.
Good enough to earn a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Division playoffs, Gastonia swept past rival Belmont Post 144 three games to none and Charlotte Post 380 three games to none to advance to the division finals against top-seeded Newell Post 287.
Hardly an offensive juggernaut – Post 23’s team batting average in the playoffs was .225 and they averaged a mere 4.4 runs – it appeared Gastonia’s 1972 season would come to an end after suffering back-to-back shutout losses to Newell by 3-0 margins.
Right-hander Mike Mahaffey struck out seven in a 2-0 shutout victory in the third game of the best-of-five series that started a historic comeback.
Ace left-hander Scott Edison was dominant in the next two victories – firing a complete game in an 8-1 victory in Game Four and relieving starter Bruce Hopper after he went 6 2-3 innings for the save in the decisive 4-1 fifth game win.
It marked only third time in Area IV history a team had rallied from an 0-2 hole to win a five-game series by a 3-2 margin; Morganton Post 21 was the first to do so in a 1960 first round series against Belmont and Shelby Post 82 matched the feat with a 1965 quarterfinal series win over Forest City Post 74.
The series victory advanced Post 23 into a best-of-seven Area IV championship that began the next night against Morganton.
And Gastonia again fell behind two games to none in 10-4, 5-1 losses to open the series.
But just as Post 23 had done before, it bounced back – and quickly – to win three straight and four of the next five games – to win the series four games to two.
Catcher Steve Bowen (eight hits) led the offense and Mahaffey led the pitching staff with victories in the fourth and seventh games.
It advanced Post 23 into a matchup with High Point Post 87 that was coached by former Post 23 star Chuck Hartman.
There was no need for a comeback in this series for Gastonia as it won three straight, then closed out a six-game series victory after losing two consecutive games in a series where two games went to extra innings.
Post 23 gained great momentum in the first of those two contests, as Doug Holmes drove in Mike Walters with a RBI single in the bottom of the 17th inning of a 4-3 win in Game 2 of the series.
Hopper picked up two pitching wins against High Point, including the 8-1 series-clincher.
But after splitting the first two games of the state finals series against Richmond County, Post 23’s lone pitching slump of the postseason ended its season.
A pitching staff that had yielded only 90 runs in the first 26 playoff games, was knocked around for 29 runs in three straight wins to close out a 4-1 series victory for Richmond County.
Post 49, based in Hamlet, had a talented roster that included future 1977 College World Series star Chuck McLean, future pro and longtime major league scout Paul Faulk and future NFL standout Louis Breeden.
McLean was a pitcher and shortstop for Richmond County who later was an all-tournament selection for the University of South Carolina’s 1977 CWS runner-up team. Among his Gamecocks’ teammates were future major league star Mookie Wilson. And McLean and Wilson lost the 1977 CWS championship game to a powerful Arizona State team that featured future major league standout Bob Horner and Hubie Brooks.
Faulk, a .477 hitter that summer for Post 49, was drafted in the fifth round by the Cleveland Indians in 1973 and spent three seasons in the San Francisco Giants’ organization before coaching high school and Legion baseball at Garner and later beginning a longtime major league scouting career. A 2019 inductee into the Mid-Atlantic Scouts Association Hall of Fame in 2019, Faulk has scouted for the Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals organizations in addition to coaching minor league baseball for the Rays and New York Yankees organizations.
Breeden would go on to play at North Carolina Central before an 11-year career in the NFL as a defensive back for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Seven Gastonia players eventually played college baseball – Bowen (Gardner-Webb, High Point), Charlie Burrell (High Point), Phil Cherry (Appalachian State, High Point), Cline (Appalachian State), Edison (North Carolina), Hopper (Wingate, Appalachian State) and Mahaffey
Other members of the Post 23 team were Randy Bridges, Buddy Collins, Lewis Fincher, Billy Gillespie, Doug Holmes, Butch Smith, Dean Turner and Mike Walters. And Ralph “Puddin” Broome, Bennie Cunningham and Gary Henry were McGinnis’ assistant coaches.
In the years since, Gastonia advanced to the Area IV finals six more times with championships in 1979 and 1995 that ended with losses in the Western N.C. finals each time.