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How big is American Legion baseball in our area? Cleveland and Gaston counties have hosted 33 Legion national tournaments

By Richard Walker

Former N.C. State and NFL quarterback Roman Gabriel once played in a national American Legion baseball tournament in Gastonia.

As anyone who lives in the area knows, American Legion baseball has made its World Series home in Shelby.

But even before Shelby became the permanent host to Legion’s signature event, this region has been a frequent host to national tournaments – and that started 90 years ago in Gastonia.

Gastonia became the second N.C. city to host a Legion national tournament – Raleigh hosted a 1929 regional – and quickly became a regular host of national events.

From 1930 to 1956, Gastonia hosted 12 national tournaments – eight at the old high school stadium including the 1935 World Series won by Gastonia Post 23 and four at Sims Legion Park.

Other area hosts were Belmont, Cherryville and Shelby.

To put in perspective just how much Cleveland and Gaston counties have hosted national tournaments, consider that entering 2021, the entire state of North Carolina has hosted 70 national tournaments and those two counties have hosted 33 of them.

In to addition to Raleigh, other N.C. hosts have been Charlotte (13 tournaments), Asheboro (7), Salisbury (4), Albemarle (3), Wilmington (3), Hickory (2), Kannapolis (2), Laurinburg (1) and Wilson (1).

And since Gastonia first hosted a national tournament, the longest stretch without a Cleveland or Gaston county host was the 27-year gap between Shelby’s 1958 regional and Cherryville’s 1985 regional. And since Shelby returned to hosting national tournaments in 2002, that city has hosted 12 events in 18 years, including the last nine as permanent ALWS host.

Gastonia tournaments have been won four times the home team – in addition to its 1935 ALWS victory, Gastonia Post 23 won regionals in 1930, 1933 and 1954 on its home field – and Post 23 has hosted two other ALWS champions (Cumberland, Md., in 1934 and New Orleans in 1946) and four ALWS runner-up teams.

The 1956 sectional also brought in Wilmington’s Roman Gabriel, who would eventually become the first of four future NFL quarterbacks to play baseball and Sims Legion Field; Archie Manning, Norris Weese and Russell Wilson are the others. (Manning in 1969 and Weese in 1972 played for Ole Miss when the park hosted a NCAA baseball regional from 1957 to 1972 that sent its winner to the College World Series and Wilson played for the Gastonia Grizzlies college summer league baseball team in 2009.)

Gastonia also hosted the first Legion alumnus to gain major league stardom in 1931 when Columbia, S.C., pitcher Kirby Higbe helped lead his team to a 1931 regional title in Gastonia before finishing as ALWS runner-up.

Belmont’s Davis Park hosted regionals in its first two years of existence in 1938 and 1939. And “home teams” won each year, as Gastonia won in 1938 and Charlotte Post 9 in 1939.

Cherryville’s Fraley Field has hosted three national Legion tournaments, including a 1953 sectional Post 100 won on its way to its first ALWS appearance.

Future major league All-Star Carlos Baerga once played in an American Legion baseball tournament in Cherryville.

Cherryville also hosted 1985 and 1990 Southeastern regionals that were won by a team from Puerto Rico with at least one future major leaguer. In 1985, shortstop Carlos Baerga led Guaynabo, P.R., to a title before embarking on a 14-year major league career that included three All-Star appearances. And in 1990, pitcher-outfielder Ricardo Otero and catcher Bengie Molina helped Bayamon, P.R., win before finishing as ALWS runner-up; Otero played three seasons in the majors and Molina played 13, including two years as a Golden Glove-winning catcher.

Shelby’s first national event showed the city to be ahead of the region in racial issues as San Diego outfielder-pitcher John Ritchey and third baseman Nelson Manuel were the first African-Americans to play Legion baseball in the city in Western finals win over St. Louis; A week later, the two players were barred from playing in the ALWS in Albemarle as the home team won a five-game series three games to two.

Ritchey would go on to integrate the Pacific Coast League in 1948 two years after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II while St. Louis’ ace pitcher was eventual Cleveland Indians pitcher Hal Kleine.

In 1946, Shelby hosted a Legion regional that was won by a Kannapolis team whose star catcher Bill Wilhelm became more famous as Clemson’s baseball head coach. Wilhelm, who also spent one summer coaching Gastonia Post 23’s Legion team, guided the Tigers to 1,161 victories and six College World Series appearances from 1958 to 1993.

Norfolk, which finished third in the four-team tournament, featured 15-year major league pitcher Chuck Stobbs. Stobbs gained infamy in 1953 for yielding New York Yankees’ Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle’s 565-foot home run that flew completely out of old Griffith Stadium.

In 1957 and 1958, Memphis, Tenn., teams featuring future major leaguers Tim McCarver and Phil Gagliano won back-to-back regionals at Shelby’s old Sumter Street Park.

The 1958 tournament also featured future NFL running back Ken Willard playing for Richmond, Va.; Willard, who turned down a free agent contract from the Boston Red Sox before playing football and baseball at the University of North Carolina, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft of the San Francisco 49ers and played 10 seasons in the NFL.

Current New York Yankees starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery played in two American Legion national tournaments in Shelby in 2008.

In 2002 and 2008, Shelby hosted the Southeast Regionals and produced eventual major league pitchers – Rowan County’s Bobby Parnell in 2002 and current New York Yankees pitcher Jordan Montgomery for Sumter, S.C., in 2008.

Shelby has hosted the ALWS in 2008 – becoming only the second city in history to host a regional and ALWS in the same year – and has hosted every ALWS since 2011.

Since then, 86 players have been chosen in the major league and 12 have made the major leagues – among them Montgomery and Milwaukee Brewers’ ace pitcher Brandon Woodruff.