Remembering when Sims Legion Park was the hottest ticket in town as Gastonia Post 23 nearly won a second ALWS
By Richard Walker
Ten teams have won more than one American Legion World Series.
Gastonia was painfully close to making it 11 in 1954 in what has proved to be the last year Post 23 won a state title.
It came during a summer when fans packed Gastonia’s Sims Legion Park night after night – particularly in the playoffs – and interest in the sport was at an all-time high regionally and nationally.
How excited were Gastonia fans about the team?
Even after Post 23 lost back-to-back games to San Diego, Cal., in the ALWS in Yakima, Wash., more than 2,000 greeted the team at the Gastonia train station four days later when it returned.
Yet, despite the heartbreaking near-miss, positive memories have lingered.
“I still say the best team didn’t win the finals that year,” Gastonia’s 1954 star pitcher Harold Stowe told The Gaston Gazette in 2010 before he was inducted into the Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame. “But we had our chances and San Diego beat us. I’ll still always remember the support we received from fans here. It was just amazing.”
The summer of 1954 came during a time when Legion baseball was one of the top attractions in the state.
Post 23’s team also had a roster of four future professional baseball players – including two eventual major leaguers – and were coached by the iconic Lawrence “Crash” Davis, himself a former major leaguer.
Stowe and second baseman Jimmie Hall eventually made the major leagues, with Stowe becoming a two-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees and Hall a two-time American League All-Star for the Minnesota Twins.
Outfielder Reggie Heavener and pitcher Roger Sheppard each spent four seasons in the minor leagues.
Davis, who is now better known for the fictional character played by Kevin Costner in the Hollywood blockbuster movie “Bull Durham,” had spent three seasons in the major leagues for the old Philadelphia Athletics from 1940 to 1942. He then played two more years in the minors after serving in the military during World War II before beginning a championship-winning coaching career.
Also the shortstop on Gastonia’s 1935 American Legion World Series championship team before playing at Duke University, Davis guided high school and Legion baseball teams to three state titles in three seasons from 1953 to 1955; He led old Gastonia High to a 43-10 record and 1953 and 1954 state titles and Post 23 to a 72-22 record and one state title and two Area IV runner-up finishes.
Heavener and Sheppard were stars for both teams while Stowe and Hall played for Belmont High in the spring and for Post 23 that summer.
Stowe, who led Clemson to ACC titles and the school’s first two College World Series appearances in 1958 and 1959, reflected on the role of Legion baseball in the region in that 2010 interview.
“Baseball in this area, Legion baseball in particular, was huge in those days,” Stowe said. “If you weren’t at Sims Park by batting practice, you didn’t get a seat. People had to park downtown and walk back to the park it was so crowded.”
Sims Legion Park had opened in 1950 but the crowds that filled the old wooden ballpark’s structure were extraordinary in the summer of 1954; More than 2,500 fans attended clinching series wins over Salisbury and Wilmington and 3,266 came to the Legion regional opener against Chattanooga, Tenn.
Gastonia’s title run also was part of a script in which every state champion from 1953 to 1957 endured hardship in the previous season that spawned its title runs.
In 1952, Cherryville failed to advance out of the second round of the playoffs before winning its 1953 state title and advancing to its first ALWS in a season in which Post 100 beat Shelby and Gastonia in the playoffs for the first time.
Gastonia’s 1954 team has lost three games to two to Cherryville for the 1953 area championship before beating Hickory for the area title, Salisbury for the Western N.C. title and Wilmington for the state title.
In 1955 and 1956, Salisbury and Wilmington won their first state titles, respectively, after losing in the playoffs to eventual state champions the year before – Salisbury to Gastonia in 1954 and Wilmington to Salisbury in 1955.
And in 1957, Shelby won the first of back-to-back state titles after losing a seven-game area championship series in 1956 to Gastonia.
Post 23’s 1954 title run saw more than 12,000 fans attend each of the Salisbury and Wilmington playoff series before it hosted a rain-soaked Legion regional that it claimed with three straight victories.
But because of the rain that led the regional to be completed on a Saturday morning – Stowe’s 1-hitter beat Richmond, Va., 5-0 – Gastonia hurriedly raced to the train station bound for a Legion sectional in Ponchatula, La., that began two days later.
Post 23 lost its sectional opener to home state favorite New Orleans before taking three straight blowout victories – 11-1, 12-2 and 14-1 – to advance to the ALWS in Yakima, Wash.
There, Gastonia won its first two games of a four-team ALWS by downing Baltimore, Md., 4-2 and Maplewood, Mo., 5-3.
But San Diego, Cal., beat Post 23 3-2 in 11 innings one night and took advantage of five Gastonia errors in the first three innings for a 7-2 victory in the champoinship game to deny Post 23 its second ALWS title.
Other multiple ALWS winners are Cincinnati, Ohio (1944, 1947, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1988), Oakland, Cal. (1928, 1949, 1950, 1966), Brooklawn, N.J. (1991, 2002, 2013, 2014), San Diego (1938, 1941, 1954), Yakima, Wash. (1953, 1975, 1979), Los Angeles, Cal. (1942, 1951), West Covina, Cal. (1970, 1971), Rio Piedras, P.R. (1973, 1974) and Boyertown, Pa. (1982, 1987).
Gastonia catcher Gary Cannon had six hits, Heavener five and Hall four to lead Gastonia’s 1954 ALWS offense and Stowe and Sheppard picked up the two pitching victories.
For the season, Heavener (.343), outfielder Jack Hopper (.313), Cannon (.308), Hall (.295), catcher Richard Costner (.286), third baseman Roger Martin (.266) and outfielder Keith Williams (.266) were Gastonia’s top hitters and Stowe (18-5 record, 205 strikeouts), Sheppard (11-4, 160 strikeouts) and Bob Froneberger (7-0) were the top pitchers.
Stowe pitched a five-inning perfect game against Henrietta and Sheppard threw two no-hitters in the playoff series win over Wilmington.