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Shelby is now permanent home to ALWS but Legion baseball took hold first time in summer of 1942

By Richard Walker

Whenever you visit Cleveland County these days, you are greeted by signs proclaiming it as the home of the American Legion World Series at Shelby’s Veterans Field at Keeter Stadium.

The permanent host of the ALWS since 2011, while Legion baseball started in Shelby in 1931, the community’s embrace of Legion baseball started started during a magical summer of 1942 when much of the world’s attention was focused on World War II.

Photos of Shelby 1942 left-handed pitching star Roger McKee and first-year Post 82 head coach B.E. “Pop” Simmons (right) as shown in The Charlotte Observer.

Shelby’s Legion baseball team created a needed diversion from tales of battles and war casualties as a 14-player team led Post 82 to its first state championship and a berth in a national regional in nearby Gastonia.

When the season started, Shelby had never advanced past the second round of the state playoffs and was under first-year coach B.E. “Pop” Simmons.

Simmons would soon make a name for himself as did four of his players – Gerald Allen, Roger McKee, Gene Kirkpatrick and Manley Runyans – since all five were eventually inducted into the Cleveland County Sports Hall of Fame.

In the summer of 1942, Shelby was simply hoping to enjoy significant Legion success for the first time.

Before that year, Shelby’s best season came in 1939 when Post 82 went 23-8 after losing three games to none to Hamlet Post 49 in the second round of the state playoffs. Frustratingly, local power Gastonia Post 23 had eliminated Shelby four times in Post 82’s first eight playoff trips and Shelby had beaten its rival only four times in 21 all-time meetings.

Shelby won its May 26, 1942 home opener opener against Forest City Post 74 – the first of Simmons’ 480 all-time coaching victories – and was on its way to a 7-2 record and a divisional title.

In the playoffs, Shelby eliminated Forest City before meeting Gastonia for a historic series win.

In a best-of-seven series that was postponed by rain three times, pitchers McKee and Everett Lail won twice apiece, including McKee’s 7-hitter in the 4-2 clinching Game 6 victory at Gastonia’s old high school stadium on July 30.

The 4-2 series victory moved Shelby into a best-of-five state finals series against Wilson. And McKee, who the next summer would become first Post 82 and Shelby High product to play in the major leagues (for the Philadelphia Phillies), came through again. His 6-hitter in a clinching 3-2 win at Wilson’s Fleming Stadium gave Shelby a three games to two series victory for its first state title.

Other team members were pitchers Wallace Carpenter, Bud McSwain and Hedric Powell, catcher Stanley Runyans, first baseman Manley Runyans, second baseman Allen, third baseman Kirkpatrick, shorstop Toad Brooks and outfielders Jim Patterson, Gilbert Jones, Sam Greene and Ben Suttle.

The state title advanced Shelby to a Legion regional in Gastonia along with Norfolk, Va., and Washington, D.C.

Shelby would defeat Washington 11-8 in its opener before losing two straight games to eventual tournament champion Norfolk.

Simmons, a 1923 graduate of old Boiling Springs High School who played baseball at Wake Forest, would go on to a successful coaching career at old Lattimore and Mooresboro high schools in Cleveland County in addition to coaching Legion baseball for Shelby, Forest City, Rutherfordton and Rutherford County. His coaching highlight came three years later when he led Shelby Post 82 to the 1945 American Legion World Series title.

Kirkpatrick, Allen and Manley Runyans went on to long local high school coaching careers for which they were honored with induction into the Cleveland County Sports Hall of Fame.

In the years since, Shelby has won six more state titles, finished state runner-up five times and won 10 Area IV championships.