Shelby’s 1957 and 1958 American Legion baseball success foreshadowed what would come to the city 50 years later
Most American Legion baseball fans think of Shelby these days as the home of the American Legion World Series.
The Cleveland County city has hosted 10 of the last 12 ALWS starting with the 2008 event and has set attendance records virtually every year.
Fifty years earlier, the seeds were planted for that future success by two Shelby Post 82 teams that won back-to-back state titles and hosted overflow crowds at the old Sumter Street Stadium.
Back then, Shelby coach B.E. “Pop” Simmons had built Post 82 into one of the state’s best programs with one ALWS title in 1945, state titles in 1942, 1945 and 1951, 1957 and 1958 and long playoff runs in 1943, 1944, 1946, 1955 and 1956.
But in 1957, Shelby was rated a preseason darkhorse contender in newspaper reports of the day. A headline in The Shelby Star late May said “Shelby Legion Baseball Chances Good (If Pitching Materializes).”
Much of the reason for such low expectations was that rival Cherryville Post 100 was blessed to have arguably the state’s greatest pitching prospect in Tony Cloninger. Another future Shelby opponent, Massey Hill, had another future major league pitcher in Cal Koonce.
However, with eventual pros in J.B. Eaker (.346 batting average) and Ronnie O’Shields (.252 average), eventual University of North Carolina players John Kouri (.342 batting average and 10-6 pitching record) and Tom Wright (.306 average) and Wallace Fortenberry (.295 average) and Bobby Hoover (13-5 record) among others, Shelby was seeded third in the Area IV playoffs.
Shelby went 13-9 in the Area IV regular season race and was beaten twice by Cloninger and Cherryville; Cloninger struck out 22 in a 10-1 win at Shelby on June 10 and struck out 12 in a 4-0 shutout win in Cherryville on June 29.
Cherryville went 16-6 in a competitive regular season race – three full games ahead of tri-second place finishers Shelby, Charlotte and Lenoir.
But in the playoffs, third-seeded Post 82 won 19 games while winning Area IV, Western N.C. and the N.C. state titles. Along the way, Shelby swept Rutherford County, then won four straight nail-biting playoff series over Lenoir, Mount Holly-Paw Creek, Cherryville and Greensboro before sweeping Massey Hill for the state title.
The Lenoir, Cherryville and Greensboro series were particularly dramatic as Post 82 had to overcome series deficits; Shelby lost the opener of a three-game series to Lenoir before winning the last two, then won two straight over Cherryville after trailing two games to one and then winning three straight over Greensboro after trailing three games to one.
In the Cherryville series, Jerry Greene outdueled Cloninger with a six-hitter for Greene’s second win of series with a 4-1 fifth game victory in front of an overflow crowd at Shelby.
The Greensboro series marked the first time a local team had rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to come back and win – the second wouldn’t happen for another 31 years – and culminated with Kouri’s 4-hitter in a 4-1 seventh game victory played in Asheboro.
Shelby’s hot streak was finally ended on its home field when it was knocked off on back-to-back days by Memphis, Tenn., and Owensboro, Ky. in regional to finish with a 37-19 overall record.
The Memphis team featured two eventual major leaguers in catcher Tim McCarver and infielder Phil Gagliano.
McCarver would spent 21 seasons in the major leagues with two All-Star appearances and two World Series titles and became a rare four-decade player as his career lasted from 1959 to 1980 before going on to even more fame as a longtime major league broadcaster.
Gagliano was a 10-year major leaguer who was McCarver’s teammate on the 1967 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Unfortunately for Shelby, McCarver and Gagliano would return to Shelby again the following year and beat an even better Post 82 team in a second straight regional hosted at the old Sumter Street ballpark.
Shelby would finish 39-9 that season, rolling to an Area IV regular season title and sweeping two of its six playoff series before finishing as regional runner-up to a Memphis team.
O’Shields (.313 average), Ken Willis (.312), Wright (.311), Fortenberry (.294), Hayward Hull (.291), Ronnie Vaughn (.285) and Junior Greene (.278) were Shelby’s top hitters, with Kouri (18-1 record) and Hoover (12-2) leading the pitching staff.
Shelby would go another 43 years before winning another state title in 2001.
And the 37 and 39 wins in 1957 and 1958, respectively, set Post 82 records that wouldn’t be surpassed until 2014 when another state championship team would finish with a 45-4 record.