Sims Legion Park: A look at the history of a venue that opened in 1950 as it re-opens as Gaston College’s baseball home
By Richard Walker
Opened to be home of the city’s powerful American Legion baseball program and to attract professional baseball in 1950, Sims Legion Park re-opened for action on Sunday and it set for a grand re-opening on Saturday at 3 p.m. when Gaston College hosts Wake Tech in a doubleheader.
It’s a facility with as much history as any ballpark in the country – and will now be Gaston College’s home baseball field.
Future Baseball Hall of Famers and NFL quarterbacks are among those who have played in the stadium.
The history of the park actually began four years before play began.
Then-Gastonia American Legion Post 23 commander Brown Wilson donated the tract of land in the fall of 1946. Wilson would designate the area as “Sims Legion Park” in honor of his friend Allen Sims, a Legionnaire who had lost a son, Albert Harold Sims, during World War II combat in China.
An indication of what lay ahead can be seen in the stadium’s first contest.
With the help of Gastonia’s former major league All-Star third baseman J.K. “Buddy” Lewis, for whom the field was named in 2004, the old Washington Senators of the American League beat the Class B Tri-State League Charlotte Hornets 7-2 in an April 10, 1950 exhibition game; The Senators would eventually move to Minneapolis, Minn., in 1960 and became the Minnesota Twins and the Hornets were one of their minor league teams.
Lewis had just retired from the Senators in 1949 after a war-interrupted 11-year career and the contest remains the only time a major league team has ever played in the ballpark. The game featured four eventual major league All-Stars – outfielders Sam Mele and Irv Noren, pitcher Ray Scarborough and third baseman Eddie Yost – and was played in front of a crowd of 1,956.
Two weeks later, the Western Carolinas League Gastonia Browns played the first minor league game in the ballpark and the venue would host minor league teams in that league (1950, 1960, 1964-70, 1972-74 and 1977-79), the Tri-State League (1952-53) and the South Atlantic League (1959 and 1980-92).
Later, Sims Legion Park would be home to a short-lived Atlantic Coast League team in 1995 (that was borne of the 1994 Major League lockout), the Carolina Diamonds’ Women’s Professional Softball League team (1998-99) and the summer college baseball Coastal Plain League’s Gastonia Grizzlies (2002-19).
The venue also has been used to host high school baseball, a handful of games when Gaston College first fielded a team from 1968 to 1972, a NCAA district baseball tournament from 1956 to 1972 that sent its winner to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., the Gastonia American Legion Post 23 team, four national American Legion tournaments, parts of five state championship Legion series and one Legion N.C. state tournament.
Along the way, future major league stars like Rocky Colavito, Juan Gonzalez, Mike Hargrove, Al Oliver, Sammy Sosa and Baseball Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez have called the park home, NBA players Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry and former major league pitcher Tug McGraw made promotional appearances for the Gastonia Rangers’ minor league team and eventual stars like Mike Caldwell, Ray Durham, Lonnie Chisenhall, Tony Cloninger, Tommy Helms and Kevin Millwood and Baseball Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Nolan Ryan and Ryne Sandberg have played at least one game in the stadium.
A 2009 Gastonia Grizzlies player, Russell Wilson, would eventually become the fourth NFL quarterback to play baseball in the stadium – joining Roman Gabriel, Archie Manning and Norris Weese. (Gabriel, who would later spend the 1989 season as Gastonia Rangers team president, played baseball in the stadium for Wilmington American Legion Post 10 in 1956 and for New Hanover High School in 1958 while Manning and Weese were shortstops for Mississippi regional participants in 1969 and 1972, respectively.)
Eventual Post 23 major leaguers Ted Abernathy, Wes Helms, Harold Stowe and Tyler White also called the stadium home – and White returned to play two seasons for the Gastonia Grizzlies (2011-12).
The Post 23 program, which won all nine of its state titles from 1930 to 1954, additionally broke the N.C. Legion color line in 1964 with two players from Gastonia’s then all-African-American Highland High School – Elmore Hill and Willie Gillispie; Hill would go on to a long professional career as a player and coach and Gillispie later played on Gaston College’s first baseball team in 1968.