History of American Legion Baseball
American Legion Baseball is a national institution, having thrived through a world war, several national tragedies, and times of great prosperity as well as great despair. The league still stands atop the traditional values upon which it
was founded 91 years ago. Since 1925, American Legion Baseball has taught hundreds of thousands of young Americans the importance of sportsmanship, good health and active citizenship. The program is also a promoter of equality, making teammates out of wealthy bankers’ and industrial workers’ sons, and erasing any social divide between them. Most importantly, American Legion Baseball has been, and continues to be, a stepping stone to manhood for millions of young men who have gone on to raise families or play the sport at the highest level.
A MODEST BEGINNING: Community service has always been a core value of The American Legion. In 1925, this commitment was fur- thered to include a junior baseball program. The league was first proposed at an American Legion state con- vention in Milbank, S.D., when Sioux Falls attorney and department commander Frank G. McCormick invited his close friend, Maj. John L. Griffith, to address the convention. Instead of a traditional speech, Griffith, who was also the collegiate commissioner of the Western Conference (now the Big Ten), spoke about athletics’ role in the development of youth.
“The American Legion could well consider the advisability of assisting in the training of young Americans through our athletic games,” Griffith said. Athletic competition teaches courage and respect for others, fostering their growth into active citizens, he said. The South Dakota convention agreed and promptly passed a resolution urging the Legion to create an organized summer baseball league that started each June. National Commander James A. Drain backed the resolution, which passed that fall at the Legion’s national convention in Omaha, Neb. The first program in the world to provide a national base- ball tournament for teenagers, American Legion Baseball was born.
In 1926, posts in 15 states organized and sponsored teams, drafted local schedules and conducted championship tourneys. Postseason tournaments at the state, sectional and regional levels culminated with a na- tional championship. Only a few changes have been made to the format over the years. The tournament still has a similar setup: 64 teams play at eight regional sites, with eight teams going on to the World Series. The winning team receives a trip to Major League Baseball’s World Series, a tradition dating back to 1926.
A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS: The first American Legion Baseball World Series was held in Philadelphia in 1926. Yonkers, N.Y, Post 321 beat a team from Pocatello, Idaho. In 1927, the Legion’s national convention convened in Paris. With the organization’s financial coffers stretched thin from the trip’s expenses, the Legion couldn’t fund a World Series. No champion was named and the future of American Legion Baseball looked bleak. But the Legion’s Americanism director, Dan Sowers, worked to keep the league afloat. The tournament format needed $50,000, and Sowers was determined to raise it. Early in 1928, he went to an executive meet- ing for professional baseball, hoping to reach a sympathetic ear. He found one in Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who pledged a $50,000 annual donation from Major League Baseball. Legion Baseball resumed in 1928, and by 1929 participants were coming from every state and the District of Columbia.
Like other institutions, Legion Baseball fell on tough times during the Great Depression. In 1933, MLB’s funds were gone and the annual $50,000 donation was pulled, and it looked likely the national tournament would be abandoned indefinitely.
Again, Sowers set out to find a generous sponsor. He turned to Frank Knox, a newspaper publisher and former department commander. Knox contributed $5,000 and gave Sowers letters of introduction to several other newspaper publishers. An additional $28,500 was raised in donations from several newspapers and Sowers received the final $6,500 from his own boss, Col. Henry L. Doherty, president of Cities Services. MLB resumed its funding in 1935, starting with a $20,000 donation and working back up to the original amount. Professional baseball now contributes $40,000 yearly, or about 3 percent of the total budget.
THE MODERN ERA: American Legion Baseball enjoys a reputation as one of the most successful and tradition-rich amateur athletic leagues. Today, the program registers over 5,400 teams in all 50 states, including Canada and Puerto Rico. Almost 100,000 youths, ages 15 to 19, participate annually. Since its inception, the league has had 10 mil- lion players, and nearly 75 percent of current college players are pro- gram graduates. Legion Baseball serves the young people who play it. In college scholarships, the league annually awards a total of $51,000 - $1,000 for a player selected from each department based upon leadership, character, scholarship and financial need. Recently, the Legion passed a resolution allowing corporate sponsorship in hopes of creating more college financial aid. Gatorade already funds $10,000 in scholarships for the Legion Baseball Player of the Year and the eight regional players of the year. In 1949, the national player of the year was first named through the arrangement of Robert Quinn, director of The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Winners receive a trip to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., making them the only amateur athletes invited to the exhibit. The award is now named after George W. Rulon, who served as program coordinator from 1961 to 1987. Three other recognition awards were established in the 1970s: the Dr. Irvin L. “Click” Cowger RBI Award, the Rawlings Big Stick Award, and the Bob Feller pitching awards. All recognize strong performances in the regional and national tournaments. Over the years, plenty of other major corporations have joined Gatorade in sponsoring Legion Baseball. In the 1940s, Ford Motor Co. dealers supplied uniforms for local teams. Easton Sports recently signed on as a sponsor, and Baseball Factory has agreed to scout Legion players with big-league aspirations.
A PRESTIGIOUS PEDIGREE: Major League Baseball has sponsored Legion Baseball almost since its inception, and Legion Baseball has returned the favor, churning out major-league prospects. The number of former Legion players who have gone on to the pros is too large to chart. More than half of current major-leaguers played Legion Baseball. So did almost every working MLB manager and several former commissioners. More than 50 graduates are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Naturally, Legion Baseball’s alumni base includes some of the sport’s most recognizable names, with Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Mark Texeira, Ryne Sandberg, Roy Campanella, Dusty Baker, Albert Pujols, Greg Maddux, and Chipper Jones among them. Babe Ruth was too old to join when Legion Baseball started, but spent the final years of his life promoting the program. Of all the notable former players, Legion Baseball had perhaps the greatest impact on former Cleveland Indians great Bob Feller, who said the experience taught him as much about life as it did baseball. Legion Baseball gave him a chance to form lifelong friendships, learn to deal with letdown in athletic competition, and become better prepared for the strain of fighting in World War II in the U.S. Navy. The first Legion alumnus elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Feller expressed his love and appreciation for the league after it honored him with a plaque in 1962, writing: “Truthfully, I feel I should have given a plaque to The American Legion rather than receiving one from it.”