American Legion Baseball
Longtime coaches lament lack of teams
As a veteran of the United States Air Force, Greg Burke has a deep respect for the American Legion, including its baseball program.
Legion baseball was founded in 1925 and Burke, who served in the military from 1969-73, has coached the Don Gentile (Westland) Post 532 team for eight years. His late father, Homer, and his son, Ben, also have coached Legion teams.
That is why Burke is disappointed with the decline of Legion baseball in recent years. This summer, Post 532 was the only Legion-sponsored team in District 12, which encompasses Franklin County.
"My dad coached Legion back in the late '40s, my son has coached Legion, I've coached Legion," Burke said. "I've coached traveling baseball, but there was always something special about Legion for me considering I am a veteran. Legion ball is a way to honor the veterans and not having a league is not a good way to go. I understand everybody wants to do traveling ball now, but there's room for travel and there's room for Legion, and I would like to see Legion be able to get back and have a league again."
The decrease of Legion teams forced the district to cancel its postseason tournament, which normally determines which team advances to the state tournament.
"I had several teams that were willing to play, but the post that would be their supporting organization or their parent organization opted not to support teams this year," District 12 baseball chairman Michael Higgins said. "I had posts that were willing to support teams, but they couldn't get any teams in their area that wanted to play Legion baseball."
Gerald White, the director of Americanism and Youth Activities for the American Legion of Ohio, said Post 532 would be invited to participate in the state tournament, which is scheduled for July 30-Aug. 3 at Beavers Field in Lancaster. Burke, however, said July 11 that his team would not compete in the tournament and its season was complete.
Last year, District 12 had six teams participate in its postseason tournament, including Worthington Post 239, which won its second consecutive district championship.
Post 239, which was comprised of players from Thomas Worthington, Upper Arlington and Watterson high schools a year ago, went 2-2 in the double-elimination state tournament last season.
Post 239, which won state championships in 1975, 1981 and 1993, finished 27-11 last year after going 30-6 in 2010.
Other posts in District 12 that fielded teams last summer were Columbus (Hartley) Post 430, Gahanna Post 797A, Westerville (Central) Post 171C and Westerville (South) Post 171S.
Jim Townsend, who serves as both coach and manager of Post 239, said the Worthington Legion post opted not to sponsor a team this year because of the low turnout.
"This is the first year I can ever remember that this has happened to Worthington," he said. "It's disappointing. What I learned from Post 239 is they did not want to sponsor a team in a league that only consisted of three teams."
Even though Post 171 is not financially supporting a team this year, South coach Tim Bates said the post allowed his program to use its number for one of his summer high school teams.
"I felt that being a registered state Legion team was beneficial to our players and we had the baseball boosters and players pick up the financial cost," Bates said.
Once a mainstay in Legion baseball, Grove City Post 164 has not fielded a team since 2010. That year, the team was comprised of players who attended Grove City, Central Crossing, Grove City Christian, Franklin Heights, Hamilton Township and Jonathan Alder high schools and a player from Capital University.
"I loved Legion ball," said Grove City varsity coach Ryan Alexander, whose team has won two consecutive Division I regional titles. "I played it myself in the late 1990s. Parents and players just really wanted to get out and play against some of the best travel teams and compete in these high-end elite tournaments during the summer."
Tom Michael, an assistant coach with the Post 171S high school team, is hoping District 12 can resume play next year.
"Everything that we understand is they're going to try to revive it and bring it back strong again next year," he said. "That's what my hope is. I still have a son (Jack) that's playing high school baseball. He has two years left and this is the type of competition we want to see and get him ready for."
According to the Ohio American Legion website, posts around the state are supporting 64 senior teams and 16 junior teams this summer. Among the senior teams is Pickerington Post 283, which is in District 8.
Last year, Post 283 won its district tournament and finished as the state runner-up. It lost to Napoleon Post 300 8-7 in the state final to finish 42-5, setting a team record for victories in a season.