The impact of American Legion baseball cannot be understated. Roughly half of the current crop of Major League Baseball players participated in Legion baseball at some point in their careers, and thousands of youths have earned college scholarships thanks to the exposure that comes with playing Legion ball.
Missouri’s chapter of Legion baseball has a strong pedigree of its own, as players like Albert Pujols, Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola once suited up for local teams. Gary Stone, the chairman of the Missouri Legion baseball commission, coached Pujols in 1997 and 1998.
“I had the Hi-Boy/Post 340 team out in Independence,” Stone said. “He (Pujols) was a great kid, still is. At least once a year I probably talk to him. He’s still the same kid to me that he was when he played.”
This year, 169 teams are registered for Missouri Legion baseball. Stone estimated that 30 to 40 percent of these teams come from the St. Louis area. That figure is down from the 183 squads that played last year.
St. Peters athletes play for the North Knights, the Central Spartans Post 313 and other teams in the area.
SUCCESS MEASURED BY MORE THAN BASEBALL
Stone has been involved in Legion baseball for nearly 30 years. He said that the organization helps to keep youths accountable by asking them to abide by certain ethics rules. If a player breaks one of these rules, he is no longer allowed to be a part of the program.
Additionally, Stone said that Legion baseball gives young men the opportunity to showcase their abilities in front of college coaches and pro scouts.
“A lot of these kids think they’re going to sign major league contracts. It’s very rare,” Stone said. “But a lot of them do get help with their educational funding. That’s my main thing. Give them that opportunity to help with the cost of college.
“We stress to them that you might get a scholarship and go to college, but you need to understand that you have to keep your grades up or you can’t play in college. We try to emphasize that the baseball is important, but you need to keep your scholastic achievements up, too, or it doesn’t matter how good you are.”
Dan Regan, who played for the Oakville Legion baseball team for five years, from 2005 through 2009, said he loved his Legion baseball experience.
“I would have a game just about every night in June and July, and I’d just go out with my friends and play baseball,” Regan said. “Everybody took it as serious as they did in high school. It was a chance to get better. To me, the (Legion) game is a little more pure. You can compare it to ‘sandlot.’ It’s just a bunch of guys going out and playing.”
After graduating from Mehlville High School, Regan continued his baseball career at Division III Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Regan said Legion baseball was a huge help in preparing him for the step up to collegiate baseball.
“In the fall of my freshman year, I tore it up,” Regan said. “I was so surprised and it was really cool. I hit a home run over the fence for the first time, like, ever. I think that all came from the confidence I got from playing Legion that summer.”
LEGION BASEBALL FACING NEW CHALLENGES
Missouri Legion baseball has to compete against organizations like the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association (SLABA), the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC) and the National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF) to hold onto its teams and players.
“There used to be more (Legion teams),” Stone said. “There’s several different reasons why it’s dropping. One of the biggest things is financial support. Number two is we’re finding it difficult to find people who want to coach the teams because it does take a lot of time. It’s all volunteer.”
Another major reason why players are bolting Missouri Legion baseball for other organizations is the promise of scholarships.
“A lot of these travel teams—not SLABA, I don’t think they do—charge kids $3,000 a summer to play with making certain guarantees, that ‘we’ll get you a DI scholarship’ and that kind of thing,” Stone said. “I’ve never seen any statistics shown that they’ve always honored that commitment.
“We don’t make those promises. All we do is say, ‘here’s an opportunity to play against quality competition and in a national organization. You will be seen. If you’re good, I don’t care if you play for the worst team in your own league, they will find you.’”
Regan said that in 2005, when he first tried out for the Oakville Legion team, there were 60 to 70 players at the tryouts. Four years later, only 15 players attempted to make the team.
“More and more of these independent teams started popping up,” Regan said. “The coaches on these big teams basically guaranteed a college scholarship to their players. How can you pass that up if you have the money? It doesn’t always work out. They travel all over the country and they have scouts that see them, but it’s never a guarantee.”
Despite the trend of players joining travel teams, Stone remains confident that Missouri Legion baseball will continue being a strong organization in future years.
“It’s going to grow,” Stone said. “For example, in my district, we never had more than two AA or junior teams. We’ve got six this year. I see that one growing big time because the Missouri State High School Activities Association puts some restrictions on how many days (high school coaches) can have contact with these kids.
“If they get somebody who would run a team for them, this can only make high school programs stronger if they lend their support to it. So I see it growing, at least that’s what we hope.”