Sweeney’s Flanagan was legion MVP
- Updated: December 29, 2020
NOTE: This is the second of a four-part series on the history of American Legion Baseball’s regional playoff structure. Part 1 took a look at how the regional format has changed over the years.
Once American Legion Baseball officials switched to an eight-regional playoff format in 1960, several individuals have shined above the rest to lead their teams to berths in the American Legion World Series, dramatic wins or even just extraordinary achievements.
For Memphis pitching and hitting standout Don Castle in the late 1960s, it was all three.
Castle, the eighth overall selection in the first round of the June 1968 major league draft, had about as good a spring and summer as any player has ever had while starring for championship teams for Coldwater, Miss., High School and Memphis American Legion Post 1.
After going 16-0 with eight no-hitters for Coldwater’s 1968 Mississippi Class A state champions, Castle went 17-1 while hitting .342 for Memphis’ 52-5 ALWS champions that summer.
Castle, who spent 11 seasons in pro baseball highlighted by four games in the majors for the Texas Rangers in 1973 as a first baseman, played his best in the 1968 Mid-South Regional in Arlington, Tex.
He got the pitching win in three of Post 1’s five victories while striking out 41 batters in 20 innings, and at the plate he drove in the tying run and scored the winning run in the regional championship game victory.
It started with a two-hitter in a 3-0 opening round shutout pitching win over San Antonio. After another future major-leaguer, pitcher Ross Grimsley, combined with teammate Farrell Vincent on a three-hitter in a 6-1 second-round victory over Cristobal, P.R., Memphis eliminated host Arlington 8-1 before Castle struck out 20 batters in a six-hitter that eliminated New Orleans, 6-1 in the semifinals.
In the championship game, Castle came on in relief to throw two scoreless innings as Memphis rallied from a 6-0 deficit after seven innings to defeat San Antonio 7-6.
But Castle’s biggest contribution came at the plate during a game-winning two-run rally in the top of the ninth. The lefty slugger doubled to drive in the tying run then scored the game-winning run on Charlie Blanchard’s RBI triple.
Castle then won one game and saved another to earn George W. Rulon Player of the Year honors a week later as Memphis won the 1968 ALWS title.
Future world champions
Castle is hardly the only standout player since the regional concept began in 1960.
It started in that first year with a pair of eventual World Series champions for the Baltimore Orioles.
In Keene, N.H., future eight-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop Mark Belanger had only one hit (in seven at-bats) for Pittsfield, Mass., in its 2-1, 14-inning Northeast Regional championship game victory over West Hartford, Conn. — but it was the game-winning hit.
In Billings, Mont., future three-time All-Star left-handed pitcher Dave McNally led the hometown team to the Northwest Regional title. McNally struck out 23 batters in 11 innings while yielding two hits for Billings, which went 4-0 in the regional.
McNally was a key starting pitcher on the 1966 and 1970 world champion Orioles teams, with Belanger a shortstop on the 1970 team.
Two years before making 11 relief appearances in his lone major league season for the San Francisco Giants, Chicopee, Mass., left-handed pitcher Al Stanek became the first American Legion Baseball pitcher to strike out 22 batters in national competition in a 6-0 one-hit victory over Manchester, N.H. (Sweeney Post) in the first round of the 1961 Northeast Regional at Keene, N.H. Chicopee won its next game before losing two straight to finish third in the regional.
In 1963, two other pitching efforts helped teams advance to the ALWS, including one by a future Hall of Fame NFL quarterback.
At Lima, Ohio, Bob Griese picked up two pitching victories and six hits as Evansville, Ind., went 5-0 to win the Great Lakes Regional. His first win was a five-hitter in an 8-1 victory over Kenosha, Wis. Griese later played baseball and football at Purdue University before leading the Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl victories and earning induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
At Long Beach, Calif., Bob Wiswell struck out 21 in a two-hit 8-0 victory for the host team over Greeley, Colo., in the second round of the Western Regional. Long Beach would win the ALWS a week later. Wiswell would eventually pitch at UCLA and spend three years in the Atlanta Braves’ organization.
In 1964, three future professional pitchers — including a Hall of Famer — led their teams to regional championships.
At Hastings, Neb., Rich Folkers won three games — two by shutout — to improve his season record to 16-0 for Central Plains Regional champion Waterloo, Iowa. Folkers pitched eight seasons in the major leagues for four organizations after being drafted three different times; he signed with the New York Mets in 1967 after he was the 20th overall pick of the first round of the secondary phase of the draft.
At Mesa, Ariz., future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers paired with future eight-year professional pitcher Steve Kokor to lead Upland, Calif., to the Western Regional title. Fingers went 1-1 in the tournament against Aiea, Haw., before earning George W. Rulon Player of the Year honors the following week while leading Upland to the ALWS title, while Kokor won two games in the tournament, including a four-hitter in a 3-2 championship win over Clearfield, Utah.
Fingers pitched for 17 years in the major leagues while winning three World Series for the Oakland Athletics, earning seven All-Star selections and being named 1981 American League MVP for the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1974, he became the first and only American Legion Baseball player to win the George W. Rulon Player of the Year Award (in 1964) and World Series MVP honors.
Kokor pitched for three major league organizations after being a 1966 second-round pick of the Chicago White Sox out of Chaffey College in California.
In 1969 and 1970, future Baltimore Orioles American League Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan was a Northeast Regional standout for Manchester’s Sweeney Post.
In 1969, he threw a five-hitter and slugged a two-run home run in an 8-1 opening round victory over Bennington, Vt., before his team lost its next two games. In 1970, Flanagan was named MVP as Sweeney went 4-0 to win the Northeast Regional at Middletown, Conn.; Flanagan won two games and saved another, including a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts in the 2-1, 10-inning title-game victory over Middletown, and slugged a two-run home run in a 7-3 second-day victory over Naugatuck, Conn.
Standouts of the 1970s
Also in 1970, Greg Terlecky led eventual ALWS champion West Covina, Calif., to a West Regional championship at Roseburg, Ore., with two pitching victories and 28 strikeouts. A fifth-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970 major league draft, Terlecky would eventually pitch for the Cardinals in 1975.
In 1971, future No. 1 overall major league draft pick Bill Almon helped Warwick, R.I., battle out of the loser’s bracket to win the Northeast Regional at Keene, N.H. Almon and teammate Steve Toher pitched back-to-back three-hitters as Warwick beat Gardiner, Me., 6-0 and 12-0 on the final day of the tournament. Almon, selected No. 1 overall by the San Diego Padres in 1974 out of Brown University, played 15 seasons in the majors for eight teams.
In 1974, Mike Hunter struck out 22 batters in a 6-0 victory for host Napa, Calif., over Bingham Canyon, Utah, on the second day of the Western Regional. Hunter was a 33rd-round pick of the Oakland Athletics in the 1976 draft but never played professionally.
In 1975 and 1976, eventual Baltimore Orioles All-Star Mike Boddicker helped Cedar Rapids, Iowa, win back-to-back Central Plains Regionals. In 1975, he pitched a two-hitter with 13 strikeouts in a 6-0 second-day victory over Rapid City, S.D. And in 1976, he threw two shutouts and struck out 31 in Hastings, Neb., including a four-hit, 15-strikeout 3-0 win over Omaha, Neb., in the title game.
In 1978, future three-time Oakland Athletics All-Star Terry Steinbach hit .409 with seven RBIs for New Ulm, Minn., as it won the Central Plains Regional at Rapid City, S.D. Steinbach, who played at the University of Minnesota, also won major league All-Star Game MVP honors in 1988.
In 1979 and 1980, future major league player and manager Bob Melvin helped Palo Alto, Calif., to back-to-back appearances in Western Regional title games. In 1979, his team was the host team and was runner-up to Norwalk, Calif. In 1980, Melvin hit .600 as Palo Alto won the regional title.
A 1981 first-round pick of the Detroit Tigers out of the University of California, Melvin played 10 years in the major leagues for seven teams and later became a manager for the Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics. He’s been selected as National League manager of the year in 2007 for Arizona and American League manager of the year in 2012 and 2018 for Oakland.
More star performers
Also in 1980, Sid Fernandez struck out 37 batters in two starts to lead eventual ALWS champion Honolulu, Haw., in the Northwest Regional. Fernandez, a two-time All-Star during his 15-year major league career, threw an 18-strikeout no-hitter in a 4-0 win over host Yakima, Wash., in the title game.
In 1985, switch-hitting shortstop Carlos Baerga led Guaynabo, P.R., to the Southeast Regional title in Cherryville, N.C., by hitting three home runs and turning nine double plays in six games. Baerga, signed as a free agent by the San Diego Padres in November 1985, was a three-time major league All-Star during a 16-year career with eight teams.
Known more now for being a part of Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” ESPN miniseries on the Chicago Bulls’ 1998 NBA title run, Scott Burrell in 1989 became a rare MVP for a losing team in the Northeast Regional.
Burrell hit .480 and struck out 13 in 11 innings while picking up one win and one save for runner-up Hamden, Conn. Burrell threw a three-hitter and drove in three of his team’s four runs in a 4-0 win over host Aldenville, Mass., in an elimination game before Braintree, Mass., beat Hamden 7-1 in the title game two days later.
Now in his sixth season as head basketball coach at Southern Connecticut State, Burrell played two seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization and eight years in the NBA for four teams, including the 1998 champion Bulls.
Also in 1989, future major leaguer Steve Trachsel got two wins and two saves for Fullerton, Calif., in their run to the Western Regional title in Union City, Calif. Trachsel played 16 seasons for seven franchises and was an All-Star selection in 1996 with the Chicago Cubs.
In 1997, current ESPN baseball analyst Mark Teixeira helped Severna Park, Md., to the Mid-Atlantic Regional title at Hagerstown, Md., that included one of the greatest comebacks in American Legion Baseball history. Trailing 11-0 to Brooklawn, N.J., when the game was suspended in the third inning, Teixeira hit a two-out, walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth as Severna Park took a 12-11 victory.
Teixeira, whose team beat Shillington, Pa., 3-2 in the title game, was the 2000 national collegiate baseball player of the year for Georgia Tech and was the fifth overall pick in the first round of the 2001 major league draft by the Texas Rangers. Teixeira was a three-time All-Star and 2009 World Series champion with the New York Yankees during a 14-year career for four teams.
In 1998, Ralph Roberts of Cherryville, N.C., hit .286 with two home runs and had two pitching wins and a save in the Southeast Regional at Gallatin, Tenn. Roberts played six years in the Atlanta Braves organization before winning three United League independent titles for Amarillo, Tex.
In 2001, Chad Billingsley of Napoleon, Ohio, hit .571 and struck out 28 to earn MVP honors in the Great Lakes Regional at Lancaster, Ohio. Billingsley threw a seven-hitter with 14 strikeouts in a 6-4 win over Adrian, Mich., in the regional title game. A first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003, Billingsley had a 10-year major league career and was an All-Star in 2009.
In 2003, Chris Mason of Cherryville, N.C., hit .391 and won three games with 33 strikeouts in the Southeast Regional at Rock Hill, S.C. Mason, who spent five years in two organizations, was in the midst of a 47 2-3-inning scoreless streak.
In 2015 and 2017, Jordan Patty helped Midland, Mich., win Great Lakes Regional titles. In 2015, he had two pitching victories, including the 14-4, 8-inning final over host Alton, Ill. And in 2017, he hit .545 and had two pitching victories, including a 13-1 victory over Danville, Ill., in Napoleon, Ohio. Patty now pitches at Central Michigan.
In 2017 and 2019, Trevor Marsh of Randolph County, N.C., won MVP honors as his team won the Southeast Regional and Mid-Atlantic Regional, respectively. In regionals Randolph County hosted, Marsh hit .632 with eight RBIs in 2017 and hit .400 with two pitching victories in 2019. Marsh is now an outfielder at UNC-Wilmington.
Also in 2019, Randon Hostert of Idaho Falls, Idaho, became the first pitcher in national American Legion Baseball playoff history to throw back-to-back no-hitters — in a 10-0 victory over Casper, Wyo., in the opening round of the Northwest Regional at Lewiston, Idaho, and in a 3-0 victory over Kennewick, Wash., in the next-to-last day of the tournament. Hostert now pitches at the University of Utah.
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