By Conrad Kraus
It was 43 years ago that American Legion baseball dominated the summer sports page in the city of Philadelphia. Legion teams in the city were trying to get players for their teams. The Northeast section of the city was competing for the best players as well as South and West Philadelphia. Sometimes crossing those sections of the city to recruit the best players. Many kids competed to make the rosters of the Legion teams, hoping to make a name for themselves and an opportunity for dads and moms to have a son that would get a scholarship for them. And if really a standout player, a signing from a Major League team. Those days faded and today senior Legion baseball is gone in this city. The last surviving senior Legion team was Cpl. John Loudenslager American Legion Post 366 in Fox Chase. The “Loudy” team was one of the oldest city Legion teams and caught the early interest of Roy Campanella, Del Ennis, Lee Ellia and more recently during my time as commanding officer of the post of 924 members, Ruben Amaro Jr., Jesse Levis, Howie Freiling and Bobby Higginson. Thirty-one in all participated as major and minor league players, just for the Loudenslager Post. The teams flourished because of the large Post memberships, which designated membership money to pay for the baseball overhead. Pre-World War II, the city had two professional teams both playing out of Shibe Park, later renamed Connie Mack Stadium. Professional baseball was king. Post-World War II grew the Legion posts to huge sizes, and the increased interest in baseball followed. The families grew after the war. Kids were occupying their time playing sandlot baseball. Legions expanded their participation and teams started in many of them. Professional baseball teams also took an interest in the Legion teams, like Loudenslager, since they were being coached by former professional players and played National League rules. The league produced some really good teams like “Loudy.” It became a good way to give direction to summertime teenagers, eager to do something in warm-weather vacation time from school studies, which they will look back at when they get older.
But over the years, competition among Legion posts nationwide created a method to stop pirating from out of the areas, which a Legion represented. Zoning. The 1980 Legion baseball season would be introduced to a requirement for a new method to organize. Introduced here in the city by one of the most convoluted systems, worse than our healthcare system and new FAA regulations.
Only explained and recognized by the originator of the idea. People needed a way to stop pirating but this system became the one that fit every Legion in the country, whether in a city or in the country. Based on population in ZIP codes. The city has many, many ZIP codes. The city is part of Region 3 in the state of Pennsylvania. Region 3 is made up of five counties, all immediate to Philly. In the 1980s, the counties were not densely occupied like the city of row houses. Having grown up in the city of concrete and asphalt, mostly in 16-foot airlite homes, I can tell you getting on to a grass baseball field and doing something organized I liked, baseball, was a real treat. The suburbs grew by a lot since I was commander in 1983. Finding boys to play baseball in the city has become a challenge. The system was modified because of the demographic change to allow up to 52,000 per ZIP code population. But last year the baseball manager of the Post was handed a coach living a fastball away from the Post with 18 seasoned players. The coach did not know the regulations and he took the players based on the high school team he already coached, plus a couple of other high schools like Roman Catholic and Holy Ghost Prep. The Region 3 chairman turned him down because they came from many different ZIP areas but all living in Northeast Philly. Now remember, Loudy was the last senior team in the city so pirating should not pertain. Senior players are 15 to 18. No other team existed in the entire city so Loudy was invited to join the Lower Montgomery County League in 2021. I renewed the position of baseball manager after the resignation of the manager late for organizing a team for the 2023 season. This year, 2023, Loudy, with funds to keep the team going, could not even get a coach. I pursued finding players, especially the 18 players who had already applied the prior season and were still eligible, which was most of them and were enough to field a team with reserves. Those players were all coming from my high school alma mater, Father Judge. Judge graduate Joe Bonikowski played for Loudy and became a pitcher for the Twins. Judge won the state championship last month with that coach who was turned down to coach Loudy. Wow!
In the spring, while watching an early Phillies game, announcer Ruben Amaro Jr., yes, that same guy who played for Loudy, during a break from the game showed a tree planting at Fox Chase Elementary School. Ruben said, “I played baseball just a couple of blocks from that school.” He continued with, “I played for Loudenslager and my older brother David stayed with the Rhawnhurst Post because of zoning. I didn’t understand it.” With no other team in the entire city last year or now, I don’t understand it, either. Other leagues started and the traveling teams, as well as Babe Ruth and the Pendel League, have absorbed many of the potential players who would be playing Legion baseball. They are drawn on the basis that they will be playing in front of scouts and colleges. Legion baseball was scouted long before any traveling team was even thought of but what makes it easier is no convoluted rule to find players to protect from pirating from nonexistent Legion teams. And parents do not need to pay to play. Final Legion games are televised. So let’s get smart. The other leagues do not have ridiculous zoning requirements, just baseball regulations that everyone knows. If we could get a coach and get relief from the zoning rule in the city of no senior Legion teams at this time. The city has hundreds of independent rules different from the rest of the counties in the state. Why not another independent rule from Legion baseball zoning? ••
Conrad Kraus is the manager of Cpl. John Loudenslager American Legion Baseball.