Friday, March 29, 2019
Baseball Hall of Famer Lee Smith Joins American Legion Festivities at Cooperstown
By PAUL POST
COOPERSTOWN — Newly-elected Hall of Famer Lee Smith joined National Commander Brett P. Reistad and New York Department Commander Gary Schacher on Friday to kick off American Legion Weekend festivities at baseball’s national shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y. Smith and fellow Class of 2019 members Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina and Harold Baines are among the 81 all-time greats who played Legion ball en route to making the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (more photos)
The fire-balling Smith, one of the game’s greatest relief pitchers, said Legion ball gave him his first opportunity to play organized baseball while growing up in rural Louisiana.
“As a 16- and 17-year-old, American Legion baseball really honed my skills,” he said.
Smith also credits local men, who served in the military, for teaching him valuable lessons about the discipline, hard work and determination needed to succeed. But most of all, he enjoyed the camaraderie of teammates, which he still considers family. In fact, he’s already invited his now 87-year-old former coach, James Morgan, and best friend and Legion catcher Charles Cockfield to join him on Induction Weekend, scheduled for July 19-21.
“When we played, the whole team, the whole family — not just the players — went to a restaurant called the Cotton Patch,” Smith said. “We talked about the game and families got to meet each other. That’s why I say, I don’t have teammates I have family members.”
The Cooperstown event was held to recognize The American Legion’s contributions to baseball, in conjunction with the organization’s 100th anniversary.
“American Legion baseball isn’t just about playing sports,” Reistad said. “It’s about sportsmanship, physical fitness, learning to work as a team. Legion baseball started in South Dakota in 1925 and has flourished over the years. It’s a mainstay of The American Legion program. There are roughly 3,500 teams around the country. Many of those who played American Legion baseball made their way to his coveted location.”
During the weekend, Hall of Fame guests could visit the Gallery where plaques are located, and take guided tours highlighting players who served in the military and the equipment they used.
A special Operation Gratitude was also planned, in which visitors could thank military personnel and veterans by writing letters of appreciation to them.
Jon Shestakofsky, Hall of Fame vice president for communications and education, described Legion baseball as part of the fabric of America.
“In this room, the most sacred space in the game of baseball, we’re surrounded by 329 members of the Hall of Fame,” he said. “Of those, 81 were shaped by American Legion baseball, one-quarter of the all-time greats represented on these walls.”
Past National Commander David K. Rehbein, of Iowa, is chair of the 100th Anniversary Observance Committee. “I grew up in Nebraska and went to one of those little one-room country schools where the library was smaller than your closet,” he joked. “One of the people I met in that library was named Lou Gehrig. That provided me a role model to look up to.”
Schacher presented Hall of Fame official Scot E. Mondore, an army veteran and Legion member, with a special commemorative bat in recognition of the Legion’s 100th anniversary. He also gave one to Bruce Mayfield, New York State American Legion baseball chairman.
“I grew up outside of New York City so I would go down quite often to Yankee Stadium and sit in the right field corner where they held the Reggie (Jackson) signs,” Schacher said. “And right after I got released from active duty in the Navy, in 1983, I went to the July 4 game and got to see Dave Righetti throw a no-hitter against the Red Sox.”
“This is just great to be here with veterans and baseball fans,” he said.