Baseball's always been big in Shelby

Baseball's always been big in Shelby

Before Shelby, N.C., became the home of the American Legion World Series in 2011, the city had hosted one American Legion World Series, six American Legion regionals and one North Carolina state tournament.

And if you ask former longtime high school coach Tom Wright, the answer is quite simple: Baseball has always been big in Shelby and Cleveland County.

"You know those old sayings about baseball being the king and all that," said Wright, who played for Shelby Post 82 when it hosted the 1957 and 1958 regionals. "In Shelby, that was true. Back then, baseball was what we had here in Shelby. And several thousand people would come to the games. They were packed in there everywhere."

Wright, a 1960 Shelby High graduate, would later coach high school football in North Carolina at Burns, Cherryville and East Rutherford high schools and was an assistant coach on Burns' 1994 state championship team. That's one of 28 North Carolina state titles won by Cleveland County high school football teams since 1947.

But Wright, the son of a Shelby major leaguer by the same name, says baseball was the first sport that gained the area's attention — and still does so today.

"Having the (American) Legion World Series here has made baseball a main attraction," he said. "But it's always been big in this community and still is based on all the support the World Series gets here."

Wright played when the old Sumter Street stadium that is still used by Shelby Middle School was the city's football and baseball stadium. It hosted national American Legion events in 1940, 1946, 1957 and 1958. The current Shelby stadium — Veterans Field at Keeter Stadium — is a baseball-only facility that has hosted national events since 2002.

Here's a look at the American Legion events Shelby hosted before the city became permanent World Series host in 2011:

1940 American Legion sectional

San Diego swept St. Louis two games to none in a semifinal series that sent the winner to the American Legion World Series against Albemarle, N.C.; Albemarle would beat San Diego three games to two in a best-of-five series for the championship.

In Shelby, racial pioneer John Ritchey's game-winning double off eventual Cleveland Indians pitcher Harold "Hal" Kleine gave San Diego the win in the series opener. Ritchey would go on to become the first African-American player in the Pacific Coast League in 1948.

1946 American Legion regional

Kannapolis won a four-team event before losing the following week to eventual national World Series champion New Orleans in a sectional tournament played in Gastonia, N.C.

The biggest eventual star to play in the tournament was Norfolk, Va., pitcher Chuck Stobbs.

A three-sport star in Norfolk, Stobbs would go on to play 15 years in the major leagues and is most remembered for yielding a 565-foot home run to New York Yankees' slugger Mickey Mantle that flew completely out of old Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

1957 American Legion regional

Memphis, Tenn., won a four-team event before losing the next week in a sectional tournament.

The team featured future major leaguers Tim McCarver and Phil Gagliano and eventual Alabama All-SEC shortstop Gene Giannini. McCarver played 21 years in the majors for the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox and Gagliano played for the Cardinals, Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds.

1958 American Legion regional

Memphis, Tenn., again won the four-team event before again losing the following week in a sectional tournament.

Memphis also again had McCarver and Gagliano for a team that edged host Shelby 4-0 in front of 4,238 fans in the title game.

Third-place Richmond, Va., featured one of the top two-sport athletes of the era in football running back-baseball outfielder Ken Willard.

Willard, who was named honorable mention all-tournament, would go on to play football and baseball at the University of North Carolina before being a 1965 first-round NFL draft pick (No. 2 overall selection) of the San Francisco 49ers. Willard would go on to rush for 6,105 yards in 10 NFL seasons with the 49ers and St. Louis Cardinals.

2002 Southeast regional

Dothan, Ala., took the eight-team event by knocking off pre-tournament favorite Rowan County and host Shelby on back-to-back nights in single-elimination semifinals and finals, respectively.

Dothan, which would lose in the semifinals of the American Legion World Series hosted in Danville, Va., was led by eventual Birmingham Southern standout Ronny Woods.

Rowan County's team included eventual major league relief ace Bobby Parnell.

Rio Grande, P.R., which went 1-2 in pool play and failed to advance to the tournament semifinals, had four eventual professional signees — Jorge Charry, Roberto Mena, Alexander Woodson and Michael Woodson.

2004 North Carolina state tournament

The tournament is most remembered for what happened months later as champion Garner Post 232 had its title vacated for using an ineligible player.

Runner-up Caldwell County had several eventual college players on its roster and one future major leaguer in then-14-year-old Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner was a 2007 first-round draft pick of San Francisco who led the Giants to three World Series titles before signing a free agent contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks before the 2020 season.

Also playing in the 2004 state tournament were eventual Seattle Mariners major leaguer Kyle Seager of Kannapolis and eventual University of South Carolina College World Series champion Parker Bands of Laurinburg.

2008 Southeast regional

Sumter took the title in the eight-team tournament behind four eventual professional signees — Bruce Caldwell, Matt Price, Matt Talley and Travis Witherspoon — and would finish fourth in the following week's American Legion World Series in Shelby.

Price also was a member of the University of South Carolina's back-to-back College World Series champions in 2010 and 2011.

2008 American Legion World Series

American Legion World Series champion Las Vegas was led by national player of the year Jeff Malm and five other eventual major leaguers.

A fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009, Malm would play nine years professionally and spent all or parts of two seasons at the Class AA level.

Malm's teammates Johnny Field, Joey Rickard, Donn Roach, Paul Sewald and Tyler Wagner all eventually made it to the major leagues.

And three other players — Jerry Mitchell, Erik Van Meetren and Scott Dysinger — played NCAA Division I baseball.