Seventy-seven years ago today (Sept. 11, 1935) the Manhart Junior American
Legion team was feted by Sacramento city dignitaries for accomplishing what no other legion team
before or since has accomplished: won the western United States and brought home the runners-up
championship trophy from the Little World Series.
Their competition, from the tiny mill town of Gastonia, North Carolina,
featured a player that has since been mythologized in the film Bull Durham. That player? Lawrence “Crash” Davis.
In the mid-1930s, George W. Manhart American Legion Post 391 was
the summer travel ball team, if you lived in
Sacramento. At the time, Sacramento High was the sole secondary public school in the downtown area
(McClatchy wouldn’t open for another two years and Christian Brothers was a private Catholic
Baseball Lifer in Sacramento
(excerpted from a letter by Sacramento Bushers Baseball Players Association
President Manuel Perry, Jr., 1988)
A Sacramento native, Bill Avila passed away in 1987 at the age of 75. A graduate of
both Sacramento High School and Sacramento City College, Avila lived his entire
life in the Capital City.
His involvement in the area’s baseball community began in 1930 when he organized
and coached a team of teenagers known as the “Police Juniors.”
In 1935, Bill Avila coached the Manhart Post 391 American Legion baseball team to
the runner-up spot in the National Championship. He coached American Legions teams
for seven very successful years, including another state championship in 1937. For
his efforts, Bill Avila was inducted into the American Junior Legion Baseball Hall
Bill Avila, 2nd row, far right,
Solons Rookie Team circa 1957.
Photo courtesy Colfax
Bill also coached teams in the National Division of the Sacramento Winter League
and in 1946 organized the Sacramento Solons Rookie baseball team, which was made up
entirely of Sacramento area players. The entire team signed individual professional
He scouted for the Oakland Oaks, Sacramento Solons and Philadelphia Phillies, which
awarded him a World Series championship ring (1980) for his services. Bill was
instrumental in signing more than 30 local players to professional contracts, 15 of
which played in the major leagues.
Bill Avila also served as President of the Sacramento County League, the Rural
League, the Tri-County League, and the Sacramento Bushers Baseball Players
He was inducted into the
La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame in
American Legion baseball had just originated in the late 1920s, and by the
mid-1930s, it was beginning to take off nationally. Manhart’s head coach was 24-year-old
Bill Avila, a short, slight-build, bespectacled
young man who got his start managing a Police Juniors squad in 1930. A graduate of Sacramento
High and Sacramento Junior College, Avila would go on to an esteemed career (see sidebar). But
in 1935, he was just beginning to burnish a reputation for handling young
The team included pitchers Richie “Red” Wakefield, Eddie Keenan, Eddie
Katsulis and Pete Pitalo. The catchers included Lawrence “Babe” Bertolani and Gene Jacobsen. The
infielders were Hank Lema and Carl Younglove at third base, Mel Cole at shortstop, “Tiny” Tony
Hansen at second base and Ted Gardner at first. Patrolling the outfield were Joe Faraci, Marcel
Dutra and Izzy Smith. Most of the players were 16, the legion age limit at the time, with Lema and
Katsulis eligible for one more year.
By early August Manhart had defeated all-comers, including teams from Grass
Valley, Willows, Mill Valley, San Francisco and Stockton to garner a spot in the California state
Ironically, in his August 2nd column Sacramento Union Sports Editor Steve George called for more
experienced coaches in the area to take over from Avila, whom he called “a mere boy.” “Manhart
legion boys are in dire need of proper coaching,” George wrote. He decried Manhart’s “numerous
(defensive) mistakes” and solicited ex-Solons players living in the area to assume control of the
club, citing Buddy Ryan, Kettle Wirts and Ray Keating among them. No word whether Avila offered his
resignation, but he was in the dugout for the state championship against Los Angeles, along with
the team’s business manager, Earl “Scotty” Ferem.
In the three-game State Finals series at Moreing Field, Sacramento won the
first contest 10-5 on Saturday August 3 before 1,084 paid customers.
The following day, Los Angeles took the first game of a double-header 11-10 in
11 innings with Dutra posting six runs batted in for the Manharts. Sacramento won the third game
2-1 scoring the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning on a Dutra blow to advance
to the sectionals in Stockton. This marked the first time Sacramento had won the state junior
In the first Far West Regional game in Stockton, Manhart clobbered a team from
Reno, Nevada 27-4. The Sacramento youngsters managed 17 hits, led by Cole, Smith and Gardner with
four hits each, while the Nevadans assisted by making seven errors in the contest. Manhart next
defeated Tucson, Arizona 3-2 behind Hansen, the scintillating second baseman, who went 3 for 4 and
drove in the winning run in the ninth inning. Thus, Sacramento squeaked into the Western U.S.
finals, also scheduled for Stockton, which was fast becoming Manhart’s second home (Their home
field was McClatchy Park in Oak Park).
Western District Finals—Stockton
Playing at the same Stockton ballpark no doubt gave Sacramento a slight edge
over their western regional competitors from Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Oklahoma and
Washington. Plus, California benefited by a first-round bye.
Sacramento defeated Chicago 4-1 on Wednesday August 21 behind winning pitcher
Richie “Red” Wakefield, who took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Smith’s bases-loaded single
in the eighth inning drove in Sacramento’s final two runs to cinch the contest for
The following afternoon Manhart defeated Tulsa, Oklahoma 14-4 before 2,500
fans to advance to the national championship in Gastonia, North Carolina. Marq Dutra, subbing at
first base for injured Ted Gardner who had been spiked in the leg, had four hits including a triple
for the winners. Keenan went the distance for Sacramento, scattering eight hits, walking two and
striking out four in a game played in two hours and ten minutes.
Afterward, major league scouts were seen talking to Wakefield, Dutra and Cole,
according to Union scribe, Kirt McBride.
1935 Manhart Junior Legion team at the SP
Railroad Depot, Sacramento, Calif.
Back row, left to right: Eddie Keenan, Carl Younglove, Izzy Smith, Richie
Wakefield, Gene Jacobsen, Pete Pitalo, Manager Scotty Ferem, Ted Gardner and Mel
Cole. Front row, Joe Faraci, Marcel Dutra, Tony Hansen, Eddie Katsulis, Coach Bill
Avila, Hank Lema.
Photo courtesy of Sacramento Room Collection, Sacramento
Taking the train from Stockton to Gastonia, the Manhart
boys were deposited briefly at the Southern Pacific Depot in Sacramento, where they took a group
photo. The beaming faces of players and coaches in the Union photograph told the story, as they
anxiously headed for North Carolina.
McBride implored his readers to help raise $300 to offset travel and food
expenses as the Manhart players and coaches entrained to North Carolina. While en route eastward,
Scotty Ferem told McBride he would use a portion of the funds collected to buy the team new pants.
In that column, Sacramentans also learned that Manhart’s eastern competition
would be the host city team from Gastonia, which defeated a club from Georgia 19-6. A five-game
championship billed as “the Little World Series” awaited the Manhart team.
Little World Series—Gastonia, North Carolina
Gastonia sits in the southwestern region of North Carolina, about 22 miles
west of Charlotte, just above the South Carolina border. Like many of its regional neighbors in the
mid-30s it was a mill town, replete with rabid baseball fans.
A banquet was held on Monday, August 26 at the Armington Hotel, where the
Manhart team stayed and were exposed to southern hospitality.
Ball signed by both teams at the banquet.
"Crash" Davis is at top below seams. Photo courtesy of Jerry Queen
The Gaston Post 23 was no stranger to success in legion baseball. Since its
start in 1929, the team had won the North Carolina state title four times. Where Sacramento was
coached by a baseball acolyte in Avila, the Gastonia club was led by William “Doc” Newton, well
known as the head football coach at North Carolina State College. Prior to that position, he had
coached football and baseball teams at Davidson College and University of Tennessee. He also
pitched professionally for the Baltimore Orioles. Newtown’s name and reputation carried cachet in
this region, giving hope to the multitudes which came out to watch their local team trounce the
boys from California.
The following afternoon the two teams marched in a parade through town out to the local
high school where the games were scheduled for a 3:30 start. The mid-afternoon start time
accommodated the first shift at the mill which let out at 3 p.m., according to Jerry Queen, whose
father J.D. Queen was Gastonia’s catcher and later worked in the mills after a minor league career.
Photo courtesy Jerry Queen Collection.
Approximately 12,000 showed up for the historic first game, including a number
of junior legion teams throughout the Carolinas.
Lawrence "Crash" Davis
An American Original
For most baseball fans in America, the name “Crash” Davis leaped in the lexicon
with the release of the 1988 movie, Bull
Durham. In the film, Kevin Costner plays Davis, an aging long-time catcher, who
is closing in on the all-time minor league home run record.
Writer/director Ron Shelton had
discovered the name while looking through an old Carolina League record book that
featured the Durham Bulls player. Shelton apparently received permission by the
real Lawrence “Crash” Davis to use his name in the movie. And later, after
befriending the director, Davis appeared in another Shelton film, Cobb.
Ironically, the real “Crash” Davis was not a catcher, but instead started his
career at 14 as shortstop for his hometown Gastonia, North Carolina junior American
Legion baseball club. According to Jerry Queen, whose father J.D. Queen was the
catcher for the legion team, Davis had a passel of nicknames. Originally, the
high-pitched, caterwallin’ shortstop had been tabbed “Squeaky.”
But by the time Davis played in the 1935 Little World Series against Manhart legion
club of Sacramento, the nickname “Crash” had stuck (In fact, he penned “Crash”
Davis on the commemorative legion ball signed by both squads at the team banquet in
Queen’s father recalled how Davis earned his final nickname. One afternoon during a
game, shortstop Davis ran to catch a pop fly ball in the outfield and in the
process collided with the left fielder. J.D. Queen remembered someone on the field
yelling “What a crash!” (He thought he could have been the one who said it). Since
the shortstop was the culprit in the collision, the appellation “Crash” stuck with
Davis for the rest of his life. (In an interview with author Hank Utley, Davis
remembered that “Dynamite” stuck for a short time after the collision, eventually
replaced by “Crash.”)
In that same interview, Davis admitted his junior legion experience had a profound
influence, saying “American Legion ball contributed as much to my success as
anything that ever happened in my life.”
Davis may have been that team’s best baseball player (if not, it was third baseman
Howie Moss, who played sparingly for three big league seasons).
on to play at Duke University, where he was captain of the baseball team. During
summers, he played in semi-professional “outlaw” leagues with some rugged
After graduating from Duke, he played three seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics,
batting .230 in 148 games.
During the last weekend in 1941 against the visiting Boston
Red Sox, Davis had a first-hand look at Ted Williams, who had a lot riding that
day. Davis recalled Williams playing both games of the double-header, going went 6
for 8 to finish the season hitting .406, becoming the major league's last batter to
World War II interrupted Davis’ major league dream. After a
couple seasons in Class “B” ball in New England he enrolled at Duke to get his
graduate degree. In 1948, he played for the Durham Bulls where he led the Carolina
League in doubles (which is how Shelton became aware of him). He continued playing
minor league ball until 1952.
After retiring from pro ball, Davis returned to Gastonia
where he coached the high school and legion teams. In 1954, his Gastonia legion
team placed runner-up in the national championship at Yakima, Washington.
Ironically, they lost to a team from California.
When “Crash” Davis died in Greenboro, North Carolina at age
82 in 2001, his name was legendary.
Gastonia took the first game 10-4. They secured the contest by scoring four
runs in the seventh inning by knocking out Manhart’s ace pitcher, Richie Wakefield. Their third
baseman Howie Moss went five for five, while catcher Queen had three hits for Gastonia. Sacramento
managed only five safeties, including two hits by Marcel Dutra. Shortstop Mel Cole was spiked in
both legs and had to leave the game. He received seven sutures at a local hospital and would not
return. The following day his Manhart teammates carried him out to the dugout where he watched the
second game, according to the Union.
The hometown team took the second game 8-1 as Sacramento managed just four
hits before an estimated crowd of 3,000. Gastonia was led by shortstop “Crash” Davis who went three
for four and Queen who had two hits and knocked in two runs. Scotty Ferem, in his daily post to the
Union, stated “The hard hitting of the Gastonia boys is outstanding and the breaks are just against
The third game, scheduled for Thursday, was rained out. They resumed play on
Friday August 30 before a crowd of 18,000, the largest ever to attend a ball game at any level in
North Carolina, according to Jerry Queen, citing a story from the Gastonia Gazette. Losing 8-3, Sacramento scored five runs in the
eighth to tie the game. But Gastonia, once again led by the hitting of Moss (3x5) answered with
four tallies to win the game 12-8 and claim the Little World Series trophy.
Richie Wakefield was awarded the best sportsmanship trophy for the tournament.
Moss led all hitters, going 9 for 13 (He went on to play for three major league clubs in the
Ferem was presented with the Little World Series runners-up trophy and as well
as the Joe E. Brown^ trophy to the Western US winner. The Manhart manager also announced that the
team would take the train to Cincinnati to watch a major league game before heading home to
Union Sports Editor George in his Sunday Sept. 1 column
Nobody can undo what the Manharts did for Sacramento in a baseball way. They
have given rebirth to baseball interest in this region, something that has been lost in recent
years due to the inability of the Coast league Senators to emerge out of the depths of league
The Manharts have heaped glory upon themselves, their city and their post.
They deserve all the plaudits and presents when they return home.
On Monday, September 2 the boys stopped in Cincinnati to watch the Reds split
a double-header with the visiting Chicago Cubs. The Manhart lads were in for a treat, as they saw
several major leaguers who either hailed from Sacramento or played for the Coast League Senators:
Cincinnati’s southpaw Tony Freitas, a former Senator
who pitched the first game that day and Alex Kampouris
(Sacramento High) who played second base. In addition, there was Cubs’ centerfielder Frank Demaree (Winters) and first baseman Stan Hack (Sacramento High).
When the team reached the Sacramento railroad station on September 5 they were
met by the Manhart post drum and bugle corp, plus many well-wishers. Exhausted from their long
journey, head coach Bill Avila told a reporter he was surprised at the outcome, despite the
three-game shellacking. “The balls seemed to come up to the plate like balloons, but the boys
couldn’t connect,” Avila offered. “When they did, they hit right in their hands. They had an
outfield that sloped to the left and it took us two games to learn how to play it—then it was too
“But what hospitality!” he said about the North Carolinians. “We were treated
On Wednesday, September 11, the city of Sacramento rolled out the red carpet
for the Manhart Junior American Legion team with a banquet at the Elks Temple on 11th
and J Streets. Each team member received a fine sweater from Hale Brothers department store
presented by Sacramento City Manager James Dean. Also sitting at the head table were: Mayor Arthur
Ferguson, George Conover, manager of Hale Brothers store and Dr. Charles S. Cowan, who served as
the master of ceremonies.
Although Junior American Legion was still relatively new to the region, this
season would go down as one for the ages. Never again would a team from the greater Sacramento area
ever make it to the Junior American Legion championship round* or match the Manhart Miracle of
* Only four teams from Sacramento have taken the American Legion state
crown, and two of those were managed by Bill Avila (1935 national runners-up, and 1937 Manhart. The
other two were Manhart 1959 and Kennedy 1981).
^ By the 1930s, Joe. E Brown was a famous American comedian/actor and a huge baseball fan. The
movie Alibi Ike, starring Brown as a baseball player for the Chicago Cubs, had been
released in June. Brown, apparently, had been cajoled into sponsoring the trophy for the Western
U.S. winner. According to Jerry Queen, the Gazette newspaper reported that
Homer L. Chaillaux of the National American Legion had confirmed Brown would attend the
third game in Gastonia, but when locals went to meet him at the train station the actor was a
no-show. The Gazette indicated the whole thing may have been a publicity stunt and pointed the
finger at the American Legion.
Editor's Note: We are indebted to Jerry
Queen, who has made a major contribution to this story with resources, research and
anecdotes, without which this story would not have been possible.