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1935 



 

The Manhart Legion


Miracle Season

 

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. 

*** 

Bill Avila
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 of Fame.

Solons Rookies
Bill Avila, 2nd row, far right, with
Solons Rookie Team circa 1957.

Photo courtesy Colfax Record.

 

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 contracts.

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 Association.

He was inducted into the La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.

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 school).

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 ballplayers. 

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 title.  

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.

***

State Finals—Sacramento

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 legion title.

***

Regionals—Stockton

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 Manhart. 

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 Legion
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 Public Library.

 

***

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. 

Legion Ball

Ball signed by both teams at the banquet. "Crash" Davis is at top below seams. Photo courtesy of Jerry Queen Collection.

A banquet was held on Monday, August 26 at the Armington Hotel, where the Manhart team stayed and were exposed to southern hospitality. 

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. 

 

1935 Legion Program Cover
Photo courtesy Jerry Queen Collection.

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.  

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.

Crash Davis
"Crash" Davis, Philadelphia Athletics


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 1935.)

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).

He went 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 characters. 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 surpass .400.

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 us.” 

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 1940s). 

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 Sacramento.  

Union Sports Editor George in his Sunday Sept. 1 column wrote: 

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 standings. 

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 late.” 

“But what hospitality!” he said about the North Carolinians. “We were treated royally.”

***

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 1935. 

 


* 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.

 

 

Manhart
The Manhart Legion Team photo that appeared in the Gastonia Program. Note, several names are misspelled.



Uploaded 09/11/2012
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© Rick Cabral, 2012

 

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