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August 02. 2013 11:06PM

Legions of fans at Gill for the last 100 years


 

This is the seventh in a series of articles from the Gill Stadium Centennial Committee leading up to the ballpark's 100-year anniversary celebration on Sept. 8.


Six years after the American Legion held its first national tournament, "Little World Series" came to Manchester for the first time, with New Orleans defeating Springfield, Mass., for the national title. Athletic Field, later to become Gill Stadium, was such a popular venue that the series would return there on four more occasions.

Only once has a Manchester team played in a Legion World Series in the city, in 1942, the second time the national championship was determined here. In a three-game final, Sunrise Post 357 of Los Angeles swept Manchester's Sweeney Post 2, 6-2, 5-2 and 3-0.

Pitching before a crowd estimated at 5,000 the hard-luck loser in the deciding game was Chris Tonery, who would return to Sweeney Post as an assistant coach, a position he held for parts of five decades.

Sunrise Post's third baseman was Gene Mauch, who would go on to play for six major-league teams and manage four others. Mauch finished his playing career with the Red Sox and managed against them during one of the greatest comebacks in Boston history, the 1986 American League Championship Series run sparked by Dave Henderson's ninth-inning home run in Game 5.

The Legion World Series returned to newly renamed Gill Stadium in 1968, when Post 1 of Memphis, Tenn., captured the title before a crowd of 3,051 while extending its winning streak to 38 games. Memphis was led by Don Castle, who had been selected in the first round of the MLB Draft by the Washington Senators but would appear in only four big-league games, with the 1974 Texas Rangers, the Senators' successors.

Manchester had to wait only eight years for the Series' next appearance at Gill and even less time for the appearance after that. Back-to-back Series took place at the Valley Street ballpark in 1976 and '77, with Post 123 of Santa Monica, Calif., winning the '76 title and South Bend, Ind., winning the year after that. Crowds of more than 3,600 attended both deciding games.

No one was more responsible for the Legion World Series' last appearances at Gill Stadium than George Smith, who served as the tournaments' site director.

The grandson of 19th century major-league pitcher John "Phenomenal" Smith, George Smith was a standout local athlete in the 1940s and remained active in city athletics as a coach and administrator, including as Sweeney Post's director of athletics from 1977-2012. Smith, who died earlier this year, was a devoted city servant who spent eight years on the Board of Mayor and Alderman representing Ward 10, but he was synonymous with Gill Stadium and Sweeney Post, located just beyond the ballpark's right-field fence.

The same could be said of the post's longtime coach, John "Jumbo" Reilly, who won 14 state championships and three regional titles between the start of his coaching run with Sweeney in 1954 and his retirement in 1991.

Among those who played under Reilly at Gill were three who went on to successful big-league careers were 1979 AL Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan, 1987 NL Gold Glove catcher Mike Lavalliere and slugger Steve Balboni, whose 181 career home runs included 36 in 1985.

None got to play in an American Legion World Series at Gill Stadium, but all remain a part of the ballpark's rich history.


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