Monday, May 29, 2023

Western News reader enjoys history column

| April 25, 2023 7:00 AM

To the Editor,

I was delighted to read the Half a Century column entitled, “Pitching staff key to Am. Legion ball,” regarding the 1973 Legion team in the April 11 edition of the Western News. As the season unfolded, I was correct in believing that club was a “well-balanced” team, but at the same time understated the existing talent level.

For example, Walt Mason was a compact power hitter with speed to burn. Any ball hit by Mason into the gaps was a sure triple. Additionally, he patrolled center field as well, if not better, than any Legion player I’ve witnessed over these past many years. I cannot recall a single ball that got past him in the outfield throughout the course of that season.

Dean Smith, a crafty left-handed pitcher with a superb win-loss record (10-1), continued to pitch in a Boise fast-pitch league for many years and as far as I know still may be doing so.

Robbie Nelson, our right-handed fireball, received the ultimate compliment from Eddie Bayne, the legendary Legion coach of the Billing Royals who led the Royals to four Legion World Series, and coached Hall of Famer Dave McNally of the Baltimore Orioles (the only pitcher in World Series history to hit a grand slam home run), when he said, at the State Tournament in Great Falls that summer, that Robbie had “the best stuff he’d seen since McNally. His breaking ball just fell off the table,” said Bayne.

And Tim Grotjohn adeptly handled the catching duties of these two hurlers with contrasting styles.

That team had speed (Mason, Willard, Nelson), line-drive hitters in Grotjohn, Terry Baeth, Colin McDonald and Kelly McDonald, as well as bunters like Craig Henkel (a future Montana Grizzly basketball starter), Mike Oldham and George Petit who were consummately unselfish and understood the value of advancing runners.

They played fundamentally sound baseball with a passion, but were never antic-deprived, with Nelson and Willard often directing their fun-loving sense of humor at John Graham’s (aka “Jocko”) expense.

John assured us that he would someday win the Men’s State Amateur Golf Tournament and sure enough four years later, in 1977, he did. Cabinet View's first State Champion!

One of my fondest memories is hurling down the interstate between Conrad and Great Falls at a hair-raising 120 miles per hour in Buck Nelson’s Buick, with Buck gently “admonishing” me not to change my defensive lineup in late-inning situations; me agreeing, if he would keep his eyes on the road!

Anyone who has ever coached for a long period of time deserves a team like them: unselfish, coachable kids with great camaraderie and wonderfully supportive parents.

They competed at the highest level of AA Legion baseball in Montana, and in the end, as every baseball coach well knows, went as far as pitching could take them.

I wish to thank the Western News staff for recalling such memorable times for so many of us. Has it really been a “Half Century?” Oh goodness!!

They might have gotten a bit older over the years, but for me they will be “Forever Young.”

Most sincerely,

Tony Smith