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Black Hall of Famers credit Legion Baseball

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While playing American Legion Baseball was the first step toward Lee Smith eventually entering the Baseball Hall of Fame, he wasn’t always able to get on the field while growing up in Louisiana.

In a trip back to the field where he played Legion Baseball, in the summer of 2019 before his induction into the Hall of Fame, Smith recalled not being allowed to play at some schools because of his skin color.

Still, in later years after he became a star in the major leagues, “Every one of the schools, I made it my point to go back. Those things that happened back in the day, you got to let it go,” Smith said.

And Smith said that those who played alongside him became more than teammates. “It became a family,” he said.

In June 2019, Smith and Harold Baines became the 13th and 14th black Legion Baseball alumni to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Baines, like Smith, credited playing Legion Baseball with honing his skills. Baines told the Baltimore Sun, “You always have somebody good in a small town like I grew up in, but when you get to the other competition, it’s different. When I played American Legion, it was tougher.”

The 14 black Legion Baseball alumni in the Baseball Hall of Fame:

Roy Campanella, inducted in 1969.

A 1969 Hall of Famer, Campanella played American Legion Baseball in Philadelphia before dropping out of high school on his 16th birthday to play professional baseball. The catcher starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers, won a World Series and earned three MVP awards. Known for his record-setting bat and throwing arm, he was named to eight straight All-Star teams.

Bob Gibson, inducted in 1981.

Gibson was the World Series Most Valuable Player in each of the Cardinals' two titles during his tenure. The nine-time All-Star added two Cy Young Awards to his resume. He is a member of the MLB All-Century team and was inducted into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 1981.

Frank Robinson, inducted in 1982.

A two-time World Champion, Robinson is the only player to win MVP in both leagues. The Hall of Famer also won the triple crown before becoming the first African-American manager in MLB history. He was the 1966 Graduate of the Year and the 14-time All-Star had his number retired by the Reds, Orioles and Indians and is a member of each of those teams' Halls of Fame. He played for Bill Erwin Post 237 in California.

Willie Stargell, inducted in 1988.

A first ballot Hall of Famer, Stargell earned seven All-Star Game trips in his career with the Pirates. Eight years after winning his first World Series, Stargell put together his best year in 1979, winning the Most Valuable Player award, NLCS MVP and World Series MVP award in leading the Pirates to the 1979 title.

Joe Morgan, inducted in 1990.

A 10-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover and two-time Most Valuable Player, Morgan helped the Reds to back-to-back World Series wins in 1975 and 1976. He also was the 2017 recipient of the James V. Day “Good Guy” Award from The American Legion Past Department Commander’s Club for his charitable work in San Francisco and Cincinnati.

Reggie Jackson, inducted in 1993.

"Mr. October" made a name for himself with his exploits leading to five World Series titles and two World Series MVPs, but the outfielder also dominated the regular season with 14 All-Star appearances and a 1973 AL MVP award. He played Legion Baseball in Pennsylvania.

Dave Winfield, inducted in 2001.

A 12-time All-Star, Winfield did it with his bat and his glove, winning seven Gold Gloves and six Silver Sluggers. He helped the Blue Jays to the 1992 World Series title and was inducted on the first ballot to the Hall of Fame in 2001. He played Legion Baseball for the Attucks-Brooks Post in Minnesota and led his Legion team to three straight titles. He was named 1977 American Legion Graduate of the Year.

Eddie Murray, inducted in 2003.

Murray amassed 3,255 hits and 504 home runs, making him one of just six members of the 3000/500 club in Major League history. Murray’s Baltimore Orioles won the 1983 World Series and he was invited to the All-Star Game eight times. Murray played Legion Baseball in California.

Tony Gwynn, inducted in 2007.

Named 1998 American Legion Graduate of the Year, "Mr. Padre" led San Diego for two decades as one of the best pure hitters ever. His .338 career batting average and eight batting titles came from a model of consistency, with the Hall of Famer never hitting below .309. He added 15 All-Star appearances and five Gold Gloves. He played for Arthur L. Peterson Post 27, Long Beach, Calif.

Jim Rice, inducted in 2009.

The Anderson, S.C., native amassed 2,452 hits while hitting .298 over his long career with the Red Sox. An eight-time All-Star and 1978 AL MVP, Rice got into the Hall of Fame on his 15th and final ballot.

Barry Larkin, inducted in 2012.

Larkin grew up in Cincinnati and became a local legend, helping the Reds to the 1990 World Series. A 12-time All-Star, Larkin was named the 1995 National League Most Valuable Player. He earned nine Silver Sluggers at shortstop and added three straight Gold Gloves.

Tim Raines, inducted in 2017.

Tim "Rock" Raines played Legion Baseball for coach Robert Lundquist before a stellar professional career. A seven-time All-Star and former batting champion, Raines played in the Majors for four decades. Raines is a three-time World Series champion.

Harold Baines, inducted in 2019.

The Hall of Fame outfielder played for Talbot, Maryland's Post 70. Baines played for 22 seasons for the White Sox, Rangers, Athletics, Orioles and Indians, recording 2,866 hits, 384 home runs and 1,628 RBI.

Lee Smith, inducted in 2019.

Smith went 5-1 to lead Natchitoches (La.) to a District 8 title in 1973. Smith retired in 1997 as the Major League’s all-time leader in saves with 468. The seven-time All-Star led the league in saves four times and he was the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year recipient three times. In 1991, Smith set a National League record with 47 saves and was runner-up for the NL Cy Young Award.


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Hitting homelessness at the community level

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On property owned by American Legion Department of Texas 18th District Commander Kevin Black sit three RVs. Two of those are owned by American Legion Post 671 in Hutchinson County, Texas, and are the start of what Black and Post 671 hope will be a partial solution to veteran homelessness in the area.

The RVs are used to provide housing for veterans who have slipped into homelessness for various reasons. It was three years ago that Black first helped a Korean and Vietnam War veteran who had lost both his house and wife within two weeks. “Literally he had nothing but his car and his Chihuahua,” said Black, the current commander and a Paid-Up-For-Life member of Post 671.

An apartment was arranged for the veteran in Amarillo, but Black said the man hated living so far away. “So I just asked him, ‘Would you mind living in an RV if I built an RV park?’” Black said. “Literally a month later we had him in an RV, and it’s just cascaded from there.”

Black has since moved in two more veterans into two other RVs on his property. “We’re hoping this year I’m going to get anywhere from 67 to 200 acres donated to us,” Black said. “If that happens, we’re going to build a bigger RV park where we can bring in the public and help grow with this.”

The project recently was featured on ABC7 News as part of its new feature “Invisible”, which is a weekly effort to raise awareness about the homelessness issue in Amarillo and in the Texas Panhandle. It’s helped bring Post 671’s efforts more into the public eye, with Black saying there is potential for a large grant and the possibility of building tiny homes for veterans on any donated property.

“If we get the right property, we may even build a new (post facility),” Black said. “We’ve got a lot going on.”

The RVs, Black said, have the ability to provide an immediate answer to a veteran facing homelessness. “A true homeless person cannot get benefits because they don’t have a physical mailing address,” he said. “This gives them that address.”

Black said that veterans who struggle transitioning into the civilian world can see other problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, amplified. The goal with Post 671’s project is to help alleviate that stress while working with both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Resource Center in Amarillo.

“Most of the people at the VA, the service providers, we have each other’s phone numbers and message each other seven days a week, it seems like,” Black said. “This is working great so far. It’s just something we can do here in our community."


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Trump addresses military issues in State of the Union

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In his annual address to Congress and the nation, President Trump said the “state of our nation is stronger than ever before,” in part because, “our military is completely rebuilt with its power unmatched anywhere in the world — and it’s not even close.”

While the president did not address issues related to veterans care during the Feb. 4 speech, he discussed military spending, as well as recognizing the inspirational stories of some veterans and servicemembers in attendance.

“The United States has purchased all the finest planes, missiles, rockets, ships and every other form of military equipment, and it’s all made right here in the USA,” he said.

Among the guests in the president’s gallery were three veterans: Tony Rankins of Cincinnati, Paul Morrow of Montgomery, Ala., and Raul Ortiz of Del Rio, Texas, who works for the U.S. Border Patrol.

Rankins, an Army veteran, was the first guest pointed out by the president. The Afghanistan combat war veteran dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and lost his family and job, and became addicted to drugs. Later he went to prison and was homeless.

The veteran turned his life around thanks to a job training program connected to Opportunity Zones in Cincinnati backed by administration programs. Now he works for a real estate company.

“He is now a top tradesman, drug-free, reunited with his family,” Trump said.

According to the White House, Rankins said, "I was empowered to rise from being homeless and facing addictions to the greatness that awaits every man for a higher purpose in our great country."

Toward the end of his speech, Trump acknowledged that “war places a heavy burden on our nation’s extraordinary military families,” singling out Amy Williams from Fort Bragg, N.C. Then surprised her by announcing that she won’t have to wait for her husband, Sgt. Townsend Williams, any longer as he made his way to her and their children, Elliana, 6, and Rowan, 3, in the gallery. “Welcome home, Sgt. Williams,” Trump said.

During his 80-minute speech, Trump focused on a variety of other issues related to the military, veterans and servicemembers. Among the topics covered:

• Terrorism: Kelli Hake, of Oklahoma, is a Gold Star mother. Her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Hake, was killed on his second deployment in Iraq in 2008. She was accompanied by their son, Gage, who was a 1-year-old at the time of his father’s death a dozen years ago. Military officials said Christopher Hake was killed by a roadside bomb connected to terrorist groups backed by Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in an airstrike ordered by Trump last month. “Our message to the terrorists is clear. You will never escape American justice. If you attack our citizens, you forfeit your life.”

• Islamic State: The president noted the progress, including the recent killing of Al-Baghdadi, a significant blow to ISIS.

• The Middle East: The president talked about working to stabilize and bring peace to the region. With reference to Afghanistan, he said, “We are working to finally end our nation’s longest war and bring our troops back home.”

• Space Force: Trump pointed out Iain Lanphier of Scottsdale, Ariz., a 13-year-old who wants to attend the Air Force Academy and later enter Space Force. Sitting next to Iain was Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, his great-grandfather and a 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman. “Charles McGee, our nation salutes you. Thank you, sir.”


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Texas post provides 'welcome home' to Marine private

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Mark Haines Jr. served in the U.S. Air Force from 1995 to 2016, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan a total of 15 times during that span. The 42-year-old commander of Smiley-Summers American Legion Post 267 in Marshall, Texas, understands the difficulty of transitioning out of the military – and the sometimes tragic ending for those veterans who struggle.

Haines and Post 267 are attempting to stem the tide of veteran suicides at the local level, recently kicking off what the hope is to be at least a monthly attempt to show active-duty military and transitioning veterans that they are not forgotten by either The American Legion or their community. February 2 was the post’s inaugural “Welcome Home” initiative, which brought together the post’s American Legion Family and local community members to honor U.S. Marine Corps Private Christian Fincannon, who recently finished boot camp.

“I’ve lost a lot of buddies to suicide,” Haines said. “They’ve gotten back from deployments in different places. My thought process with (the Welcome Home program) was to help combat that. Our suicide rate’s outrageous right now. Anything we can do to show ‘hey, we’re here. We’re open. Come in and hang out. Come in and talk. You can call. We can do whatever we can to help you.' Just so they know they have a spot.”

Haines said the original idea came from his wife Donna, a member of Auxiliary Unit 267; Donna and three of the Haines’ children – all members of the American Legion Family – also helped out with the event.

When Haines took the idea to the post, “everybody was excited,” he said. “Everybody’s been waiting for a change at our post. Our post was … not doing a whole lot of anything. Everybody’s been so supportive. Our Auxiliary has worked crazy amounts. My Legionnaires have worked crazy amounts. My Sons (of The American Legion) have worked with me. Everybody seems to be on board with the new changes.”

The event at Post 267 included a meal and a ceremony honoring Fincannon. Members of the community attended, as did American Legion Riders and another veterans motorcycle group from Shreveport, La. Fincannon was presented with a Post 267 membership, a military coin, a plaque and a Marine Corps flag folded into a shadow box. Fincannon “was shocked,” Haines said. “He didn’t know what to say.”

Haines said the post will plan frequent welcome-home events around servicemembers coming home right after completing boot camps, those coming off deployments and those who’ve just left the military. The effort, Haines said, is critical in rural areas such as Marshall.

“They’re hundreds of miles away from (Department of Veterans Affairs) centers. I believe our closest one is an hour away,” Haines said. “The small towns, if they can pitch together and make something like this happen, it lets you know you’re welcome there. Let’s welcome these guys home and let them know ‘hey, we’re here.’”


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Minnesota Post 92 a staunch supporter of American Legion Baseball

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For years, WM. T. McCoy Post 92 in Rochester, Minn., has been a staunch supporter of American Legion Baseball. The post is a longtime sponsor of the Rochester A's, who won the 2003 American Legion World Series, and for nine years has sponsored the Firecracker Post 92 Legion Tournament.

But for at least a decade, that support has grown considerably. A recent $22,000 donation to local baseball teams brings Post 92’s total to more than $200,000 in the past 10 or so years alone.

Roger Bangess, a member of Post 92 for more than 50 years, said the post had been giving the Rochester A's $10,000 “for years.” But as American Legion Baseball grew in the area, the post wanted to expand its generosity.

This year, the post has awarded $5,000 each to all four American Legion Baseball teams in Rochester: the A's, the Lourdes, the Patriots and the Redhawks. Another $2,000 was donated to the Rochester Youth Baseball Association, with $1,000 of that set aside to help underprivileged youth with registration fees.

“We’ve got older fellas in here that just love baseball,” Bangess said. “We started donating (to Legion Baseball), and we just kept doing it. We figured it was a good way to help out the community.”

Bangess said the local baseball managers are very appreciative of the support, but one manager’s reaction in particular – longtime A's manager Keith Kangas, who passed away in 2019 – has really stood out to him.

Bangess said the A's were practicing on a field near an office Bangess was leaving. “(Kangas) yelled my name out and came all the way across from center field, which was quite a ways from where I was at,” Bangess said. “He came up to me, and he just wanted to shake my hand and thank (Post 92) for all the work we’d done for him. I’ve never forgotten that. It meant a lot to me.”


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Did you know?

The issuance or replacement of military service medals, awards and decorations must be requested in writing.

Requests should be submitted in writing to the appropriate military service branch division of the NPRC. Standard form (SF 180), available through the VA, is recommended to submit your request. Generally, there is no charge for medal or award replacements. For more information, or for the mailing address of the military branch office to submit your request to, call 1-86-NARA-NARA (1-866-272-6272) or visit the NPRC website at www.archives.gov