Legion baseball: 50 years after breaking color barrier, Gillispie going to Hall of Fame
By Mike London
Fifty-one years after they broke the color barrier in North Carolina American Legion baseball, Willie Gillispie and Elmore Hill are being inducted into the state’s Legion baseball Hall of Fame. Gillispie, who lives in Salisbury, was just 15 years old in May 1964 when he and Hill suited up for Gastonia Post 23 as the first black players for any American Legion baseball team in North Carolina.
Gillispie said being honored by the Legion is special because he is “proud to be an American and proud to be a veteran.” He served in the Army and Air Force, and he worked for 21 years at the VA Medical Center.
Hill and Gillispie will be recognized, along with other inductees, March 1 at a banquet at Post 342 on Lincolnton Road. It’s convenient for Gillispie, who lives right up the street from the post.
The 1964 Legion season was not the first time Gillispie and Hill were on the field together.
“We were just lifelong friends,” Gillispie said. “We played baseball and football together at Highland High. That’s actually how we got recruited because we were in the state baseball playoffs.”
The two ball players joined the Post 23 baseball team after being recruited by Lyle Edwards, according to an August 2014 article in The Gaston Gazette. Edwards was the city editor at the newspaper at the time. Highland High School was an all-black high school.
Gillispie said he had butterflies about playing Legion baseball, but it had more to do with the size of the crowd than whether he belonged on the field.
“For me, I was only 15 years old,” Gillispie said. “I had never played before a large crowd like that. When we played Legion ball, there were two, three thousand people there every night. So I had never played [in front of a crowd that size], so I was nervous to begin with.
“As fas as the baseball thing, me and Elmore, we were already ready to play on that level, I think. We might have been a little green, but as far as talent we [were ready].”
The Legion baseball season ended with Post 23 winning its third straight Area IV title, according to the Gazette. Gillispie, who was mostly a first baseman but also played third and in the outfield, was a member of two more Area IV championship winners in 1965 and 1966.
Fifty one years after making history, it’s fitting the two men are going into the Hall of Fame in the same year.
“I’m really proud me and Elmore are going to be inducted in there,” Gillispie said. “Personally, I think we deserve to be there mostly because it wasn’t no doubt we were talented enough to play ball at the level, but it was the pressure I think people should think of. We had just never been in that situation.”