Jim Gantt to enter N.C. American Legion Hall of Fame

Published 12:20 am Sunday, February 1, 2015

SALISBURY — Jim Gantt’s reaction on being congratulated as a soon-to-be North Carolina American Legion Hall of Famer was typical — typical Jim Gantt.

“I guess they’re letting everybody in there now,” he said with a laugh.

We all know that’s not the case.

Gantt’s record with the Rowan County American Legion baseball team has been outstanding, and he’s proven a worthy successor to Joe Ferebee and Jim DeHart. Gantt will  be inducted on Sunday, March 1, in his adopted home of Salisbury. Ceremonies are set for Harold B. Jarrett Legion Post 342 on Lincolnton Road, with a social at 4 p.m. and dinner at 5:30.

Gantt will be inducted alongside the Gastonia Post 23 players, Willie Gillispie and Elmore “Moe” Hill, who broke the color barrier in North Carolina American Legion baseball in 1964, and Greenville Post 39’s Grant Jarman.

Bobby Richardson will be the guest speaker for the induction. As the New York Yankees second baseman in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Richardson was a seven-time all-star and a standout for seven pennant winners and was the 1960 World Series MVP. Richardson was second to teammate Mickey Mantle in the 1962 voting for American League MVP and was a successful college coach at South Carolina and Coastal Carolina after he retired as a player.

Tickets for the banquet are being sold now for $25 but are unlikely to last long. RSVP is required by Feb. 21. Call 704-637-1722. Email apost342@aol.com.

“What a great honor for Post 342 to host this prestigious event, and with Bobby Richardson coming to Salisbury, it’s just fantastic,” Post commander Wayne Kennerly said.

Catawba’s head coach since 1996, Gantt was named head coach of the Rowan County American Legion team prior to the 2001 season. His first team went 36-9.

His 2002 squad  batted .345 as a team and was one of the program’s greatest. That team won the state championship and finished 43-2. That was a year when the Southeast Regional in Shelby employed pool play rather than the standard double-elimination format. Rowan County advanced from its pool but lost, 3-2, to the Alabama champs in a one-and-done scenario that ended the season.

Aaron Rimer, now North Rowan High’s coach, was the right fielder on Gantt’s 2002 team that won 15 straight to start the season, lost 2-1 at Mooresville, and then won 28 in a row.

“Coach Gantt is the ultimate baseball man, but his game is always more than baseball — it’s about life,” Rimer said.  “He uses baseball to prepare kids for life, and he hasn’t just made kids better baseball players, he’s made them better people. He was tough on us, but was always fair and he taught us to do the right thing all the time.”

Rowan County came back to earth after that historic 2002 season, but from 2007-09, Gantt’s teams were 112-34 and qualified for three straight state tournaments. His 2009 team won its division, won Area III, won the state championship and won the Southeast Regional to qualify for the World Series in Fargo, N.D. That team placed third in the World Series and  finished 40-10.

Rowan County qualified for another state tournament in 2011 and has won division championships each of the last two summers.

Gantt has personally kept the field at Newman Park in immaculate condition, and it remains one of the more tradition-rich parks in the South. He’s coached Legion teams that have won 72 percent of the time. Rowan hasn’t had a losing season in his 14 years at the helm. Gantt’s record with Rowan County Legion is 393-155.

“Coach Gantt is a big Yankees fan, and with the pinstripes and the stirrups we wore, we really felt like we were the Yankees of North Carolina American Legion baseball when we took the field,” said Zeb Link, who played for Gantt in 2005-06. “There always was a special pride in playing for Rowan County. It was just a great experience, and it played a big part in my decision to go on to play for Coach Gantt at Catawba.”

Link now works in marketing for Davidson College athletics.

Link, who batted .404 during the summer of  2005, was at the center of a Legion eligibility fiasco that ended Rowan County’s promising season prematurely, but Gantt handled that terrible disappointment professionally and helped Link move on from tough times to excel in baseball and earn a degree.

“Some of life’s hardest lessons are learned in peculiar ways,” Link said. “Coach Gantt was a father figure almost as much as my own dad. He helped  me grow up fast in sports and in life. He told me things always happen for a reason, and I still believe that.”

In a year in which Rowan County will host another state tournament at Newman Park, Gantt enters the Hall of Fame in good company.

Gillispie, recently retired from the Hefner VA Medical Center after 41 years, has been a Salisbury resident for a long time. He and his buddy Hill weren’t just pioneers in the 1960s, they were great players. Gillispie has quietly campaigned for Hall of Fame induction for years,  because of his achievements on the field, not because he and Hill were thrust into the roles of being teenage Jackie Robinsons in hostile ballparks. Gillispie led Area IV with a .419 batting average in 1966.

While he never was called up to the majors as a player, Hill launched 267 homers in 15 minor league seasons and spent 31 years as a hitting instructor and coach. He finally reached the big leagues as a Baltimore Orioles coach in 2011.

Jarman was an outstanding first baseman for Greenville’s Post 39 in the mid-1960s and has devoted 45 years of service to the program. He’s credited with keeping American Legion baseball alive in Pitt County.