NC American Legion Hall of Fame inducts four legends

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 2, 2015

By Mike London

SALISBURY — It was appropriate that Willie Gillispie and Elmore Hill were called up to the podium together, were honored together and received a standing ovation together.

“I feel like I’m 15 again,” Gillispie said. I feel like I’m playing in front of 2,000 people again.”

In the summer of 1964, Gillispie, a longtime resident of Salisbury, and Hill were the first two blacks to play American Legion baseball. They were outstanding players for Gastonia Post 23 as well as pioneers. Hill was a prodigious slugger who would power 263 homers in the minor leagues. Gillispie, nicknamed “Jet,” was a speedster.

Induction into the North Carolina American Legion Hall of Fame was a long time coming, but Gillispie, who offered humor, and Hill, who was choked with emotion, were gracious. What the pair accomplished breaking down barriers in 1964 — years before full school integration in North Carolina — means more to them now than it did when they were teens. It’s their legacy.

Gillispie and Hill were supported by family and friends, including several of their Post 23 teammates, plus Garry Hill of Charlotte Post 9, one of their toughest opponents. Garry Hill threw blazing fastballs for Post 9 when it was national runner-up in 1964 and national champion in 1965.

There were people in the room who weren’t aware of Gillispie and Elmore Hill before Sunday night’s ceremony, but it’s unlikely anyone left without becoming a fan.

It was a banner night for  Salisbury’s  Harold B. Jarrett Post 342, beyond the distinction of welcoming Gillispie and Hill into the Hall of Fame.  Jim Gantt, who has coached two Rowan County American Legion state champions, was a popular induction and responsible for much of the overflow crowd.

“I’m humbled, not sure I belong,” said Gantt, as he became one of 231 members of the N.C. Legion Hall. “This is an award for the assistant coaches  and the players I’ve had. How good or bad a coach you are depends on whether or not your players execute.”

Gantt, who has coached 393 Rowan Legion wins and five state-tournament qualifiers, also made the behind-the-scenes folks who make Rowan Legion baseball what it is stand up and take a bow.

A native of Newton, Gantt said a reason he came to play baseball at Catawba was because Newman Park reminded him of the field in Newton. Between Catawba College and Rowan Legion, Gantt  has notched more than 1,000 victories at the helm of the two teams that call Newman Park home.

Gantt closed  by stating he’s got the best occupation in the world.

“For the last 25 years,  I never felt like I had to get up and go to work,” Gantt said. ” Coaching baseball isn’t a job. It’s a hobby.”

Also inducted was Grant Jarman, who has devoted 45 years as a player, coach and fundraiser to keeping baseball alive at Greenville Post 39.

Players of the year for the four N.C. American Legion areas were honored — Greenville’s Nicholas Garrett, Hope Mills’ Justin Hopkins, Kernersville’s Mason Striplin and Shelby’s Ethan Carpenter.

Bringing the emotional night together was keynote speaker Bobby Richardson, the second baseman for the New York Yankees when they were a dynasty in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“A lot of Yankee fans are reliving their childhoods tonight,”  said Terry Osborne of the Rowan County ABC Board.

Richardson is 79, but it’s a young 79, and he spoke eloquently about his experiences playing alongside icons Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra. Richardson has spoken at the funerals of seven of his former teammates, including Mantle and Maris.

Richardson explained that he was cut from his high school baseball team in Sumter, S.C., as a 14-year-old, but he got a chance to play with the town’s American Legion team. Sumter won the 1952 state championship, and Richardson was spotted by pro and college scouts. Richardson had offers from 12 of the 16 MLB teams but signed with the Yankees the day he graduated from high school.

His first big league game was in 1955. He walked and trotted home along with Mantle on Yogi Berra’s 200th career homer . He also had his first hit that day off Detroit future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning.

“It all sounds great, but I went 1-for-15 and got sent back down,” Richardson said.

By 1957, the trade of Billy Martin opened up second base, and Richardson held it a long time at an all-star level for the Yankees. He made contact, set the table for the power hitters, turned double plays with partner Tony Kubek, and was a model citizen.

He played in 36 World Series games. His 12-RBI performance in the 1960 World Series — the Yankees lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates — was so remarkable he was the MVP in a losing cause. That hasn’t happened before or since.

“I got a 1960 Corvette as MVP,” Richardson said. “(Pirates reliever) Elroy Face told me I was driving his car.”

Richardson snagged the vicious Willie McCovey line drive in Game 7 that ended the 1962 World Series with a tense Yankees’ victory over the San Francisco Giants.

“I saw Willie for the first time 45 years later,”  Richardson said. “He told me he bet my hand still hurt. He said it was one of the hardest balls he’d ever hit.”

In his best offensive season, Richardson finished second to Mantle in the American League MVP voting in 1962.

“When Mickey said I should’ve won it, that was one of my proudest moments,”Richardson said.

In the 1964 World Series, Richardson had seven hits off St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson.

“But I also made the last out of that World Series,” Richardson said modestly.

He retired at 30, determined to spend more time with his family and became the coach that started South Carolina’s march toward becoming one of the nation’s top college baseball programs.

“Coming back from spring training, the Yankees and Mets both stopped in Columbia to play us,” Richardson said. “That helped get us on the map. The next year we were 51-6, second in the nation.”

Richardson, who has 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, still gets excited about sharing his  personal testimony with people in places like Salisbury, and he was delighted to meet the new American Legion Hall of Famers.

“If Willie Gillispie and Elmore Hill had the same opportunity I had, they could have been major leaguers,” Richardson said.

They might’ve been, but there’s no bitterness in Gillispie over what might’ve been.

“I always say it’s not how far you hit it, it’s whether you score or not,” Gillispie said.

Gillispie and Hill were stuck on the bases a long time. But on Sunday night, they came home.