Back in the 1960s and 70s, American Legion baseball games were the norm at the Kiwanis Oval in Caldwell. On Friday, the tradition is resurrected when James Caldwell Post 185 seniors will be playing the Knights, a West Essex High School-based team, at 7 p.m., as part of a double header. Before the Caldwell-Knights game, Livingston and Caldwell junior legion teams will be playing at 5 p.m.
"We are hoping for a good crowd and bringing back the tradition to the Kiwanis Oval that was in the 60s and the 70s," said Caldwell manager Alfred Josephson.
Josephson added about the American Legion, "Of course it is a very, very long standing tradition. It’s a big honor for the kids.”
Dating back as early as the 1920s, Essex County was one of the first areas in the state to have American Legion baseball (most of the teams are supported by local American Legion posts). The New Jersey state tournament dates back to 1928. James Caldwell Post 185 has won two state titles, with the last one coming in 1978.
The top teams that come out of the state district tournament qualify for the state finals with the state champ and runner-up qualifying for the regional tournaments. The American Legion World Series will be held in Shelby, N.C., from August 12 to 16.
Caldwell and the Knights are part of the 14-team Essex County American Legion Senior division, while there is also a nine-team county American Legion junior division. The senior division is for players 19 and under, and includes Essex County graduates who are playing in their first year of college. The junior division is for 17-years-old and under.
Belleville Senior American Legion manager Joe Sorce, who is also the Belleville High School head coach, said the American Legion summer season is invaluable.
"The kids get to play together instead of being spread around with different teams," said Sorce. He pointed to other sports, like soccer, which have players competing in various club teams throughout the state.
The Belleville manager said he likes that the Essex County American Legion includes most of the players they will face for the following high school season. "It gives us a good measuring stick of where we are," said Sorce.
Bloomfield manager Danny McDowall agrees. "Competition begins at certain positions, and camaraderie with new teammates from the lower levels takes place," said McDowall. "Legion ball also gives us a chance to see how we might stack up with other teams in the county in 2012."
Because of an earlier World Series this year, the number of teams has been decreased in the state district tournament. Last season, three Essex County teams qualified for the districts—Caldwell, Nutley and Livingston. In the junior circuit Nutley, Livingston and Millburn qualified for the state district junior tournament with Livingston Post 201 gaining a bid in the state final
For this season, Josephson said only the National and American division winners will qualify for the state district tournament. Both teams will play for the county title on July 16. The winner has the right to pick which district they would like to play in.
"It has really compacted the season," said Josephson.
The season is a little over a month of games, from early June to mid-July.
Essex County American Legion dropped its postseason tournament this season because of the World Series moving up. "It's just impossible to do it because of the time constraint," said Josephson.
In terms of the league standings, as of last Sunday, Caldwell and Nutley were tied at six points each in the National division, while the Knights and Livingston were tied at six points to lead the American.
It is still early and the schedule has been plagued with rainouts, but baseball continues on fields this summer thanks to the American Legion.
Essex County American Legion Standings
TeamWLTPointsCaldwell 1853117South Orange3317Bloomfield316Livingston316Millburn316Montclair2015Nutley1013Belleville050West Orange060
TeamWLTPointsNutley 70306Caldwell 185316West Orange2315South Orange2115Valisburg214Millburn112Belleville022
TeamWLTPointsKnights306Livingston 201316Bloomfield204Montclair112Verona142Cedar Grove030Glen Ridge050