Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsFixme

The Boys of the Summer of '42 : An American Legion Team From Los Angeles, Led by a Crusty Fireplug of a Manager, Embarked on a Whistle-Stop Tour of War-Time America That Ended in a National Title. Thirteen of the 15 Players, Including the Venerable Gene Mauch, Went on to Pro Baseball Careers.

August 09, 1992|JEFF FLETCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ralph Atkins remembers the summer of '42.

It was the summer when he, 14 other teen-agers and a stubby, terse coach from Los Angeles ripped through the world of amateur baseball.

Atkins, 67, of Long Beach was the first baseman for the American Legion team representing Sunrise Post 357 in Los Angeles, which won the 1942 national Legion championship, compiling a 25-2 record in the playoffs.

What is equally impressive, though, is what those players did next. Of the 15, 13 went on to play professional baseball, including major leaguers Gene Mauch and Nippy Jones.

Along the way to the championship, the Sunrise team played a team representing San Diego Post 6, which included Bob Usher, who played six seasons in the majors. Sunrise also played a team representing Stockham Post in St. Louis that included Yogi Berra.

Sunrise beat them all.

The 1941-42 school year at Fremont High School, where 13 of the Sunrise players were enrolled, took a turn for the worse in early 1942. The United States had entered World War II in December, 1941, and the war effort was not going well in the opening months. The boys at the school began to suspect it was only a matter of time before classes, girls and sports were replaced among their priorities by grenades, rifles and bombers.

But with all that to consider, 15 boys still managed to keep their minds on baseball, thanks in large part to Mike Catron, the Sunrise coach.

"Mike was about 5-feet-4 tall and 5-4 wide," said outfielder John Bebek, 66, who lives in Irvine. "He was a good coach. During infield, he would hit a fungo that would make your hands bleed. After practice, about 12 of us would try to take him to the ground and he would whip every one of us."

If players missed ground balls during infield practice, Catron would hit them harder. Then harder again. And harder still "until you were ready to go fight him," Atkins said. "But you knew he was doing it for your own good."

Catron, who later served as a scout for the Cleveland Indians, was a strong believer in hard work and fundamentals. Several of the players attributed their ascension to professional baseball to Catron.

"He knew more baseball than anyone I've ever played for," said second baseman Don Runcie, 66, of Mission Viejo. "If you'd go out in the outfield during batting practice and you'd be standing around talking, he'd yell, 'Hey, break up that tea party! You're not out here to talk!' "

Said Mauch, 66, of Rancho Mirage: "Mike was a rough, crusty little fella who really was made out of Jell-O. He loved us all like sons, but he treated us just like stepkids. But he loved us and we knew it.

"I think he was smart enough to know that he had something special on his hands, and as long as he kept us in tow we were going to win. That was quite an array of 16-year-old ballplayers."

There is no question the Sunrise players were good, and they knew it. Most of them came from a program at Fremont where winning was the norm. And Fremont long has been a producer of major league players, ranging from Bobby Doerr to Eric Davis.

"We were a cocky bunch of ballplayers," said Mauch, who played primarily third base and catcher for Sunrise. "We started every game saying we were five runs behind. That's the way we played."

They also had most of the players returning from the 1941 team that had lost the Southern California championship to San Diego Post 6, which went on to win the national title. That 1941 defeat did not sit well with the Sunrise players.

"We had it stolen away from us in 1941," Mauch said. "It was the worst umpiring I ever saw in my life. We were up by one run and Bill Spaeter threw pitch after pitch right down the middle of the plate, but the ump kept calling them balls and the tying run and winning run walked in."

Sunrise had trouble with San Diego again in 1942, losing the first game of the best-of-three series, 10-6. It was the team's first defeat that season. Sunrise then won the next two, 9-5 and 19-5.

Having won the Southern California championship, Sunrise hit the road. The team's path to the national championship took it through Stockton, Miles City, Mont., and Hastings, Neb., before reaching the "Little World Series," as it was called, in Manchester, N.H.

In 1942, travel like that meant spending time on trains. A lot of time.

"It was an unbelievably good time," Mauch said. "I wish I were poetic. I could really tell you some stuff."

As you might expect with a bunch of teen-agers, most of whom had never been out of California, strange things happened.

At one stop, Mauch got off the train to mail a letter, and the train left sooner than he expected and he had to run to get it to stop.

On the train, Jim Muhe, an outfielder who served as the visitors' clubhouse attendant for the Dodgers from 1960 through 1990, had a lower bunk. Mauch had the upper.

"So when everyone thought Mauch had been left at the station, Muhe popped up with, 'Can I have his bunk?' " said ace pitcher Dan Brown, 67, of Sepulveda.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|