In 1959, Detroit Edison Post 187 did what no other Michigan team has been able to: win an American Legion Baseball World Series. Plenty of other squads from the state have made it deep into the national tournament, but Edison Post 187 stands alone as Michigan's representation in the champions' circle. The team celebrated the 50th anniversary of its national title in July.
The legendary season started where Motown's storied Legion baseball history left off. Though it wasn't as prominent in the mid-20th century, Detroit was known for holding some of baseball's brightest young talent in the 1930s, when the city housed a future major league Hall of Famer in Hal Newhouser and an all-star catcher in Mike Tresh.
That baseball pedigree blossomed again in 1959, when Detroit tended a crop of young baseball players as skilled as the city had ever seen. The talent pool collected in Edison Post 187, and produced a World Series-winning team that consisted of four future University of Detroit players and a Player of the Year in Fred Bowen Jr.
While the group captured the state's first-ever national title, the players who won it experienced some "firsts" as well. It was their first time riding on a train, flying on a plane and eating in a hotel. Most importantly, it was the first time away from home for a group of young men who became a part of Motown history.
The journey started with Art Kohn, a renowned head coach with a strong baseball résumé that included CYO and Northwest Babe Ruth titles. In Edison, Kohn put together a team that featured talented pitching and hard-hitting bats.
Along the way, Kohn enlisted help from Chicago White Sox pitcher Billy Pierce, a seven-time major league all star who happened to be Kohn's nephew. A Detroit area native, Pierce often traveled from the Windy City to his hometown to give Edison "chalk talks".
"These meetings were genius, as we went over situational play," pitcher Fred Fleming said. "This was such a higher caliber of competition over high school. I was learning how to be a pitcher, not just a thrower. "
Pierce's professional counsel was invaluable, as the team was facing competition fiercer than the average post squad. In addition to the usual Legion baseball season, Edison also played in a local 19-and-under amateur league and went on a barnstorming exhibition tour in northern Michigan. The team finished with 49 wins and 10 losses, then kicked off the playoffs with victories in the regional and state championships.
Through it all, the group developed a tremendous rapport and familiarity with each other. During regional competition, a heckler was taunting outfielder Richard Miller with racist remarks. Miller, who idolized Jackie Robinson, took the high road and ignored the spectator, who stereotyped Miller as a "watermelon eater". But teammate Ron Belatero wasn't as complacent.
"One more crack out of you and I am going to pull you through that fence and turn you into liquid watermelon," Belatero told the unruly onlooker. The fan never spoke again, and Edison went on to win the regional game in Indiana.
Next up was the national finals competition in Nebraska. Coming out of the loser's bracket, Edison had to win two games to take home the title. Luckily, the pitchers came up with clutch performances. In the first matchup, Mark Esper threw a complete game with only three hits to pace Edison to a 5-3 victory. In the final, Terry Barden scattered eight hits and went nine innings, contributing to an 11-4 win over Hampton-Phoebus Post 48.
While Edison became Michigan's first-ever national champion, the players earned some laurels as well. Each received a black Louisville Slugger with their names engraved on it, and Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks awarded the Player of the Year trophy to Bowen. Bowen went on a press tour after winning the award, appearing on The Today Show and sitting down with Ty Cobb, who was living out the final years of his life.
"At that time, (Cobb) was already in a wheel chair because of his diabetes," Bowen said. "He was having a good day and I most remember him just repeating, ‘Do you want me to sign another ball kid?' He kept calling me kid."
The fervor was nearly tarnished when all the players were forced to give up their championship jackets, as the result of a court case, which argued that the players jeopardized their status as amateur athletes. Only Bowen was allowed to keep his jacket, through a technicality.
But The American Legion gave the group a fitting consolation prize. The headquarters chipped in, sending Edison to the big league World Series, which pitted the White Sox against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"We were treated like big leaguers, hotel dinners and all the sightseeing," Fleming said.
On July 25, the Legion showcased the former champions at the zone playoffs at Chief Pontiac Field in Clarkston, Mich. They were also the guests of honor July 29 at the State Championship Banquet in Adrian, Mich.
Now in their golden ages, the Edison players commemorated their title this summer by helping out in their city's communities - many of which are mired in economic turmoil. The group undertook a schedule of speaking presentations in the city to empower young people and retell the Edison team's tale. Additionally, the Plymouth District Library hosted a curriculum-approved reading clinic, which used baseball as the theme.
"Maybe we can plant some seeds, maybe we can grow some new champions," Bowen said.