Jim Darby has been broadcasting play-by-play action at the American Legion Baseball World Series since 2007. That year, Columbia, Tenn., Post 19 beat Cherryville, N.C., Post 100 to take the national championship. Legion Baseball has been around since 1925, and thousands of Major League players got their start on ball teams sponsored by Legion posts.
Darby, who is vice president of Easton Sports, headquartered in Van Nuys, Calif., recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine about one of its most popular youth programs.
Q: How did you become involved in sports broadcasting?A: Mainly, my background is in sporting goods, and I've been working with Easton now for 32 years. But I've had the opportunity in my job to do some broadcasting work. In 1988, I was the color analyst for the baseball broadcast from Italy in the world championships. That was a tremendous experience, because the U.S. team that year had players like Tino Martinez, Ben McDonald, Ed Sprague, Andy Benes – a number of guys who went on to the Major League. And that team made it to the championship game against Cuba, and from there went on to the Olympics. Right after that, we started a television program, a sports talk show called the Easton Sports Arena, which I hosted and wrote the scripts. That was aired on the Financial News Network. We did 39 shows back in '88 and '89, which was really fun because we had Pete Rose on the show, John Elway, Joe Montana, some pretty big names. And then, over the years, working for Easton, I did a number of television documentaries or broadcasts about the products. Then, for the past three years, being able to do the (audio) webcast of the American Legion games. It's been really fun.
Q: What got you interested in the Legion's baseball program? A: I'm very fond of the program because of my personal experience playing in it. I played for the Lafayette, Calif., post for two years in 1968-1969. And my experience playing Legion Baseball was the same as it was for many guys who've been in the big leagues, when they say, "It was the greatest baseball experience of my life." I played high school ball, college ball, and that was great. But nothing like The American Legion, because it was almost like being – you had a sense of being in the big leagues at the age of 17. It was just very special. I still get together with my buddies, and we still talk about the days we played Legion Baseball. I was a pitcher and I wasn't bad. I'll always be indebted to my coach, Bruce Wood, who gave a lot of his time and effort. He coached Legion ball for many years.
Q: Can you point to some specific feelings or attitudes that really set Legion ball apart from the other experiences? A: Here's the thing: Legion ball was the "crème de la crème." If you were lucky enough to make the team, then you felt very special. The quality of play, and the attitude of the guys who were on the team – all of sudden, you wanted to look good. No slouchiness in the uniform. You wanted to play the role. Then the quality of play, it became very competitive. Of course, the camaraderie of your own teammates. Two thirds of the guys were from other high schools you competed against, but now they were your teammates. It was just really cool to play Legion Baseball. I loved it then, and when I had the opportunity through my job at Easton to get hooked up with the Legion program, it was just fun to do. Also, I think of The American Legion and I think about the sacrifices that so many of the guys who are part of that program – what they did. If I can help support the Legion in any way, I want to do it.
Q: What's it like to broadcast play by play at the Legion World Series? A: The first thing I'll say on that is, anybody who ever gets an opportunity to either go to a Legion game, or the regionals or World Series, they're probably going to see players there who will be in the big league later. So when you look out over that field, you're seeing top amateur baseball. The other thing is, you're also seeing pure baseball. This is no knock on the major leagues, but they're getting paid to do that. It becomes a living. When the kids are playing Legion ball, they're there because they love the sport. Now, a lot of those kids are obviously hoping that they're going to be able to go on and play college or pro ball. But right then and right there, they're playing for the beauty of the game. And, boy, do they want to win. So for the real baseball fan, you're watching very good baseball, quality baseball, for kids who it means everything to. At the Legion World Series, some kids are going to be there who realize maybe they're not going to play college ball. This is their ultimate world series. So you really get the sense that they want to go out winners. The other thing, too, when kids come into the World Series, they realize that's pretty special. So it's a competitive environment, but also very special.
Q: How do you feel about plans to do the first live video webcast of the Legion World Series this summer? A: It's phenomenal that The American Legion is doing this, because the future of visibility for sports or anything is the Web. So taking this step to promote their game, and to promote their players, is marvelous. And for the kids, and for the parents and families to be able to – let's face it, not everybody will be able to go to Fargo this year. So if the kid has relatives back in his hometown, who can tune in and watch the game, how special is that? So I'm so enthused that the Legion is doing this. I'm so enthused to be part of it.
Q: Do you have some favorite anecdotes about American Legion Baseball?A: We were in Corvallis, Ore., in 2004, at the championship game between the team from Maine and the team from Washington state. The pitching for both clubs was really, really good. So it gets to the bottom of the ninth inning, Maine is up 1-0, and here comes Washington to bat. And Maine brings in a reliever. Now, I've always believed if you have a pitcher who goes nine innings, and he's shutting the other team out – unless he tells the coach, "I'm gassed, I can't go anymore," put him back out there. Let him finish the game. But they bring in a kid who I think had been their centerfielder. He comes in to close the game. The first batter he faces, he gives up a blooper hit. The next batter tops one down the third-base line for an infield hit. Now they're at first and second, nobody out. And I'm thinking, "Geez, why did they bring in the reliever?" Not that he's getting lit up, but the Washington team is fired up now. The excitement is building. Well, that pitcher threw pretty hard, right? The next three hitters, he struck out on nine pitches. And on each one of them, he "climbed the ladder." The first pitch was at the knees, next pitch was at the belt, next pitch was above the strike zone but the guy swung at it. And darned if he didn't do it on nine pitches.
Q: How about your story about Dusty Baker, manager of the Cincinnati Reds and formerly for the Chicago Cubs?A: About five years ago, the board of directors meeting for Legion Baseball was here in Indianapolis, and I came back to attend that. We went to dinner and had two tables, probably 10 people per table. I was sitting there and, all of a sudden, my cell phone rang. I looked down and Dusty Baker's name came up on the screen. So I answered. He goes, "Where are you?" I said, "I'm in Indianapolis at an American Legion dinner." He said that was cool, and I asked him if he played Legion ball. He said, "Yeah, I played Legion ball. It was awesome, man. I love Legion ball!" So I put my phone on speaker and said, "Bake, you're talking to the board of directors of Legion ball here at the restaurant." For about a half hour, he went on telling the board how great Legion ball was for him. They were thrilled.