Billy Capps, a ball player warming up on hot summer day in El Cajon, Calif., looks nothing like an 80-year-old as he’s fielding the ball, taking bases, and rallying his senior league team. Capps has been playing slow pitch softball for the past 26 years, a long way from the 1954 American Legion World Series (ALWS) title he helped San Diego Post 492 win in Yakima, Wash., all those years ago.
When he’s talking baseball, Capps smiles like that 17-year-old kid who rode the super train from San Diego to Yakima. “We arrived the first part of September 1954, and the first game we played was against Maplewood, Missouri,” Capps said. “We lost 8-2 to a guy who threw the ball about 95 miles an hour. After that we won four straight games to win the title.”
He was playing baseball at Hoover High School and they wanted to find an American Legion post to sponsor them. “We played three games without an American Legion sponsor,” Capps said. Then Post 492 came on board.
The team started the season wearing civilian clothes until Post 492 provided uniforms that were seven years old. “When we finally got a uniform, we thought we would play in San Diego 15 games and be done. And we just kept on going,” Capps said. Post 492 ended their season 39-3.
And the team had zero budget. “The parents had to just scrap up pennies and that’s how we won, just with pennies,” Capps said. “Our uniform was so old that when we got to the finals we still hadn’t washed the uniform from all the games because we were afraid they’d fall apart.”
When Post 492 won the national championship, they had something unique. “One thing we had on our team that was pretty unusual was six left handed hitters, and we had four left handed pitchers,” Capps said. “We had a lot of fun with those right handed pitchers.” They won a lot of close games with close scores. “It was as shocking to us as it was to anybody else that we won.”
Capps has always been very appreciative of George W. Rulon Player of the Year award, and he is grateful to be in such renowned company. “I know there's been millions of people playing American Legion baseball but there's only like 67 of us that are Players of Year,” Capps said.
“Being selected the American Legion Player of the Year was really a great honor to Billy. He's really a humble guy," said baseball historian Bill Swank. "He's the first to say that he probably didn't even think he was the best player on his team, but he was a hustler and he came through in the clutch and he's a great ambassador for baseball and The American Legion.
“People today don’t realize what American Legion Baseball was in the old days. I played American Legion ball. Everybody, if you wanted to play baseball, you played American Legion ball. That’s why most major league ball players came up through the American Legion system.”
American Legion Baseball has had 71 graduates go on to reach the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
American Legion Baseball is still turning out some of the best players in the game. The 2016 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs included Legion Baseball alumni Kris Bryant, Travis Wood, Rajai Davis, Jason Kipnis, and Lonnie Chisenhall.
From the 1954 championship team five players went on to play professional baseball, and one went to the major leagues. Capps signed in August 1955 and played three years with the Kansas City Athletics organization and the Milwaukee Braves organization as a shortstop. He played until he was approached to play baseball at Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot in San Diego, seven miles from his mother's home. “In February 1957, a guy came out to my house, who was a sergeant major in the Marine Corps and he said, ‘I've heard about you, we need one more infielder here at MCRD,’” Capps said.
Capps accepted. It had an impressive 13 professional baseball players and a two-year record of 187 wins and 17 losses. The San Diego Marines had three players go on to play in the big leagues during that time.
After two years playing baseball at MCRD, Capps became a police officer until he retired in 1978. Since that time he’s been teaching college part time on Navy ships that were deploy overseas and on military bases for Central Texas College.
Twenty-five years after Capps was named Player of the Year, he got a letter from American Legion Baseball asking him to come to Yakima where they won the title. And in 2004 Capps was selected for the all time American Legion Baseball team.
He got involved with American Legion Baseball again and started to attend the championship games. “After that I decided to go to a lot of the American Legion World Series. We started going with our motor home, my wife Susie and I, we've been married 58 years."
He is still very active in a weekly softball league that he says is more about enjoying the sport than keeping score and that is very evident by the atmosphere on a hot summer morning. “I just love baseball,” said Capps. “So when I got a chance, after I turned 55 years old, I knew about this senior softball business and so I've been at it for 26 years. As you get older you have to play a lower classification because you slow down, don't hit the balls hard and that kind of stuff,” Capps said. “This is not really a hard nose kind of a deal, we just have fun.”
“He does more than any of these guys because he can still run,” Swank said.