Yakima, Wash., has always had a strong American Legion Baseball program.
The Post 36 team, nicknamed “Beetles,” have a state-record 26 state championships that is highlighted by five American Legion World Series appearances and three ALWS titles.
Yakima won its first state championship in 1941 and claimed at least one state title in every decade from the 1940s to the 1990s. The Beetles won their first ALWS championship in their first visit to that event in 1953. It also marked the first ALWS champion from the Pacific Northwest.
Yakima would add ALWS titles in 1975 and 1979 and made ALWS appearances in 1976 and 1988.
When Post 36 won its historic title in 1953, it set another record that lasted 20 years, as they travelled a record 3,188 miles to play in that year’s ALWS in Miami, Fla. That record lasted until 1973 when Rio Piedras, P.R., travelled 3,462 miles to Lewiston, Idaho, for its championship and the ALWS record of 4,037 miles was set in 1980 when Honolulu travelled to Ely, Minn., for its title.
Coached by John Zaepfel, the man for whom the Yakima stadium is named, Yakima had a 30-6 overall record in 1953 behind a strong pitching staff and what would have to be called a timely if not powerful offense.
Future professionals Tom Gibson (12-1 record) and Dave Dexter (11-1) were Zaepfel’s two aces that overcame an offense that hit .158 in 11 games in national American Legion Baseball tournament competition.
How slim was Post 36’s margin of error? Yakima went 9-2 in national tournament competition with a 44-34 run differential.
Yakima was even no-hit by Lewiston’s Dennis Shoemaker in the regionals one day before Post 36 beat Lewiston 4-3 to advance to the sectionals in Hastings, Neb.
In Hastings, Post 36 faced future major leaguer Stan Williams in the opening game. Dexter struck out 20 and pitched a four-hitter to outduel Williams in a 3-2 victory; Williams struck out 13 and threw a three-hitter. After two wins in two days over Richmond, Calif., Post 36 was headed to Miami.
In the ALWS, Yakima edged Milford, Mass., 2-0 in the opening game before winning two games out of three over pre-tournament favorite Winnetka, Ill., including 6-1 in the semifinals to end Winnetka’s 28-game winning streak, then 4-1 in the championship game.
“I know that anyone playing through all the tournaments must have a few of the breaks to win,” Zaepfel told reporters after the ALWS title game. “These kids just never gave up and now look at what they’ve done. I’m both grateful and humble.”
The 1975 championship came under first-year head coach Bob Garretson Jr., who was following his father, Bob Garretson Sr., who was Beetles’ head coach from 1959 to 1974.
Post 36 entered the ALWS at Rapid City, S.D., with the worst record of the eight teams in the field that included pre-tournament favorite San Juan, P.R., which had six players who had played for back-to-back ALWS champion Rio Piedras, P.R.
Yakima had three future major leaguers in pitcher-outfielder Dave Edler, pitcher-first baseman Don Crow and second baseman Jamie Allen.
Allen was regional MVP as Post 36 went 4-0 in the Northwest Regional at Sheridan, Wyo., capped by a 9-7 championship game victory over Portland, Ore.
In the ALWS, Edler would earn George W. Rulon American Legion Baseball Player of the Year honors after he hit .467 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in Yakima’s nine national tournament games.
Their title run began with an 8-3 opening round loss to Fullerton, Calif., but Edler would pick up two pitching victories to finish the season with a 15-1 overall record, including 8-4 in the championship game over Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Garretson Jr. guided Post 36 to a 65-19 record and the 1979 ALWS championship in a year in which Yakima extended their streak of state titles to eight years.
Future pros John Cruz and Bruce Dunn, 1979 George W. Rulon Player of the Year Patrick Allen and Alex Podruzny led the Beetles to the title.
Cruz took MVP honors in a Washington state tournament Post 36 hosted and won with a 4-0 record, then Podruzny had five hits and seven RBIs and Cruz four hits and four RBIs in a 28-0 winner’s bracket final over Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, as Yakima went 5-0 to win the Northwest Regional in Lewiston, Idaho.
In the ALWS in Greenville, Miss., Post 36 went 4-1 including a 13-6 championship game victory over Barrington, R.I.
Dunn had two pitching victories, Cruz had a two-run home run to highlight a five-run first inning and Allen had two hits in the title game.