By STEVE KRAH
American Legion Baseball dates back to 1925.
Indiana joined in 1926 and has crowned a state champion 91 times, including Rockport Post 254 in 2017 (competing now in the Great Lakes Regional in Napoleon, Ohio).
Only one Indiana team has ever reigned at the American Legion World Series.
That’s South Bend Post 50 in 1977. “Machuca’s Marauders” went 18-0 during the tournament run, which included the state tournament and a win against Lafayette Post 11 in the championship game in Richmond and concluded at the American Legion World Series in Manchester, N.H.
Post 50 topped Boyertown, Pa., Santa Monica, and Hattiesburg, Miss. (twice) to finish as the best 16-18 baseball team in America.
More than 3,800 teams entered the double-elimination event at the local level in ’77 and the lone team standing at the end was from South Bend, Ind.
“We thought that was going to open the flood gates (to other national champions from Indiana Legion baseball),” said Mel Machuca, Post 50 manager in ’77, at a 40-year reunion of the title-takers.
It just hasn’t turned out that way.
Machuca has often been asked over the years how he won a national championship.
“If I knew that I would do it again,” said Machuca in response.
But that team 40 years ago certainly caught lightning in a bottle.
On the way to that special achievement, Post 50 beat the defending national champions (Santa Monica, Calif.) and the previous national runners-up (Arlington Heights, Ill.). Between the two, those loaded squads had 13 players that went on to be selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
The lone MLB draftee for Post 50?
It was Dan Szajko. The outfielder, second baseman and third baseman was picked by the Montreal Expos in the 27th round out of Notre Dame in 1982 and played in the minors through 1985.
Slugging third baseman Jeff Coker did have a brief minor league career after his Post 50 days.
Szajko was the youngest player on a ’77 Post 50 squad dominated by older guys. In those years, American Legion Baseball was 18-and-under (later changed to 19U).
“He was 16 and a gift from (South Bend John Adams High School coach) Len Buczkowski,” recalled Machuca. “Dan Szajko was the player to be named later.”
Two players hit .429 during the Legion tournament run — center fielder Szajko and shortstop Bill Schell.
Greg Heyde (15-1) won eight tournament games, Dave Hankins (15-1) seven, Dennis Janiszewski two and Dave Yates one to pace the pitching staff. Heyde were also left fielders.
First baseman Jim Andert, pitcher/center fielder Mike Clarke, pitcher/right fielder Jeff Kowatch, catcher Scott Madey, catcher Dom Romeo, catcher John Ross, pitcher Jeff Rudasics, pitcher/second baseman Will Shepherd, first baseman Mark Toles and second baseman Gary Vargyas were also a part of the champs. Bob Kouts was past commander of Post 50 and longtime Indiana baseball chairman.
Bill Barcome was assistant coach at American Legion Coach of the Year in ’77 (Machuca was Manager of the Year). Dan Toles was a bench coach during the tournament run. Todd Machuca served as batboy. Veteran reporter Forrest “Woody” Miller wrote about the team’s exploits in the South Bend Tribune.
Janiszewski died in 1996, Kouts in 2002 and Miller in 2009.
Machuca, who would coach Post 50 into the ’80s and went on to guide youth teams in Carmel, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, built what turned out to be a national championship team with a simple formula. He introduced it at the first ’77 tryout session.
“Baseball is a defensive game,” said Machuca. “Hitting wins games. Pitching wins pennants. Defense wins championships.”
Machuca and Barcome made sure players knew what they were doing on defense.
Post 50 was also well-armed for the task at-hand.
“I was blessed,” said Machuca. “I had eight pitchers (using four of them in tournament play).”
The squad that Machuca assembled became very close, which is in evidence all these years later as players gather to swap stories on the golf course, at dinner and at a South Bend Cubs game.
“What we had here in South Bend, the attitude was amazing,” said Machuca. “They were family.
“They took us for the ride. I didn’t play. Bill didn’t play. Everything was built on trust.”
Machuca interjected confidence from Day 1.
“‘You guys are the best I’ve ever seen. You’re going to win the state championship. Go home and be prepared to work for that,’” said Machuca of his words that day. “It seems that what we’ve lost is kids today aren’t willing to work together for a common goal.
“They want an advantage. They want to be guaranteed this and guaranteed that.”
In American Legion Baseball, the team you register is the team you take into the tournament. There are no add-ons or ringers.
“Whatever you start with, you end with,” said Machuca.
In ’77, there were no designated hitters or courtesy runners in American Legion Baseball and that’s the way coaches, players and organizers liked it.
Tryouts for the ’78 Post 50 team drew 400 eager youngsters.
Two decades after the national title, the Post 50 men of ’77 played a game against the Post 50 team of ’97. The “old” guys did well enough to get that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reaction: “Who are those guys?”
Even folks in the local baseball community did not know about the national champions.
A seed was planted which grew into a book, co-authored by Machuca (No. 20) and player Will Shepherd (No. 11).
“An Inning At A Time: An American Legion Baseball National Championship Story” was published in 2011.
Machuca explained the title of the book.
“I win innings, I don’t win games,” said Machuca. “Games are too big. Do what you can do at the time.”
In the Arlington Heights game, Post 50 got down 5-0 early. Machuca asked his players to come back with one run — two would be a bonus.
“‘We get one run and we’re going to win this game,’” said Machuca of that in-between half innings speech. “Once you get to the point of total confidence on the field, it’s hard to get beat.”
Shepherd looks back on the national title and still marvels at what he and his ball-playing buddies did.
“For my money what makes it special is that it was a legitimate World Series. It was a bracketed, countrywide tournament. One state champion moved on the regional and that one regional champion moved on.”
The 91st American Legion World Series Aug. 10-15 in Shelby, N.C. Games will be shown on ESPN3 and ESPNU.
South Bend Post 50’s 1977 American Legion Baseball national champions at a 40-year reunion dinner are (from left): First row — Will Shepherd, Bill Schell, manager Mel Machuca, assistant coach Bill Barcome and Jeff Kowatch; Second row — Paul Kazmierczak (member of ’75 and ’76 team), Mike Clarke, Jim Andert, Greg Heyde, Dave Hankins and Jeff Coker. Not pictured — Dennis Janiszewski (deceased), Scott Madey, Dom Romeo, John Ross, Jeff Rudasics, Mark Toles, Dan Szajko, Gary Vargyas and Dave Yates plus batboy Todd Machuca and tournament bench coach Dan Toles.