By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
After coaching American Legion baseball in Stillwater in the 1980s and ’90s, Stillwater High baseball coach Tony Holt had one reaction when it was found out the Stillwater Legion team would not play for the first time since the team was created in 1957.
“My first thought was sadness,” said Holt, who coached the Legion program for 14 years. “I’ve lived in Stillwater since 1976, and before I even coached in the program I worked for (Genio) Colasacco in the Legion program in the press box. But it’s where I started my coaching career.
“The Legion has been a big part of our family. It’s been a big part of my family, but also for my brothers, my nephews who played in the program. Legion baseball has been special to me and my family — and for a lot of other families in this town.”
With struggles to field a complete team at times last summer, to the regret of many, the American Legion decided not to sponsor a Stillwater Majors team this summer. But Lawrence Roy, chairman of the American Legion baseball committee in Stillwater, is hopeful the team could return to playing at Couch Park some time down the road.
“We’re keeping it open, but there are several of factors involved,” Roy said.
It wasn’t a lack of support that led to the ultimate demise of the Legion team in Stillwater. In fact, despite the lack of Stillwater players on the team, the community and city of Stillwater continued to work with the Legion — with the city allowing the Legion team the use of Couch Park, which is owned by the city but used by the Stillwater High baseball team.
In fact, since the program started under the guidance of Colasacco, the city backed the Legion baseball program. Roy said A.B. Alcott, the mayor of Stillwater at the time, was one of the biggest backers.
“It wasn’t any fault of our contributors, they’ve continued to help us,” Roy said. “... The city of Stillwater has always been cooperative with the American Legion in the dedication of that field out there to Legion ball in the summer months.
“In fact, back in the day, American Legion was the major instigator to a lot of the improvements and a lot of the additions to that field. And the city has always been cooperative with the American Legion.”
Stillwater was once one of the top Legion programs in the state of Oklahoma. In 1989, with Holt as head coach of the Stillwater Majors, the program won its only state championship — with a 6-5 victory over Tulsa Union in the deciding title game in Oklahoma City to earn a trip to the Mid-South Regional in Lafayette, La.
The participation numbers for Legion baseball in Stillwater have been dwindling over the years, however, with just a handful of players with Stillwater ties playing the past few years — with many of the players being from the surrounding area or even having to travel an hour for practices and games.
Some of that has come about from a rule change by the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association several years back allowing high school players to practice with their high school teams during the summer months.
“The entire landscape of summer baseball has been changing over the years,” Roy said. “Statewide, the program is changing as far as high schoolers is concerned. A lot of the coaches now have their high school players in some kind of a league, so when that happened, those high school players participated in their coach’s high school program. So the end result was that we’ve lost the source from even back to the early days for American Legion baseball — where we were able to have three or four teams even some times.”
Holt added that it’s not simply that rule change — which went into effect before he became head coach at Stillwater High — but the fact that all high school sports teams are allowed to practice during the summer, on top of the growth of specialty traveling teams.
“There’s a lot of things for kids to do in the summers any more. It’s not like it used to be when everybody came out to play Legion baseball when it was the only thing going on in the summer,” Holt said. “It’s changed quite a bit. But it’s just sad that it’s gone.”
The past few years, the Stillwater Legion team had been relying on junior college players from the area returning to play summer ball closer to home. But even that was becoming more difficult, as last year Dalton Dowling was the only Legion player with Stillwater ties — having graduated from SHS in 2010 but still came back to play Legion in the summer after playing college ball at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College.
The Legion team was able to draw from some of the smaller schools in the area in recent years — with players like Nathan Melton and Claytin Beaver of Glencoe, as well as Weston Ward and Jared Bartmann from Perry — to help field a complete team.
Though Stillwater is losing the Legion team, the Brad Holt Memorial Tournament — which had been hosted by the Legion team and was dedicated in Brad Holt’s memory after his untimely death in 1991 — will still be held this summer at Couch Park. Tony Holt, who was Brad Holt’s uncle, has committed to have the Stillwater High baseball program host the event, which will be held June 27-30 and will include other high school teams coming in to participate.
“We’re going to continue that tradition this summer through our Dugout Club,” Holt said. “... We’ll try to keep that alive.”