Swerdling Threw Away His Career on the Weekends : American Legion Coach Has Watched Drysdale and Yount, Among Others, Temper Talents in Heat of Summer
As a 13-year-old, Mel Swerdling toiled as a weekend batting practice pitcher for his father’s semipro team in Pennsylvania.
“The team was a bunch of professional players who weren’t making enough at baseball,” Swerdling said. “So, they stayed home and worked to earn a living and played baseball on the Sundays.”
At age 62, things haven’t changed much for Swerdling.
He’s still throwing batting practice on weekends.
Saturday, just as he has done for the past 15 years, Swerdling will throw an assortment of pitches to potential professionals as manager of the North Hollywood District 20 American Legion team.
American Legion baseball is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer. And after 15 tours of duty as a coach, Swerdling has become a walking history book of Legion baseball in the Valley.
Just ask--and he’ll tell you dozens of war stories about players who have come through the District 20 program and have gone on to become major leaguers.
There is one about a certain shortstop from Woodland Hills.
“In Robin Yount’s final Legion game, he struck out three times and made three errors,” Swerdling said. “He came up for his final at-bat, however, and hit a home run. The next day, he signed with the Brewers.”
And a second baseman from Van Nuys.
“Don Drysdale played second base for the Van Nuys Legion team,” Swerdling said. “One day they were short a pitcher. Drysdale stepped in and threw a shutout. I guess you could say he became a pretty good pitcher for the rest of his career.”
OK, Yount and Drysdale. But what have you done lately, Mel?
Three members of the ’84 U.S. Olympic team--Cory Snyder (Canyon High), Sid Akins (Cleveland) and Flavio Alfaro (Poly)--all went through the District 20 program.
“There isn’t another district in the country that can make that claim,” Swerdling said. “It’s something I don’t think will ever be topped.”
You can’t blame Swerdling, who played minor league ball with the Red Sox and Phillies, for feeling proud. This season is the 11th he will serve as district commissioner.
He hesitates before describing the best players he’s witnessed.
“This is a tough question,” Swerdling said. “Because if I look at ‘em the way they turned out in the major leagues, my opinion would be biased.
“I guess the best pitcher I saw would be Pete Redfern, who led Sylmar into the state tournament in 1973. Also, Bob James, who’s doing well for the White Sox, had a blazer of a fastball, but he was erratic.
“San Fernando’s Gary Matthews was terrific in the outfield and Yount looked great even when he was striking out.”
Other notables include Rick Dempsey, Doug DeCinces, Tim Foli and Bret Saberhagen.
District 20--which is bounded on the west by Ventura County, on the east by Pasadena, on the south by the Hollywood Hills and on the north by Lancaster--has enjoyed a revival of sorts.
High school coaches who were once opposed to having their players participate in the summer program are now encouraging them to take advantage of the intense competition.
The American Legion age limit is 18, but players who turn 19 after Aug. 1 are eligible to compete.
“Improving high school teams is just one aspect of our program,” Swerdling said. “We also give kids who have graduated, late bloomers, a chance to continue playing and develop.
“The season they spend with us could be the difference between continuing their baseball career at the next level or having it end.”
Last season, Van Nuys-Notre Dame won the district championship over 17 other teams.
This season, there are 15 teams playing in two divisions. They play a 21-game schedule, with the top three teams in each division advancing to a double-elimination district playoff July 24-28 at Birmingham High.
The winner of the district title will participate in the Legion’s 6th Area playoffs Aug. 1-4 at Cal State Northridge.
The area champion advances to the state playoffs in Yountville.
“It should be a very competitive season in our district,” Swerdling said. “Hopefully, one of our teams will wind up in the state championship.”
In the meantime, Swerdling will be winding up, as usual, on the weekend.