'Mr. American Legion Baseball' Goes to Bat for Boys of Summer

Times Staff Writer

Ray McKinstry strolled down the aisle at Blair Field. It was Father's Day and he had come to be with his boys, the boys of summer, the boys who play American Legion baseball.

Albert Raymond McKinstry has walked amateur baseball fields many times before. Spring and summer weekends and weeknights at Blair Field. Days spent promoting legion efforts and evenings seeking support for its various programs. Summer journeys to state, regional and national tournaments.

As commander of Arthur L. Peterson Post No. 27 in Long Beach, McKinstry is also the commissioner of the legion's District 19 baseball program. The district encompasses an area that includes 13 teams in the South Bay, 7 in Long Beach and 5 in the Norwalk/Southeast area. McKinstry, who will turn 75 in December, has been district commissioner since 1971 and post commander for 30 years.

Nationally, the American Legion baseball program fields 2,600 teams each spring. Legion Junior Baseball, celebrating its 60th season this month, started in Milbank, S.D., in 1925 to provide what legionnaire literature calls "a program of service to the youth of America."

Legion baseball is highly regarded among professional baseball scouts as a place for players in their final years of high school or first year of college to showcase or polish their talents.

The program receives a large portion of its funding from major league baseball--an estimated $70,000 nationwide in 1985. That money, in conjunction with the volunteer efforts of legionnaires like McKinstry, enables the American Legion to offer regional, state and national playoffs.

In his office in the recently constructed California Veterans Memorial State Office Building in Long Beach, McKinstry is bustling with energy.

It's Tuesday--the only day in his busy week that McKinstry has time to spare. For nearly three hours, in the tiny, first-floor cubicle, he spins nonstop tales of yesteryear. Overhead hangs a large black and white portrait of Arthur L. Peterson, a Long Beach fireman killed in World War I, for whom the post is named.

McKinstry's eyes sparkle behind wire-framed glasses as he speaks of the memories and evolution: Of a 1963 national legion title won by a team from the Peterson post, the last in the history of District 19; of long trips to playoff games with his wife, Beatrice; of the growing lack of support for legion baseball in Long Beach; of changed attitudes on the part of today's players, and of his frustrating search for sponsors for a national regional tournament at Blair Field in August.

Free With His Opinion

It is vintage McKinstry and, like the free time he gives each week to the post, he also volunteers his opinions.

- On promoting American Legion baseball: "Only one in 10 (people) know it is going on."

- About the status of American Legion baseball: "It's being used as a training ground for younger players by high school coaches. You don't find the number of volunteers like you used to."

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- Regarding legion baseball's relationship with pro baseball: "I counted it up the other day and there are 17 players for the Angels and 18 on the Dodgers that played American Legion baseball."

- On community support for the program: "I don't think Long Beach supports the programs it has. Without parents we wouldn't have any support. The population doesn't support us."

- On why he spends so much time on the legion program: "I'm the nervous type. I've always got to be involved with something I like to do. I enjoy baseball."

- And about the attitude of today's young players: "There are too many leagues here (Southern California). Everyone is vying for the services of the kids. Their (the players) attitude isn't as strong as it used to be. A lot don't put out 100%."

Beatrice McKinstry said her husband is "the youngest 75-year-old person alive."

"He always has something going."

McKinstry was born in Seattle, but moved to Long Beach in 1921. He attended Poly High in 1928 and '29, but returned to Washington and graduated from high school there in 1930. He returned to Long Beach later that year.

Asthma kept him out of action when he was in the Army during World War II. When his infantry division went to fight in the South Pacific, he came home.

In 1944, a friend convinced him to join the legion. It has been a relationship he's never regretted.

"When you join an organization you've got to get something out of it," he said. "If you don't get involved, stay home, you're wasting your money."

Philosophy Permeates Work

That philosophy permeates McKinstry's work in the legion baseball program. His $100-a-year stipend hardly covers the hours he puts in on the baseball program.

"It's something I like to do," he said. He hesitated, then added, "I like baseball. If I quit, this program is going downhill. Nobody will volunteer the time and effort it requires to do this job."

Few will argue with McKinstry's devotion to the ideals of the American Legion and its baseball program. Former legion player Dan Peters, now the head baseball coach at Millikan High, also runs the Shua team in the legion program. He sums up the majority feelings about McKinstry: "A great guy who does a great job."

McKinstry said he is sometimes referred to as "Mr. American Legion baseball in Long Beach," but he has also been accused of being a one-man show and doctrinaire about his ideal of "100% Americanism."

Since becoming district commissioner, he has handled all the paper work involved in running the program. That includes collecting team fees, arranging schedules and paying umpires. He does this, he said, so "all the teams have to do is show up and play."

Battle Over Long Hair

"I guess they (his detractors) think I run a dynasty," he said. "That's why they say that I'm a dictator."

One of McKinstry's biggest standoffs came in the summer of 1972. Long hair had invaded high school campuses. Several players in the Long Beach division violated an American Legion dress code by wearing long sideburns, long hair, mustaches and beards. McKinstry suggested to coaches that they convince the players to get haircuts. Members of the Motor Patrol team, comprised predominantly of graduated seniors from Wilson High, refused.

McKinstry met with the team immediately after it had clinched a playoff berth and told the players to cut their locks and shave or they would not be allowed to participate in the playoffs.

On opening night of the playoffs, McKinstry arrived early at Blair Field and, armed with a legion rule book that included artist's drawings of acceptable grooming standards for players, checked each player as he entered the front gate.

Today, the length of players' hair is not an issue. legion baseball rules no longer dictate grooming standards.

"Some people say I'm prejudiced," he said of the incident. "My wife even said that. I just suggested to a few of the coaches that they tell their kids to get haircuts. I think the national legion office dropped the hair regulations because it felt they might get sued."

Today, the issue that concerns McKinstry is the playing of the generally less-skilled high school underclassmen.

Wants Older Players

He sees legion baseball in California using younger and younger players, and he has told District 19 coaches to only recruit ballplayers who have just graduated from high school. Using players that age--18, and in some cases 19--would conform with what the rest of the nation does, making it more probable for District 19 to compete well and advance in playoffs.

But, he acknowledged, using legion baseball as a farm system for high school programs is on the increase. There are fewer coaches who work solely in legion baseball, he said, and because many of the legion coaches also coach high school ball, they in effect use the legion as a summer league for their ball players.

"It's something that is going to continue," he said with remorse. "Maybe it will run its course some day."

McKinstry's course is clear. He's been in the newspaper business, a card salesman, customs warehouse manager and chauffeur. His continuous interest, however, has been with the American Legion. Life revolves around the call of "play ball," the crack of the bat and those summery Saturdays and Sundays at the diamond.

"I don't think I will quit until they put me six feet under," he said.

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