Cal Isselhardt was there the day American Legion Baseball was born in Belleville.
Nearly 80 years later, he was at Whitey Herzog Field in Citizens Park telling a new generation of ballplayers why being a Hilgard remains one of the highlights of his life.
“American Legion Baseball is in my heart, and it should be in yours,” Isselhardt told them.
Belleville Post 58 celebrated the history of its baseball program Saturday with a barbeque and doubleheader against Highland Post 439. It inducted four new members to the Hilgard Hall of Fame and dedicated a bench in honor of Barney Elser, the longtime manager who died in March at the age of 86.
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Former St. Louis Cardinals manager and Baseball Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog even spoke.
The day was crowned, however, with the presence of Isselhardt, the last living member of the inaugural Hilgards of 1938. At 96 years of age, he traveled from his home in suburban Detroit to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and address the 79th edition of the Post 58 team.
He wore their blue uniform cap with a red “B” and a T-shirt printed with a black-and-white photo of the first Hilgards.
“All the players I played Legion baseball with, I remember each and every name and the positions they played,” he told the current players. “I flew airplanes for 40 years, had a lot of co-pilots, and today I couldn’t name one of them.
“When you guys get to be my age, you’ll remember all the buddies you played with. I know you’ll remember them as long as you live.”
Isselhardt recalled a sunny spring day at the corner of Lucinda Avenue and East “B” Street when a sandlot baseball game became what is believed to be the most enduring American Legion Baseball tradition in the United States. He and a group of neighborhood chums met daily after school to play at the vacant lot there.
“A car pulled up, and a man got out,” Isselhardt recalled. “”I thought maybe he owned the property and was going to run us off.”
That man was Jake Whitman, an officer with local American Legion. Instead of making them leave, he asked them to recruit competitive players for the team he was forming at the George Hilgard Post 58.
Isselhardt was motivated by the promise of fresh uniforms and new, white baseballs.
There are three big things that happened in my life — winning the Wings of Gold as a Navy aviator, getting married and playing baseball for the Hilgards.
Cal Isselhardt, last member of 1938 Belleville American Legion baseball team
“I said ‘Are you kidding?’ We had a ball with tape wrapped around it and a bat with a nail in it,” Isselhardt recalled. “I gave him a list of 20 names.”
Isselhardt, a three-sport athlete at Belleville Township and a center fielder on its baseball team, included all the best athletes from his class as well as a few he knew from Cathedral High School. That list included Isselhardt’s twin brother, Warren.
“There were so many good ball players, I’m lucky I even made the team,” he said. “I admit I was no superstar, but I loved to play baseball. Whatever position they wanted me to play, I was happy to do it.”
Their first manager was Bob Groom, who had won 119 games in 10 major league seasons and, along with St. Louis Browns teammate Ernie Koob, was part of the only big-league tandem to throw no-hitters on consecutive days.
The Hilgards played just 10 games that season but captured the first of nine state championships they have so far won. It was Isselhardt’s one and only season with Post 58; he was too old to participate in the state title repeat of ‘39.
“Mr. Groom was a wonderful gentleman,” Isselhardt said. “He was about 6-foot-2, and he would throw batting practice. At his age, he would really whiffle it. We had a lot of fun in 1938, and I wish I could have played the following year.”
Isselhardt went onto a distinguished career in aviation, serving as a flight trainer during World War II and looking for Russian submarines from the cockpit of a Navy PB-1W during the Korean Conflict. He retired from the Navy in 1970, then worked for the Federal Aviation Administration for 20 more years.
For all he’s done and experienced in his 96 years, Isselhardt said he counts three achievements among his life’s highlights.
“There are three big things that happened in my life — winning the Wings of Gold as a Navy aviator, getting married and playing baseball for the Hilgards,” Isselhardt said. “My wife used to say, ‘You behave like making the American Legion team was more interesting than being married.’ I said, yeah, they never made me take out the garbage.”
After he spoke, the 2017 Hilgards gathered around Isselhardt to shake his hand. They then thanked him for attending the game by defeating Highland 1-0 with a walk-off hit in the ninth inning.
“If these guys didn’t know what being a Hilgard is all about, they ought to know it now,” said Hilgards president Mike Harres. “That was special.”