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Meet the American who inspired American Legion Baseball, John Griffith, WWI vet and sports pioneer

Major John Griffith envisioned a nation made better, healthier and stronger — more powerful and patriotic — and forged by youthful competition that preached good citizenship. 

To this day, his legacy thrives on baseball fields across America and in the highest levels of intercollegiate competition.

Griffith, a World War I veteran, inspired the creation of American Legion Baseball. 

It is the nation’s oldest organized youth baseball league, founded 98 years ago this month. 

American Legion Baseball founder

John L. Griffith was commissioner of the collegiate Western Conference, later the Big Ten, in 1925 when he encouraged American Legion members in 1925 to support sports as a way to train American youth. American Legion Baseball was created the following year in response to his call to action. (Public Domain)

“The veterans who came back and started their Legion posts remembered those problems vividly.”

By some accounts, half of all World War I enlistees failed to meet basic physical fitness requirements. 

Griffith at the time was a nationally recognized college sports administrator, the first commissioner of the conference now known as the Big Ten. 

He offered a solution to strengthen the nation’s youth: Play ball!

“There is nothing in our national life that stresses the qualities that are stressed in our athletics,” Griffith said in an impassioned speech before the South Dakota American Legion state convention on July 17, 1925.

“The qualities of intelligent courage, the fighting instinct, cooperation, promise and the ability to carry out that promise, all of these are things … are stressed in our athletic games.” 

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All three, perhaps not coincidentally, were war veterans, too.

Griffith, an athlete himself, saw competition as the key to a fit, fighting youth and a critical cog in the Arsenal of Democracy. 

Griffith, it turns out, was preparing the youth of America to fight in World War II

In the service of Uncle Sam

John Lorenzo Griffith was born on Aug. 20, 1877 in Mount Carroll, Illinois, to Hugh Jordan and Lucy Luella (Cummings) Griffith. 

He attended tiny Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he became the sports editor of the school newspaper before graduating in 1902.

He was well into his career and nearing age 40 when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. 

World War I boot camp

Soldiers find ingenious ways to scale a wall during training at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, circa 1918. American Legion Baseball founder John L. Griffith, and other World War I veterans, were dismayed by the overall fitness of American troops entering the conflict. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Legion ball fuels the Big Leagues

After the war, Griffith returned to his career as a college sports coach and administrator, carrying with him a renewed belief in the need for a fitter American youth.

The American Legion members, almost all of them fellow World War I veterans, enthusiastically embraced his 1925 call for a stronger, more competitive youth of America — teenagers of both sound mind and body instilled with the virtues of good citizenship. 

american legion baseball

The Oakland, California, boys baseball team defeated the team from Worcester, Massachusetts, 4-0, in the opening game of the American Legion’s Junior World Series at Oomiskey Park on Aug. 1, 1928.  (George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

“They organized and sponsored teams, drafted local schedules and conducted championship tourneys,” The American Legion writes in its online history of the baseball program.

“Baseball is a pastime and a passion for the people of Milbank.” 

The American Legion says the number of its baseball players who have gone on to the Big Leagues is too numerous to chart.

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However, it notes that “more than half of current major-leaguers played Legion Baseball. So did almost every working Major League Baseball manager, along with several former commissioners.”

“More than half of current major-leaguers played Legion Baseball.”

He reportedly succumbed to heart failure. 

Sports administrator John L. Griffith

Major John L. Griffith was a leading figure in American youth and collegiate sports in the first half of the 20th century. (Drake University Archives & Special Collections)

He was 67 years old. 

He is buried today at Oak Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Mount Carroll, Illinois.

“By the time he died he’s well aware that (his efforts) to promote fitness were playing a pretty big role in the war effort,” Winona State University professor Dr. Matthew Lindaman, author of the 2018 biography, “Fit for America: Major John L. Griffith and the Quest for Athletics and Fitness,” told Fox News Digital.

“He probably would have known that the needs he saw after World War I for athletic training would have produced some success.” 

The work of American Legion Baseball that he inspired continues today. 

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The American Legion in Milbank, South Dakota, is feverishly working to raise millions of dollars to build a new state-of-the-art facility for Legion ball and major baseball competitions. 

American Legon

John L Griffith, right, challenged the American Legion to support youth sports at a convention in Milbank, South Dakota, on July 17, 1925. The 1930 Milbank American Legion Baseball team is shown at left. (American Legion Post 9/Public Domain)

The goal is to open in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Griffith’s vision in the town where American Legion Baseball began in 1925. 

The hope is to include an American Legion Baseball museum, said Jurgens, the former Post 9 commander. 

Patriotism remains essential to the mission of American Legion Baseball. 

“The American Legion needs to stand for patriotism,” Jake Comer, past American Legion national commander and current member of the American Legion World Series Board of Directors, told Fox News Digital. 

“In many senses of the word, he was a patriot.”

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