Oak Grove Post 379 are gearing up for their return to the American Legion Wood Bat Invitational

By Bill Althaus
The Examiner
Oak Grove Post 379's Shayton Wright catches the throw as Blue Springs Elks runner Randy Ayala slides in safely during an American Legion baseball game earlier this summer. Oak Grove Post 379 is returning to the American Legion Wood Bat Invitational after missing a couple years, while the Blue Springs Elks will play in the 32nd annual wood bat tournament for the first time after replacing the now defunct Blue Springs Rod's Sports A's.

The late Ron Johnson, who enjoyed so much success with his Oak Grove Post 379 American Legion baseball team in the 1980s and ’90s, would get a kick out of this year's American Legion Wood Bat Invitational

It features the return of his Oak Grove baseball program. 

Coach Jeff Wright's Post 379 team will kick off the 32nd annual invitational at 11 a.m. Wednesday, playing Kansas City Teamwork Sports in a return to wood bat action after missing out the past few years. 

"The players are excited, the coaches are excited, we're all excited," said Wright, who is bringing a senior American Legion team back to life after Post 379 fielded a junior team the past few summers. "Because of rainouts, it's been a while since we've been able to play, so we're all excited to get back out on the field – and what better place to do it than a legendary tournament like the Wood Bat Invitational."

Full Wood Bat Invitational schedule:2021 American Legion Wood Bat Invitational schedule

Johnson and Jim Moran co-founded the Wood Bat Invitational in 1989. 

The games were played at Pink Hill Park and it attracted national attention because players used wood bats, instead of the more familiar aluminum models. 

There was no Wood Bat Invitational last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so this year's 25-team tournament will be a bit nostalgic, with the return of Oak Grove Post 379 and the absence of Blue Springs Rod's Sport's A's, who won six tournament championships.

Oak Grove Post 379's Bryce Smith shields his face from the throw as Kaden Ford of the Blue Springs Elks, left, attempts to field the ball during an American Legion baseball game earlier this summer. Oak Grove, which has revived its senior program this year, is returning to play in the American Legion Wood Bat Invitational, which was co-founded by late Oak Grove manager Ron Johnson. This will be the Elks' first time in the annual wood bat tournament.

The A's are no longer a part of American Legion baseball after the retirement of longtime manager Mike Rooney. That program, which includes mostly players from the Blue Springs High School district, has been replaced by the Blue Springs Elks, who are playing their first year in senior American Legion ball after many years as the junior program for the A’s. 

And, of course, Moran’s Blue Springs Post 499 Fike team continues as the tournament’s host. 

"It's great to have Oak Grove back, especially since Ron and I got this tournament started back in 1989," said Moran, who is Fike’s general manager but has been replaced as field manager by Matt Hagerty. “But it's going to be strange not having Mike (Rooney) and the A's this year. Last year would have been the first year without the A's, but we didn't have the Wood Bat because of COVID, so we're really going to miss them this year." 

Many major league players have participated in the Wood Bat Invitational. Kansas City's Alex Gordon (who played American Legion ball in Nebraska), Albert Pujols (Independence Post 340 Hi-Boy Drive-In) and Joe Crede (Jefferson City Post 5) have played in the Wood Bat Invitational, along with Nick Tepesch and Kris Johnson, both former members of the Blue Springs A’s. 

"We started with 10 teams on two fields at Pink Hill," Moran said. "This year, we will play at Hidden Valley, Crysler Stadium and Grain Valley High School, and will have 25 teams." 

One big change this season will take place off the field as the Wood Bat Invitational staff will man the concession stand. And fans should not be alarmed when they walk into the stadium and don't see the Fike Burger grill. 

"We'll still have the Fike Burgers," Moran said of the popular grilled hamburgers served every year at the tournament. "We're just moving the grill back by the concession stand since we're going to run it this year. It just makes sense the have the grill back by the concession stand. We'll see how it goes with the concession stand – it just means more volunteers, and like I've told you for 32 years, we can't get this done without volunteers – and we have the best." 

Longtime area American Legion baseball supporter Phil Caldarella, who was voted into the Wood Bat Invitational Hall of Fame last season, will receive his plaque at a special ceremony beginning at 7:15 Wednesday at Hidden Valley Park. The 2021 Hall of Fame inductee will also be introduced. 

Caldarella has worked behind the scenes at the tournament for 30 years. He was part of the 13th Hall of Fame class, and was the 19th inductee. The first two inductees were late Examiner sports writer Dick Puhr and Johnson. 

Caldarella is a graduate of Fort Osage High School and works for the school district in the finance department. He was associated with the Rod’s Sports A’s for 30 years.