Greendale's 75th Countdown: American Legion and a 'Big League' Experience
Week #69: Learn more about the American Legion Post 416, the service the members performing, and why. With the start of the baseball season, read about Greendale kids and the summer of 1957.
History records and explains past events, while folklore preserves what people widely remember.
History and Folklore!
If you’ve driven east or west on Grange Avenue around 63rd street, you know where the American Legion hall is located. In front is the sign for American Legion Post 416, VFW Post 10519, and a bronze statue of a soldier walking with his backpack. You may have attended a bingo session, a pancake breakfast, or a spaghetti dinner in the meeting hall. Maybe you’ve even consumed a few beverages at the local watering hole on the west side of the building, Ray & Dot’s. You probably know that the American Legion is patriotic veteran’s organization, but not much more than that unless you are a member. That pretty much sums up my knowledge of the American Legion, until this week anyway.
The American Legion was chartered by the United States Congress in 1919. There are about 2.4 million members in 14,000 posts worldwide. The American Legion was founded on four Pillars: Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism, and Children & Youth.
The organization brought into existence the modern Veterans Administration, the GI Bill, and helped with the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC. The American Legion is open for membership to any person on active duty in any branch of the service, or veterans who served honorably during a war era (i.e. WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon/Grenada, Panama, Gulf War, and War on Terrorism).
Post 416 in Greendale got started almost immediately after the Village was opened. Eighteen service members got together and formed the post on January 12, 1939. Meetings were initially held in member’s homes, then at the Community Building, in a remodeled barn on Commander Lee Sowin’s property, and in an old construction shack on 68th and Grange Avenue. When the shack burned down the post moved in 1948 to the Basse farmhouse surrounded by 3 ½ acres of land which they leased from the government for $35 per month.
If you remember from Week #71 this farmhouse was previously the ‘Teacherage’ where single teachers rented rooms while employed by the School District. The farmhouse was a true ‘fixer upper’. The members remodeled the building eventually constructing a dining room and bar in the front. Then in 1969 the farmhouse gave way to the new American Legion meeting hall building and Ray & Dot’s Tap. This is the building that you see today on Grange Avenue.
When I visited the Post 416 on Wednesday morning the members were just taking down the tables after Bingo in the Memorial Hall. I checked out the schedule for the hall and nearly 20 activities are planned per month for April and May. Besides the American Legion Post other groups using the hall are the VFW, Women’s Auxiliary, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Sons of the American Legion (SAL), Vietnam Veterans and the Firing Squad. These groups hold meetings, sponsor bingo, pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, and a variety of other events. Of course ‘everyone’ knows about the corn roast and chicken dinners for the 4th of July and Village Days celebrations. Funds raised help support Americanism thru parades, the Pearl Harbor Day Ceremony and Memorial Day tribute, parade and program. Funds also are donated to Badger Boys and Girls State, Boy Scouts, Scholarships, and school field trips. Children Youth programs are conducted that teach flag etiquette, history, respect for military service, and in general promote family and community.
Commander Tim Baranzyk wrote in the monthly newsletter about a new item on the fundraising list, Steppingstone Farms. This local facility works with children and also vets who have PTSD. He also congratulated the Post on attaining 100% in membership. The membership currently stands at 544. Not to name drop or anything, but the Archbishop of Milwaukee Jerome E. Listecki is a member of Post 416. Archbishop Listecki served as Army Reserve Chaplain in the United States Army Reserves for 20 years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Before ending my visit to the Post, I spoke with Adjutant Dave Pier. I asked him several different ways to tell me why he was a member of the American Legion. Why did he join the American Legion, stay a member so long, and put in so many hours? He talked about the fund raising activities, the service to the community, the support of active service members and veterans, and the youth programs. But he did not talk about himself or give me any reason why. I suspect if I talked to 20 other members I’d get the same response.
Dave Pier joined the military at age 20. He served 4 years on active duty in the Air Force, then 19 years in the reserves. Toward the end of his reserve duty he became a member of Greendale Post 416. He’s been a member ever since, serving in many positions, including Post Commander. Like those before him and those who will follow him, Dave is proud of his military service. I’m sure Dave joined to stay connected to fellow comrades, because of the bond he feels with them. He doesn’t talk about himself or patriotism; modestly, none of them do. They show their devotion to this country through the service they perform. So let me say it for them, their service did not end with their tour of duty. We are fortunate and honored to have American Legion Post 416 in Greendale.
But did you know? Ray and Dorothy Koepsel opened Ray & Dot’s in 1957 in the farmhouse owned by the American Legion. In order to build the new American Legion Hall in 1969, the mortgage to the American Legion Post 416 was guaranteed by Ray and Dorothy. Fittingly, the mortgage was burned at a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ceremony outside the American Legion on December 7, 1991.
People, Past & Present!
This story ’Big League Summer’ is the personal experience of Ted Mainella written and told in his own words.
I spent the summer of 1957 in Major League baseball.
The Milwaukee Braves made baseball history that summer. With the help of our Greendale neighbors, my little brother Hugh and I were going to be part of it. Connie Ryan lived right next door to us in the ‘E’ section. He was the third base coach for the Braves and had been a utility infielder with the Boston Braves. He had two boys the same age as my brother and me. The Ryan’s had a backyard picnic one day and the Brave’s star pitcher Lou Burdette was there. Since my brother Hugh and I played with the Ryan kids all the time, we got to join in. So, I went over there and got to play catch with Lou Burdette in their Greendale backyard.
We could go to any Braves game we wanted. Connie would take us real early, when he went. We got to watch batting practice on the field, run the bases, shag fly balls, and pitch from the County Stadium pitching mound. There we were, kids from Greendale, working out with the 1957 Milwaukee Braves!
At the game we always sat right behind home plate with the other Braves’ families. One game I sat two rows from first baseman Joe Adcock. His leg was in a cast, and he was sitting in the box seat with his family. He was a big man and with the full leg cast had to stick his leg out into the aisle. I walked by several times, just to gawk.
Did we know how lucky we were? We weren’t as awestruck as we might be now. Back then, the Braves players were part of the Milwaukee and Greendale communities that just happened to be major league ballplayers. Of course, several happened to get into the Hall of Fame. Sure they were special, but not god-like. Maybe when you see Eddie Matthews, Hank Aaron, and Red Schoendienst walk out of the clubhouse shower after a game they lose some luster and gain some humanity.
We had other baseball people in Greendale. Our other neighbor on Exeter Street was a National League umpire named Stan Landis. A rather robust fellow, we called him “Fat Stan, the Umpire Man” but not to his face. Center field of our sand lot diamond was almost in his backyard. One day someone hit one in his yard. He picked up and pocketed the old ball and tossed out a new official National League ball. We thanked him, and kept playing. Just down the block on the corner of Westway and Edgemont lived one of the talent scouts for the team. Greendale was a newly discovered suburb in 1957 and was considered a good place to live. Braves baseball people surrounded us. Connie Ryan drove us to and from the games. On the way home from an afternoon game, we stopped at Warren Spahn’s home. We kids got bored with the adult talk and went outside to play catch.
I should have some mementos from that summer, and I do. But one did not survive. I have the official program from the 5th game of the 1957 World Series. I have the game tickets I had to show my St. Alphonsus 8th grade teacher to prove my Dad and I were really going to the game. Both are in original condition. The price of the program was 50 cents. The tickets: seven dollars each.
But the Holy Grail from those days had cost nothing but did not survive the summer. During one of our clubhouse visits, the Braves players were hand-signing baseballs. This was the 1957, soon to be World Champion, Milwaukee Braves. Several players were sitting around a table and autographing baseballs. I must have caught the eye of one of them. And like in the movies, with a “here you go kid” look, he flipped me a freshly signed baseball. I caught it, but didn¹t hold on to it. Some weeks later we were playing on our back yard diamond and the current ball had worn out. Fat Stan the Umpire Man was on the road and no one had a replacement. But I did. I ran home and plucked that 1957 gem off my dresser and ran with it back to the field and tossed it to the pitcher. Play ball!
Connie Ryan is gone; so are Lou Burdette, Warren Spahn and the umpire. And my brother, Hugh. Our ball diamond is now the parking lot for St. Thomas Episcopal Church. On days when I bike through my old Greendale ‘E’ section neighborhood, I stop to look around where the bases and the outfield and the pitcher’s mound once were. It was a magical time, the summer of 1957, my summer in the big leagues.
Greendale Trivia Question and Answer:
Week#69 Question – What was the name of the original gas station in Greendale on the southwest corner of Parking Street and Northway?
** Week #69 contributors Sally Chadwick, Dave Pier, Tim Baranzyk, Ted Mainella, and Steve Peters.