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Dave Pepe (left) and his father, the late, great sportswriter Phil Pepe, were two of the key people in the rich history of Caldwell's Post 185 American Legion team which is no longer with end of Essex Legion baseball after 89 years of fielding teams. (photo from njsportaction)

There Is No More Essex Legion Baseball
But The Rich & Colorful History Lives On
By Steve Tober

CALDWELL- There is a short walk from Kiwanis Oval across Bloomfield Avenue to the American Legion Post 185 hall, and back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when Caldwell legion baseball was playing at as high a level as any Essex County Legion team ever has the post-game tradition included players crossing the avenue for some hot dogs and sodas served by the venerable Eugene Yarnchak plus priceless conversation with Post veterans among the other devoted fans.

It was a nostalgic time worth being able to harken back to, when those breaking bread and sharing stories inside Post 185 were perhaps experiencing all that was part of the very crescendo of Essex Legion baseball, which dates back to 1928 when Irvington Post 16 was New Jersey’s first state champion.

It could be said that Essex American Legion baseball was very much like apple pie and Chevrolet as far as classic ‘Americana’ in towns such as Caldwell or Livingston, where the Post 201’s annual Fourth of July game with Vailsburg Post 395 on the ‘Great Lawn’ at the Oval was ‘the only game in town’ that day and always listed as part of the town’s annual events to celebrate our country’s birthday.

The traditional July 4th game between Vailsburg and Livingston had been played every year since the late 1960s. During one stretch from 1977-2016 there couldn’t be a much more closely-contested rivalry as Post 395 held a narrow 20-19-1 edge over Post 201.

Indeed, whether it was at Post 185 in Caldwell or at Post 201 in Livingston, Legion baseball was very much part of the very fabric of summertime baseball life, which was also certainly the case in towns such as Verona, Bloomfield and Nutley as well.

Legendary coaches such as Fred Hill (Verona Post 183), Joe Cucuzza (Bloomfield Post 448 and Belleville Post 105) and the Mike Sheppards, both Sr. and Jr. (Vailsburg Post 395) all etched indelible marks while guiding their respective Legion baseball teams during a time when travel ball and showcases were not prevalent, nor was there any quibbling by coaches with Legion rules such as a set 18-man roster or in having to traverse a rather busy and condensed schedule that can include several games in a week with perhaps doubleheaders and a few weekend games as well.

From 1928, when Irvington put Essex Legion on the map with its state championship, through Verona Post 183’s state title in 1974 under coaches Hill and Gary Kistner and Caldwell’s back-to-back titles in 1977 and ’78 under coach Jack Venezia with then future Major League catcher Scott Bradley of West Essex leading the way, Essex had a big impact on the statewide Legion scene, which in recent seasons has been dominated by either Brooklawn Post 72 (six straight state titles from 2010-2015) or Flemington Post 159 (state titles in 2009 and 2016).

Brooklawn has won a record 29 Legion state championships, while Trenton Post 93 is second with 21.

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