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The Post 185 American Legion hall in Caldwell was a meeting place for many years after games at the nearby Kiwanis Oval and had its peak with some very good teams in late 1970s and early 1980s when Essex Legion thrived. (Sideline Chatter photos)

Longtime Essex County American Legion vice chairman Jeff Goldberg (left) is seen with Phyllis and Mike Sheppard, Sr., who were two big supporters of Essex Legion baseball through the years. Shep, Sr., the league's chairman, also served as a head coach for Vailsburg Post 395 from 1964-81 while his son, Mike, Jr., coached as well.

Ken Kistner (left) was one of the longtime coaches for Verona Legion baseball

A plaque on the Post 185 building on Bloomfield Avenue in Caldwell is in memory of its benefactors, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Cook, who helped make the gathering place for the local American Legion Essex County baseball team a reality way back in 1947.

Bloomfield's American Legion baseball team receives third place plaque after 2007 N.J. State Finals at Breslin Field in Lyndhurst. From left, are: the late Joe Cucuzza, who was one of the veteran coaches in Essex Legion, Mike Policastro, Jerry Sparta, who was NJ American Legion State Baseball Chairman at the time, and the NJ State Vice-Chairman Frank Calandrillo, who is now state chairman (Photo by Todd Mundt)

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The big difference this season is that for the first time since 1928 there is no longer Essex Legion baseball, creating quite a void in the summertime diamond viewing for the remaining very devoted Legion followers; however, the impact of travel ball and showcases plus some coaches no longer wanting to deal with certain Legion rules has led to the dissolving of the Essex League to end 89 straight years of Legion ball in the county.

“Early in the fall of 2016 we learned in emails from coaches that many were not coming back because Legion baseball no longer suited their needs,” said Jeff Goldberg, the longtime vice-chairman of Essex Legion baseball who remains very active on the Legion’s statewide committee where he has worked since 1990. “They felt the rules were too restrictive for them, including national Legion standards that require a set 18-man roster submitted before the season gets underway.

“Let’s face it: travel ball has exploded since the early 2000’s and some players also go to various showcases in the South.

“We felt that we still served as a very good league for the younger high school players, but many coaches now want to have more flexible rosters and set up their own schedules.

“It’s very sad that this has happened, but it is also a sign of the times.”

Legion baseball has also taken a big hit by also dissolving in Morris, Union, Middlesex and Monmouth counties, while the counties that have remained strong include Bergen, Pyramid (Hunterdon-Warren-Somerset), Mercer, Ocean and Camden.

Among the top Legion programs in the aforementioned areas have been Lyndhurst Post 139 in Bergen/Passaic, Flemington Post 159 in Pyramid, Hamilton Post 31 in Mercer and Brooklawn Post 72 in Camden.

The end of Legion baseball in Essex goes beyond memorable nights at the Post 185 headquarters in Caldwell or Fourths of July in Livingston, which were certainly noteworthy in their own right. There were also many different dedicated coaches and colorful people who simply love the game of baseball, such as Post 185’s Pepe father-son tandem of Dave and his now late dad Phil, the former being a successful attorney, local coach and Major League player agent and the latter a well-known, longtime sportswriter with the New York Daily News and prolific author of many noted books on the subject of baseball.

Dave coached Post 185 and Phil was the team statistician, but also served as a favorite sounding board for young players who were smart enough to know that they had the opportunity glean knowledge about the great game of baseball from a legendary newspaper sage.

Another important individual with Post 185 and with Essex Legion in general was Dr. Al Josephsen, who was the league’s recording secretary.

The late LeRoy “Lee” Hammer and Tom D’Alonzo were key figures in the heyday of Livingston Post 201, which had been located on Eisenhower Parkway, while good camaraderie developed between teams such as Nutley Post 70 under coach Bruce Gallagher and East Side with coach Jerry Battaglini.

For many years Nutley Post 70 building was located on Franklin Avenue in the historic town that has produced such famous names as gun-slinger Annie Oakley, actor Robert Blake and food aficionado Martha Stewart.

Battaglini guided three teams – East Side, Ironbound and South Orange – to the Legion state tournament.

Vailsburg (12 titles) which was second behind Livingston’s 16 Essex County Legion championships, finished second in the state tournament in 1977 under the legendary Mike Sheppard, Sr., who coached the team through 1981 when his son, Mike Sheppard, Jr. took over the reins from 1982-91, before Frank Gately guided Post 395 from 1992-97.

Paul Gizzo (1998-99), Michael Jordan (2000-2002), Mike Cocco (2003-2008), Tim Dugan (2009-2011) and Danny Fornaro (2012-2016) proceeded to guide the perennial Essex Legion title contender.

Among the Vailsburg Post 395 players who went on to Major League careers were pitchers including current Boston Red Sox and 2016 Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello along with Joe Martinez (San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, Arizona Diamonbacks and Los Angeles/Anaheim Angels) and Nick Christiani (Cincinnati Reds).

Former Major League catcher Rick Cerone played his Legion ball for North Newark Post 408.

Montclair quailed for the state tournament in 1996 under coach Joe Fischer and again in 2010 under coach Anthony Genchi.

In addition to Cucuzza, coach/manager Rich Fucci was another key man behind the success of Bloomfield Post 448.

Irvington PAL finished second in the state in 1986 and fourth in ’81. Among the great Irvington players were current Blue Knights coach Troy Bowers along with Mike Dixon and Pete Estrada.

“There are so many great memories of Essex Legion baseball that will live on in our memories,” said Goldberg. “Plus, one can never forget all the terrific players, coaches and people behind the scenes who made it so special for so many years!”

LEGION NOTES- Goldberg was honored with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) and the New Jersey Scholastic Baseball Coaches Association’s (NJSBCA) prestigious Mike Stang Service Award, presented to him June 13 at Diamond Nation in Flemington prior to the NJSBCA 40 th annual Senior All-Star Game. He has been a key member of the state’s high school baseball community for nearly four decades while constantly promoting the positive aspects of America’s pastime while publicizing the accomplishments of the student-athletes who have played the great game of baseball during that time….Bloomfield leads Essex Legion teams with 13 runner-up finishes since 1963, while Livingston had 11 to go along with its Essex-leading 16 championships…The New Jersey American Legion state finals are being held July 22-28 at Moody Park in Ewing Township.

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

Current Seton Hall Prep head baseball coach Mike Sheppard, Jr. coached the Vailsburg Post 395 American Legion team from 1982 to 1991. (Photo by Richard Morris/SHP)

State committeeman and longtime Essex County American Legion vice-chairman Jeff Goldberg is quick to remind people about national popularity and rich history of Legion baseball which is no longer in Essex but still has strong tradition that is carried on in different parts of Jersey and in nation at large. (photo courtesy of Essex Legion)

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