It would be known in the baseball history books as the year there was no World Series. The Major League Baseball season was in trouble as early as June, 1994, with tensions between players and owners building before erupting with a strike in August, leaving thousands of angry fans in its wake.
That spring, someone approached Frank Portera about starting an American Legion baseball program in West Point.
There was no summer baseball program for 14-19 year olds in the city at the time. Legion teams had played in West Point before, once in the late ‘30’s and again in the 50’s, but both times, the stints had been brief. Portera went to Bud Bowen, head of the West Point Park and Rec. Bowen also was in charge of the West Point High School baseball field for recreation and public use. Bowen secured the field for the Legion teams. Portera would coach the Junior American Legion team, for boys 14-16 and Kenny O’Neal coached the Senior American Legion team for boys 17-19.
The first two years, the team stuck strictly to local sponsors. The Junior Legion team would have a different sponsor each season. “The first couple of years, we didn’t travel as much, didn’t eat as much,” Portera said. “We were getting our feet on the ground and when we saw we could compete, be competitive, we went to Bryan Foods.”
It would be 1996 before Bryan Foods would sponsor the Senior Legion team and it would adopt the name the Bryan Packers, a nod at the longstanding semi-pro team from West Point. Thirty years before that first Legion season, the original Packers team finished seventh in the nation when they competed in the 1964 National Baseball Congress Tournament in Wichita, Kan., finishing the season in a 6-5 12-inning loss to Wyoming, Mich.
“That (1994) was our initial year,” Portera said. “We just got the program off the ground that first year and it was more like a building year. From that point on, we got stronger and better and more competitive and the program just got to be better and better.”
The 1994 Legion season ended with the West Point Juniors finishing second to Starkville in the division tournament, missing the state tournament by one game. The West Point Seniors were forced to miss a lot of games on their 28-game schedule due to rain.
“The first year was sorta rough going,” Portera said. “The weather just didn’t cooperate at all.”
In the second season, Portera took over the Senior Legion team while the Junior Legion team was coached by several different coaches over the eight years of the Legion’s existence in West Point. In those eight years, the Legion teams relied solely on sponsors, fundraisers and funds from the concession stand to pay for travel, food, uniforms and other expenses.
“We were the only team in the state that didn’t charge the kids anything to play,” Portera said. “We were one of the only teams in the country to do that, maybe the only team.”
The West Point American Legion team won four state championships, a regional championship and a national championship over the course of eight years.
“The only reason we won the world series is because our program became better and better,” Portera said. “More and more people wanted to be a part of a good Legion program, but every year, we improved more and more; more and more people wanted to be a part of it.”
By 2002, the success had built to a crescendo. The season would start slow, with the Bryan Packers dropping the first three contests.
It might have been hard, in that early season, to guess this was an American Legion World Series championship team.
It would be even harder to guess how it would all end.