Major John Griffith envisioned a nation made better, healthier and stronger — more powerful and patriotic — and forged by youthful competition that preached good citizenship.
To this day, his legacy thrives on baseball fields across America and in the highest levels of intercollegiate competition.
It is the nation's oldest organized youth baseball league, founded 98 years ago this month.
About 100,000 teenagers in the United States ages 15 to 19 play American Legion Baseball each summer on 3,500 teams from coast to coast.
"Fitness and health posed problems for military personnel in World War I," Jeffrey Stoffer, editor of American Legion Magazine, told Fox News Digital.
"The veterans who came back and started their Legion posts remembered those problems vividly."
By some accounts, half of all World War I enlistees failed to meet basic physical fitness requirements.
Griffith at the time was a nationally recognized college sports administrator, the first commissioner of the conference now known as the Big Ten.
He offered a solution to strengthen the nation’s youth: Play ball!
"There is nothing in our national life that stresses the qualities that are stressed in our athletics," Griffith said in an impassioned speech before the South Dakota American Legion state convention on July 17, 1925.
"The qualities of intelligent courage, the fighting instinct, cooperation, promise and the ability to carry out that promise, all of these are things … are stressed in our athletic games."
FILE - Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox slugger, is shown during batting action. (Getty Images)
He suggested the American Legion "could well consider the advisability of assisting in the training of young Americans through our athletic games."
American Legion Baseball fielded teams in 15 states the following season. It has since grown to all 50 states.
Yogi Berra, Bob Feller and Ted Williams are among the 82 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who first starred in American Legion Baseball as teenagers.
All three, perhaps not coincidentally, were war veterans, too.
Griffith, an athlete himself, saw competition as the key to a fit, fighting youth and a critical cog in the Arsenal of Democracy.
The American Legion was the perfect partner. The patriotic organization itself was founded in the immediate aftermath of World War I; the first American Legion caucus of veterans met in Paris in March 1919.
Griffith’s belief in national strength through sports found advocates in the highest levels of the military.
"On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds which, in other years and on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory," Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously said, the words chiseled in granite today at West Point.
Griffith, it turns out, was preparing the youth of America to fight in World War II.
In the service of Uncle Sam
John Lorenzo Griffith was born on Aug. 20, 1877 in Mount Carroll, Illinois, to Hugh Jordan and Lucy Luella (Cummings) Griffith.
He attended tiny Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he became the sports editor of the school newspaper before graduating in 1902.
He maintained an interest in sports journalism throughout his life. Among other accomplishments, he founded the influential publication "The Athletic Journal."
Griffith became a nationally recognized college sports coach and administrator, most notably in track and field at Drake University.
He was well into his career and nearing age 40 when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917.
He dutifully enlisted in the service of Uncle Sam. He served stateside at Camp Dodge, Iowa, as an officer in a U.S. Army machine gun unit.
It was there that he earned the rank of major — and was later often called by his military rank when back in civilian life.
World War I saw advances in training troops. Yet that was not enough for Griffith.
FILE - Soldiers find ingenious ways to scale wall during training at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, Calif. 1918. (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Legion ball fuels the Big Leagues
After the war, Griffith returned to his career as a college sports coach and administrator, carrying with him a renewed belief in the need for a fitter American youth.
The American Legion members, almost all of them fellow World War I veterans, enthusiastically embraced his 1925 call for a stronger, more competitive youth of America — teenagers of both sound mind and body instilled with the virtues of good citizenship.
FILE - It will go down in the records that the Oakland, California, boys baseball team defeated the boys team from Worcester, Massachusetts, 4-0 in the opening game of the American Legion's Junior World Series at Oomiskey Park yesterday. (George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
"They organized and sponsored teams, drafted local schedules and conducted championship tourneys," The American Legion writes in its online history of the baseball program.
American Legion Post 9 in Milbank, South Dakota, where Griffith issued his call to action, fielded one of the organization's very first baseball teams.
The small community proudly embraces its heritage as the birthplace of American Legion Baseball.
"Baseball is a pastime and a passion for the people of Milbank and the surrounding area," Tim Jurgens, past commander of Miller-Birch American Legion Post 9 in Milbank, told Fox News Digital.
"Major League Baseball has sponsored Legion Baseball almost since its inception," notes the American Legion in its history of its baseball program.
"And Legion Baseball has returned the favor, churning out Major League prospects since the alumni base has been old enough to be scouted."
The American Legion says the number of its baseball players who have gone on to the Big Leagues is too numerous to chart.
However, it notes that "more than half of current major-leaguers played Legion Baseball. So did almost every working Major League Baseball manager, along with several former commissioners."
American Legion Baseball has produced 82 players who have gone on to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
FILE - With papers placing him on the Navy's inactive list in hand, Chief Specialist Bob Feller, Cleveland Indian pitcher, finds plenty of volunteer catchers in case he decides to practice his pitching arm and toss away precious papers. (Getty Images)
Many of the nation’s greatest baseball players were among its most distinguished soldiers.
Red Sox slugger Ted Williams served as a fighter pilot in both World War II and Korea.
Yankees catcher Yogi Berra fought at Utah Beach with the U.S. Navy on D-Day. Lawrence Peter Berra actually earned his famous nickname from a teammate while playing American Legion Baseball.
Indians pitcher Bob Feller was six years into his Hall of Fame baseball career when he risked his future as an athlete to enlist in the U.S. Navy on the darkest day in its history: Dec. 7, 1941.
‘He was a patriot’
John L. Griffith died in Chicago on Dec. 7, 1944, three years to the day after the nation was plunged into World War II with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He reportedly succumbed to heart failure.
He was 67 years old.
He is buried today at Oak Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Mount Carroll, Illinois.
The tide of World War II had clearly turned in favor of the United States and its Allies at the end of 1944.
"By the time he died he’s well aware that (his efforts) to promote fitness were playing a pretty big role in the war effort," Winona State University professor Dr. Matthew Lindaman, author of the 2018 biography, "Fit for America: Major John L. Griffith and the Quest for Athletics and Fitness," told Fox News Digital.
"He probably would have known that the needs he saw after World War I for athletic training would have produced some success."
Griffiths’ death left a huge hole in amateur athletics across the nation.
"For a long time to come, it will be difficult to think of the Big Ten without Major John L. Griffith," Ohio State University athletic director Lynn St. John wrote in the days that followed.
"It will be equally hard to visualize the National Collegiate Athletic Association without him."
The work of American Legion Baseball that he inspired continues today.
The American Legion in Milbank, South Dakota, is feverishly working to raise millions of dollars to build a new state-of-the-art facility for Legion ball and major baseball competitions.
The goal is to open in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Griffith’s vision in the town where American Legion Baseball began in 1925.
The hope is to include an American Legion Baseball museum, said Jurgens, the former Post 9 commander.
Patriotism remains essential to the mission of American Legion Baseball.
"The American Legion needs to stand for patriotism," Jake Comer, past American Legion national commander and current member of the American Legion World Series Board of Directors, told Fox News Digital.
Patriotism, he said, is more much than waving the flag.
Patriotism, according to the American Legion Baseball creed, stands for "a sound soul, a clean mind and a healthy body."
It also stands for good citizenship.
"Griffith legitimately thought communism was a major threat after World War I and one of the ways to stop it was to create a nation of fitness," said Lindaman.
"In many senses of the word, he was a patriot."
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