Robert Virden is the manager of the American Legion baseball team that plays out of Post 8 in Ballinger. Every year for the last 93 years the American Legion has held the American League World Series. Teams are comprised of players under the age of 19 from all 8 regions. They travel to selected regional locations to compete to get to the American Legion World Series.
The team managed by Virden is sponsored by American Legion post 8 in Ballinger and coached by his son, Mike Virden, “As far as I know, we’re the only team west of Interstate 35.”
Neither Virden is a stranger to the game. Robert has been around baseball since he was in little league in the 50s and 60s. When he played for Ballinger High School in 1962 he struck out 19 batters in one game. Mike is the head baseball coach for Leonard High School in Leonard, Texas, up on the Oklahoma border in the northeast part of the state.
After graduating high school Virden joined the US Army at the age of 19 and embarked on a career of service to his country that would see him retire as a sergeant major in artillery almost 3 decades later. Virden would also go on to earn his Bachelor and masters degree from Sul Ross State University. He then coached amateur baseball in Ballinger for many years. He was the head baseball coach at Sul Ross from 1991-1992 and head baseball coach at Wall High School from 1996-2003. He served a stint as the head baseball coach at Lee Junior College in Baytown as well. From 1987-1990 he was the West Texas scout for the Cincinnati Reds. Virden comes from a baseball family, “My dad was born in 1902 and I was born in 1947. My dad played baseball professionally in the 1920s and 1930s. My oldest son, Mike, also played professional baseball. I’m the son of a professional baseball player and the father of a professional baseball player who were both drafted by Major League teams. Virden says that his son is the only baseball player from Ballinger to be drafted by a Major League team.
All of this forms a picture of the man who leads the team, the Post 8 Cannoneers, “I was in the artillery in the army which uses “cannons” and they say that an outfielder with a strong arm has a cannon for an arm so I combined that to come up with the team name.” The idea to have an American Legion team here occurred to him while he was convalescing after surgery in 2017, “While I was recovering I was watching television and saw the American League World Series and thought to myself, ‘Hey, we can do that.’ After that, we set everything up and got it all set up in 2017 and it began in 2018.
Virden approached the state chairman of American Legion baseball who said that there were no teams in this area. He said it’s not easy to set up an American Legion baseball team, “You have to get registered and insured nationally and certified. You have to keep a notebook with the information on every player, including photo ID and birth certificates. I had to get the binder together and hand carry it to the chairman and I have to carry it to the games.”
The team this year consists of 17 players from the area, including 2 players from the 3A state champion Wall Hawks who went 39-1 last season. The rest of the players come from 7 other high schools; Central High School in San Angelo, Lakeview High School in San Angelo, Reagan County High School in Big Lake, Ballinger High School, De Leon High School, Comanche High School and Fredericksburg High School. The caveat is that the high schools can’t have a combined enrollment of over 5,000 students from the sophomore, junior and senior classes.
Virden, along with the head coach and assistant coaches networks with high school coaches to locate the best players in the region, “I also keep up with which schools are having good years and spend a lot of time traveling and scouting players. I was taught by Chuck LaMar how to scout players.” Lamar was the head coach at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor prior to serving as a scout with the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburg Pirates, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Devil rays, Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies and finally the Toronto Blue Jays.
Being the only team west of I-35 gives the team an automatic birth in the American Legion state tournament. That doesn’t mean that they take it easy prior to the state tournament, “I have drafted 17 players and every player has a job. I’m confident that our players can compete and are good enough to play college baseball. Last weekend we won 3 games against the San Antonio Adult League. We hit 6 homeruns this weekend and have 9 homeruns in 7 games. We play 15-17 prep games before the state tournament. On July 2nd and 3rd we’ll play the Burkburnett baseball academy in San Angelo at the Bell Street Baseball Complex. July 2nd will be a doubleheader with the first game at 11 a.m. and the July 3rd game will also begin at 11 a.m.”
For more information on the team, you can contact Virden at 325-656-5619 or assistant coach Tony Harral at 325-365-6960.