A storied past, a new beginning
BB&T Ballpark, the new home of the Winston-Salem Dash, will open on April 13 as the Dash take on the Potomac Nationals in a 7 p.m. game. The ballparks opening marks the latest chapter in the storied history of minor league baseball in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
The opening of BB&T Ballpark ushers in a new era in Piedmont minor league Baseball
On April 13, the Winston-Salem Dash will play its first game at BB&T Ballpark.
The occasion will mark the latest chapter in the storied history of baseball in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
“Winston-Salem has had a very rich baseball tradition,” Mayor Allen Joines said. “Opening Day is a continuation of that rich tradition, and hopefully taking it to a whole new level of citizen involvement.”
Despite the controversy surrounding the city’s investment of nearly $28 million in Phase I of the baseball stadium project, Joines said he’s observed a positive buzz throughout Winston- Salem as ballpark construction has rapidly progressed over the past several weeks. The stadium lights were lit in a special ceremony on Feb. 24. Individual game tickets went on sale Tuesday at noon.
After lengthy construction delays that forced the Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox to play at Gene Hooks Field at Wake Forest Baseball Park all of last season, it appears the new downtown ballpark will be ready for play in less than a week.
Joines said he expects a “tremendous ratcheting up of public interest” in minor league baseball due to the millions of public dollars invested in BB&T Ballpark.
“Since the stadium is owned by the public, we hope they’ll come out and support the team,” Joines said.
For more than a century, minor league baseball has captured the imagination of citizens of the Piedmont region of North Carolina. In the area’s rich baseball history, countless minor league players, coaches, managers, owners and league presidents helped pave the way for the players of today, and made an indelible mark on the game.
In his book Professional Baseball in North Carolina, author Chris Holaday chronicles the history of baseball in cities around the state, including Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point.
Winston-Salem fielded its first baseball squad in 1905. In 1908, the Winston-Salem Twins were formed as a charter member of the Class D Carolina Association. The Twins won their first league title in 1913 after joining the Class D NC State League. Slugger Bill Schumaker and ace pitcher JR Lee led the Twins to the championship that season. Ninety-seven years later, minor league baseball is still alive and well in the Twin City as the Dash look to improve upon a successful 2009 campaign.
Greensboro can trace its baseball roots back to 1902. The city fielded its first team that year — the Farmers — in the Class C North Carolina League. The league dissolved that summer. In 1908, the Greensboro Champs joined the Class D Carolina Association, a league that included teams from North and South Carolina. By 1911, Greensboro became known as the Patriots, a mascot the city’s teams would use until 1958. The Patriots won their first league title in 1920 under the watchful eye of shortstop and manager Charlie Carroll. Greensboro has consistently fielded a team since the 1920s. Today, the Greensboro Grasshoppers are the Class A farm team of the Florida Marlins.
High Point’s baseball history dates back to 1948, when the city joined with Thomasville to field a team in the Class D NC State League. The Hi-Toms, managed by Jimmy Gruzdis, captured first place in the league standings in its inaugural season.
The Hi-Toms served as a farm team for the Boston Red Sox, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Kansas City Royals. In 1969, the Royals dropped their affiliation and the Hi-Toms dissolved, leaving High Point without a minor league team.
The Piedmont league
Judge William G. Bramham is credited with organizing the Piedmont League, which began play in 1920. In his book entitled The History of the Piedmont League, David F. Chrisman documents how the Piedmont League — which included ball clubs from Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, Durham and Raleigh — helped fill the void left by the collapse of the North Carolina Association in 1917.
The North Carolina Association featured future legends like Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Greenville Spinners. But Bramham’s new league gave birth to up-and-coming stars like Greensboro Patriots’ manager and shortstop Charles Carroll. With ace pitcher Roy Sadler on the mound and a talented infield composed of Lloyd Smith, Jack Teague and Bill Webb, the Patriots seized the first-ever Piedmont League title in 1920.
The High Point Pointers finished fourth in the league standings that year with four .300 batters. Second baseman WW Waldron, shortstop Earl Bitting, third baseman Floyd Trexler, and right fielder Jim Conley helped lead High Point to the league playoffs. The Winston-Salem Twins featured outstanding players like center fielder Hobart Whitman, right fielder Bill Kotch and shortstop John Koval, who led the league in home runs. Despite the talent on the field, the Twins finished in fifth place during the 1920 inaugural season. The Piedmont League was elevated from Class D status to Class C before the start of the 1921 season — the year Lloyd Smith became the league’s first .400 hitter. The Raleigh Red Birds would go on to win the league title that year.
The league folded in 1955 but not before entertaining thousands of baseball enthusiasts, giving aspiring future major leaguers a chance to shine while adding to the Piedmont Triad’s proud baseball tradition.
The farmers, 1902 (photo courtesy of Chris holaday).
A league of outlaws
In their book entitled, Independent Carolina Baseball League, 1936-1938, authors RG Utley and Scott Verner track the history of the Carolina League’s humble beginnings. Utley and Verner document that Judge Bramham, “the czar of minor league baseball,” declared the Carolina League an “outlaw” operation and mounted a three-year campaign to destroy the league.
But that didn’t stop the business and civic leaders in the Piedmont’s textile towns from forging ahead. The Carolina League offered a different brand of baseball, one that fans thoroughly enjoyed.
“Fans enjoyed the exciting and often unruly play on the field as much as they relished the cunning backroom tactics that team executives used to get the upper hand on their opponents and on organized baseball,” write Utley and Verner.
An editorial printed in the May 18, 1936 edition of the Charlotte Observer reflects the optimism of baseball fans in the Piedmont.
On that day, Jake Wade, the newspaper’s sports editor, wrote: “Today is opening day, you know. It’s a new baseball picture for Charlotte and this section. Not organized professional baseball … but something which may prove just as entertaining and diverting. Certainly it’s a noble experiment, and most engaging.”
The “noble experiment” included teams in Charlotte and the textile towns of Kannapolis, Salisbury, Hickory, Shelby, Forest City and Valdese.
Teams of textile workers had long thrilled fans in the southern Piedmont region of North Carolina with their exploits on the baseball diamond. The area developed a reputation for generating some of the best talent around, and the powerful textile barons like Charles A. Cannon of Cannon Mills Co. in Kannapolis routinely recruited talented ballplayers to work in their mills in the hopes of building a top-notch company team, according to Utley and Verner.
Another factor in the rise of the Carolina League was the impact of the Great Depression on organized baseball. In 1929, there were 26 baseball leagues around the nation, but by 1933, that number had dwindled to 14. The nation’s staggering unemployment rate of 25 percent affected ballplayers as well, which explains why a good number of seasoned professionals joined the ranks of the Carolina League.
As more and more professionals began to jump ship, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues and Judge Bramham issued a warning in the June 16, 1936 edition of the Concord Tribune.
The newspaper quoted Bramham as saying, “The Carolina League … is harboring and playing players under contract or reserved with organized ball. All such players are placed on the ineligible list, and all players and clubs in organized ball are notified that the playing with or against ineligibles, or with or against clubs playing or harboring ineligible players, will bring about the ineligibility of any and all players who fail to observe this warning.”
Bramham’s warnings did not bring about the end of the Carolina League, Utley and Verner contend. Rather, it was the same set of economic conditions that gave rise to the league in the first place. For the textile barons who wrote the checks, the “noble experiment” proved a drain on their finances, and the league folded in 1938.
The Carolina League as its currently known came into existence in 1945, and has thrived until this day. The league is comprised of the Frederick Keys, Lynchburg Hillcats, Potomac Nationals, Wilmington Blue Rocks, Kinston Indians, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Salem Red Sox and the Winston- Salem Dash.
The 1989 film Field of Dreams featured a character named “Moonlight Graham.” Played by Burt Lancaster, Graham only played half an inning for the New York Yankees and never got an at-bat. The story of Clement Manley Llewellyn mirrors the Moonlight Graham saga. A native of Dobson and a standout pitcher at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1910s, Llewellyn garnered the attention of Yankee scouts in 1922. In their book, Outlaw Ballplayers, RG Utley and Tim Peeler chronicled that fact that Llewellyn made a single appearance for the Yankees on June 18, 1922. Llewellyn was given cleanup duty in the eighth inning of a 9-2 Yankee loss. A few weeks later, Llewellyn was sent down to the Class AA Buffalo Bisons.
Nine years before the formation of the independent Carolina League, Llewellyn played for Charles A. Cannon’s Kannapolis Towelers. Llewellyn served as a manager and eventually worked in the team’s front office, according to Utley and Peeler. In the meantime, Llewellyn was elected to judge in Cabarrus County. In 1939, Llewellyn helped bring the former Carolina League teams back to organized baseball, and the Class D NC State League thrived under his guidance.
The name “Ernie Shore” is synonymous with Winston-Salem baseball perhaps due to the fact that Ernie Shore Field was home to the city’s minor league baseball franchise for more than 50 years. Shore, who played for the Boston Red Sox alongside Babe Ruth during the 1910s, headed up the campaign to build the baseball stadium on the north side of the city after South Side Park burned to the ground. In 2006, the city of Winston- Salem sold the stadium to Wake Forest University after Winston-Salem Dash owner Billy Prim announced his plans to build a downtown ballpark. In 2009, the stadium was renamed as Gene Hooks Field at Wake Forest Baseball Park.
Contrary to popular belief, Shore didn’t grow up in Forsyth County. Shore learned America’s pastime on the rolling farmland of Yadkin County, and his early baseball career was heavily influenced by one of the most successful amateur baseball squads in the state. In his book, The Red Strings Baseball Team of Yadkin County, author MR Dunagan recounts how Shore at the age of 12 began to hear stories about legendary Red Strings pitcher Fred Reinhardt, and how it inspired him to greatness. The team organized in 1896 and issued a challenge published in a number of local papers to play any amateur baseball team in the state, according to Dunagan. During its seven seasons, the Red Strings won 60 games and lost only three.
Wes Ferrell with the Reidsville Luckies, 1934 . He is the first to the left on the back row. (photo courtesy of Chris Holaday).
After graduating from East Bend High School, Shore went on to pitch for Guilford College before being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1914. The Orioles drafted both Shore and Babe Ruth, but both rising stars were subsequently sold to the Boston Red Sox. Shore enjoyed a good career in Boston until the 1919 season, when he was traded to the Yankees. After two seasons in New York, Shore ended his career with San Francisco in 1921. Shore was elected sheriff of Forsyth County in 1936, and remained in that post for decades.
When speaking of legendary players from the Piedmont Triad, the conversation must include Greensboro’s brother duo of Wes and Rick Ferrell. In his essay, “The All-Time North Carolina Team,” Matthew Eddy chronicles the fact that Wes Ferrell, a right-handed pitcher, earned the rare distinction of winning 20 games in each of his first four seasons in the major leagues. Rick Ferrell caught a full nine innings for the American League in the first-ever All-Star Game in 1933, and held the American League record of 1,805 games caught for 41 years. Wes and Rick Ferrell spent the better part of four seasons as Red Sox teammates during the 1930s.
In Professional Baseball in North Carolina, Chris Holaday chronicles the fact that the Ferrell brothers first played together for the Winston-Salem Twins during the 1920s. Rick Ferrell spent 18 years as a catcher for the Browns, Red Sox and Senators and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984. Wes Ferrell enjoyed a 15-year career in the majors while pitching for the Red Sox and the Indians, finishing with a career record of 193-138 and a batting average of .280.
Winston-Salem native Mark Grace won four Gold Gloves with the Chicago Cubs, and earned the distinction of having the most hits (1,754) and doubles (364) of the 1990s, Eddy writes. Grace played a total of 16 seasons in the major leagues with both the Cubs and the Arizona Diamondbacks before retiring in 2003.
High Point’s Luke Appling was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964 “as perhaps the best shortstop the game had ever seen, save Honus Wagner, and the best all-around player from North Carolina,” writes Eddy. A 7-time All-Star, Appling served as the Chicago White Sox leadoff hitter for an astonishing 20 seasons from 1930-1950. Appling posted a .388 batting average in 1936, the highest mark ever by a shortstop in the 20 th century, according to Eddy.
The Winston-Salem Twins, 1956 (photo courtesy of Chris Holaday)
The Negro Leagues
Five years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, a team from the Carolina League signed its first black player, writes Chris Holaday in Professional Baseball in North Carolina.
The 1948 Goshen Red Wings of Greensboro (photo courtesy of Chris holaday).
On Aug. 10, 1951, the Danville Leafs signed Percy Miller Jr. Soon afterwards, other teams followed suit. In 1955, the High Point- Thomasville Hi-Toms signed Dan Morejon, one of the first black players to spend an entire year with a North Carolina minor league team. Morejon went on to be named the league’s most valuable player after hitting .324 with 86 RBIs, writes Holaday.
Prior to minor league integration, black ballplayers banded together to form the Negro leagues, which proliferated in the Northeast. However, North Carolina had its share of professional black teams, Holaday writes, including the Asheville Blues, the Charlotte Black Hornets, the Durham Black Sox and the Winston-Salem Pond Giants. Other teams included the Raleigh Tigers, the Kinston Grays, the Rocky Mount Crocodiles and the Greensboro Goshen Red Wings.
As integration in professional baseball increased, the black teams in North Carolina began to dissolve.
“Many of the top black players were rapidly lost to organized baseball as new opportunities were opened to them,” writes Holaday.
“Black fans had always been allowed at white minor league games, though they had to sit in the ‘colored’ bleachers. After integration, they could attend a minor league game and see talented black players, lessening the need for black teams.”
“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman. “It will take our people outof-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism; tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set; repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”
Whitman’s words ring true for all baseball enthusiasts but especially so for those handful of baseball scholars who appreciate the importance of the game’s history and the significance of its future. And on April 13, a new chapter will be written in that remarkable story.
Hi-Tom teammates in 1955 (photo courtesy of Chris Holaday).