Past Times

Baseball has deep roots in North Carolina

On a swing through North Carolina in 1939, photographer Dorothea Lange captured these Orange County baseball players on July 4.
On a swing through North Carolina in 1939, photographer Dorothea Lange captured these Orange County baseball players on July 4. Library of Congress

As the boys of summer work their way through each season, there’s always a sense of history. In 1985, Raleigh writer L.D. Gibson took a look back at baseball’s place in the Triangle and the state.

Fred A. Olds, a former reporter with The Raleigh Times, wrote in 1913 that the 1870s were the golden days of baseball. Writing from a Raleigh perspective, Olds said, “Baseball in those days was clean, pure sport. All Raleigh felt an interest in the sport and pride in the champions, the Raleigh Athletics. Everybody went, from the banker and the big merchant to the bootblack.”

Pride and pure sport aside, there was another good reason for the Raleigh Athletics’ success. They won far more games than they lost. Amateurs all, they played in the days when players could still be called out by being hit by a thrown ball while on the base paths. Winning teams were rewarded by being allowed to keep the game bat and ball, and Olds records that the Athletics almost invariably got to keep the bat and ball.…

Baseball was big at another amateur level in North Carolina. For years, teams sponsored by American Legion posts across the state drew large crowds during summers. In some cities, such as Shelby and Gastonia where national American Legion champions were developed, minor league franchises had trouble competing.

And it is this type of grassroots baseball that sticks in the hearts and minds of Tar Heels who have grown up with a love for the game. A latter-day Times sports writer, Joel Chaney, wrote in a 1981 column about his memories of baseball in cow pastures – a pursuit he recalled as posing not only health hazards but occasionally messy conditions.…

By the 1930s, baseball had taken one significant step away from the sandlots and cow pastures. There were great semi-pro teams in the 1930s and 1940s supported by industries such as McCrary and Bossong Mills of Asheboro, Adams-Millis of High Point, White Oak of Greensboro and Hanes Hosiery of Winston-Salem. Perhaps the most notable individual to come from semi-pro ball in the state was Max Lanier of Denton who won 16 straight games in 1936 for Bossong and went on to a 15-season major league career.…

Not only has North Carolina bred native-born major leaguers, the state also has produced other stars who got their start on the minor league teams that have played in the state. In 1949, there were 43 cities in the state with teams in seven different minor leagues – the most in the nation at the time. Future major leaguers who passed through those cities included Charlie Grimm, Frank McCormick, Johnny Vander Meer, Al Rosen, Eddie Mathews, Johnny Mize, Bobo Newsom and many others.

Not a minor leaguer at the time, the legendary “Babe” Ruth also made history in North Carolina. On March 7, 1914, while playing an intrasquad exhibition game for the Baltimore Orioles in Fayetteville, Ruth hit his first professional home run. A historical marker on Gillespie Street in Fayetteville also notes that it was in that city that George Herman Ruth acquired the nickname “Babe.”

The rise to 49 minor league teams in 1949 was in contrast to the war year of 1943, when Durham of the Piedmont League was the state’s only minor league team. Baseball teams were everywhere – Tarboro, Clinton, Whiteville, Goldsboro, Rocky Mount, Wilson, Shelby, Gastonia and Raleigh.

In fact, those were the glory days for minor league baseball in Raleigh – years when crowds of less than 3,000 at old Devereaux Meadow represented a bad draw for the Raleigh Caps. An Independence Day doubleheader between the Caps and the old Durham Bulls in 1947 drew 7,000 fans in Raleigh for an afternoon game and 8,000 in Durham that night. The N&O July 21, 1985

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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