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Baseball in Columbus

An article by Cecil Darby

Professional baseball and Columbus go back a long way together. In fact, they go all the way back to 1885, just 20 years following the end of the Civil War.

It was in 1885 that Columbus, then a city of some 20,000 population, joined with Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Nashville, the biggest city of the eight; Chattanooga, Macon and Augusta to form a brand new Southern League.

Baseball was a far different game in those early days. It wasn't until May 29, 1885, that restrictions preventing pitchers from delivering pitches overhand were lifted by league officials and batters could call for a high or low pitch, whichever suited them best. It required six wide ones before a batter was given a walk. Catchers wisely stood far behind the batter unless there was a base runner because it was much safer.

Baseball players were looked upon as hard-drinking ruffians in many quarters in those days. In fact, the Augusta District Methodist Conference adopted the following resolution: "It is resolved that it is the sense of this conference that baseball, as it is now conducted, is a vice and meets with our condemnation."

When the Stars, as the first Columbus team was known, opened the 1885 season at home against the Nashville Americans, the umpire flipped a coin just before the game to decide which team would bat last, just as they do in football today to decide which will kick off.

For the record, the Columbus club won the toss, but unfortunately lost the game, 11-9. It was played at Stars' Park, located just east of the current A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium. The Stars failed to distinguish themselves before disbanding on September 7, outlasting the Birmingham club, which threw in the towel four days earlier.

It would be 25 years before the city would see its first professional championship team. The 1910 Columbus Foxes, playing their second season in the South Atlantic League, came home a winner under the direction of James C. (Jim) Fox, an elongated first-baseman who had been playing for the Atlanta Crackers.

Fox went on to direct three Sally League Champions during a seven year stint as manager - adding the 1911 and 1915 titles to that first one in 1910 - and the Foxes - the club being named in his honor - won the first Southeastern League crown in 1926.

The city has been home to a dozen championship teams. Eight of those came as a member of the original South Atlantic League and no other city ever matched that number.

Eleven players off of that first team in 1885 reached the major leagues and more than 250 players who wore Columbus uniforms during the century-plus of baseball have made their way to the "show" - ranging from outfielder Enos (Country) Slaughter, who played in 2,380 big league games, down through many who had the proverbial "cup of coffee."

Three Columbus players have been enshrined in Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY - St. Louis Cardinal pitching great Bob Gibson, who was here for a month in 1957, Walter Alston, a .323-hitting first baseman on the 1939 championship Red Birds who went on to manage the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers for 24 years with four World's Championship, and Slaughter, who developed his habit of all-out hustle here while batting .325 for the championship Red Birds in 1936.

Other standouts include Luis Gonzalez, Roy White, Ken Caminiti, Mike Easler, Bill Doran, Glenn Davis, Terry Puhl, Richie Sexson and pitchers Stan Bahnsen, Fritz Peterson, Floyd Bannister, Ken Forsch, Darryl Kile, Joe Sambito, Jaret Wright, Steve Kline and Alan Embree.

But, this isn't about players and managers. This is about the people who have been responsible for keeping professional baseball in Columbus - most of the time when it was a losing proposition.

Harry Williams was elected president from the 11-man group, which backed the first SAL club in 1909 with F.H. Springer vice-president and Captain J.E.P. Stevens secretary treasurer. A member of the board of directors was T.E. Golden, for whom Golden Park would be named when it was constructed 17 years later.

Williams would also be a member of the group that brought professional baseball back to Columbus as a Southeastern League member in 1926 after an absence of eight years. Judge Frank Foley was president of the club with J.E. Humes vice-president and Jim Fox secretary.

It was then that T.G. Reeves, local businessman, became involved in the local ball club. He was a member of the board and two years later became president of the Foxes. And he remained a guiding force in Columbus baseball when the St. Louis Cardinals place a farm club here in 1936 through the end of the Cardinals' affiliation in 1955.

The Cardinals were the outright owners of the Columbus club that was known as the Red Birds from 1936 through 1942 and the Cardinals from 1946 through 1955.

Columbus was the last city in the South Atlantic League playing strictly afternoon baseball until a lighting system was finally installed in 1938, at the insistence of the Cardinals. The lights were turned on for the first time on May 3, 1938, and a crowd of 3,344 paying customers saw the first night game here - Spartanburg spoiling the occasion by scoring twice in the ninth inning to win 6-5.

Pennant prosperity hit its peak when Cardinal farm clubs won five pennants within a nine-year span - 1936, 1937, and 1939 in the Class B Sally League and, after three years out for World War II, 1946 and 1947 after the league was elevated for 'A' classification.

Those seasons saw the hey-day of professional baseball in Columbus with 124,105 pouring through the turnstiles in 1946 and 134,305 in 1947 when fans lined up at the box office and paid cash on the barrelhead.

The original Golden Park had been built for the Southeastern League club in 1926 after it was determined that the dimensions of Memorial Stadium, completed a year earlier, were not large enough for baseball. The contract for construction of Golden Park wasn't let until three weeks before the start of the season, but it was ready. The cost was $6,710.

Columbus teams would play before fans perched on those wooden stands for 25 years before the current concrete-and-steel park was constructed at a cost of $195,338 in the same general area between the 1950 and 1951 seasons. Professional teams have occupied the park for 48 of the 54 years it has been in existence.

Local ownership with major league working agreements became the format in 1956 with Hugh McMath, a local contractor heading a group that kept baseball alive here with an affiliation with the Baltimore Orioles. The McMath group continued until it moved its Pittsburgh Pirates farm club that was in first place in July 1959, to Gastonia, NC, because of poor attendance.

Insurance executive Dick Steele brought baseball back to the city in 1964 - the New York Yankees moving their Augusta club to Columbus as the South Atlantic League changed its name to the Southern League.

And the Confederate Yankees, as the club was known, broke an 18-year pennant drought in 1965. Unfortunately, the affiliation lasted only three years and Columbus was without professional baseball in 1967-68. Steele brought back a club in 1969 with an affiliation with the Chicago White Sox, in association with Walter Dilbeck of Milwaukee.

In 1970, Columbus native "Spec" Richardson, then general manager of the Houston Astros, moved his organization's Double-A farm club to his hometown and it continued under Steele's leadership until October 26, 1978, when it was sold to a group headed by B. Drayton Preston, a Columbus real estate consultant.

The city would win its second Southern League pennant in 1986, the Astros going from the league's worst team in the first half to a championship series winner over Huntsville.

The purchase of the Columbus franchise by Raleigh, NC businessman Steve Bryant from the Preston group was announced August 1, 1988, signifying the ultimate loss of the Southern League franchise.

Bryant changed the name of the club to the Mudcats - which is widely believed to have been the start of awaiting the construction of a ballpark in Zebluon, NC, where it moved after the 1990 season.

The city was immediately awarded a South Atlantic League franchise with Henry Gilbertie, a mortuary owner from Stamford, CT, as the club owner with a working agreement with the Cleveland Indians. Veteran minor league executive John Dittrich was brought in to run the team.

The club was known as the Indians in 1991 and then became the RedStixx for the 1992 season.

Gilbertie sold the club to Charles B. Morrow of Chicago soon after the start of the 1994 season and he moved his family to Columbus to realize what he described as a "lifetime dream" to operate a minor league baseball team.

Morrow, who also started the Columbus Cottonmouths hockey team, soon involved himself in many areas of community service and became one of the main forces behind the city's economic development.

He invested more than $500,000 to help in the $3.5 million renovations of Golden Park between the 1994-95 seasons which included the addition of 10 luxury suites and new offices, clubhouses, dugouts, concession stands and grandstand seating.

When the Olympic women's fast pitch softball competition took over Golden Park in 1996, Morrow refused to move his RedStixx out of town for the season. Rather he played the entire season at Columbus State University's Cougar Field, losing a bundle.

He left a city in mourning when he died of cancer, March 11, 1998.

Rita Carfagna-Murphy and her brother, Ray Murphy, of Cleveland, purchased the club on November 9, 2000, and they operated it here through the 2002 season when it was transferred to Eastlake, OH.

It appeared that Columbus might be without professional baseball for the first time since 1968 until David Heller of Washington, D.C. moved his South Georgia Waves here from Albany just before the start of the 2003 season. Heller had operated a club named the Waves in Wilmington, NC, in 2001 before moving it to Albany for the 2002 season. The club, affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers, operated under that name the first season and became the Columbus Catfish in 2004.

In 2007, the Catfish changed major league affiliations switching to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The switch proved rewarding as the club clinched the second half Southern Division title before running the table in the play-offs and winning the South Atlantic League championship.