Kinston Has a Rich Tradition in Baseball
by David E. Dalimonte
Professional baseball came to Kinston in 1908, but the city's love of the game goes back much further. There are nineteenth century accounts of local "Base Ball matches" between the "Fleet Foot Club" of Kinston and nines from surrounding communities. By the early part of the twentieth century, the Kinston newspaper was featuring accounts and box scores of the irregularly scheduled amateur games on the front page. The city teams were a source of great pride in rivalries with other squads from nearby towns. One particularly heated rivalry was with the New Bern team. This competition came to a violent conclusion with the notorious potato game. Late in the game, New Bern had men on first and third with two outs. On an outside pitch, the runner on first took off for second, and Kinston catcher Elisha Lewis made a throw that sailed into the outfield. The runner on third came home only to be tagged out by Lewis who still had the ball. He had thrown a potato into the outfield. A riot ensued which eventually included fans and players alike and even continued on the train ride back to New Bern.
Kinston's first professional nine was one of the original members of the Class D Eastern Carolina League which began operation in 1908. Manager Lloyd Wooten made a trip to New York in an attempt to sign two of Columbia University's big stars, Eddie Collins, who had seen very limited playing time with the Philadelphia Athletics, and pitcher Bull Lee. Collins decided to stick with the A's, and, after a long and productive career, found himself in the Hall of Fame. Lee signed with Kinston and became the first pitching star in the city's long history. Besides a "Bull," the team would also feature a Fox and a Wolfe. Fox would end up winning the league home run title that year. Unfortunately, the Kinston team had to withdraw from the loop a third of the way through the 1908 schedule. The league only lasted three seasons, but it would be revived in the late twenties with Kinston playing a very active part in the revival.
1921 saw the return of professional baseball to Kinston - but not officially. The Eastern Carolina Baseball Association would today be considered an independent or semi-pro league. In the terminology of the day, it was known as an "outlaw" league since it was not recognized by the National Association. Kinston was in this circuit for two seasons and was known as the Robins in 1921 and the Highwaymen in 1922. Instrumental in the formation of this team was local baseball legend George Suggs. Suggs was a former major league player who grew up in Kinston and came back to his hometown after his playing days were over. He managed both of Kinston's clubs in the association and also designed the stadium, West End Park. One of the executives for the outlaw clubs was Elisha Lewis - the same man who caused such controversy with a potato a generation earlier. Playing leftfield for Kinston during these years was a young man named Pat Crawford. As time passed, he would become known as "Cap'n Pat," one of the most beloved members of the community after his playing days were over. Crawford eventually made it to the major leagues where he had a role in the powerful St. Louis Cardinals teams of the thirties.
The Suggs designed West End Park was renovated in 1925, as Kinston found itself in the lofty Class B Virginia League with much larger cities like Richmond and Norfolk. The owners decided to call their new team the Eagles after an unsuccessful naming contest produced no suitable entries. This name would stick with the city's teams, on and off, throughout the next sixty years. The Eagles were in the Virginia League for three seasons and finished at or near the bottom in each one. The team was led by player/manager Johnny Nee who went on to have a very long career as a scout with the New York Yankees. Among his finds were Bill Dickey, who made it to the Hall of Fame, and Bronx favorite Tommy Henrich. Playing a small role on these Eagle teams was a young player named Frank Armstrong. Frank would give up baseball for a career in the military and become one of the most decorated generals in the history of the US Air Force. Rick Ferrell, another young Eagle, would have a very long life in the sport as a player and executive and achieved baseball's highest honor by being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984. One of the few on-field highlights for the team was the city's first professional no-hitter thrown by Jim Meade against Petersburg on June 12, 1926.
In 1928, the Class D Eastern Carolina League was revived, and Kinston switched over with the hope of doing better in the standings against cities closer to its own size. In the first season, they came in fourth and nearly broke .500 for the first time, but they were right back in the cellar at the end of the 1929 campaign. In October of that year, the stock market crashed, and many sports leagues went down with it including the Eastern Carolina League.
Kinston fans were able to cheer again when the city entered the semi-professional Coastal Plain League in 1934. From the start, the Eagles proved to be much more competitive than they had been in their previous efforts. In the inaugural season, they took the regular season crown with a 59-32 record, but they faltered in the playoffs, losing to Greenville. They got their revenge in 1935 as Greenville fell in the postseason despite being the regular season champs, and the Eagles defeated Ayden for the league championship - the first in Kinston's history. The 1936 squad hoped to continue this success but came in fourth in the regular season and was ousted by Ayden in the championship series of the playoffs.
Never before had any Kinston team cracked the .500 mark, and now they strung together three post-season appearances in a row along with a championship. This was due largely to the coaching of legendary UNC manager Bunn Hearn and a group of great young athletes who passed through the town. Lefty Orlin Rogers was the team's best pitcher, and he would eventually make it to the majors. His catcher, Jim Tatum, would later be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame for his achievements as a coach with Oklahoma University and the University of Maryland. Pitcher Johnny Humphries had nine seasons in the American League ahead of him. Hank Greenberg's brother, Joe, was the Eagles' third baseman. By far, the most impressive of the Eagles' semi-pro alumni was Charlie "King Kong" Keller. His 93 RBI and .870 slugging percentage in 1936's 72 game season was remarkable enough to attract the attention of the New York Yankees who signed him up for a long all-star career. Keller's career .410 on-base percentage in the majors places him among the top forty players of all time in that category.
Due to financial considerations, the Coastal Plain League decided to seek recognition by the National Association in 1937. Upon attaining professional status, the circuit was given a Class D rating. As a fully professional league, the members could no longer field college players as they had in the past. Pat Crawford came to the rescue. Now a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cap'n Pat was able to negotiate an affiliation between Kinston and the National League club. Unfortunately, future major leaguers like Carden Gillenwater, Johnny Wyrostek, Walt Sessi, and Joe Schultz, did very little against the competition during that first year. Kinston spent the entire season in the cellar. One of the schedule's few highlights was one of the most lopsided victories in Kinston baseball history - a 30-5 pounding of the Goldsboro team on May 22 of that year.
1938 through 1940 saw vast improvements on the field for the Eagles as they were able to secure postseason berths each year, had one of the league's best hitters in Wyrostek, had one of the best pitchers in Eddie Hurley, hosted the league's first all-star game, participated in its first night game, and had a no-hitter from Eddie Nowak against New Bern. Unfortunately, two of the three seasons were rocked by scandal. 1938 was marred by an ineligible player controversy which played havoc with the standings and caused much embarrassment for the league as they tried to punish guilty teams by taking away wins. In 1939, Kinston's manager, Snake Henry, physically attacked an umpire on the field. A close play at third was followed by much swearing, a knee to the groin, a foot stomping, a shove, a near riot from the fans, and a one year suspension for Kinston's skipper.
1941 saw a monumental collapse as the team finished dead last. What was worse than the on field performance was Kinston's bottom line. The team struggled financially throughout the season and came close to withdrawing on several occasions. In the end, the team had to be bailed out by the city to complete the season. Had there been a 1942 season, it is doubtful that Kinston would have been able to field a team. Having sold all their best players off to raise money and facing no baseball in its immediate future, Kinston decided to have a little fun with what they thought might be their final professional game. In the 11-5 loss to Williamston on September 4, Kinston sent two of their players to umpire the game, while the umpires were given Eagle uniforms and sent in for duty. Later in the day, the Kinston batboy was sent in to pinch hit. Ironically, Kinston would go on to have many more years of professional baseball ahead of it, while, unbeknownst to them, the City of Williamston would never again field a professional nine. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II, the league decided to suspend operation for the duration.
Following the war, the Coastal Plain League resumed play and was able to survive seven more seasons. Kinston had very good teams during this period and was able to make it into the playoffs at the end of all seven campaigns and into the final round on four of those occasions. The Eagles were crowned league champions in 1947 while they were an affiliate of the Double A Atlanta Crackers. This was Kinston's first fully professional title, since the 1935 club was only considered a semi-pro team. In 1950, the city was able to secure an affiliation with the Boston Red Sox. Outstanding performers on these teams included third baseman Pete Peters, twenty game winners Alexander Zych, Claude Voiselle and Tommy Bankston, Andy Tomisic who struck out twenty Tarboro hitters in one game, local boy Sam McLawhorn who won 26 games in 1947, player/manager Steve Collins, Kenny Aspromonte, Leo Groeschen, and 26 game winner Gene Host. By 1949, the team had acquired a new stadium to play ball in. Not yet historic Grainger Stadium was far superior to the formerly used Grainger Park which the team shared with the local high school baseball and football teams.
The final seven years of play in the Coastal Plain League wasn't without some rough patches. The team's biggest controversy came up during the 1948 championship series. Many of the Eagles claimed that they were promised bonus money for making it to the final round of the playoffs. Following Game 1, when it became clear that no such money was forthcoming, eleven Kinston players went on strike. The Eagles were forced to field many local replacement players for Game 2 with predictable results. The National Association president saw the players' actions as a breach of contract and threatened the strikers with lifetime bans from organized ball. Although they came back to complete the series, the ballplayers met with hostile hometown fans who had very little sympathy for athletes who would abandon their own team during the championship. They ended up losing many followers along with the series.
Throughout the league, there was a drastic drop in attendance following the 1947 season. The decrease was especially noticeable in Kinston where patronage dropped by more than 25% from the 1949 to 1950 campaigns. Player shortages were also becoming a problem as more and more players were being lost to the military draft and, eventually, the Korean War. In 1951, more than half of Boston's 187 players under contract had been called into military service prompting them to cut back severely on their farm system including cutting ties with Kinston. The Eagles sold stock in the team to fund 1951, and were picked up as a Detroit Tigers affiliate for 1952. That would prove to be the last year for the Coastal Plain League as its financial difficulties forced the owners to disband.
By this time, a new league had been formed in North Carolina and Virginia. The Class B loop was known as the Carolina League and had been gaining a reputation as being very competitive. The Pittsburgh Pirate affiliate in the league was Burlington, but the owner, L.C. "Red" Fowler, was not happy with the gate receipts he was taking in there. He started considering other towns as alternatives and was mentioning Kinston as a possibility as early as 1954. He finally made the move before the 1956 season. Moving the team failed to make it play any better, and the Eagles floundered near the bottom of the pack. Ticket sales followed suit, and creditors resorted to appealing to the Carolina League to try and collect on their debts. The Pirates dropped the team from their farm system following the disastrous season. Fowler did manage to secure a new affiliation with the Washington Senators for 1957, and an attempt was made to play in Kinston. The Eagles lost the first seven games of the season as attendance averaged around 400 fans for home games. During an ugly game on April 25, Kinston pitcher Dwight Feimster threw at the umpire as the official was approaching the mound. On May 9, Kinston blew an 11-4 lead and lost to the Hi-Toms. On the tenth, it was announced that the team would be moving to Wilson. For his extreme mismanagement of the franchise, Fowler was removed as owner, and the franchise was purchased by a Wilson radio executive. The league was forced to step in and pay some compensation to Kinston season ticket holders and advertisers.
In addition to Kinston's introduction to the Carolina League, 1956 also marked the year that Kinston baseball was finally racially integrated. The league had been integrated since 1951 when Percy Miller Jr. joined the Danville Leafs, and the Burlington franchise was already integrated when it moved over to Kinston. One of those African-Americans who played for Burlington in 1955, Frank Washington, stayed with the team in 1956. He was joined by another black player, Carl Long, who was an alumni of the Negro Leagues. The two made their historic debut in Eagles uniforms on April 17. Long impressed with a .291 batting average, 18 home runs, and 111 RBI during the year. The RBI total has been equaled but never surpassed by any subsequent Kinston player. A generation before, South Carolina native Cap'n Pat Crawford adopted Kinston as his home after playing here and became a much beloved member of the community. Long, another native of South Carolina, followed the same path and continues to make Lenoir County his home where he is greatly admired by the fans of Kinston baseball. Some mention should be made here that Kinston's black community had its own baseball team, the Kinston Greys (sometimes referred to as Grays), who played off and on for decades and did not disband until the mid-sixties. A few of the players, such as pitcher James "Spot" King, still live in Kinston. The Greys could best be described as a semi-pro team since players had other means of income, schedules were loose, and players often bounced around from team to team. They were paid to play baseball though and so are a part of the rich history of professional baseball in the city and should not be forgotten.
Kinston's re-entry into Carolina League baseball in 1962 was explosive both on the field and at the turnstile. Although they came in second in the standings, the Eagles were able to fly through the playoff competition and claim the first of its Carolina League crowns. At a time when Kinston's population was only 25,000 strong, the ball club was able to attract over 140,000 fans. Part of the lure for these fans was the amazing team supplied by Kinston's parent club, the Pittsburgh Pirates, which included Steve Blass (17-3, 1.97 ERA, 209 K's), and Frank Bork (19-7, 2.00 ERA). Another attraction for the fans was that for the first time, the Eagles were a community owned team. The Kinston Eagles Baseball Company was a non-profit organization run by an elected 18 man unpaid board of directors. Profits went back into improving the stadium, promoting the team, and supplying playing equipment for the "youngsters" of Kinston. This arrangement would continue through all thirteen years of Kinston's second tenure in the Carolina League from 1962 through 1974.
With the reclassification of minor league baseball in 1963, the Carolina League became a Class A circuit. The Eagles would fail to win any more championships during this second period of Carolina League play, but they were in the hunt during most seasons and managed to make the playoffs following six of the thirteen seasons. The Pirates stuck with Kinston through the 1965 campaign, and the Eagles were managed by Pete Peterson during three of those four seasons. Pete would later oversee the Pirates farm system and become the Pirates' general manager, helping to build the powerful late seventies team that won the World Series. The Eagles became affiliated with the new Atlanta Braves during 1966 and 1967 and were managed by Andy Pafko during those years. From 1968 though 1973, the Eagles had a working relationship with the New York Yankees, and the fans saw a lot of great talent pass through the city including Ron Blomberg, Terry Whitfield , and a young Ron Guidry who would establish himself as one of the best pitchers in the American League in a few short years. His number has been retired by the Yankees organization and he has been honored with a plaque which hangs at Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.
During the 1970's the popularity of minor league baseball reached its lowest point and the attendance in Kinston fell to only 30,000 for the 1973 season. The city desperately needed a huge shot in the arm to revive interest, and the Expos were turned to in its hour of need. The young Montreal franchise boasted a strong farm system with a lot of talent. So much talent in fact, that they decided to experiment with having two High A affiliates. Instead of dividing the players evenly between the two High A teams, the West Palm Beach club ended up with all the best men while the newly renamed Kinston Expos had to make due with castoffs. The Kinston team soon found itself overmatched among its Carolina League rivals. The Expos fell to last place and attendance fell to only 27,000 for the year. Montreal declared their experiment a failure and withdrew from Kinston following the 1974 season. With no major league sponsor and very little fan support, Kinston withdrew from the league.
Ray Kuhlman had a long and successful career as a pilot for United Airlines, and before that, he had flown dangerous supply missions for the military during World War II. As his flying life was coming to a close in the late seventies, Ray decided to make an investment in baseball with some of the money he had saved. After purchasing a Carolina League franchise, he looked around for a suitable location for it and decided on Kinston. The renamed Kinston Eagles flew unaffiliated their first season back in the circuit in 1978. By the next campaign, they were associated with the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto stayed with Kinston for seven years, and the team eventually took on the Blue Jay name. Although Kinston did not win any championships during the Blue Jays years, the period is remembered fondly by the fans of today. Ray and his wife Ruth ran the team themselves and oversaw steady annual increases in attendance each year. They brought a fun family atmosphere to the game and helped things along with a string of marketing ideas that have taken hold and remain to this day. These included increased promotional days, fireworks displays, the introduction of Kinston baseball cards, an increase in branded souvenir merchandise, the establishment of the Kinston Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, and the hiring of a team mascot. Also putting people in the seats was a formidable collection of future major league stars including Tony Fernandez, Pat Kelly, Fred McGriff, Jose Mesa, and Cecil Fielder along with fan favorites like "Rocket" Wheeler and future football star Jay Schroeder.
Following the 1985 season, the Blue Jays decided to part ways with Kinston, and professional baseball in the city seemed to be in doubt once again. There was talk of moving the franchise, but the city remained in the Carolina League with an independent ball club that took on the Eagles name. 1986 proved to be disappointing in the standings and at the gate, and talk of a move was renewed, but ownership, led by principal owner Stuart Revo, along with former owner Gary Fitzpatrick, and new Vice President North Johnson, secured an affiliation with the Cleveland Indians during the off season. Very little talk has been heard about moving since. For more than twenty years, Cleveland and the KTribe, as they have come to be known, have enjoyed an extremely successful partnership which has produced fifteen playoff appearances and five Carolina League championships along with an incredible array of major league talent including Albert Belle, Sean Casey, Bartolo Colon, Brian Giles, Charles Nagy, Manny Ramirez, C.C. Sabathia, Grady Sizemore, and Jim Thome. Besides the championships, fans have thrilled to the many individual accomplishments achieved by KTribe players. Casey Webster finally equaled Carl Long's 111 RBI in 1987, Ken Ramos, Sean Casey, Victor Rodriguez, and Pat Osborn took batting titles, while Danny Peoples hit 34 home runs in 1997. Not to be outdone, KTribe pitchers also excelled. Mike Soper still holds the Carolina League record with 41 saves in 1991, Oscar Munoz and Jason Rakers threw no-hitters, Keith Ramsey threw a perfect game against Myrtle Beach in September of 2004, and teammates Chuck Lofgren (17 wins) and Scott Lewis (1.48 ERA) baffled Carolina League hitters during 2006.
The talent and the wins brought the crowds, as six figure attendance totals became the norm throughout the 90's and into the twenty-first century. Drawing inspiration from the special relationship the team enjoyed with the city during the glory days of the sixties, North Johnson and Gary Fitzpatrick fostered closer bonds with the mayor's office and created the Mayor's Committee for Professional Baseball in 1987. Dedicated to increasing season ticket sales and promoting ties with businesses, the committee accomplished much in a short span of time. Attendance increased by nearly twenty thousand in 1987 and by more than twelve thousand the following year. By 1991, the number of fans through the turnstiles topped 100,000 for the first time since 1964. Although a new ownership group, led by local restaurant owner Cam McRae, purchased the franchise in 1994, continuity in the day-to-day operations has been maintained through general manager North Johnson and front office mainstay Shari Massengill who took over the reins in 2006. Ties with the local government also remain strong, as prospects for the start of a second century of baseball in 2008 look all but assured with new renovations to the ballpark and a renewed affiliation with Cleveland signed on the dotted line.