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SAL heritage dates back 100-plus years02/28/2006 10:05 AM ET
By Tim Leonard / Special to MLB.com
The South Atlantic League actually has two histories. The first is almost as old as baseball itself, dating back to 1904. The second was part of an evolution that resulted in the league being what it is today, a key stop in the development of talented prospects.
The latter is what has become the Sally League. Roots for the league were put down in North Carolina. The Carolina Baseball Association operated as a Class D league from 1908 to 1913. That was the year it became the North Carolina State League.
The NCSL operated for 40 years until 1953, when it merged with the Western Carolina League to form the Tar Heel League. The venture was short-lived, closing down in 1954. After a five-year hiatus, the league was re-started as the Western Carolina League in 1960. Though the WCL had to endure some rough financial times along the way, it began to thrive and was renamed the South Atlantic League in 1980. The WCL was reclassified as a Class A league in 1963.
There was also a South Atlantic League that was operated from 1904 through 1963 before being renamed the Southern League. Yes, that would be the Southern League that exists today as a Double-A stop for many players who move up from the Sally League. Tampa Bay Devil Rays mega-prospect Delmon Young, for example, has played in both leagues on his way through the system.
Where it once was exclusively made up from teams in North Carolina, the Sally League has undergone a massive expansion of its market through the southeastern portion of the United States and beyond. The league has teams in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and even crossed the Mason-Dixon Line into New Jersey and Ohio.
The current version of the SAL has 16 teams split into two divisions. Several of those teams feature some of the most innovative nicknames and logos in team sports, which has resulted in enormous merchandise sales.
The Northern Division consists of the Delmarva Shorebirds, Greensboro Grasshoppers, Hagerstown Suns, Hickory Crawdads, Lake County Captains, Lakewood BlueClaws, Lexington Legends and West Virginia Power. The Southern Division is home to the Asheville Tourists, Augusta GreenJackets, Charleston River Dogs, Columbus Catfish, Greenville Drive, Kannapolis Intimidators, Rome Braves and Savannah Sand Gnats.
Most of the teams presently in the league are relative newcomers. The Tourists have the longest tenure in the league with the same location and team name, going back to 1976. The Tourists originated in 1915 and played three seasons until 1917 before a return nearly 60 years later.
Surprisingly, the Suns and Crawdads are next in terms of longevity with the same location and name, having come into existence in 1993. The Suns also play in classic Municipal Stadium, which is one of the country's oldest ballparks, dating back to 1930.
The Crawdads were part of a Sally League record on Aug. 26, 2002, when a league-record 13,003 packed the stands at Lakewood's FirstEnergy Park to watch the BlueClaws defeat Hickory, 3-0.
The league hasn't just been home to baseball prodigies. NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt bought a share of the Kannapolis Intimidators franchise after the 2000 season. It was decided the team would be renamed in honor of Earnhardt's famous nickname. For those who aren't fans, Earnhardt was known throughout his career as "The Intimidator."
The Intimidators changed their name after being called the Piedmont Boll Weevils from 1996 until 2000. Before that, the team was called the Piedmont Phillies for one season, 1995, after the franchise moved from Spartanburg, S.C., to the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
After Earnhardt's tragic death, the franchise retired his trademark No. 3 during a ceremony in May 2002. The current ownership group, Smith Family Baseball, bought the majority share of the club from Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and Bruton Smith in 2004. Larry and Sue Hedrick, who bought the Spartanburg team in 1993 before moving it two years later, retained a minority share of the team's ownership.
Another intimidator of sorts passed through the Sally League almost 100 years before Earnhardt. Ty Cobb had a mediocre .237 bating average in his first season as a professional ballplayer for Augusta in 1904. Cobb returned to the club for the 1905 season and won the league batting title with a more Cobb-like .326 average.
Cobb had 134 hits and stole 40 bases in 103 games before being sold to the Detroit Tigers for the princely sum of $700. After a career that saw him establish then Major League records with 4,191 hits and 824 stolen bases, along with a .367 batting average, Cobb was among the first inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. He was named to the South Atlantic League Hall of Fame in 1994.
Another legend of the game recently became connected with the GreenJackets, when Ripken Baseball purchased the franchise in October.
Augusta and Columbus actually have baseball history that predates the SAL. Both cities were among the eight teams that formed a Southern League in 1885. According to baseball historian Cecil Darby, a team named the Columbus Foxes won the South Atlantic League title in 1910. The Foxes, named after manager Jim Fox, also won titles in 1911 and 1915. Columbus went on to win a league-record eight titles.
The Sally's long history is dotted with some memorable team names besides GreenJackets, Intimidators and Tourists. The Anderson Electricians played from 1908 to 1912. The generically named Concord Sports played one season in 1951. Concord had been named the Nationals and the Weavers before that. The Weavers had been in Cooleemee in 1937-38 before the move and were replaced by the Cooleemee Cools in 1939.
The Elkin Blanketeers played two seasons in 1951-52. A lack of creativity led to the High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms, which existed from 1948 to 1953. Thomasville has had some of the funkiest team names in sports history. Besides the Orioles and Dodgers, teams there have been nicknamed the Chair Makers in 1937 and Tommies from 1939 to 1942 and again in 1945.
The Kannapolis Towelers were around from 1939 to 1941. The Macon Peaches took their name from Georgia's state fruit from 1980 to 1982. The Moorsville Moors had two runs, from 1937 to 1943 and then from 1946 to 1953. Had George Costanza been involved, the team no doubt would have been called the "Moops."
Shelby has gone through 10 nicknames, including the Yankees and Mets. Fans there must have had some difficulty following players who got promoted. The team usually kept a nickname for a year or two before a change would occur. The Shelby Colonels managed to last from 1960 to 1963 besides a one-year run in 1940. In all, 19 seasons of baseball were played there between 1937 and 1980.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.