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Carolina League is home to characters
03/09/2006 7:49 PM ET
With his fourth hit of the 2006 season, New York Mets' first baseman Julio Franco will pass Hall of Famer Heinie Manush and move into 76th place on the all-time hits list. Although few people will make the connection, this obscure occurrence will mark one all-time Carolina League great surpassing another.

The fact that Franco -- who knocked in 99 runs in 1980 with the Peninsula Pilots -- and Manush -- who managed the 1945 Martinsville Athletics -- are united in their Carolina League affiliation is symbolic of the league's longevity and contribution to baseball history. The ageless Dominican and the feisty outfielder are just two of a long line of baseball immortals who have passed through the league (now a Class A Advanced circuit), which got its start when America was in the tail end of the Second World War.

The Carolina League's inaugural season was in 1945. That year, the Class-C league consisted of six teams from just two Southern Virginia cities, and featured one of the greatest team names in baseball history: the Leaksville-Draper-Spray Triplets. Another one of the league's earliest franchises was the Durham Bulls, who were immortalized in 1988's hit movie, Bull Durham.

In the film, Kevin Costner played the character of Crash Davis, an aging womanizer. The real-life Crash Davis played with the Bulls in the late 1940s, after three years with the Philadelphia Athletics, but was nothing like the character Costner portrayed. In fact writer-director Ron Shelton (himself a Carolina League alum) chose the name out of the league's record books simply because he liked how it sounded.

Davis -- who set a Carolina League record with 50 doubles in 1948 -- tore up the Carolina League in its early years, along with contemporaries like Muscle Shoals, Willie Duke and Harvey Haddix. Shoals barely missed the Triple Crown in 1949, Duke closed out a stellar 16-year Minor League career with several fine seasons with the Bulls, and Haddix went 19-5 with a 1.90 ERA for Winston-Salem in 1947 before advancing to the Major Leagues.

Despite the Carolina League's Virginia roots, the league's longest-running franchises are located in, not surprisingly, North Carolina. Winston-Salem is the only city to host a team in every year of the circuit's existence, while Lynchburg and Salem have each been a reliable presence throughout the past four decades. The 1950 Winston-Salem Cards remain one of the best teams in Carolina League history. Anchored by second baseman Earl Weaver, the Cards went 106-47 and won the league championship. In fact, the only other squad in league history to win 100 games was Franco's 1980 Peninsula Pilots.

Located in an area of the country that was largely unsympathetic to the civil rights movement, the Carolina League was slow to integrate. It wasn't until 1951 -- a full four years after Jackie Robinson's debut -- that the league featured a black player, Percy Miller Jr. Just 20 years old and two months out of high school, Miller was only the third black player to appear in the southern region of the United States. Playing for the Danville Leafs, Miller contributed a two-run single in his debut, a hit that propelled the Leafs to a 5-4 victory over the Durham Bulls. The Danville Bee's headline the next day was a sign of the times: "Negro Gets 2-Run Single in Debut." Miller played only 19 games with the Leafs, finishing with a batting average below .200.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the Carolina League, which had been largely independent, started to develop affiliations with Major League clubs. Consequently, more and more future Major Leaguers began appearing in the league, including several of the game's all-time greats. Willie McCovey batted .310 with 29 homers and 89 RBIs for the Danville Leafs in 1956, Carl Yazstremski hit .377 with the Raleigh Capitals in 1959, and Rod Carew appeared with the Wilson Tobs in 1966.

Additionally, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan all logged time in the league in the 1960s before coming together in Cincinnati as part of the fabled Big Red Machine teams of the mid-1970s. The most recent Hall of Famer to have spent time in the league was Wade Boggs, who hit .317 and made the All-Star team while playing in Winston-Salem in 1977. Coincidentally, poultry consumption in Winston Salem spiked considerably with Boggs' emergence that year.

Despite the presence of future stars like Boggs, Cecil Cooper and Dave Parker, the Carolina League fell on hard times during the 1970s. Largely due to the region's sluggish economy, clubs in several cities dropped put of the league. Similar situations were occurring throughout Minor League baseball, but in the Carolina League the circumstance was particularly grim, as membership fell to just four teams. Determined to keep the league from disappearing into professional baseball's massive graveyard of defunct organizations, Carolina League executives embarked on an ambitious expansion plan.

By the beginning of the 1980s the league had re-established the Durham Bulls, and added teams in Kinston, N.C., Alexandria, Va., and Hagerstown, Md. The plan worked. Due to aggressive marketing strategies and an improving economy, the new teams flourished and in 1983 the Carolina League began a string of 13 straight seasons in which attendance surpassed the previous years.

It helped that a new generation of standout players emerged from the league in the 1980s. Superstars such as Barry Bonds, Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Fred McGriff, Moises Alou and, of course, Julio Franco, passed through the Carolina League on their way to Major League stardom. In 1989, attendance surpassed the one million mark for the first time since 1947.

Today, the Carolina League is home to eight teams, divided into Northern and Southern divisions. The winners of each division's first and second halves play each other in the divisional playoffs before advancing to the league championship, which in 2005 was won by the Frederick Keys.

The league's newest (and southernmost) addition is the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, who joined in 1999. More than half of the clubs play in stadiums that have been built or renovated since 1990, while some toil in parks that are older than Julio Franco. But regardless of the surroundings, the Carolina League remains one of the best ways to see future Major League stars in an up-close-and-personal environment. Anyone of them could be the next Heinie Manush.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.