Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In the long history of minor league ball, only a handful of teams have won four titles in a row. In the early 1950s, the Norfolk Tars accomplished this feat. The 1952 edition of the team, led by a young pitcher and a youthful manager, easily eclipsed the efforts of the other three. Although the pitcher only had a taste of major league stardom, the manager went on to pilot one of the American League’s greatest champions of the 1960s.
The city of Norfolk, located on the Virginia coast, first hosted a baseball team in the years following the Civil War, when the Creighton club (named after the pitching great - Jim Creighton - who had died at the age of 21 in 1862) played other amateur nines of the area such as the Old Point and Naval ensembles. In 1885, Norfolk’s first pro team played in the Eastern League, compiling a 32-44 record before disbanding in late August.
In the last decade of the 19th century, Norfolk played in two different leagues. From 1894-1896 and again in 1900, a team called the Clams played in the Virginia League. In between these stints, a club known as the Jewels played in the Atlantic League in 1897-98. The only noteworthy performance among the group occurred in 1896 when the Clams won the second-half title in the Virginia League.
After a partial season stay in the Virginia-North Carolina League in 1901, Norfolk joined the Class C Virginia League in 1906. During its 23-year stint in the circuit, the team (called the Tars) won titles in 1907 and 1914 with a second half crown in 1922. On June 3, 1928, with the Tars in first place with a record of 26-13, the Virginia League (Class B since 1920) folded.
In 1931, the Tars joined the Class A Eastern League. After a sixth place finish in their first season, the team was again the victim of a league’s collapse the following year when the Eastern went belly up on July 17 with Norfolk in seventh place.
Two years later, Norfolk began a long association with the Class B Piedmont League. As a farm team of the Yankees, the Tars finished the 1934 season with the best regular season record, before polishing off Charlotte four games to two in the playoffs. In succeeding years, while remaining in the Yankees family of clubs, four more titles were garnered by the Tars with the last coming in 1951. Building on that 81-58 champion, the next year’s team would better that mark by 15 wins.
In 1952, Richmond won its first six games of the season, but by May 1 Norfolk had passed the Colts. The Tars finished the first half with a 48-16, .750 mark, winding up 12 games ahead of Richmond. In June they won ten games in a row. The second half started with Lynchburg in first place after the first week, but once again the Tars were soon on top. They won eight of their last ten games for a 48-20, .706 record, 9-½ games better than Lynchburg. In the playoffs, Norfolk was ousted in the first round by Richmond, 4 games to 1, all low-scoring contests. Charley LeBrun, the Piedmont League’s leading pitcher, was effective, but received no support. He lost the first game at Norfolk, 1-0, the lone Richmond run being unearned. Johnny Kucks beat Richmond 5-1 in the second game. The series moved to Richmond and the Tars lost the next three games, 4-2, 5-0 and 3-0. LeBrun lost the finale when, once again, Norfolk failed to score a run.
During the regular season, Norfolk led the league in batting (.271), runs (790), hits (1,187), total bases (1,646), doubles (188) and walks (834). The Tars also led in fielding (.966).
Norfolk was managed by 37-year-old Mayo Smith, a former outfielder, whose only major league playing experience was with the Philadelphia Athletics in the war year of 1945 when he batted .212 in 73 games. Smith had played ten years in the International League and was drafted by the A’s after he led the league in batting (.340 for Buffalo) in 1944. After three seasons with Portland (PCL), he began his managerial career in 1948 with Amsterdam, NY, the Yankees’club in the Class C Canadian-American League. He was promoted to Norfolk in 1951. Smith managed Birmingham (Southern Association) in 1953-54. He reached the majors in 1955 as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and led them through July 22, 1958 when he was replaced by Eddie Sawyer. Under Smith, the Phillies finished fourth once and fifth twice. He managed Cincinnati the first half of 1959, being replaced by Fred Hutchinson July 9 with the Reds in seventh place. Smith returned to the Yankees organization as a scout from 1960-66. He was named manager of Detroit in 1967 and this is where he enjoyed his greatest success. The Tigers tied for second in 1967. In 1968, Smith’s Tigers won the American League pennant by a margin of 12 games over second place Baltimore with a 103-59, .656 record. Denny McLain (31-6) had the most wins by a major league pitcher since 1931 and was the last big leaguer to win 30 games. However, it was Mickey Lolich who was the star of the World Series victory over St. Louis. Lolich won all three starts, giving up five earned runs in 27 innings. Down three games to one, Detroit rallied for three straight wins, two by Lolich. In the deciding game, with two days rest, Lolich out-pitched the great Bob Gibson, Detroit winning 4-1. Mickey had the Cards shut out until the bottom of the ninth. Not surprisingly, Mayo Smith was named Major League Manager of the Year by The Sporting News. Detroit finished second in the Eastern Division in 1969 and dropped to fourth in 1970 and Smith was fired. His major league managerial record was 662-612, .520.
Norfolk’s leading hitter was 20-year-old third baseman Leon (Buddy) Carter who led the Piedmont League in hits (168) and doubles (34), was second in batting (.321) and total bases (235) and third in RBI (87). He played six more years, in the high minors, but never reached the big leagues. 23-year-old outfielder Dick Tettelbach (.317-6-85) led the league in stolen bases (30), tied for the lead in triples (8) and was third in batting. He played briefly in the American League with New York and Washington in 1955-57, batting .150 in 29 games. Outfielder Bill Casanova, 20, from Windsor, Ontario, hit .294-6-65 and led the league in runs (108). Like Carter, he never reached the majors.
The Tar who wound up with the longest major league career was 20-year-old outfielder Woodie Held, who batted only .216 in 42 games before being sent down to Boise (Pioneer). Two years later, having switched to shortstop, Held played four games for the Yankees, reaching the majors to stay in 1957. He played in the American League for 14 years with Kansas City, Cleveland, Washington, Baltimore, California, and Chicago, finishing in 1969 with a .240 average in 1,390 games. His best years were with the Indians from 1959-64 when he hit 127 homers.
Charley LeBrun, a 25-year-old, slender 6’3” right-hander from Ancon, Canal Zone, led the Piedmont League in wins (23-4), ERA (1.87) and won-lost percentage (.852). He held opposing batters to a .208 average. LeBrun was Norfolk’s first 20-game winner in 14 years. He went 13-3 in the first half and 10-1 in the second half, including nine straight wins. In July, Norfolk hosted the Piedmont League All-Star Game, the Tars beating an all-star aggregation from the other five clubs, 7-6. LeBrun started and pitched six perfect innings. In 1953, he was a reliever for AAA Kansas City (American Association) with a 2-2, 6.12 record. His last pro year was 1954 with Edmonton (Western International) where he was 2-3, 6.00.
Johnny Kucks, 19-year-old rookie right-hander, had a 19-6, 2.55 record and led Piedmont League pitchers in assists (60). He spent the next two years in the service and when he was discharged he went right to the majors, joining the New York Yankees in 1955 for an 8-7, 3.40 season. His best year was 1956 when he went 18-9, 3.86 with three shutouts and was named to play in the Major League All-Star Game, although he did not pitch. The high spot in his career was the seventh game of the 1956 World Series. Kucks pitched a masterful three-hit shutout as the Yankees beat the Dodgers, 9-0. Brooklyn’s only hits were a first-inning single by Duke Snider, an eighth-inning single by Carl Furillo and a ninth-inning single by Snider. Kucks remained with the Yankees until he was traded to Kansas City May 26, 1959. His last major league season was 1960 with the Athletics. He had 54-56, 4.10 six-year major league record. In four World Series with the Yankees, 1955-58, he was 1-0, 1.89 in eight games, 19 innings, all in relief except for that 1956 gem.
Wilson Parsons, 18-year-old rookie right-hander from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, went 9-1, 3.53. On July 12, he pitched a nine-inning 1-0 no-hitter against Richmond. Parsons pitched for seven more seasons, six in AA-AAA, but never played in the majors.
Six Tars made the Piedmont League All-Star team at the end of the season: LeBrun, Kucks, Carter, Tettelbach, Casanova and shortstop Johnny Hunton. Carter and Tettelbach were unanimous selections.
In 1953-54, the Tars again finished with the best record in the Piedmont League, giving the team four regular season titles in a row. The Yankees pulled out of Norfolk after the 1954 season and the Tars affiliated with the Kansas City Athletics. Norfolk folded July 14, 1955. Although the Tars had a 37-34 record, attendance had dropped and the team had drawn only 30,000 fans. The league itself went out of business after the 1955 season.
The Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News area returned to Organized Baseball in 1963 in the Carolina League as the Tidewater Tides, playing in Portsmouth. Tidewater advanced to the AAA International League in 1969 and the team moved to a new facility, Met Park, in Norfolk in 1970. In 1993, the team began playing in new 12,000-seat Harbor Park in downtown Norfolk adjacent to the Elizabeth River and the team became the Norfolk Tides.
The 1952 Norfolk Tars was the best team in a four-year group of champions. In addition, the club finished with the second best record of any team during the lengthy history of the Piedmont League --a worthy achievement in its own right.
|1952 Piedmont League Standings|
|1952 Norfolk Tars batting statistics|
|1952 Norfolk Tars pitching statistics|