Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
| National Association President George |
Trautman (L) crowns Howser the 1962 King of Baseball.
In 1931, a team from Charlotte placed a team in the Top 100. Twenty years later, the city hosted another. Although playing in different leagues, the two champions were remarkably similar, even down to the team’s nickname.
In 1908, the Hornets became a founding member of a new Class D League, the Carolina Association. Until 1913, the team finished as high as second only once. When the circuit was retooled as the North Carolina State League, the Hornets had slightly better luck, finishing five percentage points behind Winston-Salem in 1914, later winning the title by itself in 1916. After an abbreviated campaign in 1917, the league ceased operations on May 30, with Charlotte in second with a 20-16 record.
After World War I, Charlotte joined the Class C South Atlantic League. In 1919, the team narrowly missed the pennant, ending one game behind Columbia. After the loop was raised to a Class B level in 1921, the Hornets won the bunting in 1923, followed by another pair of close seconds in 1924 and 1925. After a fifth place finish in 1930, the team left the league.
In 1931, the Hornets joined the Class B Piedmont League, storming to the title with a 100-win champion, which also found a place on the Top 100 list. Charlotte was in the league from 1932-35 and from 1937-45. The Hornets won the second half in 1932 and the first half in 1934, losing the playoff both years. In 1936 the city was in the independent Carolina League. When Charlotte returned to the Piedmont League in 1937, the club was owned by the Washington Senators. In 1938, managed by Calvin Griffith, nephew and adopted son of Washington owner Clark Griffith, the Hornets won the championship. The Charlotte franchise was owned and operated by Washington/Minnesota through the 1972 season.
Following World War II, Charlotte joined a new Class B circuit, the Tri-State League, which gained its name by fielding teams from North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The Hornets won the pennant in the inaugural season of 1946. After several middling performances, including a seventh place finish in 1950, the team rebounded strongly the next year.
The 1951 Hornets finished the regular season with a 100-40, .714 record, recording exactly as many wins as the 1931 counterparts. Charlotte got off to a fine start, but the Dodgers’ farm club at Asheville did even better in the early going. In the first three weeks of the season, Charlotte was 16-4, but Asheville went 17-3. The Hornets took over the top rung on May 15 and stayed in first place the rest of the season, finishing 15 games ahead of second place Asheville. In the opening round of the playoffs, Charlotte was stunned by fourth place Spartanburg, which had finished 27 games behind the Hornets, three games to one. All four games were decided by one run. The first two games were played in Charlotte, the Hornets losing 2-1 and winning 4-3. At Spartanburg, the Hornets lost 9-8 and 5-4. During the regular season, Charlotte led the Tri-State League in batting (.287), runs (940), hits (1,384), triples (79), walks (828), RBI (819) and fewest strikeouts (546). The Hornets had little power, finishing seventh in home runs (40). Charlotte also led in fielding (.970).
The Hornets were managed by 27-year-old Cal Ermer, who hit .297 and led the league’s second basemen in fielding (.971) in his last season as an active player. He played one major league game, going 0-for-3 for Washington at the end of the 1947 season. Other than that, he never played above Class A. Ermer began managing in 1950 at Orlando where he won the Florida State League pennant. He was named Tri-State League co-Manager of the Year in 1951. In 1952 he move up to Chattanooga (Southern Association) where he managed for six seasons. He left the Senators organization in 1958 to pilot Birmingham (Southern) and managed in the International League at Columbus in 1959-60 and Richmond in 1961. Cal worked for Baltimore in 1962 as a major league coach and in 1963-64 as a scout. He managed Denver (Pacific Coast) in 1965-66-67 and on June 9, 1967 replaced Sam Mele as skipper of the Minnesota Twins. The Twins were in sixth place when he took over and he led the team to a tie for second place, just one game behind Boston. In 1968 Minnesota dropped to seventh and Ermer was released at the end of the season. His major league managerial record was 145-129, .529. He was a coach for Milwaukee in 1970-71. Ermer managed the Reading Phillies in 1973, winning the Eastern League title. He piloted Tacoma (Pacific Coast) for the Twins 1974-75-76, then was an Oakland coach in 1977. From 1978-85 he managed Minnesota’s AAA club at Toledo (International).
Charlotte outfielder Francisco (Frank) Campos led the Tri-State League in batting (.368), striking out only 20 times in 566 plate appearances. In May he had a 27-game hitting streak, one short of the league record. Campos, a 27-year-old native of Havana, Cuba, was the only Charlotte player named to the Tri-State All-Star team. He finished the season with Washington, hitting .423 in eight games. He was with the Senators all of 1952 and part of 1953, with a career .279-0-13 average in 71 games. Campos played for several years for the Marianao club in the Cuban Winter League.
Of the younger Hornets, 22-year-old catcher Bob Oldis had the longest major league career. Oldis reached the majors in 1953 with Washington and was a backup receiver for the Senators in 1954-55, the Pirates in 1960-61 and the Phillies in 1962-63. He got into two games for Pittsburgh in the 1960 World Series, but did not come to bat. He was a coach for Philadelphia from 1964-66, for Minnesota in 1968 and Montreal in 1969, then managed in the minors. Outfielder Bruce Barmes, a 22-year-old, 5’8” left-handed hitter, had a career .318 average in 11 minor league seasons, eight in the high minors, but played only five games in the majors, batting .200 for the 1953 Senators.
One well-known player who appeared briefly for the Hornets at the start of the season was 40-year-old ex-major leaguer Roberto (Tarzan) Estalella. Estalella, an outfielder and third baseman, was the 18th Cuban player to reach the majors and the first in a long line of Latin Americans signed for Washington by the legendary “Papa Joe” Cambria. He first played for the Senators in 1935 and also was with the Browns and Athletics during his major league career that covered all or part of nine seasons through 1949. He was a special hero in Charlotte, leading the Hornets to the Piedmont League championship in 1938 as he won the Triple Crown, hitting .378-38-123. He was a regular for Washington in 1942 and Philadelphia in 1943-44-45. Estalella was one of the players who jumped to Jorge Pasquel’s Mexican League in 1946 and was placed on the Ineligible List. When those players were reinstated in 1949, Estalella returned briefly to the Athletics and was with San Antonio and Havana (Florida International) in 1950. He played only 18 games for Charlotte in 1951, batting .310, before being sent back to Havana. That was his last year in Organized Baseball. He played in the Cuban Winter League for twenty years. Roberto, a right-handed hitter, was 5’8” and his weight was reported by different sources as anywhere from 180 to 215 pounds. In their book “Smoke, The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball,” Mark Rucker and Peter Bjarkman write, “Tarzan Estalella, a legendary long-ball slugger back on his native soil, was a fan-favored yet lead-fingered third sacker who managed but 44 round-trippers and a respectable .282 (major league) batting average. But Washington fans of the late 1930s had so much fun watching the gritty Estalella knock down enemy grounders with every part of his anatomy except his glove hand that they often phoned the ballpark in advance to find out if the ‘Handsome Cuban’ was in the lineup before making the trek to Griffith Stadium.” Estalella immigrated to Florida from Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power. He died in 1991. His grandson, Bobby Estalella, is the number one catcher for the San Francisco Giants.
The Hornets’ top winner was 21-year-old 6’4” right-hander Levi (Buck) Fleshman, up from Class D Concord (North Carolina State), who went 20-7, 3.45, tying for second in the league in wins. Jerald Lane, a 25-year-old right-hander, also up from Class D (Wellsville, PONY League) was next with 17-7, 3.58. Lane had the most major league experience of any of the 1951 Hornets’ pitchers, and that amounted to only 31 games with Washington in 1953 and Cincinnati in 1954-55 with a 2-6, 4.48 record. Two pitchers had lower ERAs than the official league leader, right-hander Harley Grossman (10-2, 2.18) and left-handed starter Bob Danielson who came down form Chattanooga in June (11-2, 2.39), but neither pitched enough innings to qualify. Grossman had the briefest of major league experience, one game for the 1952 Senators, allowing two hits, one a homer, while retiring just one batter. Howard (Diz) Sutherland, a 29-year-old southpaw who was 14-8, 4.40 for the Hornets, also had pitched in just one major league game. At the end of the 1949 season he gave up six walks, two hits and five earned runs in one inning for the Senators.
The Charlotte general manager was Phil Howser, who spent his entire 39-year baseball career in the employ of the Griffith family. He started at Chattanooga in 1935 and after three years was appointed the Charlotte GM. Except for three years in the early 1940s when he worked in the Washington front office, Howser remained in Charlotte until 1970. For many years he was the team’s president as well as GM. In 1962, Phil was honored as the King of Baseball at the annual National Association convention and in 1968 The Sporting News named him Class AA Executive of the Year. From 1971 until his death in 1974, Howser was southern scouting supervisor for the Twins.
After two more years in the Class B Tri-State League, Charlotte moved to the Class A South Atlantic League. When the minors were re-classified in 1963, the South Atlantic became a AA league and the next year changed its name to the Southern League. Charlotte remained in the league through 1972, but when they drew only 30,000 that year, Minnesota turned the franchise back to the league. Charlotte returned to the Southern in 1976 as a Baltimore farm club. In 1993, the city moved up to the AAA International League, where they currently play. During this past half-century, Charlotte took home flags in 1957 (South Atlantic), 1969, 1980, 1984 (Southern) and 1999 (International).
Using the same nickname to earn the same amount of wins as the 1931 Piedmont League champions, the 1951 Hornets duplicated their predecessors in another key category. Like the 1931 pennant winners, who set all-time league records for wins and percentage, the ’51 Hornets accomplished the same feat, finishing with the most wins and best percentage of any Tri-State League team.
|1951 Tri-State League Standings|
|1951 Charlotte Hornets batting statistics|
|1951 Charlotte Hornets pitching statistics|