Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Behind the efforts of an All-Star shortstop, the 1980 Peninsula Pilots became one of the two Carolina League teams to win 100 games. Before the decade had ended, this same shortstop had been named to the American League All-Star team, albeit at a different position.
The southeastern area of Virginia, generically called Peninsula for baseball purposes, actually encompasses the towns of Hampton and Newport News, located side-by-side on a peninsula between the York and James Rivers. The area was first represented by a professional team in 1894, when the Staunton franchise of the Virginia League moved to Newport News on August 11 with a record of 36-53. The team went 14-11 the rest of the way to finish the season fourth in a six-team league. Two years later, the nearby town of Hampton also served as a Virginia League replacement team, inheriting Petersburg’s 32-60 record and going 7-30 the rest of the season to finish in last place.
In 1900, Newport News returned to the Virginia League, fielding their first team to actually start a season. In the four-team circuit, the Shipbuilders finished in last place with a record of 23-39. The next year, after the league was renamed the Virginia-North Carolina League, the Shipbuilders folded in June, causing the franchise to move to Charlotte.
Eleven years later, Newport News rejoined the Virginia League, now a Class C circuit. In eleven years, the Shipbuilders won a pennant in 1916 and were in first place when an abbreviated 1917 season was terminated in May. After a second place finish in 1922, the team left the league.
In 1941, Newport News was back for a fourth go in the Virginia League. Now a farm team of the Athletics, the Pilots finished fifth and fourth before the league went dark for the 1943 season.
Two years later, baseball returned to the city in the form of a Dodgers farm team, playing in a different loop, the Class B Piedmont League. Over the next dozen years, the team won playoff crowns in 1946, 1948 and 1954, and a regular season pennant in 1955. Following the latter victory, the team dropped out of the league.
In 1963, using the name Peninsula for the first time, a team representing Newport News and Hampton joined the Class A Carolina League as a farm team of the Senators. After a pair of second-division finishes, the team hooked up with the Reds organization in 1965 and won the East Division flag. After stints as A’s (1968), Astros (1969) and Phillies (1970-71) affiliates, the team dropped out of the circuit following another championship in 1971.
In an ambitious plan, Peninsula made a large leap in 1972, placing a team in the Class AAA International League. This club, a Montreal farm team called the Whips, did not fare well, drawing less than 100,000 fans over a two-year period. After the 1973 season, the club withdrew.
Following a one-year experiment as an independent club in 1974, a team called the Pilots rejoined the Carolina League in 1976 as part of the Phillies family of clubs. After a fine 90 win season in 1978, the team came back two years later with an even more impressive record.
The 1980 Pilots won the first half of the split-season going away, compiling a 51-19, .729 record, 16 games ahead of Lynchburg. In the second half, Peninsula tailed off slightly, going 49-21, .700 with only a three-game bulge over Salem. In the playoff, the Pilots dusted Durham, three games to none to win the championship. Overall, the club finished 100-40, .714, batting a league-best .276. The team especially feasted on the lowly Rocky Mount (24-114, .174) club, going 18-2 against the independent nine.
The manager of the Pilots was 28-year-old Bill Dancy who had started his career as an infielder in the Phillies organization in 1973. After advancing to AAA as a player, he began his managerial career in 1979 at Spartanburg. Except for 1996-97, when he managed Atlanta’s AAA club at Richmond, Dancy has spent his entire career with the Philadelphia organization. In 1983, he managed another of the top 100 Minor League Teams, the Reading Phillies. In 1999, he led Clearwater to a 77-59 record, winning the first half in the Florida State League’s West Division before losing in the playoff semi-finals. Dancy’s career managerial record is 1,518-1,404, .520.
On the field, the team was led by the Carolina League batting champion and the leading RBI man. Outfielder Wil Culmer (.369) also had a league-high 184 hits, 112 runs and clubbed a team-high 18 homers. His major league experience consisted of seven games with Cleveland in 1983, where he went 2-for-19.
Shortstop Julio Franco, who batted .321 with a league-topping 99 RBI, had a far more successful major league career. In 1982, he joined the majors, embarking on a 15-year career spent largely in Cleveland and Texas. After being converted to a second baseman in 1988, he won a batting title (.341) for the Rangers and also was named to three consecutive All-Star teams (1989-91). After leaving the majors after the 1997 season, Franco played in Japan before emerging in the Mexican League in 1999, where he won a batting title with a .423 mark.
The Pilots’ pitching staff was led by a quartet of fine performances. LeRoy Smith (17-6, 2.60) led the league in wins and shutouts (3). Wallace Goff (14-4) and Don Carman (14-5) tied for third for wins, while Jim Wright (13-1) had the best percentage (.929) and lowest ERA (1.85). Of this group, Carman made the most major league impact, winning 53 games in ten seasons for the Phillies, Reds and Rangers from 1983-92. In addition, Warren Brusstar (1-1) who played in only seven games for the Pilots, served as a major league reliever for nine seasons. Brusstar returned to the Phillies organization in 1999 as pitching coach for their Gulf Coast League rookie club.
Five Pilots made the Carolina League All-Star Team: 3B Ray Borucki, SS Franco, OF Joe Bruno, DH Culmer and LHP Goff. Franco and Culmer also were named to the National Association Class A All-Star Team. Culmer was the league’s Topps Player of the Month for July and Franco won the award for August. Franco was voted the Carolina League’s MVP and Roy Smith was chosen the league’s Pitcher of the Year.
Smith, who was traded to Cleveland along with Culmer in 1982, pitched for the Indians, Twins and Orioles for eight years, 1984-91. For the last six years, Smith has been a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball operations staff, and in October, 1998, was appointed assistant general manager for player personnel.
Oscar Acosta (2-0) is one of the few players to come out of New Mexico (Portales). He was a minor league pitching coach from 1988-98 in the Rangers, Cubs and Yankees organizations. In 1999, he managed Lansing, the Cubs’ farm team in the Midwest League, finishing first in the first half in the East Division before losing in the semi-finals of the playoffs. He is now in his second year as major league pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs.
Peninsula played eleven more seasons in the Carolina League, winning a pennant in 1992 during their last year of existence. Following the season, they were replaced by a team from Wilmington, DE, called the Blue Rocks.
The 1980 Peninsula Pilots, behind the efforts of fine players like Julio Franco, finished as only one of two Carolina League teams in 50 years to win 100 games in a season. The club accomplished this feat by utilizing a potent hitting attack and a coterie of fine hurlers, thus earning its place on the roster of the minor league’s finest teams.
|1980 Carolina League Standings|
|1980 Peninsula Pilots batting statistics|
|1980 Peninsula Pilots pitching statistics|