Top 100 Teams
Western Carolinas League
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
|1966 Spartanburg Phillies|
Led by a future major league keystone combination, the 1966 Spartanburg Phillies pushed themselves to a league title with a record-breaking performance. However, these two middle-infielders, known in the majors for their fielding, did more of their damage in 1966 with their bats.
The town of Spartanburg, located in the northern part of South Carolina, fielded its first pro team in 1907 in the Class D South Carolina League. Among the four teams that finished the season, Spartanburg’s team, called the Spartans, finished third with a 36-34 record. The next year, the team moved on to the Carolina Association, another Class D circuit. During their five-year stay, the Spartans (Red Sox in 1911-12) finished in the first division only once.
In 1919, a new Spartanburg team joined the established Class C South Atlantic League. Outclassed, the Pioneers finished last in the eight-team circuit. After the league was upgraded to Class B status in 1921, the re-named Spartans won the pennant in 1925 with a 80-49 record. Following a last place finish in 1929, the team withdrew from the loop.
During the decade of the 1930s, Spartanburg placed teams in two different leagues. In 1931, the Spartans replaced the last-place Anderson team in the Class D Palmetto League on July 2, going 4-18 before the circuit folded on July 23. Seven years later saw the town return to the South Atlantic League as a farm team of the Cleveland Indians. In the three years of their second stay, the Spartans finished seventh once and eighth twice. During the midst of their second tail-end finish in 1940, the team moved to Charleston on July 15.
In 1946, Spartanburg gave baseball another shot, placing a franchise in the Class B Tri-State League. Here, as an affiliate of the Browns, the team once again finished last. Switching back to the Indians organization the following season, the newly renamed Peaches won the pennant. During the rest of their stay in the circuit, the team won pennants in 1953 and 1955. In addition, with a fourth place club in 1951, the Peaches knocked one of the top 100 teams, the Charlotte Hornets, out of the playoffs. Following the 1955 season, the Tri-State League disbanded.
Eight years later, a team from Spartanburg joined the Class A Western Carolinas League. Now a member of the Philadelphia baseball family, the team took the name Phillies. In their first three years, the team finished third, eighth and seventh. However, a big change was in the wind.
In 1966, the Western Carolinas League used a split-season format. In the first half, the Phillies finished with a record of 45-21, two games ahead of Greenville. In the second half, the team was even more dominant, finishing with an outstanding 46-14 record, three games ahead of luckless Greenville. Despite finishing in the runnerup position, Greenville did have the satisfaction of ending the Phillies’ 25-game winning streak with a 12-inning win on August 13, stopping Spartanburg two short of the existing record. By winning both halves, Spartanburg avoided the neccessity of a playoff. Overall, the team finished with a 91-35, .722 record. The club led the league with a .275 batting average, while scoring a circuit best 715 runs.
A 40-year-old ex-outfielder named Bob Wellman managed the club. Wellman had played in 15 major league games for the 1948 and 1950 Athletics, batting .280.
| Denny Doyle|
(photo courtesy of
The team featured a double play combination that would go on together to the major leagues. Second baseman Denny Doyle (.308) and shortstop Larry Bowa (.312) enjoyed solid seasons for the Phillies. In addition, Bowa showed off his fielding skills as he finished as the top defensive shortstop in the league (.972). Both Bowa and Doyle reached the parent Phillies in 1970 and played together for four seasons. Doyle spent eight seasons in the big leagues, batting .250 in 944 games. Bowa lasted longer, playing a total of sixteen seasons for the Phillies, Cubs and Mets. Although never a big hitter (.260), he won two Gold Gloves in 1972 and 1978. Later, in 1987-88, Bowa suffered through a season and a half of managing the last place Padres and now he is back in Philadelphia as their current manager.
| Larry Bowa|
(photo courtesy of
Although Doyle and Bowa enjoyed fine seasons for Spartanburg, the best bats were swung by outfielder Gil Torres and first baseman Ron Allen. Torres (.365) led the league in hitting while Allen (.318) slugged a team-high 16 home runs. Allen played briefly in the majors, going 1-for-11 in 1972 for the Cardinals.
The pitching staff was paced by John Penn (15-4, 2.21) and Mark Vattino (14-3, 2.46). Penn won the ERA title while tossing a circuit-high six shutouts, while Vattino finished second in the ERA race. Both pitchers were out-dueled by a young Greenville hurler named Nolan Ryan who went 17-2 with 272
strikeouts. Neither Penn or Vattino saw action in the majors, but reliever Barry Lersch (1-1) played six years in the majors, compiling a 18-32, 3.82 record.
Two other Spartanburg pitchers reached the majors. Right-hander Lowell Palmer pitched parts of five seasons from 1969-74 with a 5-18, 5.29 record with Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cleveland and San Diego. Right-hander Mike Strahler pitched parts of four seasons, 1970-73, for Los Angeles and Detroit, compiling a 6-8, 3.57 record.
Spartanburg stayed in the circuit, renamed the South Atlantic League in 1980, several more years, changing nicknames to Traders (1981-82), Spinners (1983) and Suns (1984) before reverting back to the Phillies in 1986. In that span of time, the club won championships in 1967, 1972, 1973, 1975 and 1988.
Following the 1994 season, the team moved to a new locale. From 1926 through 1994, Spartanburg’s teams played in Duncan Park. By 1994 it was one of the oldest parks in baseball and no longer met the National Association’s facility standards. A new park, Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium, was built in Kannapolis, NC, and the owners moved the franchise there after the 1994 season, where it was known as the Piedmont Boll Weevils and remained a Philadelphia affiliate. After the 2000 season, stock car legend Dale Earnhardt became a part-owner of the club, now a White Sox farm team. The team was renamed the Kannapolis Intimidators, taking Earnhardt’s NASCAR nickname. Earnhart died in a crash in this year’s Daytona 500.
The 1966 Spartanburg Phillies stood tall behind a group of strong performances, led by their hard-hitting and slick fielding shortstop, Larry Bowa. The Phillies’ .722 winning percentage continues to be a league record, a lasting legacy for one of the only two teams from the 1960s to make the top 100 list.
|1966 Western Carolinas League Standings|
|1966 Spartanburg Phillies batting statistics|
|Walter Strong (Lexington)||P||38||11||2||1||0||0||0||0||1||5||0||.091|
|Del Wilber, Jr.||IF||10||21||5||8||5||2||0||1||2||2||0||.381|
|1966 Spartanburg Phillies pitching statistics|
|Walter Strong (Lexington)||4||4||.500||38||2||2||0||70||74||19||30||3.47|