Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history, dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in our "Cracked Bats" feature. Know of any stories to be considered for this feature in the future? Send an email and let us know.
The lower Minor Leagues that dotted the landscape a half-century ago are mostly long forgotten, relegated to grainy pictures and tall tales told by the few old timers who remain -- stories seemingly about better days, a better game and better people.
Whether the era, the game or the people were actually better in the middle of the 20th century is open for debate. There was one player, however, who lived up to the tall tales, a player who, on a late summer night in 1948, authored one of those stories and has a place in the Minor League record book to prove it.
Len "Holy" Cross was a journeyman, for sure, traveling the Southeast and carving out a respectable and sometimes brilliant 10-year career as a player and manager during Minor League Baseball's prosperous post-World War II years. He connected for 173 homers during that decade and set records in places with names like Big Stone Gap, Rock Hill and Forest City.
But the kid from the mill town of Landis, N.C., never had a better night than the one he had on Sept. 3, 1948. It was on that night, while playing for the Spartanburg Peaches of the Class B Tri-State League, that Cross connected for four home runs in four consecutive innings. He finished the night with seven hits in seven at-bats while driving in 12 runs and scoring six against Asheville. The home run and RBI totals remained as league records when the Tri-State League folded after the 1955 season.
It was a career evening for the man they called "Holy," who earned his nickname not because he went to the university of the same name, but because he actually had a hole in his chest.
"He had a lung abscess when he was a kid, around the time he was 2 or 3," said Karen Stamey, Cross' daughter. "Part of his lung abscessed, and that's where the story came from. When he took off his shirt, he literally had a hole underneath his arm. That's where the 'Holy' stuff came from."
The hole never seemed to bother Cross, who first gained attention in high school when he was swatting mammoth home runs for the mill team on which he played. His father, Ed, had played Minor League ball and was a local legend, helping make the Crosses one of the most well-known families in and around Landis. Cross' brothers also played on the mill team, joining their third baseman brother and first baseman father to complete the infield.
"We were a total sports family," Stamey said. "We all talked about baseball. Dad talked a lot, and his father was a manager and member of the Outlaw League here. We had a lot of factories and mills and they recruited people to come play. Grandpa was a manager and player himself, and raised all three sons that way, so it was the talk all the time.
"My dad would hit a homer almost every night. This was when he was a teenager. And he signed with the Atlanta Crackers [of the Southern Association] when he was just 16. He quit school and went with them. He got drafted when he was 18, but according to locals, he was hitting the ball out of sight when he was 14 and 15."
Cross appeared in 13 games for the Crackers in 1943, then moved on to Kingsport of the Appalachian League in 1944, where he appeared in 58 games and hit four home runs. He moved up to the North Carolina State League the following season but also went into the service, missing most of 1945 and all of '46. Upon his return, Cross went to Knoxville of the Tri-State League in 1947, where he hit 21 homers before signing with Spartanburg in 1948, setting the stage for his big night.
By all accounts, on the night in question, Cross would have had had five homers had he not showboated on the fifth and final blast, which the umpire called foul.
Spartanburg was on its way to finishing seventh in the eight-team Tri-State League in the summer of '48. By the time that September night rolled around, Asheville had already locked up first place. About the only drama that remained was whether the slugging Cross would go deep and maintain a serious run at the league's home run title.
Cross, who passed away in 1987 at the age of 60, did that and then some, hitting home runs in the first, second, third and fourth innings, then following that up with three consecutive singles.
"First time up, I hit the ball over the right-field fence," Cross told the Rutherford County News in 1953. "We had a big inning and batted around. The next inning, I hit one over left field. All of us were batting the cover off the ball, and we batted around again. I hit a homer that inning and the next one, too."
What Cross never told the reporter from the Rutherford County News was that he almost claimed a bigger chunk of baseball history. His first single actually came after he hit his "fifth" homer.
"He hit the four homers, and then when he hit the fifth he kind of stood at the plate and watched it," Stamey said. "The ump got flustered with him and called it foul, but everybody said it was fair. It was a little questionable, but it was clearly fair. Had he not hot-dogged it, he would have had five homers."
Cross would go on to have several more big moments and big seasons. His career included a near Triple Crown season in the Mountain States League in 1952, the year he managed Big Stone Gap. Cross led the league with 40 homers and 125 RBIs. He also led the Class D circuit with 138 hits, but his .357 average was 15 points lower than Morristown's Orville Kitts. The 40 homers were a Mountain States League record, though.
He also earned some recognition in 1951 while playing for Statesville of the Class D North Carolina State League, a club he managed for part of the season. Cross connected for a 535-foot home run on May 28, which would later earn a mention in The Minor League Encyclopedia.
Cross went to work at the local veteran's hospital not too far from his North Carolina home after leaving baseball in 1953, staying there for the next three decades.
"In this area, American Legion ball is still very popular," Stamey said. "I go to the games, and most of the parks I go to everyone knows I'm Holy's daughter. They bring me articles and tell me stories about dad."
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.