Minor League Baseball in Rocky Mount

This article was written by Leverett T. Smith Jr.

This article was published in 1978 Baseball Research Journal

The North Carolina State historical marker at the corner of Church Street and Falls Road in Rocky Mount reads “JIM  THORPE, Indian Athlete, star of 19 12 Olympics, made his professional baseball debut with Rocky Mount Railroaders, 1909. Ball park was 300 yds. W.” For many, Jim Thorpe’s having played baseball in Rocky Mount constitutes the high point of professional baseball in the city; for some, it is the whole story. But it is not nearly enough. Rocky Mount’s baseball history is rich, if still largely unreconstructed, and when it has all been told, we may find Jim Thorpe’s part in it to have been rather smaller and less significant than it first appears.

Jim Thorpe played baseball in Rocky Mount for parts of two seasons. The team finished dead last his first year and improved enough the second season after he left to finish first in the second half of a split season. Later, because of his participation in professional baseball in Rocky Mount, Thorpe lost the gold medals he won at the 1912 Olympics. As a representative of professional baseball in the city, he seems less than adequate.

One man who might well represent in his own career the history and significance of baseball in Rocky Mount is Frank Walker, who played on, managed, or was general manager or owner of Rocky Mount baseball teams in various minor leagues for nearly five decades.

Born on September 22, 1894 in Enoree, South Carolina, Walker came to Rocky Mount for the first time in 1920. He had been a professional baseball player since 1914 with several minor league teams and for parts of two seasons an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers. Walker thought he was through with professional baseball when he came to Rocky Mount. He could not have been more wrong.

Walker had played on the Pacific coast in 1919 and was preparing for another baseball season there when news reached him that his father had died. He found himself appointed guardian for a sister living in Rocky Mount and came there to take care of her, thinking he had left his baseball career behind him.

Very soon he found himself in charge of the Detroit farm team in the Virginia League and toward the end of the season he signed with the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League. Frank Walker subsequently played in Rocky Mount, first for the Tar Heels in 1922-23, then for the Broncos in 1924. He also managed the team all three years and was its leading hitter. Following the 1924 season, he played briefly with the New York Giants of the National League before moving to Greenville, South Carolina, of the Sally League, where he again managed through the 1930 season.

Walker then left baseball because of poor salaries and returned to Rocky Mount and opened what was to become a very successful laundry business. In the early and mid-1940s he worked variously as the general manager and president of the Rocky Mount Rocks of the Bi-State and Coastal Plain Class D leagues. Until his death in 1974, he was active both in the Rocky Mount business community and with minor league baseball in the city. Walker, it would seem, is an embodiment of the social, economic, and geographic mobility which are thought to account for America’s greatness and uniqueness as a country. In Rocky Mount he found his town and he grew and prospered with it.

America’s limitations as a society are also manifest in Rocky Mount’s baseball history. Consider the case of probably the best baseball player the city ever produced, Walter F. “Buck” Leonard. In the 1920’s and early 1930’s Leonard played semi-pro baseball in Rocky Mount, first with the Elks team, then with the Black Swans (Mr. Leonard does not remember the origin of this glorious nickname), whom he helped organize and managed. During his long career in the Negro National League, Leonard always kept his home in Rocky Mount. In 1962, with Frank Walker, he organized the minor league franchise which operated here through 1975. Leonard, by all accounts a great baseball player and now a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, never made the major leagues because of the color of his skin. Walker, a good baseball player, did.

Although Rocky Mount baseball teams have for the most part participated in the lower reaches of the minor leagues, the baseball played has been of remarkably high quality. Rocky Mount has had many teams in the lowest classifications, but for two stretches the city was represented in the higher minors. Between 1915 and 1927 they played in the Class C Virginia League. In the later 1930’s, perhaps the glory years of professional baseball in Rocky Mount, a farm club for the Boston Red Sox operated in the city in the Class B Piedmont League.

Within these leagues, Rocky Mount has always been competitive, winning more than its share of championships over the years. The first championship team appears to have been the 1910 Railroaders, who won the second half of a split season. In 1915, Raymond Ryan led the team to the first half championship of the Class C Virginia League.  In 1929, under Charles Moore, the Rocky Mount Buccaneers captured the second half pennant of a split season of the Class D Eastern Carolina League.

Though they finished third under George Ferrell in the Bi-State League in 1942, the Rocky Mount Rocks did win the Shaughnessy playoffs. In 1946, under the direction of Harry Soufas, they won the Coastal Plain League pennant handily. That was the year southpaw Bill Kennedy established one of the all-time great pitching records with 28 wins and 3 losses, 456 strikeouts in 280 innings, and an ERA of 1.03. After changing their name from “Rocks” to “Leafs” they won again in the same league in 1949 under Quentin Martin and Horace Benton. In 1969 they won the eastern half of the Carolina League pennant under Al Federoff. Finally, in 1975, the Phillies under Cal Emery won both halves of the split season to become undisputed champions of the Carolina League.

Along the way the team had some pretty exciting times. A prime example was the Rocky Mount sweep of a Sunday twinbill from the Greensboro Yankees on May 15, 1966. Pitchers Dick Drago and Darrell Clark, Rocky Mount roommates, both came through with no-hit games, winning 5-0 and 2-0 over the hometown Yankees.

I want to look briefly at three of Rocky Mount’s teams, to give a flavor for each: the 1909 Railroaders, the 1942 Rocks, and the 1975 Phillies.

The 1909 Railroaders

1909 was the first year in professional baseball for the city of Rocky Mount in this century. The team, nicknamed the Railroaders, distinguished itself, but not for excellence. Despite the presence of Jim Thorpe, they were undisputedly the worst team in the league. For the last month of the season, five of the six teams struggled for the pennant. Rocky Mount was the sixth, finishing 15½ games off the pace and an even 10 games behind the fifth place club.

But matters were even worse than this. The team was involved in charges of cheating, of purposely losing games, and of using ineligible players. Many of these charges rose out of the city’s rivalry with the city of Wilson, which the sport of baseball has continued to give shape to through the years.

On August 10th, manager Walsh of the Railroaders took his team off the field rather than continue a game with Wilson because, in his opinion, the Wilson pitcher was doctoring the baseballs and he couldn’t get the umpire to order the practice stopped. Walsh’s decision and its implication angered the Wilson correspondent to the Raleigh News and Observer who reported that Walsh’s action was a case of sour grapes, for Walsh himself had been known to try the same tricks, with less success.

Eight days later, the Wilson correspondent accused the Rocky Mount team of playing in such a way as to deny the Wilson team the pennant. According to him, the Railroaders were losing to Wilson’s rivals on purpose, and would play hard only against Wilson. Sworn affidavits were eventually produced to this effect and a league meeting was called to consider this and other related issues.

The season ended in general confusion. The final standings showed three teams tied for first place. Wilmington, Wilson and Fayetteville all had 49-41 records. After a good deal of wrangling, and for reasons undisclosed in any newspaper account I have been able to find, at a meeting of the league directors in Wilson on October 15, nearly six weeks after the end of the season, “by a unanimous vote the pennant for 1909 was awarded to Wilson.”

Thus even with such a distinguished player as Jim Thorpe on the team, Rocky Mount’s debut in professional baseball must be termed inauspicious. There was nowhere to go but up.

The 1942 Rocky Mount Rocks

Rocky Mount’s entry in the 1942 Bi-State League was named the Rocks. The nickname seems an unusual one, since it ordinarily denotes a stupid play, at least in modern terminology. But in Rocky Mount in 1942 the word was simply meant as a shorthand for the city’s name.

Whatever the confusion over its nickname, the 1942 club certainly was a hard-hitting group. By the end of the season they were being called the “Municipal Maulers” (they played home games at the Municipal ball park) and their 140 home runs as a team led the league by a wide margin.

Harry Soufas, the centerfielder, was the league’s leading home run hitter with 30 and, although he slumped toward the end of the year, finished with a batting average of .316. Manager George Ferrell led the league in runs batted in with 105 and hit .314 with 20 home runs. Quentin Martin, praised as “one of the smallest long-ball hitters,” hit 26 home runs and performed at six positions in the field.

This group rested in third place at the end of the regular Bi-State League season, but then beat Wilson and Sanford in seven-game series to win the Shaughnessy playoffs.

One of the spear-carriers on this slugging team was to go on to greater home run glory in the major leagues some nine years later. This young man, just 18 years old at the time and in his first season of professional baseball, joined the Rocks toward the end of July. He was always referred to in the Rocky Mount newspapers as “Bob Thompson” but is more familiar to baseball fans as Bobby Thomson, the man who hit the ninth-inning home run to bring the New York Giants from behind to win the 1951 National League pennant from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Thomson played little for the Rocks in 1942, hitting under .250, though he was the team’s regular third baseman during the Shaughnessy playoffs. Some of his play anticipated in interesting ways his performance for the 1951 Giants. Originally a third baseman, he had a reputation in Rocky Mount for great exuberance and erratic play. He hit the first pitch thrown to him in organized baseball into the left field stands for a home run, and his throwing from third base kept the fans behind first base constantly alert. Thomson subsequently became an outfielder and spent most of his professional career as one, but one of the key moves in the Giants’ pennant drive in 1951 was the shift of Thomson from the outfield to third base, where he performed more admirably than he had at Rocky Mount. At bat, he demonstrated increased patience by waiting for Ralph Branca’s second pitch in the last inning of the last game of the 1951 National League season.

The 1942 season is most notable, though, for the high pitch of intensity the traditional rivalry with Wilson achieved. Wilson was the class of the Bi-State league and showed it over the course of the season.  But everyone knew for most of the season that during August they would lose three of their best ballplayers to the armed forces, and that this would reduce the quality of the team to the level of the rest of the league. The playoff series against Rocky Mount, which the Rocks won, four games to three, was played without them.

Rocky Mount won this series in the most exciting possible way, losing the first three games, then coming back to win the last four.  The first game was probably the best played and the most exciting of the series. Amid talk of “the famed Rocky Mount-Wilson rivalry . . . heated to a white-hot pitch again” Wilson won in 15 innings, on Ray “Showboat” Murphy’s two-run home run, 4-2. There were vigorous arguments over ball-and-strike calls, and the umpires threw manager Ferrell and two other players out of the game. Wilson went on to beat Rocky Mount 9-3 and 5-2 before the Rocks won their first game of the series, 3-2 in Wilson. “Sweet William” Kennedy, a hard-throwing left-hander, pitched and won. Two days later, after some rain, Kennedy pitched again and the Rocks won 8-5. On Wednesday, Kennedy relieved the starter Maloney to nail down a 6-1 victory. On Thursday, rain washed out the game with Wilson leading 2-0 and on the next night the Rocks, with 3,600 people looking on, wrapped up the series with an 114 thrashing of the Tobs. The game, a typical Rocky Mount victory, featured home runs by Manager Ferrell, George Biershenk, Quentin Martin and Bobby Thomson. Bill Kennedy again pitched the whole game, was carried off the field by his teammates, pelted with bills and coins by the happy Rocky Mount fans. The Rocks’ defeat of the Sanford team in the final series, four games to one, was an anti-climax.

The 1975 Rocky Mount Phillies

Perhaps one of the best minor league teams Rocky Mount has had is the last that performed in the city, the 1975 Phillies. That team won both halves of the split season Carolina League and seemed to get better and better as the season progressed even though they had few star players. Jim Morrison led in homers with 20, but trailed Ted Cox of Winston-Salem, who had the top batting average. Pitchers Warren Brusstar and Oliver Bell led the circuit with a modest 14 wins apiece.  They were a steady, well-rounded team and provided the 200 plus fans who came out to see them regularly with capable and exciting baseball.

I watched the team play some ten times during August of 1975, and the game I remember most vividly is the last game I saw, an 18-3 massacre of the Winston-Salem Red Sox on the next-to-last night of the season. The Phillies had clinched the pennant a day or two before and everyone seemed quite relaxed.

According to the Evening Telegram, 361 people were in attendance, and watched for 2½ hours, an amazingly short time considering that the Phillies scored their 18 runs on 16 hits and 14 bases-on-ball.  John Hughes, a stocky designated hitter with an improbable Afro hairdo, led the attack with two singles, a double and a home run, good for five runs batted in. Appropriately, his home run won him a free trip to a local hair stylist. My own attention was focused on one Steve Ramer, who had been with the Phillies just a few days, playing in only one game previously. He batted righthanded but had tremendous power to the opposite field. This night he hit two balls on the ground past the first baseman that came hard off the right field wall some 350 feet away. Both times he wound up with triples and subsequently scored. Rainer also was the last Rocky Mount player I saw bat at Municipal Stadium.

Since then there has been no professional baseball in Rocky Mount. The Phillies pulled out after the season, in something of a huff, as I remember, and Jim Dunlap wrote in his Evening Telegram column as the season ended that it would be appropriate “to suggest that Rocky Mount is a poor baseball town.”

This may be, but it is equally clear that Rocky Mount is a town rich in baseball history. Who could not be proud of such teams as the ’42 Rocks or the ’75 Phillies? And who could not be proud of such individuals as Jim Thorpe, Frank Walker, Buck Leonard, Bobby Thomson, Harry Soufas, Sweet William Kennedy, or even Steve Ramer?