This article was written by David Chrisman
This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal
After several years as a member of the Class C Virginia League, Norfolk, Va., entered the higher classified Piedmont League in 1934 and proceeded to win the pennant by a substantial margin. Norfolk, long an also-ran in the lower circuit, began a 22-year stay at the Class B level during which that Navy-oriented city was the scourge of its competitors.
Colonel Jake Ruppert, owner of the American League parent club in New York, would be responsible for funneling through Myers Field some of the best young Yankee talent available anywhere in the country. With George Weiss taking over as director of the Yankee farm system, Norfolk, as well as such cities as Binghamton, N.Y. Newark, N.J., and Kansas City, Mo., would soon emerge as minor league powers in their respective leagues. With Ruppert’s millions and Weiss’s expertise, these cities (throughout the 1930s and l940s) would come to dominate their rivals with amazing regularity. Such would prove to be the case with the Norfolk Tars during their Piedmont League days.
The Piedmont League — formed in 1920 — was principally a North Carolina circuit for most of its early years in existence, although Danville, Virginia was a pennant winner in both 1922 and 1923.
After Danville dropped out of the league after the 1925 season, the circuit was the exclusive province of cities in North Carolina until 1933. In that year, the fabled Richmond Colts of the Virginia League applied for and gained admission to the league, thus, breaking the Tar Heels monopoly that had for so long prevailed. Actually, the Piedmont League was happy to receive Richmond as a league member. For the better part of two decades, the Colts were the supreme power in the Virginia League, once winning four pennants in a row in the mid-twenties.
The Piedmont League brain-trust fully expected the Colts to continue their mastery of their competition while in the higher circuit. But, ironically, that fortune was destined to reside with the former also-rans from the Tidewater area of Virginia. In fact, there would be a complete reversal of roles for each. Norfolk, the traditional tail-ender of Virginia League days, was on the threshold of supremacy in the Piedmont League; while Richmond, the pivotally successful team in the Virginia League, was on the verge of relegation to also-ran status.
Norfolk had not won a pennant of any kind since 1910, a full 23 years ago. In the majority of those intervening years, the Tars had finished either in the cellar or very close to it. But all of that was to change dramatically with Ruppert’s purchase of the franchise. In their very first Piedmont League campaign, the upstart Tars thrashed their rivals in convincing fashion. Although Ruppert and Weiss sent several fine Yankee prospects down to play with Norfolk in 1934, surprisingly, it was not the youngsters but an old “gray-beard” who spear-headed the pennant express. Veteran Norfolk flychaser Jim Bryan astounded league observers by winning the Piedmont League’s third official Triple Crown award. Bryan led the circuit with a .376 batting average, 30 homers, and 144 runs batted in. The 144 RBIs became the league’s second highest one-season total in its history.
Needless to say, Bryan had plenty of help sprinkled throughout the rest of the Norfolk line-up; Ruppert and Weiss had seen to that. For example, young Buddy Hassett (at first base) hit .360 along with 13 home runs and 95 RBIs. He also established a new stolen base mark by pilfering the fantastic total of 56. Center-fielder Dan Hall batted .331 with 24 homers and 105 RBIs and right-fielder Eddie Sawyer, later manager of the Phillies, averaged .361. Bill Dickey’s brother George (.292) shared the catching duties with Bill Holm (.232) and the double-play combination consisted of second baseman Don Curry and shortstop Bob Stevens. Bill Crittenden shared his third base duties with Sig Makowski.
The veteran Ray White (17-6) was the Tars’ best pitcher, but he was ably supported by three 14-game winners on the staff: Harry Swain at (14-4); Bill Alexander at (14-8); and Cecil Spittler at (14-10). Tom Kain threw in a highly impressive (11-2) mark and Tony Samuels broke even at (9-9). Certainly, over-all, it was an impressive debut for Norfolk at the Class B level of competition. However, if league observers felt that Norfolk’s success was a one season aberration, they were in for a rude awakening.
From 1934 through 1955, Norfolk would win the pennant eight times and the post-season play-off title on five occasions. No other Piedmont League member could even begin to approach these totals. Prior to 1934, Greensboro, N.C., had been the dominant Piedmont League power. In that span of time, the Patriots had won five pennants and managed to garner one more in the war year of 1942 (along with its only post-season play-off crown). However, subsequent to World War II, the Piedmont League became an all-Virginia affair as its Carolina members split away from the circuit to form the brand-new Class B Carolina League. From 1944 until its demise in 1955, the Piedmont League never again had a member franchise from North Carolina.
After Norfolk’s four straight pennants (1951-54), the league collapsed, suspending play after the sad 1955 campaign. Too much Norfolk (or Yankee) power had reduced the other members of the league to the permanent status of also-rans. With league competition reduced to almost nothing, attendance across the circuit declined precipitously. Even the fans in Norfolk were (by this time) saturated with the success of the Tars. Obviously, too much of a good thing had ruined Norfolk as a baseball town by the middle of 1955. The Tars couldn’t finish out that season and the franchise was taken over by Sunbury, Pa. With the fans in Norfolk no longer coming out to the ballpark, the demise of the Piedmont League was a foregone conclusion. As the minor leagues in general started their long decline during the late fifties and early sixties, so too did the Tidewater area of Virginia. Never again would Norfolk alone possess an organized baseball franchise. The city would re-appear in tandem with Portsmouth, Va., as the combined Tidewater entry in both the Carolina and International Leagues in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.
In looking back over the Tars’s 22 years stay in the Piedmont League, it is interesting to note that the pennant years included the following: 1934; 1936; 1938; 1945; 1951; 1952; 1953; and 1954. The post-season titles were won in 1937; 1943; 1951; 1953; and 1954. Three Norfolk players won batting championships: Jim Bryan in 1934 (at .376); Bill Skowron in 1951 (at .334); and Jerry Lynch in 1953 (at .3 37). Five of them took the home run title: Jim Bryan in both 1934 (with 30) and 1936 (with 38); Buddy Rosar in 1935 (with 26); Russ Derry in 1939 (with 40); and Jack Phillips in the war year of 1943 (with only 8). Only Jim Bryan in 1934 (with 144) and Jerry Lynch in 1953 (with 133) won the RBI crown.
Perhaps, the Tars’s greatest team was their 1938 pennant-winners featuring the brilliant double-play combination of shortstop Phil Rizzuto (.336) and second baseman Gerry Priddy (.323) and the powerful home run bat of Jack Graham, who hit 36. Through the years, several future major leaguerers were seasoned at Myers Field. Among them are included the following: Buddy Hassett (1934); Buddy Rosar (1935); Atley Donald (1935); Phil Rizzuto (1936); Gerry Priddy (1936); Joe Beggs (1936); Tommy Holmes (1937); Pete Suder (1937); Bud Metheny (1938); Yogi Berra (1944); Bob Porterfield (1947); Whitey Ford (1948); Bob Grim (1950); Bill Skowron (1951); and Jerry Lynch (1953).
In spite of all of this superior Yankee talent, it is still “Old Folks’ Jim Bryan who has the club records in average (.376) and runs batted in (144) both set in the 1934 inaugural year. Russ
Derry’s 40 home runs (bashed in 1939) majestically stands as the club’s one season mark and the league’s third highest total ever. Bryan (in 1936) and Ken Sears (in 1939) both hit 38 homers in one year and Jack Graham pasted 36 four-baggers in 1938. As the reader can see, the Tars were invariably a murderous-hitting crew. But, often, they were also a slick-fielding and tight pitching aggregation.
Asheville’s Tourists — a Cardinal farm club in the late 1930’s — provided most of the Tars’s early competition; while Roanoke’s Red Sox and Lynchburg’s Cardinals of the late 1940’s often succeeded at Norfolk’s expense in the middle period. Portsmouth — next door to Norfolk — provided the chief rivalry (such as it was) in the abortive fifties.
In the meantime, Richmond’s Colts won only a single pennant (in 1940) and two playoff crowns (in 1940 and in 1952). Thus, the omnipotent team hi the old Virginia League was an also-ran performer during its Piedmont League days. Richmond had some good batters, such as George Ferrell, who hit .377 in 1935, and Luis Olmo, who won the triple crown in 1942, but the club was no match for the multi-talented Tars from Norfolk.
In conclusion, two incidents are cited involving — not the young Yankee talent being developed in Norfolk — but instead a highly developed star of the parent Yankees. The first took place on June 29, 1934, when Lou Gehrig, en route to a triple crown season in the American League, was playing with the Yankees in an exhibition game against the Tars in Norfolk. He hit a homer in the first inning but in the second was knocked unconscious when hit in the head by a pitched ball from Ray White. Gehrig was taken to a hospital and it was feared that his consecutive game streak had ended. However, he traveled by overnight steamer from Norfolk to Washington where he surprisingly appeared in the starting lineup the next afternoon. He tripled in his first three at bats, but had them all washed out by a rainstorm before the fifth inning could be completed.
The second incident took place on April 13, 1939 when the Yanks were moving north from Spring training in Florida and stopped in Norfolk for a game against Brooklyn. The talk of the Grapefruit Circuit that Spring was the dismal performance of the Iron Man Yankee first baseman, who seemed to lack the great power and coordination of earlier seasons. Gehrig put some of the talk to rest when he hit two homers and two singles in the game at Norfolk. But this power display was only a temporary respite from the inevitable course of events. For, only eight games into the 1939 season, he found it necessary to leave the lineup, never to return.