Virginia-North Carolina League: A Fascinating Failure

This article was written by Jim Sumner

This article was published in 1989 Baseball Research Journal

Most professional baseball is minor league. Most minor leagues struggle. In this classic case, even a league in Bull Durham country failed in its first attempt.

IN VIRGINIA AND NORTH CAROLINA, as in most of the South, professional baseball in this century has meant minor-league baseball. On several occasions the two neighboring states have combined for successful interstate leagues. The Piedmont League, founded in 1920, was one of the best known minor-league associations before its demise after the 1955 season. The present Carolina League, founded in 1945, has attained a reputation as one of the country’s premier Class A leagues. Other leagues like the Bi-State League and the Virginia League have combined franchises from both states. In retrospect this seems like a logical, even inevitable way to go. The two states share a common border, a common history, and long-standing economic and social ties. However, Virginia-North Carolina leagues were not necessarily favored by the baseball gods. The first such attempt in 1901 was a dismal failure. It was also a fascinating failure, one that illustrates many of the problems of turn-of-the-century minor-league ball.

The two states approached the 1901 league from different directions. Richmond, Virginia, had a brief fling in the big leagues, in the 1884 American Association, and the Virginia League had completed some respectable seasons. The 1900 Virginia League, with teams in Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg, Portsmouth, and Richmond, was one of these relatively successful seasons. Future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson ran up a 20-2 record that year for Norfolk to give the league a special flavor.

Baseball in North Carolina, on the other hand, was a matter of amateur and semipro teams, usually unaffiliated. The semipro North Carolina league of 1900, with teams in Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, Tarboro, Statesville, and Wilmington, lasted barely a month before going under. Given these different histories, it’s somewhat surprising that Virginia cranks (as fans were called then) would be interested in a broader league. However, several of the 1900 Virginia franchises were weak, and the larger cities in North Carolina appeared to be more attractive propositions.

Discussions for the formation of the Virginia-North Carolina League began in January of 1901. From the beginning, the Virginia cities of Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond, and the North Carolina capital of Raleigh appeared to be solid for the league. Getting other North Carolina cities in the circuit, however, was more problematical. Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, and Wilmington were all ardently wooed for the association. Danville, Virginia, was also considered. At various times plans for a ten-team league and an eight-team league were announced. The league was formally organized on February 18 at a meeting at Norfolk’s Monticello Hotel. Norfolk businessman W.H. Cunningham was elected president. A month later, league secretary E.H. Doran was still looking for cities to complete the league. In the borderline cities only the Wilmington Athletic Association was able to raise enough money to fully commit to the project. Thus the league started play with six teams, four from Virginia and only two from North Carolina. A schedule was drawn up running from April 15 to September 21. General admission was set at 25 cents, with an extra dime necessary to gain a seat in the grandstands.

Perhaps the most interesting member of the league was Newport News player-manager Ed Ashenback. Invariably described as “a jolly baseball man,” the irrepressible Ashenback won the affection of teammates, opponents, umpires, even opposing fans. The exuberant exterior hid an astute baseball mind. Although only twenty-eight at the beginning of the 1901 season, the Cincinnati native had more than a decade of minor league experience in such circuits as the Tri-State League, the Pennsylvania State League, the Southern League, the Texas League, and the Interstate League. In 1900 he managed the Hampton club to second place in the Virginia League.

Ashenback’s polar opposite was Raleigh player-manager George (King) Kelly (not to be confused with Hall of Famers King Kelly or George Kelly). A Former baseball and football star at Georgetown, Kelly, like Ashenback, was an experienced and talented baseball man. Unlike the jovial Ashenback, however, Kelly was something of a hothead, with an unfortunate propensity for abusing umpires and playing games under protest.

THE LEAGUE also had some intriguing players. Wilmington pitcher Henry Burke (Cy) Voorhees was a graduate of Syracuse University and a former college teacher in Virginia. In the latter part of the 1901 season Voorhees would inherit $60,000 from a rich aunt. Whereupon he announced that he would now fulfill his life’s ambitions: a tour of Europe followed by a course in vocal music. There were also some first-rate players. Raleigh featured former National League pitcher Otis Stocksdale and three future big leaguers, pitcher-outfielder Joe Stanley, third baseman Jake Atz, and pitcher Frank Smith.

Smith would have a particularly successful career in the majors, winning 138 games in 11 seasons, and throwing two no-hitters. Other star players included speedy Wilmington second baseman Daniel (Davey) Crockett, slugging Portsmouth outfielder Buck Weaver (not the Black Sox’ Buck Weaver), Newport News shortstop Fred Valdolz and pitcher Eddie High, and Norfolk outfielder Bill Spratt. Norfolk catcher Duff Lehman had big-league tools but was hampered by a nervous disorder that caused spasmodic twitches and jumps.

Norfolk jumped out of the blocks quickly, winning its first seven contests before being challenged by Raleigh, Wilmington, and Newport News. By May 10 the standings showed Norfolk with a 12-7 record, followed by Raleigh at 13-8, Wilmington, 11-9, and Newport News, 10-9. Portsmouth and Richmond brought up the rear. Although some games were horror shows, such as a May 14 Wilmington 15-9 win over Raleigh – a game marred by nine errors -many more games were close, well-played contests. League cranks were gearing up for what figured to be an exciting summer of baseball.

Unfortunately for the league, developments off the field were not as auspicious. Early games were plagued by rain and other bad weather, including a cyclone at Newport News on May 1. As a result, attendance was diminished in the season’s crucial early segment. In fact, serious attendance problems developed at Portsmouth less than a month into the season. On May 2 the club was turned over to the league, renamed Orphans and slated for eventual relocation.

The league also suffered from a common problem of minor leagues during this period, inconsistent and controversial umpiring. The league employed a single umpire per game, at a salary of $7. This created obvious problems any time there were baserunners. The umpiring crew, which included former National League pitcher Harry Staley, was subjected to almost daily abuse, usually verbal, but occasionally physical. Raleigh manager Kelly was a notable offender, but he was hardly alone. One particularly serious incident occurred on April 27 in Raleigh when Richmond catcher Ganz threw the ball at Raleigh’s lake Atz following a close play at the plate. The ensuing brawl involved players from both teams, fans, and eventually the police. Raleigh won the game, 14-13, undoubtedly giving the fans their 25 cents worth.

The league’s most serious problem, however, was bad timing. In 1901 the American League first challenged the senior National League for baseball supremacy. A casualty of this war was the National Agreement, which theoretically guaranteed the sanctity of player contracts. In the autumn of 1901 this would lead to the formation of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. That development was too late for the Virginia-North Carolina League, whose better players were constantly signed by teams from the National League, the American League, and various wealthier minor leagues, especially the Southern League. You really couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard.

AT LEAST THE PENNANT RACE was close. Norfolk dropped out of first in mid-May, replaced at various times by Raleigh or Wilmington. By the end of May Newport News was challenging for first, while Norfolk had dropped to fourth. On June 1 the New Orleans team of the Southern League purchased the contract of Norfolk’s Ed Gilligan and announced that it was after several other league stars. This was the beginning of a season-long incursion by New Orleans into the younger league. Newport News was forced to pay extra money to pitcher Eddie High to keep him away from the Crescent City, a move that accelerated the demise of the franchise. By mid-June Newport News was ready to join the hapless Portsmouth Orphans on the sidelines. On June 21 it was announced that the Portsmouth team would be transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Newport News team to Tarboro, North Carolina. The league was now composed of four North Carolina cities and only two Virginia cities. A split season was hastily declared. Wilmington was the first-half champion, with a 35-23 record, followed by Newport News, 32-24; Norfolk, 32-24; Raleigh, 29-28; Portsmouth, 24-32; and Richmond, 17-38. If all went well, the second-half winner would meet Wilmington for the postseason championship.

UNFORTUNATELY, THINGS DIDN’T go well. On the last day of the first half-season, the league lost two of its best players. Newport News/Tarboro pitcher Eddie Osteen jumped to the Southern League, while the same team sold High’s contract to New Orleans for $700. Later in June, New Orleans purchased the contract of star Wilmington pitcher R.M. Stafford for $300, while teammate Cy Voorhees jumped to independent Atlantic City.

Thus the first-half champions were crippled early in the second season. The other league teams were continually forced to fend off repeated raid attempts. The magnetic manager Ashenback elected not to accompany Newport News to its new home. The umpiring problems also continued with Tarboro forfeiting a game to Richmond because of what Tarboro perceived as bad calls. By the second week of July the two remaining Virginia cities had decided they had seen enough and dropped out.

The league entered its third incarnation, as a four-team association. The abortive second-season games were discarded. With no Virginia teams left, the league officials from that state resigned. Raleigh businessman Sherwood Higgs was elected president, a schedule was drawn up for a third season, and play resumed on July 8. Raleigh, which had suffered relatively little player attrition, jumped out in front early. On July 29 Tarboro manager Henry Bryan, Ashenback’s replacement, had Barley Kain, manager of a Darlington, South Carolina, team, arrested for allegedly inducing his catcher Reddy Foster to jump to the South Carolina nine. The next week Raleigh manager Kelly unsuccessfully attempted to have a man named George Leidy arrested for enticing his stars Smith and Atz to jump ship. Nothing came of these legal proceedings. Late in the season it was discovered that league umpire Ed Clark was scouting players for the Southern League.

Despite the distractions Raleigh continued to play well, and was never really challenged. On August 9 the Cardinals were 18-9 and were the only team over .500. The games had deteriorated badly by this point, with fighting and wrangling a common occurrence. On August 17 Charlotte forfeited a doubleheader to Tarboro, claiming bias and incompetence on the part of umpire Paul Russell. (Interestingly enough, after the games were declared forfeited, the two teams played a pair of five-inning exhibitions to raise money.) The league gave up the ghost after this sorry display, almost a month before the scheduled conclusion.

Although the Charlotte and Tarboro teams disbanded shortly thereafter, the league unwisely tried to conduct a championship series between first-half champion Wilmington and second-half champion Raleigh. Incredibly, league officials planned an eleven-game series. The first five games were scheduled in Raleigh, the next five in Wilmington, and the final game at an undetermined site. Predictably, this series was also a disaster. Wilmington was weakened by the loss of key players, including recently departed star Davey Crocket, who had jumped to the Detroit Tigers, while Raleigh played without Atz and Stanley, who had also recently jumped ship.

ON AUGUST 20 Raleigh won the first game of the series 4-0, in only sixty-eight minutes, behind a Frank Smith five-hitter. Raleigh followed with a disputed 6-3 win in game two. The game was played on a wet field and was started too close to sunset, prompting a Wilmington protest. After a rainout, Raleigh won the third game 1-0 with Smith hurling his second shutout. This game was marred by a major brawl in the eighth inning involving both teams, umpire Harry Mace, and fans. The last game of the series, on August 24, was also won by Raleigh, 6-2. More rain was followed by squabbles over finances, umpiring, and the disputed second game. The series was never finished. Raleigh, having won all four games played, claimed the league championship.

The league’s litany of problems is only too familiar to students of minor-league ball: uncertain finances, player raiding, chaotic umpiring, and a small fan base, plus the 1901 war between the American and National leagues. Yet Virginia and North Carolina minor-league enthusiasts persevered. The North Carolina State League in 1902 and another attempt at a Virginia-North Carolina league in 1905 shared the same fate as the 1901 league. Beginning in 1906, however, the Virginia League, which occasionally included North Carolina cities, began a run of prosperity. In 1908 the Eastern Carolina Association and the Carolina Association, with teams in North and South Carolina, became the first two leagues in the Tar Heel state to finish a season. Eventually the two states became hotbeds of minor-league ball, but only after a difficult apprenticeship.

JIM SUMNER is historian for the North Carolina State Historical Preservation Office.