Before integration Part 3: The N.C. High School Athletic Conference produced baseball title teams, pioneers and a prep dynasty
(This is the third of a three-part series on the football, basketball and baseball exploits of African-American athletics before full integration came to North Carolina in the 1970-71 school year)
Part 1: The NCHSAC began crowning state champions in 1928 and featured memorable teams, coaches and players and 28 eventual NFL players, among them a cultural icon depicted in a Hollywood movie and other pioneers in more than just athletics. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/before-integration-part-1-the-n-c-high-school-athletic-conference-produced-title-teams-acclaimed-coaches-and-nfl-talent/
Part 2: Basketball has long been a passion for North Carolinians and that was no different in the NCHSAC, including a high-scoring champion led by a future NFL Hall of Famer, a former player who became a famous coach and administrator elsewhere and loads of future professional basketball talent, including two local performers who starred for both segregated and integrated schools. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/before-integration-part-2-the-n-c-high-school-athletic-conference-produced-basketball-stars-legends-and-hall-of-famers/
By Richard Walker
When Carl “Satch” Forney and his Belmont Reid High teammates won back-to-back North Carolina High School Athletic Conference baseball state titles in 1954 and 1955, they knew they were one of the smallest schools to field a team and they knew their exploits were largely unrecognized due to the segregated era they lived in.
And they didn’t care.
They were simply enjoying the sport of their youth and happy to be successful enough to be called champions for two straight seasons when their school enrollment was barely 100 total high school students.
“That’s just the way it was,” Forney said at a 2003 Belmont Sports Hall of Fame banquet that where the Rams’ two state championship teams were honored. “You’re reborn again to see this. So, yeah, it does mean a lot to me” to inducted.
Forney was the star and winning pitcher of both championship games.
In 1954, his two-run double in the bottom on the 9th inning drove in the game-winner of a 5-4 victory over Goldsboro Dillard in a game played at Belmont’s Davis Park.
In 1955, Forney struck out 11, threw 6 1-3 innings of no-hit ball before finishing with a two-hitter n a 3-1 win at Jacksonville Georgetown that ended his high school career with a 24-2 overall pitching record. William Davis’ two-run double highlighted Reid’s three-run third inning that gave Forney all the support he would need.
Forney went on to make a career of the sport he loved as he would spent a year in the St. Louis Cardinals organization before spending six seasons as a pitcher and outfielder for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League. In 1960, he also was the Clowns’ player-manager and guided the franchise to a 139-11 record that season.
“Baseball back then was the thing,” said Reid first baseman Walter Hand. “Everybody wanted to be the next Jackie Robinson.”
For much of the history of NCHSAC baseball, Reid players weren’t the only ones pursuing that goal.
So much so that many schools didn’t even field a high school baseball team.
Community baseball leagues used many of the players that would’ve been a part of high school teams.
An example of how much that happened can be seen in Raleigh Ligon’s powerful program.
The Little Blues won a record six state titles but didn’t even have a high school team until 1956.
NCHSAC held baseball playoffs as far back as 1930 but the first official NCHSAC baseball state championships weren’t held until 1950.
Another example of the pull community leagues had on African-American high schools is that only one of the five future major leaguers produced by NCHSAC schools played for their high school teams.
Belmont Reid is one of five schools that won two or more state championships.
Gastonia Highland won back-to-back titles in 1951 and 1952. Wilmington Williston won an outright championship in 1961 and a co-title in 1968 due to a rainout. And Greensboro Dudley won back-to-back championships in 1964 and 1965.
But Raleigh Ligon was far and away the state’s most dominant program with those six state titles and a perfect 6-0 record in state championship games.
Pete Williams, who coached Ligon’s football and baseball teams, built the Little Blues’ championship program by using the traditional baseball teaching methods of pitching and defense.
It seemed every year Ligon had a standout pitcher and a stout defense.
In 1958, it was Maryland Jones’ 9-1 pitching record that included 91 strikeouts in 55 innings as Ligon knocked off Asheville Stephens-Lee 11-4 in the state championship game played at Raleigh’s Chavis Park.
In 1960, Bernard Wilder threw a two-hitter to finish with an 8-0 pitching record in a 10-2 victory over Graham.
In 1962, Wilder again was the ace pitcher, finishing off an 8-0 season with a 20-1 win over Caswell Training School.
And in 1966 and 1967, perhaps the greatest of Ligon’s pitchers, Lemuel Jones, took nail-biting one-run wins in the title contests. In 1966, Ligon edged Greensboro Dudley 4-3. And in 1967, Jones struck out 25 in a 2-1 14-inning victory over E.E. Smith to close out his three-year career with a 19-3 record with 316 strikeouts in 156 innings.
The Little Blues also they showed offensive resilience as they did in the 1959 championship game.
Trailing 7-4 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Ligon scored four times to take an 8-7 win over Spindale Carver at Raleigh’s Chavis Park.
Ligon wasn’t the only team to win with outstanding efforts.
In back-to-back years, Wilmington Williston and Greensboro Dudley got shutout pitching – or better.
Lewis Baptist struck out 18 for Williston in an 8-0 win over Asheville Stephens-Lee in the 1963 title game and Al McGibbony was even better in 1964 for Dudley in an 11-0 win over Fayetteville E.E. Smith by throwing a no-hitter with nine strikeouts.
Eleven NCHSAC alumni did make the major leagues, though only Wilmington Williston’s Sam Bowens, Goldsboro Dillard’s George Altman, Winton Brown’s Sherman Jones, Graham Central’s Jim Holt and Snow Hill’s Jim Ray Hart played baseball for their schools.
Bowens, a football, basketball and baseball star in high school, also played those three sports at Tennessee State. Also during his time at Tennessee State, Bowens was a member of three straight NAIA national championship teams under legendary coach John McLendon that featured eventual NBA champion and Naismith Hall of Famer Dick Barnett.
After being signed for $5,000 by the Baltimore Orioles in 1960, Bowens played seven years in the major leagues for Orioles (1963-67) and Washington Senators (1968-69).
Altman was a multi-sport star who originally went to Tennessee State to play basketball for the legendary John McLendon before playing on the school’s first two baseball teams in 1954 and 1955. He eventually played nine major league seasons for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets.
Jones, at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, was an imposing presence for his high school team’s football and basketball teams but would play professionally in his other sport – baseball. He eventually played three major league seasons, breaking in with the Cincinnati Reds in 1960, playing for the 1961 National League champion San Francisco Giants and for the 1962 expansion New York Mets.
Holt needed time to grow into his 6-foot, 180-pound as he attended tryouts with the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1963.
Stationed in Germany, Holt got an assist from a rival player who wrote the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 on his behalf – and he signed the Oakland Athletics (the franchise moved) during a spring training tryout in Bradenton, Fla., in 1966. Holt would play nine seasons for the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics.
Hart ended up playing 12 years in the major leagues, most of them with the San Francisco Giants, from 1963 to 1974.
The other six NCHSAC alumni to make the majors were Greensboro Dudley’s Tom Alston, Durham Hillside’s Wes Covington, Rocky Mount Booker T. Washington’s Chuck Hinton, New Bern West Street’s Bob Perry, Kinston Adkin’s Charlie White and Franklinton Person-Albion’s Jim Bibby.
Alston, who played baseball at North Carolina A&T, set a professional baseball record before becoming a pioneer for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals spent $100,000 – a record for an African-American player – to acquire him from the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres in January 1954. Less than three months later, Alston became the first African-American player for the Cardinals and played four seasons for that franchise.
Covington, originally from Laurinburg, was a two-time All-State football player at Hillside in the same offensive backfield as future NFL standout Tom Wilson. After being invited to play in the 1951 North Carolina-South Carolina All-Star game for high school players, he signed with the Milwaukee Braves and played 11 seasons in the major leagues. He helped the Braves win the 1957 World Series title and also played for the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Hinton played baseball at Shaw University before signing a contract with the Baltimore Orioles. Selected by the Washington Senators in expansion draft, he broke into the majors with that franchise in May 1961 and later played for the Cleveland Indians and California Angels. He was an All-Star outfielder for the Senators in 1954.
White was a Negro League All-Star catcher for the Philadelphia Stars in 1950 before signing with the St. Louis Browns in 1951. He eventually spent two seasons in the major leagues for the Milwaukee Braves in 1954 and 1955.
Perry signed with the New York Giants after graduating from high school in 1953 and played 10 years in the minor leagues playing in the major leagues for two seasons with the California Angels in 1963 and 1964.
Bibby signed with the New York Mets as a free agent in 1965, spent 13 years in the major leagues as a pitcher where he threw a no-hitter in 1973 for the Texas Rangers, was a World Series champion (1979) and National League All-Star (1980) for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It’s uncertain exactly how many North Carolinians played in the Negro Leagues since records are incomplete.
However, one of the greatest stars of that league was Rocky Mount’s Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard.
Leonard came along before Booker T. Washington High School was built in Rocky Mount and he attended school through the eighth grade before playing baseball professionally, most prominently from 1933 to 1950 for the Homestead Grays of Washington, D.C. A power-hitting first baseman, Leonard was called the “Black Lou Gehrig” by many baseball observers of that era and a was a 13-time Negro League All-Star and three-time World Series champion.
Other known Negro League performers include Forney, Kings Mountain’s Otto Briggs (1915-34 career), Winston-Salem’s Laymon Yokely (1926-46), Louisburg’s Bun Hayes (1928-35), Durham’s Bud Barbee (1937-48), Greenville’s Dave Barnhill (1937-49) and Tarboro’s Hubert Simmons (1950). Dunn native Clifford Layton also played in the 1950s after his family left for New Jersey in 1941 and Layton later returned to Dunn to live in 1984.