FLASHBACK: As ACC tournament returns to Charlotte for second straight year, a look back at when the ACC champion advanced to Gastonia
By Richard Walker
As the ACC baseball tournament returns to Charlotte for a second straight year next week, it marks the 50-year anniversary since the ACC champion stopped playing for the right to come to Gastonia’s Sims Legion Park for the NCAA District III tournament.
That’s right, from 1956 to 1972, the winners of the ACC, SEC and Southern Conference were joined by an at-large team for a four-team event that sent its winner to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Playing at a stadium built for American Legion baseball and to attract minor league baseball in 1950, Sims Legion Park hosted some of the best collegians in the country and many future pros participated at the ballpark during those 17 seasons in which Mississippi, Clemson, North Carolina, N.C. State, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Florida State won tournament titles.
Dwindling attendance, rising sponsorship fees and a change in the NCAA’s philosophy of tournament selection caused the tournament to leave town after the 1972 event.
Among the players who participated in NCAA district tournament games in Gastonia include future 26 major-leaguers, three future NFL players and several former local standouts who shined in front of family and friends on the biggest local stage that earlier this year got a makeover to become the permanent home of Gaston College’s baseball program.
In that first season of 1956, a crowd of 4,724 came to see the first two games – a 2-1 Florida State win over Duke and a 4-3 Mississippi win over Tennessee Tech – before Mississippi won the inaugural event behind future major league pitcher Joe Gibbon.
Mississippi later returned to Gastonia three more times – winning each time – to become one of only two teams to win the title in their only visits to Gastonia; Mississippi also won in 1964, 1969 and 1972 and N.C. State won in its lone visit in 1968.
The Rebels also brought in perhaps the most star-studded teams as their rosters included three eventual major leaguers – Gibbon, Don Kessinger and Steve Dillard – and two future NFL quarterbacks (Archie Manning and Norris Wease).
Florida State set records for most appearances (13), titles (5) and future major leaguers (7). Dick Howser played on the Seminoles’ first three teams to visit Gastonia (1956, 1957 and 1958) before playing eight seasons in the major leagues and later earning greater acclaim as a major league coach and manager; He won two World Series titles as a New York Yankees coach in 1977 and 1978 and another World Series title as Kansas City Royals’ manager in 1985.
North Carolina came to Gastonia four times, winning the event in 1960 and 1966, and among their players were future NFL All-Pro running back Ken Willard, 1966 ACC athlete of the year Danny Talbott and future major leaguers Bill Haywood and Tom Buskey.
In N.C. State’s lone visit, the Wolfpack featured Gastonia native Mike Caldwell. Caldwell grew up in Tarboro before a 14-year major league baseball career as an award-winning pitcher.
Clemson won back-to-back titles with the help of two of the large contingent of local players who played in Gastonia for various teams over the years. Future major leaguer Harold Stowe of Belmont and Doug Hoffman of Gastonia were members of the Tigers’ back-to-back 1958 and 1959 district winners that sent Clemson to its first College World Series appearances under legendary coach Bill Wilhelm, who was a native of nearby Kannapolis.
Other local products who got to perform for the “home crowd” included Gastonia’s Vaughn Bryson, Danny Denton and Doug Lanham, Mount Holly’s Bruce Bolick and Stanley’s John Rudisill for North Carolina, Kings Mountain’s Richard Gold for Florida State and Nelson Connor for N.C. State and Gastonia’s Roger Coon for Wake Forest.
College World Series bound
Gastonia’s Sims Park hosted the NCAA District III tournament from 1956 through 1972. Here’s the teams who participated and how they did:
Team Appearances Won-Lost Titles
Florida State 13 29-20 5
Mississippi 4 15-2 4
North Carolina 4 10-4 2
Mississippi State 4 7-7 1
East Carolina 4 2-8 0
West Virginia 4 2-10 0
Clemson 3 10-3 2
Duke 3 8-5 1
Florida 3 5-6 0
Maryland 3 1-6 0
George Washington 3 0-6 0
Wake Forest 2 5-4 0
Georgia Tech 2 4-4 0
Auburn 2 3-3 1
Furman 2 2-4 0
N.C. State 1 3-1 1
South Alabama 1 3-2 0
Virginia 1 2-2 0
Georgia Southern 1 1-2 0
Miami, Fla. 1 1-2 0
The Citadel 1 1-2 0
Virginia Tech 1 1-2 0
Alabama 1 0-2 0
Florida Southern 1 0-2 0
Jacksonville 1 0-2 0
Richmond 1 0-2 0
Tennessee Tech 1 0-2 0
1957 Florida State
1960 North Carolina
1962 Florida State
1963 Florida State
1965 Florida State
1966 North Carolina
1968 N.C. State
1970 Florida State*
1971 Mississippi State
*-Finished as College World Series runner-up
Major leaguers who played in college district tournament
Clemson – Ty Cline (1959), Harold Stowe (1958-59)
Duke – Ron Davis (1961)
East Carolina – Vince Colbert (1968)
Florida – Dennis Aust (1960)
Florida State – Randy Brown (1965-66), Johnny Grubb (1970), Dick Howser (1956-58), Jim Lyttle (1965-66), Mac Scarce (1970), Ken Suarez (1963), Woody Woodward (1961-62)
Georgia Tech – Ray Blemker (1959)
Jacksonville – Tom McMillan (1972)
Maryland – Gene Hiser (1970), Jim Norris (1970)
Mississippi – Steve Dillard (1969, 1972), Joe Gibbon (1956), Don Kessinger (1964)
Mississippi State – Bob Myrick (1971), Ken Tatum (1965-66), Del Unser (1965-66)
North Carolina – Tom Buskey (1964), Bill Haywood (1964)
NC State – Mike Caldwell (1968)
West Virginia – Bucky Guth (1967)