GASTONIA HISTORY: Honey Hunters look to add to city’s pro baseball playoff legacy in ALPB postseason appearance
By Richard Walker
When the Gastonia Honey Hunters’ second-year franchise begins their pursuit of an Atlantic League of Professional Baseball championship on Sept. 20, they’ll be looking to join a title history that is more than 100 years old.
Gastonia professional baseball teams have won six league titles starting with the city’s first pro team in 1915. Later, Gastonia added championships in 1939, 1959, 1974, 1977 and 1983.
When professional baseball left Gastonia after a short-lived 1994 Independent League team didn’t last two months, it returned when the Honey Hunters made their debut in 2021.
Future Baseball Hall of Famers and other future major leaguers have played roles in Gastonia’s titles in each of those title seasons.
Here are their stories:
1915 Gastonia-Loray Tigers – Western Carolina League
When a group of Gastonia businessmen who called themselves the Gastonia Athletic Club bought a team from Newnan, Ga., that had been playing in the Georgia-Alabama League, they had no idea they would inherit a team with one future Hall of Famer (Bill Terry) and be good enough to win the second half title of the Western Carolina League and prompt them to pay for another future future Hall of Famer (Albert “Chief” Bender) to help Gastonia win its first title.
The team played its home games at old Loray Field, which was located across the street from Gastonia’s current CaroMont Health Park near where the old Firestone Mill is currently located.
Henry “Matty” Matthews was the team’s player-manager as the catcher was a former South Atlantic League standout Macon and Atlanta before being hired away by the Newnan team. Among his original players were then-16-year-old Bill Terry, former major leaguer Ernie Gust and Matthews’ eventual successor in third baseman Grady Burgess.
Perhaps because the WCL was a league that didn’t keep official statistics – there are no records of the league on BaseballReference.com – the team’s 1915 roster was quite fluid; Matthews resigned before the playoffs after newspaper stories indicated disharmony between him and team management and Terry, perhaps in support of Matthews’ decision, also left the team after its 19-10 record won the second half WCL title.
(A 1954 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, Terry would become a major leaguer with the New York Giants in 1923 and during his 14-year career he hit .341 with a 1,078 RBIs highlighted by the National League’s last .400 season when he hit .401 in 1930.)
Burgess became team manager and the club signed Bender to a contract that paid him “$100 and his expenses for each game.”
Bender, a three-time World Series champion for the Philadelphia Athletics (1910, 1911 and 1913), he was one of several Athletics’ players who signed contracts with the start-up Federal League before losing the 1914 World Series to the Boston Braves. But Bender wouldn’t last the Baltimore Terrapins’ inaugural season of 1915 and he was seeking a new home in September.
On Sept. 4, his contract with Gastonia was announced and he pitched three times in the next week as Gastonia won the WCL championship series over Morganton before losing in the N.C. finals to Red Springs.
According to reports, a record overflow crowd of 3,750 came to see Bender’s Gastonia debut on Sept. 7 in a 6-1 win in which Bender threw a complete game and had two hits.
The next day in front of 2,000 at Loray Park, Bender preserved a 5-2 series-clinching win over Morganton with three innings of relief in a 2-1 best-of-three series victory.
In the N.C. finals, Bender pitched once more in a series played at Charlotte’s Wearn Field; He pitched another complete game on Sept. 10 in front of 2,800 for Gastonia’s lone win in a best-of-three series 2-1 loss to Red Springs.
1939 Gastonia Cardinals – Tar Heel League
One of legendary Baseball Hall of Famer Branch Rickey’s 28 farm teams in 1939 when he was St. Louis Cardinals’ general manager, the Tar Heel League triple crown winner and two future major leaguers led Gastonia to a league title before dropping a seven-game N.C. Class D state title series.
Outfielder-manager Al Unser hit .370 and pitcher Glenn Gardner had a 17-5 pitching record to lead the Cardinals to a first place regular season finish and playoff series victories over Shelby (3 games to 1) and Statesville (4-3) before losing 4-3 to Mooresville.
But it was slugger Hooper Triplett that was the star of the team with a .391 batting average, 27 home runs and 115 RBIs to lead the Tar Heel League in all three categories. (Triplett, a native of Boone, played seven minor league seasons in a career interrupted by his military service in World War II, before retiring from baseball after 1946 with a .324 career batting average.)
Gastonia fans filled the old Gastonia High School stadium – now a parking lot behind Ashley Arms Apartments on 800 S. York St. in Gastonia – with 1,000 or more fans in each of the Cardinals’ eight postseason games.
The largest crowd – estimated at 5,000 – saw Gastonia rally from an early 3-0 deficit to win 6-3 and take a 4-3 series victory as Gardner relieved in the second inning and shut out Statesville the rest of the way with Rolla Rand getting three hits to complete for 10 hits in his last 11 at-bats in the series.
In the N.C. finals series, Mooresville benefitted from having five home games out of the seven games, including the final four games.
Gastonia’s high school football season was set to start in the same stadium and a Sept. 18 Gastonia Gazette indicated the mound how to be flattened for football stadium use.
Gastonia won its only two home games of the series – 9-7 and 9-7 in the second and third games of the series to take a 2-1 series lead – but Mooresville won three of the last four games at its field, including 8-0 in the decisive seventh game.
1959 Gastonia Pirates – South Atlantic League
In a “back to the future” moment for Gastonia, the city’s third pro baseball title team followed a script used by the city’s 1915 championship-winner.
Just like in 1915, a team from Georgia moved to Gastonia at midseason.
This time it was Columbus, Ga., which moved to Gastonia for a fee of $6,500 that was raised by former major leaguer, local Gastonia American Legion Post 23 official and automobile dealer J.K. “Buddy” Lewis. (Lewis sought to raise $10,000 but Columbus officials were so cash-strapped that they said $6,500 “would be enough” to complete the transaction.)
Lewis, for whom the field at Sims Legion Park is currently named, was the first American Legion baseball player in N.C. history to make the major leagues and made two All-Star game appearances in an 11-year Washington Senators’ career interuppted by World War II military service.
Once in Gastonia in July of 1959, the Pirates were a hot commodity – they averaged 1,639 per night for 29 home dates – and finished fourth in a tight South Atlantic League race.
It landed manager Ray Hathaway’s team in a best-of-five semifinal series against the regular season runner-up Charlotte Hornets.
The semifinal series was closely contested even as the Columbus/Gastonia team had won 13 of 20 regular season meetings with Charlotte.
Future 10-year major league pitcher Dave Wickersham won two of the three victories in a best-of-five 3-2 series win, including the finale in which he pitched the final inning in relief before Bill Jackson’s two-out RBI single in the bottom of the 10th drove in the winning run.
In the best-of-five championship series, third-place Charleston, S.C., was no match for Gastonia as the Pirates swept the series 3-0.
Wickersham, who pitched for the Kansas City Athletics, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals during his career, fired a three-hitter in a 3-1 victory that completed the sweep.
Pitchers Wickersham, Bill Bell, Jim Dickson, Jack Lamabe, John Oldham, Red Swanson and Bob Thorpe and outfielders Howie Goss and Elmo Plaskett and catcher Nick Koback were the 10 eventual major leaguers on the 1959 Gastonia roster.
Plaskett was one of two African-Americans who played for the Pirates – the other was shortstop Reggie Hamilton – and they were the first African-American players to play for a Gastonia professional team.
1974 Gastonia Rangers – Western Carolinas League
This team was so dominant it didn’t have to play any postseason games.
Per rules of the day, the Rangers clinched a league title due to their regular season dominance that including winning both halves of the Western Carolinas League race that season.
Manager Rich Donnelly, who would become a major league coach for seven major league teams, was named WCL manager of the year after guiding his club to a 43-28 first-half record and 41-20 second-half record.
Donnelly’s team was led by first baseman Dan Duran, who hit .269 with 22 home runs and 99 RBIs to earn league MVP honors, and WCL pitching victories leader Mike Bacsik (15 wins).
Duran and Bacsik were two of seven eventual major leaguers on Gastonia’s 1974 roster; The others were pitchers Len Barker, Bobby Cuellar and John Sutton and outfielders Keith Smith and Bobby Thompson.
Barker had the longest career at 12 years and threw one of the 23 perfect games in major league history in 1981 for the Cleveland Indians.
Gastonia won both halves by virtue of doubleheader sweeps.
The Rangers wrapped up the first half title when they swept Anderson 3-1 and 2-1 in June. Sutton threw a 6-hitter in the nightcap that was won when Keith Smith hit a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The second half title was clinched with a week left in the regular season when Gastonia swept Greenwood while Charleston, S.C., was sweeping Orangeburg. Catcher John Astroth was the Rangers’ star in the sweep with two-run home run in the opener and two RBIs in the nightcap.
1977 Gastonia Cardinals – Western Carolinas League
A team that endured hardships just to make it to the field also gave Gastonia its only back-to-back league champion.
When Gastonia’s 25-year-old Sims Legion Park was declared unfit for professional baseball after the 1974 season, the city spent $130,000 for the most major renovation of the facility before last year’s change from natural grass to turf field to make it home to Gaston College’s baseball program.
Built in 1950 as a wooden structure, the city had the old facility torn down and installed the concrete and steel structure behind home plate that remains today.
But as with most building projects, it wasn’t ready when anticipated.
It meant Gastonia Cardinals had to use a locker room 2 1-2 miles away at Clay Street Elementary School (now York Chester Middle School) for half of the 1977 season.
Glenn Comoletti, the team’s relief ace, told the Gaston Gazette in 2007 the arrangement created some interesting pregame rituals.
“Well, for pitchers, you were supposed to get stretched, dressed and warmed up at the school,” Comoletti said. “You know, it probably took a couple of weeks for the people who would drive by that field to figure out why grown men were wearing baseball uniforms and running around in the outfield of an elementary school nowhere near the ballpark.”
Four Cardinals would eventually make the major leagues as players (infielders Leon Durham, Neil Fiala and Gene Roof and pitcher Al Olmsted) and manager Hal Lanier, a former major leaguer himself, would eventually win a World Series title in 1982 as the St. Louis Cardinals’ third-base coach and was 1986 National League manager of the year with the Houston Astros.
Durham, who was a two-time All-Star for the Chicago Cubs, was promoted from Gastonia to St. Petersburg in July.
But the Cardinals used the momentum of their second half title to roll to the league title with a 3-1 best-of-five series victory over a Greenwood Braves teams with nine future major leaguers, among them future Atlanta Braves Terry Harper and Glenn Hubbard.
After splitting the first two games of the series at Greenwood’s Legion Stadium, Gastonia won 5-1 and 6-4 at Sims Legion Park to wrap up the title.
A highlight of the season was the June 24 Sims Legion Park re-opening ceremonies that were attended by former major leaguers J.K. “Buddy” Lewis of Gastonia, Ted Abernathy of Stanley and Max Lanier of Denton; Max Lanier was the father of Hal Lanier, who also was born in Denton.
1983 Gastonia Expos – South Atlantic League champions
The last Gastonia professional baseball title came in the most unconventional way.
After Gastonia won both halves of the South Atlantic League North Division title with an 89-59 overall record, it was matched against a Columbia Mets team that had gone 88-54 and won both halves of the South Division race.
When they met in the playoffs, homefield meant nothing as the road team won all five games.
Fortunately for Gastonia, they did not have homefield advantage due to a coin flip held late in the season.
After winning 8-2 and 3-0 at Columbia’s Capital City Park to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series, the Mets rallied to win 4-2 and 9-6 in the next two games played at Sims Legion Park.
In the finale, Columbia appeared set to clinch the title with a 4-2 lead in the top of the ninth inning.
Then fate stepped in for Gastonia as eventual longtime major league player and coach Dave Magadan misplayed a grounder that helped the Expos tie the score at 4.
Two innings later, Dan Szako hit a leadoff home run and reliever Tony Nicometi made it stand up for a dramatic 5-4 victory.
Magadan, currently in his fourth year as Colorado Rockies hitting coach, was one of eight future major leaguers on the Columbia roster.
The Expos had no future major leaguers and only pitcher Steve Moran even made the postseason All-SAL team.
The league featured future major league stars like Cecil Fielder (Florence), Fred McGriff (Florence), Roberto Kelly (Greensboro) and Vince Coleman (Macon).
While those are the six professional baseball title teams in Gastonia history, three other teams won summer league titles for Gastonia.
The Gastonia Grizzlies won Coastal Plain League titles in 2011 and 2017. The Grizzlies had 18 seasons in the college wood bat summer league and were highlighted by having future Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson on their roster in 2009 and future Houston Astros World Series champion Tyler White on their roster in 2011.
And the Carolina Diamonds of the Women’s Professional Softball League lost the 1998 championship series after the WPSL first-half championship.