In 2021, Gastonia will add to a rich pro baseball history that includes 131 future or former major leaguers and 3 eventual Hall of Famers
By Richard Walker
When Gastonia begins its first Atlantic Coast League baseball season in May it’ll be a back to the future moment for the city that hasn’t been home to a professional baseball team since 1995.
Gastonia professional teams have had 131 future or former major leaguers, including National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Bill Terry, Chief Bender and Ivan Rodriguez.
Other Gastonia players have included future major league standouts like Bob Oliver, Bob Robertson, Al Oliver, Dave Cash, Freddie Patek, Rennie Stennett, Omar Moreno, Mike Hargrove, Len Barker, Leon Durham, Andy Van Slyke, Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer, Sammy Sosa, Robb Nen and Darren Oliver and former major leaguer Tug McGraw.
Former Gastonia managers include former major leaguers and future major league coaches and managers Hal Lanier and Johnny Lipon, former major league manager Clyde Sukeforth, former major leaguers Al Unser, Sr., Milton Bocek, Doc Queen, Ed Hobaugh, Tom Saffelly, Lloyd Merritt, Bump Wills and Walt Williams, future major league coaches Bob Clear, Frank Oceak, Rich Donnelly, Johnny Lewis, Joe Rigoli and Orlando Gomez and former major leaguers and future major league coaches Don Leppert and Nick Leyva.
Gastonia pro baseball teams played games at old Loray Park, the old Gastonia High School stadium and at Sims Legion Park. In May, the new team will play the first games in the downtown FUSE stadium.
Terry was just 16 when he played for the Gastonia Tigers in 1915 at old Loray Park after the team had moved in midseason from Newnan, Ga., which is a suburb of his native Atlanta. Terry would go on to play 1,721 major league games, play in the first three major league All-Star games in 1933, 1934 and 1935 and is the last National Leaguer to hit .400 in a season when he hit .401 for the old New York Giants in 1930. Terry spent 19 seasons in the Giants’ organization from 1923 to 1941, including five seasons (1932-36) as a manager. That includes the franchise’s 1933 World Series championship team.
Bender also played for Gastonia in 1915 and shortly after being released by Baltimore’s Federal League team in 1915. Considered one of the best “big game” pitchers in major league history, Bender helped the old Philadelphia Athletics win World Series titles in 1910, 1911 and 1913.
Rodriguez came to Gastonia as a 17-year-old catcher in 1989 before playing in 2,543 major league games in a 21-year major league career for the Texas Rangers, Florida Marlins, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Washington Nationals in which he was a World Series champion, an American League MVP, a 14-time All-Star and 13-time Gold Glove Award winner.
Of the other future major leaguers, perhaps the father-son Bob Oliver and Darren Oliver duo sums up the family atmosphere Gastonia sometimes created. Bob Oliver met and married Gastonia’s Hazel Werts when he played for the Gastonia Pirates in 1963 and when Darren Oliver played for the Gastonia Rangers in 1989 and 1990, he lived with his grandmother Frances Werts.
Another story unique to Gastonia was in McGraw’s two one-game contracts for the Gastonia Rangers in 1989 and 1990. McGraw was a longtime friend of then-Gastonia team president Roman Gabriel and agreed to pitch in a game for the team while also engaging with local fans. He even brought his son, soon-to-be country music star Tim McGraw, for one of his appearances at Sims Legion Park.
Of the former managers, Lanier, Sukeforth, Packard and Gomez had great national and local fame.
Lanier, who played 10 years with the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees, was third-base coach for the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals and was National League manager of the year for the Houston Astros in 1986.
Sukeforth, who managed the 1965 Gastonia Pirates, was a former Brooklyn Dodgers manager who as a scout convinced Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson and integrate professional baseball in 1946.
Packard hit .366 with 21 home runs and 123 RBIs for the Charlotte Hornets in 1931 to win the Piedmont League triple crown and later coached at Davidson College.
Gomez, a 13-year minor league catcher, was considered instrumental in the development of Rodriguez and other Rangers’ prospects signed out of Latin America and spent seven years as a major league coach for the Rangers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Seattle Mariners.
Gastonia pro baseball teams won league championships seven times – in the Western Carolina League in 1915, the Tar Heel League in 1939, the South Atlantic League in 1959 and 1983 and the Western Carolinas League in 1974 and 1977.
They also made 13 playoff appearances and finished as league runner-up in 1973 and 1989.
Among the team’s owners were Hendersonville’s T.L. Osborne in 1950, Gastonia American Legion Post 23 in 1970, Fred Nichols of Madison, Conn., in 1973 and 1974, Gastonia’s Jack Farnsworth from 1977 to 1988 and by Charlotte Hornets NBA team owner George Shinn from 1989 to 1992.
The city also hosted April major league exhibition games in 1919 (Detroit Tigers vs. Boston Braves), 1935 (Cleveland Indians vs. New York Giants), 1937 (Boston Braves vs. Washington Senators), 1939 (St. Louis Cardinals vs. Asheville Tourists minor league team) and 1950 (Washington Senators vs. Charlotte Hornets minor league team).
The 1919 game saw eventual National Baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb play for the Tigers, the 1935 game saw Terry coach in the city where he had played 20 years earlier, the 1937 game featured Gastonia’s eventual American League All-Star Buddy Lewis play for the Senators and the 1950 game was the first baseball game played at Sims Legion Park and drew 1,956 fans.
Gastonia’s last pro season of 1995, it briefly hosted the Gastonia King Cougars of an independent league that folded after only 15 games.
After two seasons hosting women’s professional softball, Gastonia hosted the summer college league Grizzlies from 2002 to 2019. That team won Coastal Plain League titles in 2011 and 2017.