Lincoln County’s first baseball power? Old Rock Springs won a state title and produced a major league star in the 1950s

By Richard Walker

The June 1, 1953 clipping from The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., on Rock Springs’ 1A state baseball championship game victory.

Before there was an East Lincoln High School in Denver, N.C., there was a Rock Springs High School.

And the school, which is now used by an elementary school of the same name on N.C. Highway 16, was a high school baseball power in the 1950s.

Not only did the Warriors produce one of the area’s most talented players in Tony Cloninger, they also produced Lincoln County’s first baseball state championship team in 1953.

That 1953 team rolled to a 11-2 overall record that included winning a disputed Western N.C. 1A title, then winning at perennial power Hertford of Perquimans County in a dramatic state championship series.

Grady Barker was the team’s star pitcher and he finished with a 9-1 overall record that included wins in both of the state championship victories at Hertford.

Rock Springs lost its season opener to Bessemer City 8-6, then won its next seven Little Nine Conference games to win the league championship by one game of three teams tied for second place. The Warriors finished 7-1 in conference action while Bessemer City, Dallas and Mount Holly each finished 6-2.

In the playoffs, Rock Springs first thought it had won the Western title in a 9-5 victory over Kernersville in a May 18 game at Davidson College. But when N.C. High School Athletic Association commissioner Hap Perry ruled game umpires had misinterpreted a sixth-inning play, the teams replayed the game on May 25.

In the replay, Barker pitched Rock Springs to a 4-2 victory – and the N.C. 1A best-of-three state finals series.

With Barker pitching a five-hitter and center fielder Tommy Little hitting a bases-clearing triple in a seven-run seventh inning, the Warriors won 8-5 in the May 28 opener.

After dropping the second game 9-4 on May 29, Rock Springs disappointed a partisan crowd of 1,100 in Hertford with an 8-7 win in 13 innings.

The Warriors had to score twice in the bottom of the ninth inning – Rock Springs won a pregame flip to host the decisive third game – to force extra innings.

Then right fielder Herb Lofton scored the winning run in the bottom of the 13th on back-to-back singles by Barker and first baseman Ray Cloninger.

Ray Cloninger, Tony Cloninger’s older brother, later that summer was a standout for Cherryville American Legion Post 100’s first N.C. state champion and first American Legion World Series team.

Barker picked up the state title win with five innings of four-strikeout relief.

Other starters for the Warriors in the title game were shortstop Cranford Baker, left fielder Jimmy Mundy, catcher Junior Barkley, second baseman C.E. McCorkle and third baseman Richard Sherrill.

Behind Tony Cloninger, Rock Springs came close to state glory again in 1957 and 1958 after winning the Catawba-Lincoln Conference title each year.

In 1957, the Warriors went 13-3 and advanced to the Western N.C. 1A finals.

Tony Cloninger, nicknamed the “Rock Springs Rifle,” struck out 14 and walked 12 in a 9-2 two-hit victory over Bessemer City at Lincolnton’s Love Field in the first round. Then he struck out 14 in a 3-1 one-hit win over Mount Ulla at Mooresville.

After beating Old Fort in the Western N.C. 1A semifinals in Hickory, eventual state champion Kernersville beat Rock Springs (and Tony Cloninger) 5-1 in Salisbury.

The next season, Tony Cloninger was even more impressive while pitching in front of scouts of all 16 major league teams during the season.

He threw a perfect game in a 12-0 first round victory over Drexel on May 9 before losing 4-0 to Bessemer City – again at Lincolnton’s Love Field – in the second round of the playoffs.

Tony Cloninger struck out eight in a four-hitter in front of 24 major league scouts as his high school athletic career ended with a 19-6 pitching record from 1956 to 1958.

Tony Cloninger during his Rock Springs High School career

Tony Cloninger agreed to a record $100,000 signing bonus with the Milwaukee Braves five days later and would eventually spent 12 years in the major leaguers, most famously starting the Atlanta Braves’ 1966 (after the team moved from Milwaukee) and setting a major league record by hitting two grand slams in the same game for the Braves in a 17-3 win over the San Francisco Giants at old Candlestick Park.

Rock Springs was closed after the 1966-67 school year to make way for East Lincoln’s opening.

Lincolnton became the second high school state champion from Lincoln County in 1995 when it beat Western Guilford two games to one for the N.C. 2A championship. And North Lincoln became the third title-winner in 2019 when it swept Randleman for the N.C. 2A championship.

No other Lincoln County teams have advanced to the state finals.