Lincolnton and Belmont may be small towns, but they each once had professional baseball
By Richard Walker
Most folks think of professional sports as only possible if the team is located in a large city.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s in Lincolnton and in 1961 in Belmont, that wasn’t the case as two towns with a population that was just above 5,000 supported minor league baseball in ways that created memories.
Lincolnton had its team for 5 1-2 seasons and even won a league championship.
Belmont had its team for only one season that saw the franchise endure every negative cliche of the sport.
Both cities were recruited to host teams by longtime local baseball organizer and longtime Kings Mountain mayor John Henry Moss and each town had a popular local product on their first teams.
Lincolnton which had a population of 5,423 in the 1950 census, had a team from the 1948 to 1952 seasons and for half of the 1953 season before the franchise was sold and was moved to Statesville.
Nicknamed the Cardinals, the franchise got a midseason boost in their historic first season when Lincolnton native Russell “Red” Mincy became the team’s player-coach at midseason.
A 1938 Lincolnton High graduate, Mincy played professionally for six organizations after initially signing with the old Boston Braves shortly after graduating high school.
A left-handed hitting outfielder, Mincy played for 29 teams during his 14-year minor league career and hit .321 in 1,316 games. He’s also a 2003 Lincoln County Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
Before coming back home to Lincolnton in the middle of the 1948 season, Mincy had already played eight seasons in the minors – he spent 1943 to 1945 in U.S. military during World War II – and had been a player-manager in the old Washington Senators organization (now Minnesota Twins) in 1946.
In 1948, the 16 major league teams sponsored 271 teams across the country, but more than 100 more towns (like Lincolnton) had un-sponsored teams.
Frequently, that arrangement was financially perilous and often led to less than stellar results on the field.
In Lincolnton, while the team did eventually leave due to financial strain, four of the five Cardinals teams that finished the season made the postseason – and two made it to the championship series of the old Western Carolinas League.
The 1948 Cardinals were dominant throughout the season before finishing with a 69-41 record to win the regular season title by one game over the Newton-Conover Twins. Lincolnton then beat the Morganton Aggies four games to two in the WCL semifinals before edging Newton-Conover four games to three for the league title.
During the season, Lincolnton hosted league’s first All-Star game and league president Moss made sure it was a well-attended, well-promoted affair at Lincolnton’s old Love Field that is now part of the parking lot for Lincolnton’s Gaston College campus.
The Asheville Citizen wrote this about the Lincolnton All-Star contest:
“Showman John Henry Moss, president of the infant Western North Carolina League, was popping ideas and color today on a scale rivalling extravangances of (American Hollywood film producer) Cecil B. DeMille as the loop neared what promises to be North Carolina’s most glittering baseball show….”
Moss invited mayors, congressmen and local celebrities for a game that drew 3,500 fans and saw the WCL All-Stars comprised of top players from the seven other teams defeat Lincolnton 14-6. Among the All-Stars was Marion Marauders player-manager Wes Ferrell, who had played in the first major league All-Star Game in Chicago in 1933; Ferrell was hitting a league-leading .419.
Other All-Stars were Newton-Conover player-manager Eddie Yount and Shelby’s Roger McKee. Yount was a two-year major leaguer who had played at Wake Forest and McKee was the first major leaguer produced by Shelby High School and Shelby American Legion Post 82; Yount and McKee led the All-Stars’ 16-hit attack with three hits apiece.
Lincolnton later lost to Morganton in the 1949 and 1951 WCL semifinals and beat Marion in the 1952 semifinal before losing four games to three to Shelby in the 1952 WCL championship series. The Cardinals all-time record, including playoffs, was 377-279.
The Cardinals also did reasonably well at the gate, drawing 234,420 fans to Love Field in their six-year run. A record 66,766 fans came to home games in 1949, but when only 6,941 fans came to home games in 1953 (an average of just over 200 per game), ownership in the team was sold to a group of Statesville businessmen for $2,500 on July 12.
Belmont’s 1961 season started successfully as the team had an affiliation with the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants.
But, other than that, the team endured every obstacle any minor league team could imagine.
That began from the start.
Moss convinced Belmont officials to buy the struggling Rutherford County Owls franchise of Forest City and move them to Belmont. But that moved didn’t officially happen until late April – or just days before the May 2 start of the season.
A “Name the team” contest selected Chiefs as the nicknam but the team would lose its first 17 games and play for three managers before finishing the season with a 39-59 overall record and a last-place standing in attendance with 11,022 total fans drawn to Davis Park for home games.
Kermit Williams, a 1958 Belmont High graduate, signed a $1,500 free agent contract with the Giants and left behind a basketball-baseball career at the University of North Carolina to play for the hometown team.
“They came into town and didn’t have much,” Williams told The Gaston Gazette in March 2012. “It was just a rag-tag bunch of players. But it was pro ball and we were happy to be a part of it.
“They sent us some of those old grey wool San Francisco Giants uniforms and they were really nice. We wore those uniforms every game and mine had ‘Cepeda’ written in them so at least we felt big league.”
(In 1961, Orlando Cepeda had a league-leading 46 home runs and 142 RBIs for the major league Giants, who went 85-69 to finish third in the National League. An 11-time All-Star, Cepeda was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.)
Williams gained a permanent place in Chiefs’ history when his RBI triple ended the season-opening 17-game losing streak in a 6-4 home victory over the Lexington Indians in late May. Williams would eventually play in 94 games, hitting .268 with 86 runs scored. His batting average and runs scored totals ranked second on a team that used 69 players over the course of the season.
One of them, pitcher Fred Wenz, would eventually make the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1968.
But a big story during the season was that team ownership failed to make payroll several times.
WCL president Moss admitted years later the Belmont franchise was probably a bigger challenge than even he could have imagined, especially since they folded after one season.
“I think the population was just so small that a pro club playing every night was more than they were accustomed to,” Moss told The Gaston Gazette in August 2007.
For Williams, it was his only year of professional baseball before moving to Spartanburg, S.C., to work for the National Freight Company for nearly 50 years.
“It was fun. It really was,” Williams said. “Davis Park was pretty full early in the year and I felt like our support was pretty good. I’m thankful for the opportunity. Really, it was just your typical ‘Class D stuff’ that happened with our team just like it happened in a lot of places.”