Shelby’s pro baseball history includes a former N.C. governor, two Baseball Hall of Famers and 68 future major leaguers
By Richard Walker
Shelby’s embrace of sports has been there since the late 19th century when future N.C. governor, federal administrator and local university namesake O. Max Gardner played football at both N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina.
Gardner also played a role in the city’s embrace of baseball that includes several semipro and professional teams and continues on to this day as Shelby is the permanent home of the American Legion World Series.
Gardner is one of several homegrown or national baseball stars that have played or visited the city in the years since, among them Hall of Famers Branch Rickey and Satchel Paige, longtime minor league executive John Henry Moss of Kings Mountain and eventual World Series champions Creepy Crespi, Freddy Schmidt, Cal Koonce, Gene Tenace, Lenny Dykstra, Roger McDowell, Barry Lyons and John Gibbons.
Gardner’s role in the city’s baseball fortunes came as a promoter and not a player.
A 1899 graduate of Shelby High School, Gardner played football for three seasons at N.C. State from 1902 to 1904 and one season at UNC in 1905 when he attended law school in Chapel Hill. He remains the only player to ever be elected captain for both schools.
While Gardner was in college, the first documented baseball game in Shelby was staged in 1903 and the first semipro team was organized in 1904 with both teams playing their games at a field near the old Southern Railway Station in downtown Shelby.
Gardner re-emerged on the scene after serving as a N.C. state senator and as N.C. lieutenant governor in 1921 when he was one of the directors of the Shelby baseball club. He also was toastmaster for a 1922 season-ending banquet held at the Cleveland Springs Hotel.
Among those Gardner was honoring on that August 1922 night was George “Buck” Redfern of Asheville. A N.C. State standout from 1921 to 1924, Redfern spent four summers (1921, 1922, 1923 and 1935) on Shelby teams and became the first major leaguer produced by the city; An 11-year pro from 1924 to 1934, Redfern played in the major leagues for the Chicago White Sox in 1928 and 1929.
Later elected governor of North Carolina in 1928 – Gardner served from 1929 to 1933 – he and his wife Faye Webb Gardner are the namesakes for Gardner-Webb University and he served in two presidential administrations – Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman – before dying at 64 on Feb. 6, 1947 just before he was to arrive in London after Truman had named Gardner U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. Gardner had served in the office of war mobilization and reconversion for Roosevelt and also was under the secretary of the treasury for Truman.
Ten years earlier, Hall of Fame executive Branch Rickey visited the city during its inaugural season of professional baseball.
Rickey, then vice president and general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, is considered the originator of major league baseball’s farm system and the 1937 Shelby Cardinals were one of the organization’s 26 farm teams that season. Two of those Shelby players – infielder Creepy Crespi and pitcher Freddy Schmidt – were members of the Cardinals 1942 World Series championship team.
After working for the Cardinals from 1919 to 1942, Rickey became more famous after spending 1942 to 1950 as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He’s credited with integrating pro baseball by signing fellow Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson on Aug. 28, 1945 in addition to being credited with developing the major league’s first full-time spring facility called “Dodgertown” in Vero Beach, Fla.
Later an executive vice president and general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1951 to 1955 and a consultant for the Cardinals in 1963 and 1964, Rickey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.
Two years before Rickey came to Shelby, a local baseball team made a connection with future Hall of Famer Satchel Paige that ended up with his visit to the city in 1940.
Paige, considered by many to be one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, played against the Cleveland Cloth Mill in the inaugural National Baseball Congress semipro tournament in Wichita, Kansas.
Paige’s Bismarck, S.D., Churchills went 7-0 in the tournament on a team with four other Negro League standouts, among them another eventual Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith.
Cleveland Cloth Mill, which had five eventual baseball pros – Redfern and eventual Shelby High basketball coach Lloyd Little among them – had a 5-2 record in the double-elimination tournament to finish third. The team, nicknamed CeeCees, lost its first game by a 7-1 score to Bismarck on Negro League pitching standout Chet Brewer’s two-hitter.
Paige would later join the major leagues in 1948, helping the Cleveland Indians win that year’s World Series, before being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971.
On June 8, 1940 – the first season of the old high school park off Sumter Street in Shelby – the Satchel Paige All-Stars lost 5-4 to the Brooklyn Royal Giants.
According to the June 10, 1940 Shelby Star, “a large crowd of both white and black spectators turned out” to see Paige’s team lose even as he started and pitched two scoreless one-hit innings with four strikeouts.
Though he wasn’t in attendance at that 1940 exhibition – he was playing for the Shelby Colonels Tar Heel League team that season – Kings Mountain’s John Henry Moss was determined to produce fan-pleasing events like Paige’s appearance the rest of his life.
While many may think of Moss as the simply the namesake for Moss Lake, the county’s water supply that is located just outside of his native Kings Mountain, Moss is also the longest-tenured president in professional baseball history.
Before dying at 90 on July 1, 2009, Moss served as president of the Western Carolina League (1948-49 and 1959-79) and South Atlantic League (1980-2007) in addition to spending nine seasons as Detroit Tigers minor league system director (1950-58) and serving as Mayor of Kings Mountain from 1965 to 1988.
Dubbed the “King of Baseball” in 1990, Moss has received the prestigious Warren C. Giles Award in 1993 in addition to being inducted into multiple halls of fame – South Atlantic League (1994), North Carolina Sports (2004), North Carolina American Legion (2004) and Kings Mountain Sports (2004).
He also donated money for naming rights to Gardner-Webb University’s baseball stadium that opened in 2009.
Shelby was the host city for minor league teams for 25 years from 1937 to 1982 – and 15 of those as members of leagues with Moss as president.
Shelby’s nicknames were the Cardinals (1937-38), Nationals (1939), Colonels (1940 and 1960-63), Cubs (1946), Farmers (1948-52), Clippers (1953-54), Yankees (1964), Rebels (1965), Senators (1969), Reds (1977-78), Pirates (1979-80) and Mets (1981-82).
They were affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals (1937-38), Washington Nationals (1939), Chicago Cubs (1946), New York Giants (1954), New York Mets (1960 and 1981-82), Pittsburgh Pirates (1961 and 1979-80), New York Yankees (1962-64), Kansas City Athletics (1965), Washington Senators (1969) and Cincinnati Reds (1977-78).
Sixty-eight former or eventual major leaguers played for Shelby teams over the years, including seven who eventually were Major League World Series champions – Crespi, Schmidt, Gene Tenace of the Oakland Athletics (1972, 1973 and 1974) and St. Louis Cardinals (1982) and 1986 New York Mets champions Lenny Dykstra, John Gibbons, Barry Lyons and Roger McDowell.
Tenace was a Shelby Rebels outfielder in 1965 one year after playing on a talented Portsmouth, Ohio, American Legion team that included future major leaguers Al Oliver and Larry Hisle.