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Who is the area’s best baseball player? A case can be made for the “Rock Springs Rifle”

By Richard Walker

Any longtime baseball observer will tell you there’s nothing like the buzz that’s created when major league scouts pack a high school stadium to watch a hard-throwing pitcher.

Tony Cloninger during his Rock Springs High School baseball career.

In the late 1950s in Lincoln County, that was every game that eventual major leaguer Tony Cloninger – nicknamed the “Rock Springs Rifle” – pitched for old Rock Springs High School.

A 6-foot, 210-pound two-sport star, Tony Cloninger started drawing attention for the speed of his pitches that many estimated to be just shy of 100 mph as a sophomore in high school in the spring of 1956. By his senior year of 1958, every game he pitched drew scouts from across the country.

And within a week of his final high school game – a 4-0 second round playoff loss to Bessemer City on May 16, 1958 at Licolnton’s old Love Field was attended by 24 major league scouts – his story was being followed locally and nationally.

It was seven years before the start of the major league draft had begun, so all 16 major league teams were able to pursue signing Tony Cloninger to a contract. Eventually, 13 of the 16 teams held negotiations – the Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals were the only teams who didn’t – before he settled on a $100,000 signing bonus that was one of the largest in history.

Former major league infielder Gil English, a Trinity native, signed the prized pitching prospect to that contract for the Milwaukee Braves.

“I’ve followed him for two years and my evaluation of Tony hasn’t changed since the first day I saw him pitch,” English told The Gastonia Gazette for a May 22, 1958 front page story. “A real major league prospect in every sense of the word.”

Spurred on by watching older brother Ray Cloninger help Rock Springs and Cherryville American Legion Post 100 to state titles in 1953 helped push Tony Cloninger toward an athletic career.

Ray Cloninger, a pitcher and first baseman, was a hitting star for Rock Springs in their two games to one victory at Perquimans County in the 1953 N.C. 1A high school state championship; His single started a 13th-inning rally for an 8-7 victory in the decisive third game. Later that summer, Ray Cloninger had a 1-0 pitching record and batted .242 for Post 100’s first state championship and American Legion World Series team.

Tony Cloninger’s 1967 Atlanta Braves baseball card

Tony Cloninger actually began his baseball career as a catcher before his hard-throwing made him a natural to become a pitcher.

He also was an acclaimed basketball player. The first documented 1,000-point scorer in Lincoln County history, Tony Cloninger helped the Warriors to the Little Ten Conference finals as a sophomore in 1956 and to Catawba-Lincoln Conference titles in 1957 and 1958. Behind his 26 points in a 69-67 overtime win over Monroe Benton Heights in a district championship, Rock Springs advanced to the eight-team 1958 1A N.C. state championship tournament in 1958 at Southern Pines.

On the baseball diamond, Tony Cloninger was even more special.

He led Rock Springs, which later became an elementary school when East Lincoln High School was opened, to Catawba-Lincoln Conference titles in 1957 and 1958. The 1957 team advanced to the N.C. 1A Western championship game before losing to eventual state champion Kernersville and the 1958 playoffs began with Tony Cloninger throwing a perfect game in a first round victory over Drexel before his four-hitter with eight strikeouts wasn’t enough in a second round playoff loss to Bessemer City.

Also a two-year standout for Post 100, Tony Cloninger was the source of battles each year about his eligibility each summer before he would go 16-5 with 308 strikeouts while hitting .341 in his career.

In 1956, Cherryville had to move its base designation from Cherryville to Lincolnton after Gastonia Post 23 tried to make a claim on the pitcher. And in 1957, N.C. Area IV officials got involved in a dispute between Cherryville and Mount Holly-Paw Creek over where he would play; Cherryville was ruled to his team after officials determined his home was a tenth of a mile closer to Post 100’s district according to longtime Cherryville Eagle sports reporter Ronald “Scoop” Kiser in a Gaston Gazette story in 2002.

Once Tony Cloninger turned professional, he spent parts of four seasons in the minor leagues before debuting with the Braves on June 15, 1961. A starting pitcher for all but the last two years of a his 12-year career, his best season came in 1965 when he went 24-11 with one save in 40 appearances (38 starts) for the Braves in their final year in Milwaukee.

In 1966, with the team now located in Atlanta, Tony Cloninger was chosen to start the team’s debut at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 12. He pitched a 13-inning complete game and was a hard-luck 3-2 loser to the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a native of nearby North Carolina, his tenure with the Braves has long been cited as a playing a role in this region’s embrace of the team.

Later in 1966, Tony Cloninger set a major league record – for his hitting. He hit two grand slams in the same in a 17-3 Braves’ victory over the San Francisco Giants at old Candlestick Park.

He would eventually end his major league baseball career after also playing for the Cincinnati Reds (he was a 1970 National League champion) and St. Louis Cardinals. He finished with a 113-97 record with 13 shutouts, six saves and 4.07 ERA in 352 appearances (247 starts). He also was an accomplished batter with a .192 batting average, 11 home runs and 67 RBIs.

But that didn’t end his athletic career.

Tony Cloninger was a standout recreation softball player for the legendary Howard’s Furniture team in Denver before eventually returning to the major leagues as a coach.

Howard’s was owned by softball Hall of Famer Richard Howard and coached by softball Hall of Famer Bobby Lutz, Sr. Among Tony Cloninger’s teammates were softball Hall of Famers like Don Arndt, Roger Brown, Gene Fisher, Stave Harvey and Rick Scherr in addition to eventual college basketball coach Bobby Lutz, Jr.

Tony Cloninger’s return to the major leagues came as a New York Yankees bullpen coach (1992-2001) where he won World Series titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 and as Boston Red Sox (2002-03) pitching coach.

Tony Cloninger died on July 24, 2018 at 77.