It's a big day in the Charlotte area's professional baseball history. The new 10,000 seat BB&T Ballpark uptown debuts tonight when the Triple-A Charlotte Knights take on the Norfolk Tides.
The Knights had spend the previous 24 seasons in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
The region has a long and colorful history of professional baseball. WFAE's Mark Rumsey captured that history in this story, which first aired last summer.
On a late-July night in 1945 at Webb Field in Concord, the minor league baseball Concord Weavers are playing the Hickory Rebels. Pitching for Concord that night is 17-year old Tommy Lasorda, who went on to a brief playing career, and a 20-year Hall-of-Fame run as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. A young radio announcer named Robert D. Raiford, also 17, is calling the play-by-play.
It was an era in which baseball was intertwined with the very fabric of life in North Carolina. “There were textile leagues everywhere,” says baseball researcher Hank Utley. “I think at that time Cabarrus County had about 14 or 15 different textile mills, and every one of ‘em had a baseball team.”
Utley has chronicled North Carolina’s colorful baseball history, including the feisty Carolina League of the 1930s. The league defined “Outlaw” baseball. Teams boosted their rosters with players who were either disillusioned with the structure of traditional pro ball, or had been kicked out.
One such character was a pitcher known as “Struttin’ Bud” Shaney, who was notorious for ‘doctoring’ baseballs by embedding phonograph needles under the seams. “When you got that ball rotating, out of weight, you could throw one hell of a curve ball,” Utley recalls. During one game in Concord when a player asked the umpire to check the ball “Struttin’ Bud” was throwing, Shaney just tossed it over the grandstand.
Shaney pitched for a team called the Charlotte Hornets. Yes, the Hornets . It was a sports team moniker in Charlotte long before the city’s first NBA franchise took the name in 1988. Minor league baseball teams known as the Hornets played in Charlotte beginning in 1901.
Frank Quilici, who spent time as a Hornets’ infielder from 1962 to 1964, remembers friendly fans, the southern humidity, and long road trips by bus. He also recalls the racial realities of the day. The Hornets team was integrated, but segregation was evident around Charlotte, including the hometown ballpark. “The blacks had their own area in the park. We didn’t like that, but unfortunately, (people) used to call it the ‘coal bin.’ ”
Those games were played in Dilworth, in a ballpark built in 1940 by Calvin Griffith – son of Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith. “It was a wonderful old, dark green painted baseball grandstand, you know – the kind that Norman Rockwell might have painted”, says Wilt Browning, a former Charlotte Observer sportswriter who covered Hornets games at the stadium in the mid 60s.
Today, condos and modern or renovated homes fill the tree-lined streets in the Olmsted Park section of Dilworth, where the old Clark Griffith baseball stadium once stood. Margaret Morgan grew up in the neighborhood and lived right across the street from the ballpark – close enough to hear the action on game days. “Somebody would hit a home run or even just hit a good ball and the whole place would erupt,” Morgan remembers. “Even if I was in the house, you could hear it, so you knew something good had happened.” Morgan attended some of the games, for about 50 cents admission.
The 1970s and 80s brought big changes for minor league baseball in Charlotte.
The Hornets name stuck until 1972, when the team was briefly renamed the Charlotte Twins, followed by a three-year hiatus for pro baseball in the city.
Charlotte-based wrestling promoter Jim Crockett, Junior brought the game back in 1976 after buying and relocating the Baltimore Orioles’ AA affiliate in Asheville. The Charlotte O’s played in the renamed Crockett Park in Dilworth, and future major league stars Cal Ripken, Junior and Curt Schilling were among the players to wear the Charlotte uniform in the early to mid 80s.
The city’s baseball landscape changed again in 1985, when fire destroyed Crockett Park. The team owners built a makeshift stadium on the Dilworth site, where the Orioles played three more seasons. In 1989, George Shinn bought the team, renamed it the Charlotte Knights, and moved it to a newly-built stadium in Fort Mill, where the team has played for more than 20 years. Shinn sold the Knights to North Carolina nursing home magnate Don Beaver in 1998.
Today, minor league baseball in Charlotte is undergoing another big change. Construction continues on a 10-thousand seat state-of-the-art baseball stadium in Uptown Charlotte. The Triple-A Knights, now part of the Chicago White Sox organization, will begin play next season at BB&T Ballpark. And the climate seems ripe for a new era of baseball memories to be made.