Olde Kinston Gazette: Kinston’s special place In pro baseball history
Editor’s note: Neuse News is reprinting selected articles from the archives of the Olde Kinston Gazette. Some light edits have been made from the original reports. Enjoy!
Original story by B.J. Murphy
Originally published: April 1998
Retyped by Parker Mitchell / Neuse News Intern
The smell of fresh-cut grass, the sound of birds chirping and the sight of a warm, breezy day in the middle of spring in Kinston makes everything else seem undesirable. Baseball is not only America’s favorite past-time, It’s Kinston’s, too.
Professional baseball originated in Kinston in the 1920s in the Class B Virginia League. Owners of the team allowed the City of Kinston to vote on the team’s nickname, and the people chose the “Eagles.” The nickname would remain with the Kinston program for more than 50 years.
To cut costs, the Kinston Eagles moved to the Class D Eastern Carolina League in 1928. The league itself had a pen name of its own, the “Bright Leaf Belt.” Teams from Fayetteville, Goldsboro, Greenville, Rocky Mount and Wilmington participated in this league. After the Great Depression took its toll on the ECL, the league disbanded — only a year after Kinston had joined.
An absence of professional baseball here lasted until Kinston entered the Coastal Plain League in 1937. A short time after, a St. Louis Cardinals scout, Clifford (Pat) Rankin Crawford, recommended to the Cardinals they should invest in the Kinston franchise. The deal between Crawford, the Cardinals and Kinston sent several players, a manager and $1,600 to the Kinston team. Crawford, also known as “Cap’n Pat,” had been a member of the Cardinals during the time that their 1934 Gashouse Gang that won the World Series.
Many Kinstonians remember Crawford as a kind, generous man. We hold dear to our hearts memories of his engaging smile, which prompted a college friend to give him the nickname “Pat.” He was head of the recreation department and was involved with many community activities.
Baseball in Kinston owes the late Crawford many thank you’s for his underlying love for the game. Because of Crawford’s efforts to keep baseball alive in Kinston, they named the annual award for the most valuable player after Cap’n Pat Crawford.
In 1939, the Cardinals left Kinston. The Kinston Eagles, managed by Fred “Snake” Henry, operated as an independent and attained a spot in the playoffs. The underdog Eagles defeated Greenville in the first round, but lost to Williamston in the championship series. That 1939 championship series was a first for a professional baseball team in Kinston.
The Coastal Plain League got caught in a financial pickle in the early 1950s and dispersed; again, Kinston had an absence of professional baseball. In 1956, the owner of the Burlington franchise, L.C. “Red” Fowler, associated with the Pittsburgh Pirates, moved to Kinston because of a lack in attendance.
This move placed Kinston in the Class B Carolina League, which meant Kinston was two classes higher than before in a five-team farm system. After battles with the Pirates and another poor attendance showing, Fowler left Kinston.
Not until 1962, when Kinston latched on the Pirates again, did Kinston have a team. This time, under the management of Harding “Pete” Peterson, the program was back on its feet. A record attendance of 4,537 fans which lasted 37 years showed up at a game between the Durham Bulls and Kinston on June 11, 1962. The Eagles showed their desire to win and defeated Durham in a seven-game championship series.
Peterson later left Kinston to pursue the general manager position in Pittsburgh but did not leave empty-handed. From 1962-64, Peterson advanced 15 players from Kinston to the majors. He also averaged an attendance of 2,000 fans each game.
The world-famous New York Yankees and Kinston signed a working agreement in 1968. Kinston’s manager, Gene Hassell, won the Carolina League Manager of the Year award in 1971 and 1972. The franchise played under a joint contract with the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves in 1973. On the team that year was Terry Whitfield, who won the league’s most valuable player.
A major change in the club came in 1974 when Kinston agreed with the terms of the Montreal Expos and changed its name from “Eagles” to “Expos.” The franchise witnessed its lowest ebb in the history of Kinston baseball when the team compiled a record low of 38 wins. Only 30,000 fans showed up to watch the Kinston team play, compared with that of 12 years before of 141,000. After a year of disastrous baseball, Kinston was without professional baseball for four years.
Finally a couple from Virginia named Ray and Ruth Kuhlman saved the day for Kinston’s favorite pastime. Kinston operated as an independent in 1978 and changed its name back to “Eagles.” Leo Mazzone managed the club and despite some fantastic baseball, the team finished below .500.
In 1979, the newest expansion team, the Toronto Blue Jays, signed a seven-year player development contract with Kinston. The team ended the year with its best season since 1973. An exciting and popular player for Kinston was Ralph “Rocket” Wheeler. They had compared his skill and talents with those of Pete Rose. Jesse Barfield, a talented outfielder, was a great defensive player in his time.
Managed by John McLaren, who later coached in Toronto, the Eagles soared to the first-half pennant, the first pennant by any team associated with Toronto. In 1982, the team changed its name to “Blue Jays.” The Kuhlmans sold the franchise after the 1983 season, but the team remained associated with Toronto.
Kinston ended the first half of 1985 in last place of the Southern Division, but Manager Grady Little would not let his team give up. Kinston won the second half title, but lost to Winston-Salem in the playoffs. The only Blue Jay named to the league’s all-star team was outfielder Eric Yielding. Little won the manager of the year award.
After an argument with Toronto officials, Toronto moved the Blue Jays to Dunedin, Fla. The Kinston franchise operated as an independent the following season. Again, the popular “Eagles” were back in business. Despite the team’s fifth-place finish, Dave Trembley, Kinston’s manager, had been considered for manager of the year. Trembley left Kinston to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates’ AA team in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
In 1987, the Kinston Eagles latched on with the Cleveland Indians and changed its name to “Indians.” The past decade of baseball in Kinston has been some of the best seen since the ‘20s and ‘30s. The 1988 ball team won the league championship, the first since 1962. Each year of the Indians have been improved.
Kinston and the Indians have gone through great lengths to ensure a good quality baseball organization. Grainger Stadium, home of the Indians, has received major renovation in the past few years. Grainger Stadium now has more box seats, more concessions and a new parking lot. The clubhouse has also been remodeled to look more professional.
The Olde Kinston Gazette, the City of Kinston, the Kinston Indians and the lovers of America’s favorite pastime want to invite anyone with an interest level in baseball and its tradition to come watch the Indians in another exciting year of baseball. Hey, we don’t know when we’ll see the next Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb or Mickey Mantle, but guess where they got their start?