Part 1: Wood Ducks are on the edge of history
Editor’s note: This story is the first of a five-part series on the historic run by the 2019 Down East Wood Ducks. The next parts of the series will publish around noon the next four days.
Professional baseball debuted in Kinston in 1908 when a franchise joined the Class D Eastern Carolina League but folded only 18 games into the season. That humble beginning started a love affair for local baseball fans that continues today, as the Down East Wood Ducks are participating in the 70th season of pro ball in Kinston.
After all the success professional baseball teams have had in Kinston — including eight league championships and 42 winning campaigns in their 69 previous seasons — the 2019 Down East Wood Ducks are on the precipice of rewriting history this year by setting the regular season wins record.
Entering Tuesday night’s game vs. the Fayetteville Woodpeckers and with 14 regular season games remaining on the schedule, the Woodies possess a sterling 83-42 record, only six wins behind the 1991 Kinston Indians (89-49) and 2001 K-Tribe (89-52).
The Woodies — winning games at a .664 clip in 2019 — are also currently on pace to break the all-time Kinston regular season pro baseball winning percentage mark of .652, set in 1990 by the Kinston Indians when they finished 88-47.
Kinston’s proud baseball history
Seventeen years after the aborted 1908 season, the Kinston Eagles started in the Class B Virginia League, where they participated for three seasons (1925-27) before heading back to the ECL in 1928-29. Thanks to the stock market crash of 1929 — and the Great Depression that immediately followed — pro baseball disappeared from the Kinston landscape for eight years.
The Eagles were next part of the Class D Coastal Plain League for 12 seasons from 1937-41 and 1946-52, stepping away from the sport because of World War II. The 1947 season was significant, though, as it marked the first professional baseball championship in Kinston when the Eagles won the CPL title.
The CPL dissolved following the 1952 season, leaving Kinston without a league, although the city had a sparkling new venue — Grainger Stadium — which was built in 1949.
However, the then-Class B Carolina League — which had started in 1945 — came calling in 1956 when the owner of the Burlington Bees moved his team to Kinston, and reverted the team’s nickname back to Eagles. That 1956 team featured one of the all-time great Kinston pro baseball players in Carl Long, the first African-American to play for a Kinston baseball franchise.
The 1956 season was the beginning of a relationship with the Carolina League and Kinston that continues today, albeit with three different team nicknames and three hiatuses. The team was called the Eagles from 1956-57, 1962-73, 1978-81 and for a final season in 1986. In between, the Kinston franchise was called the Expos for a single season in 1974 and the Blue Jays from 1982-85.
In 1987, the Kinston Indians started their wildly successful 25-year reign at Historic Grainger Stadium. During the K-Tribe’s quarter-century tenure, fans were treated to five Carolina League titles (1988, 1991, 1995, 2004 and 2006), 20 winning seasons, 18 postseason appearances and an impressive overall record of 1,921-1,533 (.556).
After World War II, pro baseball left Kinston from 1958-61, 1975-77 and 2011-16, the most recent hiatus due to the franchise moving to Zebulon to become the Carolina Mudcats.
Professional baseball returned to Kinston in 2017 when the Texas Rangers moved their California League team to town and named it the Down East Wood Ducks. Despite an overall losing record in their debut season, the DEWDs were declared co-champions with Lynchburg after the Mills Cup Finals were canceled due to Hurricane Irma.
Last season, the Woodies stumbled to a 59-81 record, the fewest victories for a Kinston pro baseball franchise since 1978, when the unaffiliated Kinston Eagles finished 57-77.
The first 69 years of pro baseball in Kinston were a prelude to the amazing 2019 season.
Part 2 of this five-part series will publish Wednesday around noon on Neuse News.
Notes: Sources for this series include Baseball-Reference.com, The Free Press archives, Statscrew.com, Neuse News archives, Distributed Wikipedia and Down East Wood Ducks Director of Broadcasting Matt Present. … The author of this story has been the public address announcer for the Down East Wood Ducks since the team’s inception in 2017.