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Appalachian League history offers local flavor in MiLB

By BENJAMIN HILL

Minor League Baseball

When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the penultimate installment in a 14-part series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird, poignant or otherwise memorable fact about each team or city in each of Minor League Baseball’s admission-charging leagues. Remember — it’s about the journey, not the destination. To share your own favorite team or city facts, please reach out via email ([email protected]_) or Twitter (@bensbiz).

The Appalachian League was founded in 1911; it says so right on the logo. This venerable Rookie Advanced circuit has existed in three permutations — the first ran from 1911-14, the second from 1921-25 and the third from 1937 through the present (excepting the 1956 season, in which the league suspended operations). The Appalachian League is unique in that all its clubs are owned by, and named after, its Major League affiliate. But this is a circuit that does not traffic in homogeneity. It has overflowing character and ample history, resulting in indelible memories, and of course, an overabundance of facts. 

Bluefield Blue Jays

Bluefield currently fields the Blue Jays, but its first Appalachian League team was the Blue-Grays. This duo-chromatic entity debuted in 1937 and won the Appy League title in 1949-50 and 1954. These were the first three of a league-high 14 championships Bluefield has captured. The club went on to win it all in 1957 (as the Dodgers) and then in 1962-63, 1967, 1970-71, 1982, 1992, 1996-97 and 2001 (as the Orioles). The Elizabethton Twins have won seven championships since the last time Bluefield won it all. They stand second on the Appy League’s all-time list with 12.

Bristol Pirates

Bristol was a charter member of the Appalachian League and has fielded a team during each of its iterations. The most notable on-field accomplishment by a Bristol player occurred on May 13, 1952, when “Rocket” Ron Necciai struck out 27 batters in a nine-inning no-hitter for the Bristol Twins. He remains the only pitcher in professional baseball history to have accomplished this feat. The Bristol Pirates’ current home of Boyce Cox Field has a plaque commemorating Necciai’s extraordinary achievement, which took place at nearby (and long defunct) Shaw Stadium.

Burlington Royals

The Royals’ home of Burlington Athletic Stadium was built in 1960. More accurately, it was rebuilt in 1960. The ballpark began life as League Park, home of the Carolina League’s Danville Leafs through 1958. After that organization folded, the ballpark was sold to a Burlington-based ownership group for $5,000. It was summarily disassembled, shipped via train to Burlington and reassembled. This reconstituted facility, which has undergone major upgrades in recent seasons, has served as the home to Burlington’s Appalachian League team since 1986.

Danville Braves

The Danville Braves debuted in 1993 and have been Appy League stalwarts ever since. They aren’t the only Minor League team to have played in Danville during this time, however. In 1998, the Braves shared their ballpark, American Legion Field, with the Carolina League’s Danville ‘97s. This stopgap entity, named after a famous train crash, had previously existed as the Durham Bulls. After Durham received a Triple-A expansion club that kept the Bulls name, its preexisting Carolina League club moved to Danville. 1998 was the last of the ‘97s, as in 1999, they relocated to Myrtle Beach and became the still-extant Pelicans.

Elizabethton Twins

Fred Waters managed the Elizabethton Twins from 1975 through 1986, accumulating a league-record 443 wins in the process. He was replaced at the helm by Ray Smith, who skippered the E-Twins from 1987-94 and again from 2002 through 2019. Smith has garnered a whopping 1,048 wins during his tenure in Elizabethton, which includes nine league championships. Smith’s predecessor, the aforementioned Waters, is therefore a distant second on the Appy League’s all-time managerial wins leaderboard.

Greeneville Reds

Greeneville has hosted an Appalachian League team in every season since 2004, first as the Astros (through 2017) and then as the Reds. Prior to that, the city had fielded an Appy League team in the form of the Burley Cubs, who operated from 1921-25 and again from 1938-42. Both iterations of the Burley Cubs, named for the burley tobacco that was one of the region’s cash crops, featured Greeneville native Dale Alexander. Alexander made his professional debut with the Burley Cubs in 1923, the precursor to a five-year Major League career which included winning the 1932 American League batting title. He returned to the Burley Cubs in 1942 as a player-manager, collecting the last of his 2,145 Minor League hits.

Johnson City Cardinals

Johnson City has been a Cardinals affiliate since 1975, but the first iteration of the Johnson City Cardinals operated from 1939 through 1955. That 1939 team, the very first Cardinals squad in Johnson City’s long Appy League history, was managed by Ollie Vitek. Vitek will always be remembered by St. Louis Cardinals fans; in 1937, while working as a Cardinals scout, he discovered Stan Musial. After Vitek died in 2000 at age 91, Musial eulogized him as “a good man and responsible for my start in St. Louis.”

Kingsport Mets

The aforementioned 1939 Johnson City Cardinals included Leo “Muscle” Shoals, who led the league in home runs. This was the first of seven Minor League home run titles for Shoals, who was nicknamed “the Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues.” He went on to win four of these titles as a member of the Kingsport Cherokees, in 1946, 1947, 1953 and 1955. Shoals retired after that 1955 campaign, during which he hit .362 with 33 long balls and 134 RBIs at age 39. Shoals, who loved playing in Kingsport, remained in the area after retiring. He died in 1999 at age 82.

Princeton Rays

Most Minor League Baseball mascots understand the English language, but there’s only one that can speak it. That, of course, would be Roscoe the Rooster of the Princeton Rays. This writer interviewed Roscoe in 2016, and he explained that “I just thought that one day I’m gonna be friendly, welcome all the fans and start talkin.’” Roscoe, the self-proclaimed “clown prince of poultry” enjoys another unique mascot distinction in that he also competes on the local wrestling circuit. His archrival is the Cuban Assassin, whom he is often able to defeat via his special “chicken wing” finishing move.

Pulaski Yankees

The Appalachian League drew 411,189 fans in 2019, its highest total since 1994. The Pulaski Yankees have been a crucial part of the league’s success at the gate, as 2019 marked the fifth consecutive season in which the club set an all-time franchise attendance mark at their long-time home of Calfee Park. It was also the second straight season in which the Yankees established an all-time Appalachian League attendance record. In 2018, 91,226 passed through the gates, surpassed in 2019 by a total of 95,897. Pulaski’s turnstile-busting prowess largely can be attributed to an ownership group willing to heavily invest in ballpark renovations and the overall fan experience.