Carolina League's History A Rich One

Over it's first 57 years, the Carolina League has established itself as one of baseball's premier minor leagues, a circuit renowned for hot prospects, intense rivalries, memorable pennant races, and excellent play.

The league has fielded anywhere from four to 12 teams in places ranging from metropolitan centers to tiny Red Springs, NC, with only 4,000 people. It has hosted a U.S. President, as George Bush attended two games at Frederick in 1991 and 1992. Literally hundreds of current Major Leaguers played in the CL, and dozens of big league umpires, broadcasters and executives have worked in the league.

Founded during World War II, the Carolina League’s inaugural 1945 season featured two Southside Virginia cites. But throughout the 40s and 50s it was known as a predominately North Carolina League. In those days it wasn’t unusual for talented players to make a career out of minor league baseball. Some of the league’s colorful greats from that era (many still hold league records) included Muscle Shoals, Willie Duke, Woody Fair, Harvey Haddix and Crash Davis, whose name was immortalized in the movie Bull Durham.

Later in the 50s Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski and Earl Weaver, who all eventually entered the Hall of Fame, were quite the rage throughout the League.

During the 60s, the minors became more closely affiliated with the Major Leagues, as the League crept up into central Virginia. During this period CL stars such as Rod Carew, Curt Flood, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench found themselves on the fast track to Major League stardom.

The beginning of the 80s has proven to be a pivotal time in Carolina League history. Though CL playing talent remained strong with such stars as Wade Boggs, Dave Parker, Cecil Cooper and Dwight Evans, the 70s were a difficult time financially throughout minor league baseball. A number of cities found they could not support teams, and CL membership dwindled to four clubs. Hanging in were Winston-Salem (the only club to play all 57 CL seasons), along with Lynchburg and Salem, neither of which missed a season since entering the CL in the 60s. The fourth club was in several different locations in the 70s, but since 1993 has been the Wilmington (Delaware) Blue Rocks.

In a series of bold moves in the late 70s and early 80s the CL went as far north as Maryland (first Hagerstown, now Frederick) and re-established the Durham Bulls franchise with two expansions in three years, bringing the league to its current number of eight clubs. Also coming in during that period were Kinston and Alexandria (now Potomac). The moves were bold because there were not enough Major League affiliations for all of the new clubs.

But the gamble paid off, and in 1983 the Carolina League began an extraordinary run of 13 straight years where attendance showed an increase over the previous year. In 1989, the league went over the 1 million mark for the first time since 1947. New all-time records were set for the next six straight years, topping out at 1,816,193 in 1995.

On the field, the fast track never slowed. In fact, it got faster. The 80s and 90s have been the era of Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Barry Bonds, Bernie Williams, Moises Alou and Andruw Jones, just to name a few. In recent years it has not been uncommon for a player to become a regular in the Majors in the season following his Carolina League time.

The Carolina League closed out the 90s by going deeper into Carolina than ever before with the addition of Myrtle Beach for 1999. With that move, fully half the ballparks occupied by CL clubs will have been built in the 90s and will feature all the modern amenities. Two others were renovated in the 90s, and the remaining two cities have new stadiums on the drawing boards.

 

Related Info

Selections from the 1994 book Separating The Men From The Boys: The First Half-Century of the Carolina League written by Jim L. Sumner of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History.