Charlotte Hornets (baseball)
The Charlotte Hornets was the name of an American minor league baseball franchise based in Charlotte, North Carolina. The club was originally founded in 1901, and lasted in some form until 1973, capturing 11 league titles during its history. From 1937–42 and 1946–72, the Hornets were a farm system affiliate of the original Washington Senators franchise and its post-1960 successor, the Minnesota Twins.
Early history (1892–1936)
The earliest "Hornet" team was apparently in 1892, according to Minor League Baseball records. The team played in the 19th century South Atlantic League for one season. Later in 1900, the Charlotte "Presbyterians" played a 27-game season in the North Carolina Association. Under the name Hornets, a professional baseball team played in 1901 and 1902 in the Virginia-North Carolina League and the North Carolina League respectively, both Class C leagues. In 1905 the Hornets again played in the Virginia-North Carolina League (then a Class D operation).
In 1908, the Hornets were a founding member of the Carolina Association (Class D) through 1913, when they moved to the North Carolina State League, another Class D League. The team remained with the North Carolina State League until 1917 when the team folded because of World War I. In 1919, the Hornets moved to the South Atlantic League (Class C 1919–1920, Class B after 1921) where they remained through the 1930 season. From 1931–1942, with the exception of 1936, when it was a member of the independent Carolina League the team operated in the Piedmont League, a Class B league, except for 1931 when it was Class C.
Affiliation with the Senators/Twins (1937–1972)
The team was purchased by the Washington Senators in 1937. The club would remain affiliated with the Senators/Twins franchise for 35 years. In 1938 the team was managed by Calvin Griffith, the adopted son of Senators owner Clark Griffith. In 1940, Calvin Griffith built a 3,200-seat park in Charlotte's Dilworth neighborhood on Magnolia Avenue and named it Clark Griffith Park. It would be the home of Charlotte baseball for nearly a half-century.
Following a three-year break during World War II, the Hornets returned to competition now in the Tri-State League (Class B) through the 1953 season when it rejoined the Class-A South Atlantic League. It remained in the league, which was upgraded to Class AA in 1963 and renamed the Southern League the following year, through 1972. (In 1971 the Hornets played in the Dixie Association, a merger of the Texas and Southern leagues). In 1972, the Twins also placed a Class A Western Carolinas League franchise, the Charlotte Twins, alongside the Double-A Hornets' franchise; it lasted only one season. Through the years, the Hornets won championships in the North Carolina League (1902, 1916 and 1923), Piedmont League (1931 and 1938) Tri-State League (1946, 1947 and 1952) and Southern League (1971).
The mainstay of the Hornets through the years was Phillip "Phil" Howser, who became Charlotte General Manager in 1935 and except for three years in the early 1940s when he worked in the Washington Senator's front office, ran the Charlotte operation until January 1970. Sometimes he served both as president and general manager of the club. Howser worked his entire 39-year baseball career for the Griffith family, beginning in 1935 in Chattanooga. From 1971 until his death in 1974 he was southern scouting supervisor for the Twins.
Howser loved youngsters and often let them into the ballpark without charge when he found them looking through holes in the fence. He prided himself on the upkeep and maintenance of Clark Griffith Park, which for years was covered with large—six to eight foot long and four to six foot high—photographs of old Hornet teams and players from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. In 1962 Howser was named "King of Baseball," by the National Association of Minor League Baseball and in 1969 he was named minor league baseball's executive of the year. From 1967-1969 he was named the Southern League's baseball executive of the year.
Memorable teams and players
Two Hornet teams are remembered for their proficiency. The 1931 team won 100 games and lost 37 with a winning percentage of .730. The club was managed by 33-year old player/manager Oceola Guy Lacy of Cleveland, Tenn., whose playing career spanned a quarter-century, 1916-1941. The Hornets finished 13 1/2 games ahead of the second place Raleigh, which was beaten four games to two in the championship series. The team had several .300 hitters, including Frank "What-A-Man" Packard (.366 with 21 home runs and 123 RBIs); Vern Brandes (.335 with 144 RBIs and a league high 44 stolen bases) and George Rhinehardt (.325). Jimmy Hudgens batted (.290) and was the only one of the group to play in the major leagues. The team's top pitcher was right-hander Charles "Struttin' Bud" Shaney, who led the league with a 24-10 record. Shaney never played in the majors, but won 230 games during his lengthy minor league career. In 1954 at age 54 he played in his annual Tri-State Leaguye game with the Asheville Tourists and was still good enough to pitch five innings of four-hit shutout ball for a victory.
In 1951 the Hornets also won 100 games, while losing 40 with a .714 winning percentage record. The team took first place in the league on May 15 and remained there for the rest of the season, finishing 15 games ahead of Asheville. However, Charlotte was eliminated in the opening round of the league playoffs, losing three games to one to Spartanburg, which had finished 27 games behind the Hornets in regular league play. The Hornets were managed by 27-year-old Cal Ermer, who also hit. 297 and led the league's second basemen in fielding (.971) in his last season as an active player. Later he served for nearly two years (1967 and 1968) as manager of the Minnesota Twin.
The Hornets' Francisco "Frank" Campos led the league in batting (.368) with only 20 strike outs in 566 plate appearances. Catcher Bob Oldis and outfield Bruce Barmes also were standouts. Oldis played parts of seven seasons in the Major Leagues as a catcher, and later was a longtime MLB coach and scout.
A host of major league stars played for the Charlotte Hornets including Van Lingle Mungo (1929), Early Wynn (1939), Harmon Killebrew (1956), Tony Oliva (1962) and Graig Nettles (1967). Another player, Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, appeared as a right fielder in a single major league game on June 29, 1905, but he never had an at bat, nor a fielding play. His unusual story came to the attention of author W. P. Kinsella and was popularized by his novel Shoeless Joe and the subsequent 1988 film Field of Dreams. Graham's character was played by Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley as older and younger Graham.
In 2001 as part of the 200th anniversary celebration of Minor League Baseball, Bill Weiss and Marshall Write, two veteran chroniclers of minor league teams, researched and rated the best Minor League teams of the Twentieth Century. The 1951 Charlotte Hornets ranked 36th and the 1931 Hornets 56th.
History since 1976
The current incarnation of Charlotte baseball began in 1976 after three no baseball years. Wrestling promoter Jim Crockett, Jr. bought the Asheville Orioles, the AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, and renamed them the Charlotte Orioles. Griffith Park was fixed up and renamed Jim Crockett, Sr. Memorial Park (popularly known as Crockett Park). The team, popularly known as the O's, won Southern League titles in 1980 and 1984. Eventual major-league superstars Eddie Murray (the O's original first baseman in 1976), Cal Ripken (1980) and Curt Schilling (mid-1980s) played for the O's.
On March 17, 1985, Crockett Park (mostly wood-framed) was destroyed by a massive fire after a high school baseball game. An investigation revealed that the cause of the fire was arson. The Crockett family built a 5,500-seat makeshift stadium immediately afterward, which served as the O's home for three years. In 1987, George Shinn, founder of the NBA Charlotte Hornets, bought the team from the Crockett family. Later in the year, he renamed the team the Knights and switched the team's affiliation to the Chicago Cubs. The team was affiliated with the Cleveland Indians, 1993-1995, Florida Marlins, 1996-1997 and since 1998 have been a farm team of the Chicago White Sox.
For the 1988 season the team was moved to Fort Mill, South Carolina, although it was still called the Charlotte Knights. The team still plays in York County, South Carolina.