Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Then and now: Carolina League

Game’s brightest stars left lasting legacy in baseball hotbed
April 4, 2022

Following Major League Baseball's announcement that historical league names are returning to the Minors in 2022, provides a refresher on each of the 11 circuits from Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A -- including past champions, famous alumni and more.

Following Major League Baseball's announcement that historical league names are returning to the Minors in 2022, provides a refresher on each of the 11 circuits from Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A -- including past champions, famous alumni and more.

Welcome to the Single-A Carolina League, where North Carolina thrives as a baseball haven, Doctor K checked in for Lynchburg and Bill Murray rules as “Director of Fun.”

Carolina League

Established in 1945, known in 2021 as the Low-A East

North Division

Salem Red Sox: Boston Red Sox, Haley Toyota Field – Salem, VA
Delmarva Shorebirds: Baltimore Orioles, Purdue Stadium – Salisbury, MD (Ballpark Guide)
Lynchburg Hillcats: Cleveland Indians, Bank of the James Stadium – Lynchburg, VA (Ballpark Guide)
Fredericksburg Nationals: Washington Nationals, FredNats Ballpark – Fredericksburg, VA (Ballpark Guide)

Central Division

Down East Wood Ducks: Texas Rangers, Grainger Stadium – Kinston, NC (Ballpark Guide)
Carolina Mudcats: Milwaukee Brewers, Five County Stadium – Zebulon, NC
Fayetteville Woodpeckers: Houston Astros, Segra Stadium – Fayetteville, NC (Ballpark Guide)
Kannapolis Cannon Ballers: Chicago White Sox, Atrium Health Ballpark – Kannapolis, NC (Ballpark Guide)

South Division

Charleston RiverDogs: Tampa Bay Rays, Riley Park – Charleston, SC
Myrtle Beach Pelicans: Chicago Cubs, Field – Myrtle Beach, SC (Ballpark Guide)
Augusta GreenJackets: Atlanta Braves, SRP Park – North Augusta, SC
Columbia Fireflies: Kansas City Royals, Segra Park – Columbia, SC (Ballpark Guide)

2021 Champion: Charleston RiverDogs (Low-A East champion)
Most championships, all-time: Winston-Salem Dash, now in High-A East (11)
Most championships, current: Lynchburg Hillcats (eight)

Did you know? Fayetteville is a recent re-addition to the Minors, but the city is home to a very interesting piece of baseball history: Not only did Babe Ruth hit his first homer in Fayetteville, it was where he also was given the nickname "Babe." … Barry Bonds played in just 115 Minor League games before hitting the big leagues. And 71 of those contests came in the Carolina League with Prince William in 1985.

Notable alumni: Earl Weaver, Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Bobby Murcer, Lenny Dykstra, Dwight Gooden, Bartolo Colon, Barry Bonds, Bernie Williams, Zack Greinke, Albert Pujols, Chipper Jones, Manny Machado and Joey Gallo.

Founded at the tail end of World War II, the Carolina League consisted of eight teams at its inception: six from North Carolina and two from southern Virginia. Following the Minors’ realignment in 2021, the league now contains 12 teams spanning four states: Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. In all, North Carolina hosts 11 Minor League clubs – more than any other state.

It wasn't unusual for talented players to make a career out of Minor League Baseball during those early years, and some of the game's well-known greats began building their reputations on the circuit. Leon “Muscle” Shoals – whose 55 homers in 1949 with the Reidsville Luckies still stands as a single-season record – Willie Duke, Woody Fair, Harvey Haddix and Crash Davis, whose likeness was featured in the movie "Bull Durham," are just a few.

Future Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski and Earl Weaver continued to grow the popularity of the Carolina League, and as the Minors became more closely affiliated with the Majors in the 1960s, it paved the way for league expansion. However, a downturn in the '70s shrunk the circuit to just four teams – with Winston-Salem the only club remaining out of the original six.

But the league persevered and expanded twice soon after that. After losing Durham to the International League in 1998, the Carolina League entered South Carolina for the first time with the addition of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in 1999.

Leo "Muscle" Shoals (right) launched 55 homers for the Carolina League's Reidsville Luckies in 1949.N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

What’s new: During the Minors' reorganization prior to the 2021 season, the Carolina League dropped in classification from Class A Advanced and partially merged with the South Atlantic League to form the 12-team Low-A East. Delmarva, Augusta, Charleston, Columbia and Kannapolis joined from the Sally League, while Wilmington and Winston-Salem moved to the High-A East. The Frederick Keys became a collegiate summer baseball team in the MLB Draft League.

What's familiar: Seven of the league’s 10 teams remain from 2019 -- Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Salem, Carolina, Down East, Fayetteville and Myrtle Beach. The league also boasts two of the oldest ballparks in the Minors -- Lynchburg, Virginia (Bank of the James Stadium, which opened as City Stadium in 1940) and Kingston, North Carolina (Grainger Stadium, 1949).

For the record: In 1983, an 18-year-old Dwight Gooden earned the “Doctor K” nickname after striking out 300 batters for the Lynchburg Mets. Gooden is one of only two Minor Leaguers to ever post a 300-strikeout season, the other being another Mets farmhand, Nolan Ryan, who whiffed a record 307 batters across two levels in 1966. … In 2016, then-Cleveland prospect Francisco Mejia recorded a 50-game hit streak that ended in Lynchburg. The streak is tied for the fourth-longest in Minors’ history. … Chuck Weatherspoon, father of Basketball Hall of Famer Teresa Weatherspoon, is the only player in the Carolina League to hit grand slams in consecutive at-bats. That feat came with Wilson in 1961 – a season during which he hit seven grand slams, another record that still stands. … Woody Fair hit 51 doubles for Durham in 1946, during the Carolina League’s second year of play. That record stood for 65 years until then-Braves prospect Joey Terdoslavich recorded 52 doubles for Lynchburg in 2011.

Ben’s Biz Memory – Gaining the endorsement of Charleston’s “Director of Fun” Bill Murray

"Bill Murray is a part owner of the Charleston RiverDogs and a number of other teams. ... And the team's 'Director of Fun.' And like with all things Bill Murray, you can't really contact the team in advance or try to lineup an interview or anything like that. He just does his Bill Murray thing where he's either there or he's not. And you get him at the right time or you don't. And you just kind of put it out of your mind. When I attended that night, he happened to be at the game along with his brother, Brian Doyle Murray, as well as Danny McBride, from 'Eastbound and Down.' They were in a suite, and I briefly met Bill earlier in the night. At the end of the night, Phil Geary, who then worked for the team, said, 'Hey, do you want to interview Bill Murray?' And I was like, 'Yeah, but I don't know how that works with Bill Murray. I feel weird just walking up and asking for an interview.' And [Phil] is like, 'He's having a good night. He's having a good time.' I walked over to Phil, and Phil explained who I am and what I do, and Bill Murray is like, 'Man, keep running that scam.' I was like, 'Yeah, man, as long as I can.' After the game, we were on the concourse, and I asked if he minded if I interviewed him -- this all as a helicopter is dropping bouncy balls onto the field as part of a postgame contest. I interviewed Bill Murray, which was the night before the total eclipse, which is going to encompass Charleston in darkness. [Murray] gave some philosophical thoughts about the national eclipse and how we could use that to perhaps reach out to the people that we love and be better people. So, that was a fun interview with Bill and I thought, I'm not going to get this opportunity again. I said, 'Hey, Bill. Do you mind if you endorse me. Maybe tell people to check out my Twitter account?' And in that Bill Murray way, he delivered a very dry, wry endorsement of my Twitter account. Which was definitely a qualified endorsement in that he said he does not use Twitter himself, but if he did, he would only follow me. And that's good enough for me. I'll always have that. And certainly, not something you can plan for, but to have secured an endorsement from Bill Murray is one of the great honors of my life. Something I can never have expected and still my pinned tweet. It's like, now that I've reached the mountaintop, where do I go from here?"

What to look for in 2022: The Charleston RiverDogs completed a dominating 82-38 (.683) regular season by clinching the franchise’s first championship. The RiverDogs downed the Wood Ducks in decisive Game 5 of the Low-A East Championship Series. The title was the first for a professional baseball team in the City of Charleston since 1922. The club will look to repeat and continue the string of dominance by Rays’ affiliates across the Minor Leagues.

Rob Terranova is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.