8/4/2011 - A classic all-star lineup played in Asheville 50 years ago
by Keith Jarrett - Asheville Citizen Times
THE HISTORY surrounding minor league baseball in Asheville is long and distinguished! Check out the article for some surprising insights into who was who in Western North Carolina's baseball legends list!
ASHEVILLE -- Perhaps baseball fans sensed what they were about to witness and were thus drawn to McCormick Field in record numbers on a cloudy Monday night 50 years ago this month, much like the mythical attraction to an Iowa cornfield in the movie "Field of Dreams."
A gathering of minor league players for the 1961 South Atlantic League All-Star Game produced an astonishing number - 17 of the 32 players in the game reached the major leagues.
On a day filled with irony and oddity, the largest crowd in the history of Asheville's home to baseball since 1924 gathered, a total of 6,603 crammed into a stadium not built for that many who were treated to a dramatic if disappointing finish.
The Sally All-Stars beat the Asheville Tourists 6-5 on July 17, 1961, with a ninth-inning rally.
On the field that night seven of the 12 Tourists who played would become major leaguers, as would half (10 of 20) of the All-Stars.
"If you think about it, that's an incredible number on the same field for a minor-league game," said Gene Alley, 71, the Tourists' second baseman that night who reached the majors two years later and played 11 productive seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"What are the odds you would have that many big league players on the same field, especially that many on the same team like we had."
Those 17 players included a Hall of Famer, the first in the history of the Tourists' franchise, a 22-game winner, a bonus baby, a future World Series hero and players you never heard of who were all part of the festivities that began on a somber note.
Earlier in the day came the news out of Georgia that Ty Cobb, the legendary hitter who played in the first game ever at McCormic k Field, had died at age 74.
On the warm afternoon of April 3, 1924, Cobb played center field and hit a home run in the new park but it wasn't enough to prevent the Asheville Skylanders from taking an 18-14 decision ove Cobb's Detroit Tigers in front of 3,199 fans.
The best ever
More than twice that many came to McCormick Field for the 1961 All-Star Game, many to see the team considered the best ever in Asheville.
The Tourists, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, were 53-32 and already 6 1/2 games in front of the eight-team league by the All-Star break.
Asheville would finish the season with an 87-50 record and as champion of the Sally League (there were no playoffs that season).
The format at that time called for the first-place team to host the game and play against All-Stars from the other seven teams,. Despite short notice that the game would be played in Asheville, local baseball fans flocked to McCormick Field.
A story in the Asheville Citizen on the day of the game noted that about 1,000 advance tickets had been sold, meaning more than 5,000 day-of game and walk-up ducats were sold.
"There were people everywhere. It was unbelievable, a tremendous game," said Mike Baldwin of Black Mountain, a current and long-time Tourists' season-ticket holder who attended the game as a 13-year-old.
"They had put in some concrete block bleachers when the had the races here (in the late 1950s) and they were behind what is now the visitors' clubhouse. They never used those, but they opened them up for that game. Even as a kid, I knew this was something special."
Among the stars for the Tourists was a slugging outfielder named Willie Stargell, who would eventually lead the Pirates to a pair of World Series titles and become a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection after hitting 475 career home runs.
Stargell was the first of two Asheville players (Eddie Murray is the other) to be named to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Former Tourists manager Sparky Anderson is also in the Hall.
"On the hill, Will" was a chant heard throughout that summer for Stargell's propensity for parking fastballs on the hillside beyond the short right-field wall, just 300 feet from home plate.
Stargell's home plate away f rom the ballpark was at the Ritz Restaurant on South Market Street, where he rented a room upstairs and frequently followed his nose down for lunch and dinner.
Feasting on Erlene McQueen's soul food, Stargell began working on the portly frame that baseball fans remember.
"He was a heavy eater," McQueen recalled in a 1988 interview. "Willie loved to eat steak and chicken, but his favorite dish was beef stew and rice."
He was also fond of gopher balls, depositing 22 home runs over the Sally League walls in '61.
"Stargell played center field, and the thing I remember most about that game was a throw he made to the plate to cut down a runner," recalled Baldwin. "He threw straight overhand, and it looked like he was throwing down from on top of the hill. An incredible throw."
Ron McKee wasn't at the All-Star Game, but he became a Tourists' bat boy later that season. His love affair with baseball evolved to the point he became the Tourists' general manager and part-owner for 25 years.
"I was a kid chasing girls, so what did I know, but you could tell there was great talent on that team," said McKee. "Guys like Stargell and Alley, you knew they were on their way to the major leagues."
The Tourists managed just three hits in the game against five pitchers, and two of the three safeties and three RBIs came off the bat of Alley, who was pumped up because his mother (Helen Alley) and other family members drove down from Virginia to watch the game.
"I remember getting a hit off Sam Ellis (who would win 22 games for the Cincinnati Reds in '65), because I faced him when I was with Pittsburgh," said Alley, who lives in Richmond, Va.
Columbia (S.C.) second baseman Bobby Klaus was the star of the game, going 4-for-5 with four RBIs, including a two-run double off the right-field wall in the top of the ninth that erased a 5-4 Asheville lead.
It looked like the Tourists were going to avoid ninth-inning trouble and win the game when Alley made an incredible play with a runner on third and one out.
With a steady rain falling and Alley playing in on the grass at second base, a ground ball bounced over the pitcher's head before Alley dove for the ball, somersaulted into a sitting position, checked the runner at third and threw out the hitter at first base.
"That's what I remember most about that game," Alley said with a laugh of recollection from a half-century ago. "It was a pretty good play, and at the time I thought it has saved a run and the game."
Asheville manager Ray Hathaway, inducted into the SAL Hall of Fame this year, decided to intentionally walk left-handed pinch-hitter Willie Smith to set up a righty-vs.-righty matchup with reliever Bob Lee, a strikeout pitcher with a blazing fastball, against Klaus, who already had three hits.
"I was afraid of Smith because of the right-field fence," Hathaway explained after the game. "That guy's wore us out all year. I just knew (Lee) would strike out (Klaus) on three pitches."
On a 1-and-1 count, Lee hung a pitch around chest high and Klaus ripped it into the right field corner for the game winner. Now 94 years old and living in Weaverville, Hathaway still remembers that one pitch but little else from the game.
"It was a curveball," he said glumly.
The Tourists would roll to the Sally League title, and the seven form Asheville and 10 from the All-Star team who would reach the majors played on. The 1961 All-Star Game stood as the largest attendance ever for McCormick Field for 26 more years until the San Diego Chicken came to town in 1987 and drew a still-record crowd of 7,583.
Among the Tourists who would go on to the big leagues was shortstop Bob Bailey, who joined the team after signing with the Pirates for a record $175,000 bonus.
SAL All-Star Al Weis became a light-hitting infielder for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets, but he had the game-winning hit in the Game 2 of the 1969 World Series vs Baltimore and also hit a pivotal home run in another World Series game against the Orioles.
Granny Hamner had already played 16 years in the major leagues (1944-59) with the Philadelphia Phillies when he competed in the '61 All-Star game as a player-manager from Portsmouth (Va.).
"I was just a kid, but you could tell what a special team the '61 Tourists were, and you knew in a couple of years a lot of those guys would be in the majors," said Baldwin.
"It was a fun game to play in, with a great crowd and atmosphere that night," said Alley.
"There was a lot of talent on the field, and I'm proud to have been part of that."