Going For Three

greensboro-hornets-logoThis year, the BlueClaws will look to become the third South Atlantic League team (league formed in 1904) to win three championships in a row. Who were the other two? Why should we care? If nothing else, it’s incredibly interesting. Let’s take a look.

1980-1982 Greensboro Hornets

The South Atlantic League’s name was actually retired from 1964-1979 and the league operated as the Western Carolinas League. The SAL name was re-instated for 1980, the first year of the Hornets dynasty.

Then a Yankees affiliate, the 1982 team had a few guys who went on to the big leagues:

  • Mike Pagliarulo, who hit .280 and led the team with 22 home runs.
  • A 20 year-old Orestes Destrade, who went on to play four years in the big leagues and in Japan, only hit .180 while appearing in 43 games.
  • Their leading hitter was the Yankees 1978 first round pick, Matt Winters. He played for the Royals in 1989 after 12 years in the minors.
  • Victor Mata, who was with the Yankees briefly in 1984-85, was actually with Greensboro on all three SAL championship teams.
  • Edwin Rodriguez, who managed Greensboro (now the Grasshoppers, a Marlins affiliate, in 2007 when this happened, was on this team. He is now the manager of the Florida Marlins.

The 1981 team was much better, winning their division by 24.5 games at 98-43. The Spartanburg Phillies, which included Darren Daulton, Mike Levallier, Juan Samuel, and Kevin Gross, were 27 games back. The ’81 Hornets, however, featured:

  • Greg Gagne, a 5th round pick from a few years before who would be traded to the Twins and play 1,798 games in the big leagues.
  • Tom Dodd, a first round pick, led the team with 29 home runs, 16 more than his career total big league at bats.
  • Ray Fontenot was one of their better pitchers. You may remember him as one of the players to be named later, coming to the Yankees from Texas to complete the Oscar Gamble for Mickey Rivers trade of 1979.
  • Chuck Hernandez was on this team, the same Chuck Hernandez who was with the GCL Phillies last year and the Tampa Bay Rays before that.
  • Phillies fans may remember Freddie Tolliver who played for a few seasons with the Phils, and a lot of seasons for a lot of teams.

While the 1980 team did not have as good a record (82-57) as the 1981 team, this team had more star power:

  • Don Mattingly, an untouted 19th round pick out of Evansville, IN the year before, hit a whopping .358 for the ’80 Hornets and went on to be one of the greatest Yankees of all time.
  • Otis Nixon, a first round pick of the Angels and then a “secondary-phase first-rounder” of the Yankees a year later, Nixon stole 67 bases for the ’80 Hornets and 620 in 17 major league seasons.
  • Bryan Ballard, an undrafted pitcher from White Plains, went 17-6, and is now a high school coach.

1919-1921 Columbia (SC) Comers

This one is a little more interesting because we don’t know any of the players. It was also a much differnet league back then. In fact, while nowadays the average SAL player is around 21 years old, back then, the average player was 27-and-a-half.

The 1921 Comers were managed by the most interesting player in this research project, a player/manager named Zinn Beck.

  • Beck hit .384 with 7 home runs for this team…as a 36 year old!
  • Looking at his career, he started playing in 1910, made the big leagues in 1914 (St Louis), and was back in the minors in 1919, in the Sally League in 1920.
  • Perhaps he got his shot in the big leagues when spots opened due to World War I?

Some more…

  • Will Koenigsmark (yes that Will Koenigsmark) debuted in the big leagues with St Louis and ended up in minors over 1920 and 21. He was one of the starting pitchers.
  • Jackie Tavener, aka the “Rabbit,” was their shortstop. He actually made the big leagues (Tigers) at the end of the 1921 Columbia season and played five years with the Tigers. and Indians. Only three players have stolen 2nd, 3rd, and home in the same game: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Jackie Tavener.
  • Paul Johnson led the team with 304 (!!!) innings pitched and 24 wins. He was also on the 1920 Comers club.

The 1920-21 Comers had a Hall of Famer…Goose Goslin.

  • He played two years in the minors before he made his big league debut…with Columbia. Then he finished up his career with Trenton in the Interstate League.
  • From Wikipedia: After hearing from Engel, Senators owner Clark Griffith personally scouted Goslin and attended a Sally League game in which Goslin was playing for Columbia, South Carolina. A fly ball hit Goslin on the head, and another barely missed him. Goslin also hit three home runs in the game, and Griffith decided to take a chance on him.
  • He hit .344 / 129 RBIs in 1924, won the ’24 and ’25 World Series and the ’28 batting title.

The ’20 team also had Earl Whitehill, who won 218 games over 18 big league seasons.

There’s more stuff like that if you want to go find it. But that’s a pretty good overview.

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