Over the years, North Carolina has played a prominent role in minor league baseball, and that was never more true than in the days of the old Tobacco State League.
Although the Carolina League probably comes to mind first when people think of baseball and this state, it was never comprised totally of North Carolina teams. Even in its inaugural season of 1945, two of the Carolina League’s teams were from Virginia.
And the current Carolina League is made up of eight teams, only two of which (Carolina Mudcats and Winston-Salem Dash) are in this state. Five of the teams are outside the Carolinas completely, with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans located in South Carolina.
The Tobacco State League was in operation for only five years, 1946-50. During that time, 15 cities participated, and all were from North Carolina. They included Angier, Clinton, Dunn, Erwin, Fayetteville, Fuquay Springs, Lumberton, Red Springs, Rockingham, Sanford, Smithfield, Selma, Warsaw, Whiteville and Wilmington.
Three teams combined two towns: Angier-Fuquay Springs, Dunn-Erwin and Smithfield-Selma. Five teams were in the league all five years, including Clinton, Dunn-Erwin, Sanford, Smithfield-Selma and Wilmington.
Only a few of the Tobacco State League teams were affiliated with major league franchises, and not all of those connections were year-to-year. The league was Class D, the bottom rung in the minors, and player salaries were extremely low. Men who played did it mainly for their love of baseball, although a handful were able to sign with big league teams after having successful seasons.
One of the interesting players to emerge from the Tobacco State League was Orville Nesselrode, a tall outfielder from West Virginia. He was actually on his way down the ladder when he strung together three outstanding seasons while playing for Sanford.
Nesselrode climbed to the B level early in his career and kicked around a bit before landing in Sanford in 1946 at the age of 30. He batted .354, smacked 30 home runs and had 150 RBIs that season as the Spinners won their first of three straight Tobacco State League championships.
Right-handed pitcher Howard Auman (featured in the October 2015, issue of OutreachNC) was a 22-game winner for that ’46 team and has a mural painted on a downtown Sanford building in his honor.
Nesselrode set Tobacco State League records in 1947 when he slugged 32 homers and drove in 166 runs. He played three years for Sanford, helping win league titles each season, and then was out of baseball at the age of 32.
Additional all-time Tobacco State League records were set by Fayetteville’s Joe Roseberry, who hit .409 in 1949; Red Springs’ Joe Mangini, who legged out an astounding 24 triples in 1948; Lumberton’s Pierre Ethier, who scored 146 runs in 1950; and Sanford’s James Wilson, who had 212 hits in 1948.
The names of Sanford players dominate the list of the Tobacco State League’s all-time record holders as well as the league leaders from 1946-48 as the Spinners were also dominating the TSL during that time.
The Sanford Spinners won three of the five league championships and finished second once, while Dunn-Erwin and Lumberton won the other two titles. Lumberton did it as the Auctioneers and also used Cubs as its nickname for a couple years.
Other interesting nicknames among Tobacco State League members were the Tobacconists (Whiteville), Blues (Clinton), Red Robins (Red Springs), Scotties (Fayetteville) and Leafs (Smithfield-Selma). The Pirates monicker was a natural for Wilmington.
The total attendance for the league’s five-year duration was over 1.3 million, with a high of 353,844 in 1948. The largest single-season gate for a city was nearly 78,000 in Wilmington for the 1948 season.