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Baseball & North Carolina

Fay Mitchell

Lots of folks are getting excited about the approaching Major League Baseball All Star game, and North Carolina has strong ties to baseball. Even as we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the making of the movie “Bull Durham” (named by Sports Illustrated as the #1 sports film of all time), we appreciate real baseball stars from long ago. Babe Ruth and Buck Leonard are among epic figures in baseball that made a mark in this state.

You may not know that George Herman “Babe” Ruth picked up that moniker while in Fayetteville for an exhibition game with the Baltimore Orioles. He was 19-years-old and team manager Jack Dunn had become his legal guardian to appease Ruth’s parents before taking him out of Jesuit school two years early. Ruth’s fondness for playing with the elevators at the hotel, and his age, led the older players to call him “Dunn’s Baby” which eventually became “Babe.”

In the last inning of a game at the Cape Fear Fair Ground March 14, 1914, Ruth hit a long home run to right field. Some said it soared past the field and landed in Mallet’s Mill Pond. A reporter claimed to have measured it at 350 feet.  Ruth continued with the team, but was soon traded to the New York Yankees. He spent the greatest years of his stellar career there, where he hit the ball better, higher and farther than anyone else, and with theatrical style. He was a seven time World Series champion, but his professional career and professional nickname were launched in  Fayetteville, North Carolina.

A baseball legend whose name may not be as familiar is Walter “Buck” Leonard, who played in the Negro Leagues when baseball was segregated. Born in Rocky Mount in 1907, he spent 17- years with the Homestead Grays in Washington and was part of a dynasty in the 1930s and ’40s. He led the league in batting average in 1948 and either led the Negro Leagues or finished second in home runs behind teammate Josh Gibson, who was known as “the Black Babe Ruth.” Leonard was known as “the Black Lou Gehrig.” Leonard was offered a major league contract in 1952, but at age 45 felt too old to play at that level. He finished his career in the Mexican League.

Baseball first came to North Carolina with the Civil War, a pastime introduced by Union soldiers, and believed to have originated as “rounders” much earlier in England. Modern rules for the game were developed in the 1850s. A well-known lithograph from 1863 depicts Union prisoners playing baseball at Salisbury Confederate Prison in 1862. Union prisoners’ diaries indicated they played baseball nearly every day.

What was a major innovation in baseball also appeared in in North Carolina:  the curve ball pitch. Alphonse “Phonney Ball” Martin, a native New Yorker, joined Hawkins’ Zouaves, 9th New York State Volunteers, in 1861. When the troops set up camp and had free time, baseball games would be played. Martin remembered experimenting with his curve ball on Roanoke Island in 1862, while the Union Army occupied the Outer Banks. He had ample opportunity to develop his famous curve ball pitch.

Martin returned to baseball after being discharged from the Army due to injury. When professional teams formed around 1869, he joined the New York Mutuals. He also played for the Eckfords of Brooklyn and for the Troy club, then retired after a successful career.

The 1939 New York Times obituary for Alphonse Martin shared a 1909 article from Colliers Weekly, that stated:

            “On Roanoke Island, Hawkins’ Zoaves formed two scrub teams. A young volunteer pitcher won for his side by a weak, puzzling delivery which baffled the batsmen. It was Alphonse Martin, first in a line of great American pitchers.”

And an article in the Clipper in New York from April 3, 1869 reported:

            “His style is peculiar, being neither slow nor swift, but a ‘happy mean.’ He is an extremely hard pitcher to hit, for the ball never comes in a straight line but in a tantalizing curve.”

Martin pitched a curve like no other pitcher and became a sports celebrity. In his book “The National Game,” Albert Spink wrote:

“His slow ball came to the plate at such a snail-like pace that it nearly drove the batsmen crazy and when they got ready to hit it good and hard, it seemed to carom away from them. His delivery set spectators as well as opposing batsmen nearly wild.”

Although there is documentation of Phonney Ball Martin pitching the curve ball in the early 1860s, the recognized inventor of the curve ball by the Baseball Hall of Fame is William “Candy” Cummings, who pitched his first curve ball in 1867. Cummings became widely known in the growing sport of baseball and was well-known to sportswriters and league leaders.

Cummings is said to have acknowledged that Martin “was throwing something akin to a curve ball before me.”

The difference was that Martin’s slow pitch was thrown underhanded, as were most pitches of the day. Cummings was of a new breed of side-arm pitcher, and his curve ball was fast. Even if unrecognized, a bit of baseball history grew out of Martin’s time on Roanoke Island in North Carolina.

Photo by Albert Barden. "St. Augustine Baseball Team, 1949." From the Albert Barden Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC.