Howard Auman pitched only one season for the Sanford Spinners of the Tobacco State League in 1946. But, oh, what a season it was.
Auman was a star coming out of Campbell College in 1942 before postponing his baseball career to serve in World War II. He returned from war in ’46 at the age of 24 and set the Tobacco State League — a Class D league that would eventually have 12 teams in North Carolina — on fire. Auman started 33 games for Sanford and went 22-8, with an ERA in the mid 3’s. He also set a league record with 26 complete games that year, leading Sanford to a 71-48 overall record and a Tobacco State League title.
Auman — the inspiration for the striking mural at the corner of Wicker and Horner in downtown Sanford by artist Scott Nurkin — died Saturday at the age of 93, just days before the painting’s completion. He was remembered as a “Southern gentleman” and a kind-hearted man at his funeral Tuesday. Once asked if he ever threw at a batter on purpose, Auman paused before answering, “Well, not so it would hurt him.”
After baseball, Auman enjoyed a long career with Sanford (eventually Singer) Furniture Company before retiring at the age of 62. He was a longtime deacon and Sunday school teacher, a member of the Elks Club and regular Meals on Wheels volunteer.
A native of West End, he was the last survivor of nine siblings — a distinction that allowed him to tell old family stories “without anybody correcting me.”
The Sanford Spinners date back to the late 1930s — Lawrence “Crash” Davis, the inspiration for Kevin Costner’s character in “Bull Durham,” played for the Spinners in 1939 before his senior year at Duke University. The team disbanded after 1941 because of World War II, but returned in 1946 in the newly formed Tobacco State League. Sanford averaged about 600 fans a game at old Temple Park in East Sanford, playing teams like the Dunn-Erwin Twins, the Clinton Blues, the Angier-Fuquay Bulls and the Wilmington Pirates.
Sanford never had a losing record in the league’s five-year run and won the title three of those five years, from ’46-’48.
Auman was the catalyst for the club’s success in its first season in the TSL. He averaged nearly 8 innings a start and once pitched a complete game that went 19 innings. He also once started both games of a double header. Perhaps most impressively, he hit a respectable .264 in 110 at-bats for Sanford, with 2 home runs and 3 doubles that year.
His year with Sanford caught the eye of the Chicago Cubs, who drafted him in 1947 and sent him to Class A Macon, where Auman continued his success with a 20-14 record in 38 starts. He was promoted to AA in ’48, going 13-11 with Shreveport.
That same year, he made it to the doorstep of the majors — a short stint with the AAA Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. The stint was a disaster … 5 innings pitched, 9 runs (8 earned), 4 walks and a 14.40 ERA. He returned to AA Shreveport in 1949, but never regained his form. He went a combined 18-29 for the struggling Shreveport Sports in ’49-’50, and bowed out of baseball after a year as a relief pitcher for the squad in ’51.
For his career, the three-time All-Star had an 82-84 record, a 3.48 ERA in 239 games pitched.
After Shreveport, he returned to Sanford with wife Maxine and had two daughters, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.