Roughly a fourth of the eligible men in the United States in the early 1940s fought in World War II, and the one game the majority of them knew before the war was baseball.
So when nearly 16 million men suddenly had some free time in 1945, many of them returned to the sport they love, chasing the dream of one day making it to the Big Leagues.
The influx of returning ballplayers gave rise to several small professional and semi-pro leagues across the country. And in North Carolina, the Tobacco State League was formed.
Formed in 1946, the Tobacco League featured teams like the Dunn-Erwin Twins, the Wilmington Pirates, the Angier-Fuquay Springs Bulls, the Smithfield-Selma Leafs and the Clinton Blues. But the most established team was the Sanford Spinners, which formed in the late 1930s and continued through 1942 in the Bi-State League, which eventually folded that year due to a lack of available players.
Sanford would win the Tobacco League in 1947 and finish second in three other seasons before the league disbanded in 1950 (due to lack of attendance, which one historian attributes to the rise in air conditioned homes and ability to watch teams like the Yankees on television at the time). That historian, Chris Holaday, author of “The Tobacco State League: A North Carolina Baseball History,” said that in its short time the Tobacco League drew big crowds and featured some big names who would later find success in the majors.
“There was a big appetite for baseball after World War II,” Holaday told host Frank Stasio in a 2017 NPR podcast.
“There were so many players coming back from military service — players who were promising baseball players before the war and had their careers interrupted. If they could sign with a small town team — maybe in their hometown and maybe even get paid for it — that’s better than working in a factory. Many of these guys had jobs in the offseason, too, but most of them made decent money, comparatively, playing baseball.”
The team drew nearly 600 people a game at its peak, playing at Temple Park, located where McIver Street meets Bragg Street in East Sanford (Wilmington led the league in attendance with more than 1,000 per game). They were already an established brand by then — in 1935, Herbert “Doc” Smith, a Harnett County native and longtime Minor League catcher, formed the first Tobacco League featuring four teams. Sanford would advance to a national tournament in 1940 in Wichita, Kansas, and place fourth that summer.
The Spinners made the jump to professional baseball and the Bi-State League in 1941, playing teams in North Carolina and Virginia like the Mount Airy Graniteers, Mayodan Millers, Martinsville Manufacturers, Leaksville-Draper-Spray Triplets, Danville-Schoolfield Leafs, Rocky Mount Rocks, Wilson Tobs and the Burlington Bees. They finished fourth in 1941 and third in 1942, advancing to the championship game the second season before falling to the Rocks.
The Tobacco League got the Spinners back after the war in 1946 and lasted a solid five seasons before the league folded for good in 1950. Attendance dropped from 600 people a game in 1947 to just under 300 a game in the final year.
When the league folded, Minor League Baseball in North Carolina remained strong in places like Durham, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, but smaller cities like Sanford, Angier and Mount Airy were left behind.
Still, the Spinners’ time in Sanford was memorable. In seven seasons in the Bi-State League and Tobacco State League, Sanford never had a losing record. And several memorable men spent a season or two in Sanford and made their mark.
A SEASON TO REMEMBER
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.”
Auman was the catalyst for the club’s success in its first season in the Tobacco State League. 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.
INSPIRATION FOR A FILM LEGEND
Lawrence “Crash” Davis didn’t make a huge impact in the Major Leagues — in three seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics, Davis appeared in 148 games, hit .230 with 2 home runs and 43 RBI. Before that, Davis played the 1939 season with the Sanford Spinners – statistics from that season are not available, but Davis was barely 20 when he played in Sanford before his senior season at Duke University, and he skipped the minors and made his Major League debut just the following season on June 5, 1940, in front of more than 18,000 fans at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park (a far cry from the few hundred who watched him in Sanford).
The war paused his playing career when he was drafted by the Navy in 1942. He ran the ROTC program at Harvard, and Robert F. Kennedy trained under him at the time. When he resumed playing after the war, the A’s cut him in spring training and sent him back to the minors, where he played for several teams in the Carolina League until 1952.
Davis’ legendary status in the game of baseball wouldn’t come for another 30-plus years, when he became the inspiration for Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis, in “Bull Durham.” Davis earned the nickname “Crash” as a teen when he crashed into another outfielder while chasing a fly ball.
According to a WCNC article about Davis in 2011 on the 10th anniversary of his death, “Bull Durham” director Ron Shelton was thumbing through a baseball history book when he came across Davis’ name. He changed some of the facts around — Davis, a second baseman, was known for doubles in the minors, while the movie version, a catcher, he would be known for home runs — but the spirit remained.
The real Crash Davis would enjoy fame for the remainder of his days — he was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Bulls game, was interviewed several times for several years as the movie obtained “legendary” status, and he even had a small part in Shelton’s 1994 baseball film, Cobb.
He remains, perhaps, the most famous name to ever don a Sanford Spinners cap … even if just for a year.
ORVILLE ‘HANK’ NESSELRODE
SANFORD’S HAMMERIN’ HANK
From 1946 to 1950, only three players in the Tobacco State League managed to hit more than 20 home runs in a season. Two of those players did it for Clinton in 1946.
Sanfore’s Orville “Hank” Nesselrode did it three times. The 6-foot, 3-inch West Virginia native who made it all the way to Class A ball in Oklahoma City in 1941 before the war, was an offensive juggernaut for the Spinners from 1946 to 1948, where he hit 30, 32 and 27 home runs in respective seasons. He drove in 150 runs in 1946 and 166 in 1947, and he batted a whopping .362 in 1948.
According to Holaday’s book, Nesselrode never sniffed the big leagues after Sanford for a few reasons — he was in his 30s already, and his feet were badly damaged by frostbite during the war, and he never got his speed back (though he did steal more than 20 bases in ’47).
Nesselrode felt at home in Sanford — in 1954, he opened up a service station, “Hank’s,” at the corner of Endor (Horner) and Carthage streets in downtown Sanford. His was one of several businesses along “gas station row” at the time.