First thing I wondered over the weekend when I saw Stephen Schramm’s story about the pending major league baseball debut of Graham’s Dave Sappelt was who might be Alamance County’s last big leaguer. After all, this county has a rich baseball history, including the man who gave up Babe Ruth’s 60th homer in 1927.
So the time between Sappelt, who made his debut on Sunday with the Cincinnati Reds and his predecessor couldn’t be very long – or could it?
Turns out the answer is maybe.
Our managing editor Jay Ashley in 2004 wrote a story looking at the history of professional baseball players from Alamance County. Between Jay’s article and some quick research by Barry Smith, a Southern Alamance grad himself, we originally figured the last to be Jim Holt of Graham.
Then I realized something. I had completely forgotten Greg Booker.
Booker, a Cummings graduate, pitched for the Padres, Twins and Giants from 1983 to 1990. Booker pitched mostly in relief and appeared in one World Series with the Padres and recorded one inning pitched in the Fall Classic. He’s the son-in-law of current Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon and is a minor league pitching coach these days in the Washington Nationals organization. I’ve met Greg a couple of times, mainly when Jack would stop by the office to visit. Nice guy. Quiet guy.
The flaw in our research traces back to the idea of a native of Alamance County. Because Booker was born in Lynchburg, Va., he doesn’t qualify for that designation. But for my money, if a kid played high school here he or she is pretty much from here.
Still that leads us back to Jim Holt as the last born and bred player from Alamance County before Sappelt to play in the major leagues — at least until someone tells me otherwise. Sappelt, by the way, was born in Buffalo, N.Y., according to a Major League Baseball website. Reds.com lists his birthplace as Graham. Sports Editor Bob Sutton believes the New York listing to be the correct one.
Holt hung up his spikes in 1976 after nine seasons with the Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s. Holt, in fact, made a World Series appearance for the A’s in 1974. He had two hits in three at-bats for the world champion A’s and two runs batted in. He got in four games during the series.
As it turns out, I met Jim Holt on a couple of occasions and wrote a story about him in the 1980s, focusing on his World Series play. Nice guy. Quiet guy. Seems to be a trend. I haven’t seen him since I returned to this area.
The other Alamance County major leaguer from that period is Floyd Wicker who played for the Cardinals, Expos, Brewers and Giants from 1968 to 1971. I knew Floyd because he helped manager Mike Harden coach the highly successful Haw River American Legion teams of the mid to late 1980s. Nice guy, too.
Between then and now Alamance County has had some minor league players of note. One, Dobie Swepson of southern Alamance County, looked to be on his way to a big league career before an accident derailed him. I met Dobie, too. Exceptionally nice guy.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten someone. Feel free to post a comment letting me know.
Here’s Jay’s story from 2004 for those who might be interested. It’s not currently posted online.
By Jay Ashley
On May 4, 1875, Charles Wesley “Baby” Jones stepped to the plate, becoming the first of a long line of Alamance County area boys to play in the baseball big leagues.
The southern part of the county has been a particularly fertile breeding ground for major league talent, including the most well-known, Tom Zachary. Zachary played 19 major league seasons in both leagues, but his biggest claim to fame was that he served up home run number 60 to Babe Ruth in 1927.
she Snow Camp area also produced Floyd Wicker, Garland Braxton, Cap Clark and Boyd Perry (Eli Whitney). Nearby Liberty produced major leaguers Tim Mur chison and Joe Frazier, while Me bane yielded Tal Abernathy and Lew Riggs.
Graham can boast Elzie Clise Dudley and Jim Holt. Max Wilson and Shag Thompson were Haw River boys. Dusty Cooke and Don Thompson were from Swepsonville and Lefty West called Gibsonville home.
Caswell County also produced some boys of summer. John Nun nally (Pelham) and Neal Watlington (Yanceyville) came from just north of Alamance County.
As for “Baby” Jones and Luke Stuart, they are listed in baseball records as being born in Alamance County, with no specific community designated.
“BABY” JONES was born 11 years before the outbreak of the Civil War, a scant year after Alamance County was carved from Orange. He broke into baseball about the same time as the first catcher’s mask was introduced to the game (thanks, Fred Thayer).
He played outfield with such teams as the Keokuk Westerns and the Hartford Dark Blues in the National Association, and the Cincinnati Red Stockings and New York Metropolitans in the American Association. His last team was the Kansas City Cowboys. He mostly played outfield, but did do a bit of pitching, not uncommon in those early years.
He was one of the National League’s best sluggers in the mid-1870s. He was a popular player with the Cincinnati Reds, but was often criticized in the press for carousing.
Sensing Cincinnati’s team was about to fold, Jones jumped ship and signed a contract with the Cubs in 1877. He only played two games with the Cubs before returning to the Reds.
In 1879, he signed a three-year deal with Boston, where he led the league in home runs (9) and runs batted in (62).
In 1880, he became the first player to hit two home runs in one inning.
However, after the 1880 season, Jones was suspended from the team and blacklisted for refusing to play. He challenged that he had not been paid, and sued for his pay. He lost his court challenge, but in 1883, the blacklisting was lifted and he signed with Cincinnati in the American Association. In 1884, he became the third man to hit three triples in one game.
On July 13, 1886, he became the fifth man, in recorded professional baseball documentation, to hit an inside the park home run.
While most of Jones’ career is bound by history, some aspects of his life remain a riddle. According to one source, his given name was Benjamin Wesley Rippay. And “Baby” Jones’ demise is as mysterious as his real name. He disappeared without a trace and his death date and place are unknown. Rumor has it he was killed by lightning in 1910, but this story is not believed to be true.
LOCAL BOYS have not been ignored in the record books of major league play.
Consider Luke Stuart. He only went to bat three times in his one-season career in 1921, but on his first trip to the plate for the St. Louis Browns, he hit a home run. Also hitting a home run on his first major league at-bat was Jon Nunnally, who is still active in the game. Nunnally is trying to make the Milwaukee Brewers’ big league club this spring.
Clise Dudley went Stuart and Nunnally one better. In his first at-bat with the Brooklyn Robins in 1929, Dudley knocked the first pitch to him over the fence — quite an accomplishment for a pitcher.
And Joe Frazier, who played and also managed, is in the record book for hitting a home run in his final big-league at-bat.
Not all has been glory. Consider Thomas “Tim” Murchison from Liberty. A pitcher, he only got to play in three games in his brief career, and only went to bat once — and struck out. Max Wilson, a pitcher, only got four at-bats with no hits, sharing the dubious honor of a .000 lifetime batting average with Murchison.
Jonathan Thompson Walton Zachary, who was initially called Zach Walton when he first toed the pitching rubber in 1918, is better known as Tom. He is arguably the most famous native son, playing for six different teams during his 19 seasons in the majors. A southpaw pitcher, his most remembered feat is serving up home run number 60 to Babe Ruth in 1927. What is less known is that he also threw home run numbers 22 and 34 to the Sultan of Swat that year.
Although a pitcher, Zachary posted a lifetime batting average of .226, including 6 home runs. His lifetime ERA was 3.73, facing 13,551 batters, striking out 720.
He died on January 24, 1969 in Burlington.
Over nearly two decades on the diamond, Zachary played with greats such as Ruth and Lou Gehrig and pitched shoulder to shoulder with Walter “Big Train” Johnson. But when it comes to World Series play, he comes in second to Lew Riggs.
Riggs played in four World Series, while Zachary played in three. Area players were in World Series play in every decade in the 20th century from the ‘teens to 1970s, except for 1960s: Shag Thompson (1914), Tim Murchison (1920), Zachary (1924, 1925, 1928), Garland Braxton (1926), Dusty Cooke (1932), Riggs (1934, 1939, 1940, 1941), Lefty West (1944), Donald Thompson (1953), and James Holt (1974).
(Sources for player information came from Web sites of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Baseball Almanac, the Library of Congress, Baseball Reference, Baseball Library, The Dead Ball Era, the Memphis Redbirds and the Keokuk Ball club.)