Scraps from Statesville, Part 4

Photo of Jerry Fox
Jerry Fox was an outfielder with the Statesville Owls in 1961. His scrapbook has been a valuable resource for researching the team’s history. (Photo source: Statesville Record & Landmark)

 

I’ve been slowly scanning every page of Jerry Fox’s scrapbook. This is truly a window into the past — not just the Angels’ past, but the state of the minors in the early 1960s.

I’ve found two more people from that year. Vito Porta was the third baseman for Statesville in 1961. He wasn’t an Angels property; he had played in the Tigers’ and Phillies’ systems, and would go on to sign with the Mets for 1962. Vito was from Detroit; he currently lives in Florida.

I also located Alex Zouncourides, who was the umpire attacked by a fan during the brawl on May 31, 1961. His recollection was that the fan just took a swing at him but never connected.

Alex had some different perspectives, being an umpire and not a player. He said brawls were very common, and the league was badly run. I just came across an article in Jerry’s scrapbook which said the umpires (Alex and his partner Harry Reeder) had not been advised a doubleheader was scheduled for that day, so the players themselves had to umpire Game #1 until Alex and Harry arrived.

Alex also told me this was the second incarnation of the Western Carolina League, and that Branch Rickey himself had been involved in its resurrection. Searching Google, I found out that the original Western Carolina League ran from 1948-1952. Rickey and others were involved in trying to create a third major league, called the Continental League. The league was formally announced in July 1959, and hoped to begin play in 1961. This proposal forced Major League Baseball to expand for the first time, adding the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators in 1961, and the New York Mets and Houston Colt 45s in 1962.

The Western Carolina League was resurrected for the 1960 season in the hope of creating a minor league system for the Continental League. But MLB somehow blocked the agreement. I also found an article which said that the independent players in the WCL would be owned by the league, not the individual teams, which would allow the league to sell those players to major league clubs.

In addition to the Angels in Statesville, Lexington affiliated with the Mets, Houston with Salisbury, and Shelby with Pittsburgh. This affected the league’s draft out of a “baseball school” held in March. Affiliated teams needed fewer players, so they passed on their opportunity to select players out of the school. WCL President John Henry Moss railed that the teams were passing up some talented young players who’d travelled from all over the nation to Statesville to try out for a baseball job.

It wasn’t even clear how many teams would be in the league. They had six franchises for sure, and hoped to have eight, but were never able to find a solid eighth team to go with a reasonably certain seventh entry. The schedule wasn’t even final until late April, a few days before the season opener on May 1.

Angels players started arriving in Statesville by mid-April; an April 18 article in the Statesville Record & Landmark reports that Angels in camp included pitchers George Conrad, Joe DaCruz, and Jeff King; catcher Jack Hiatt; infielder Glade Cookus; and outfielders Gaetan Boudreau and Dick Simpson.

Boudreau was from Montreal and spoke French. The article notes that “Boudreau had trouble getting fixed up with sleeping quarters.”

[Manager George] Wilson related the incident. Boudreau arrived in town. He speaks only limited English, but is fluent in French. He attempted to make reservations but couldn’t get his predicament across. So he had to call the scout who signed him, telling him he was here. The scout, in Montreal, then called Wilson in Shelby. George called to Statesville to make the arrangements.

It’s a time-honored tradition in the minor leagues to teach foreign ballplayers their first words in English — which are invariably profane. Interviewing his surviving teammates, several of them have informed me that tradition was honored in Statesville back in 1961.

The April 29 paper published a photo of the pitching staff selected out of spring training:

 

Photo of Statesville's Opening Day pitching staff
The Opening Day pitchers for the Statesville Owls. Left to right: Pete Curtis, Jeff King, Joe DaCruz, Roy Wagner, Gail Thomas, John Couch, Walter Darton, Glen Opfer, George Conrad and Dana Worster. King, DaCruz, Darton and Conrad were Angels properties; Thomas was signed by the Angels after the season. Click on the image to view it at full size. (Photo source: Statesville Record & Landmark)

 

Walter Darton quickly evolved into the ace of the staff. I’ll have more on him in a future entry. I may have located him; I dropped a letter in the mail to him this morning. He was well on his way to a big league career when he was injured during the May 31 brawl.

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