Return to Statesville


The 1961 Statesville Owls team photo. Nine surviving players reunited fifty years later on the same field.

It all began when the Los Angeles Angels, one of two American League expansion teams in 1961, desperately needed minor league affiliates.

Roland Hemond, the Angels’ newly appointed farm and scouting director, had only three months to find affiliates. He signed working agreements with a Triple-A team in Dallas-Ft. Worth that was already affiliated with the Phillies, and with a Class D team in Statesville, North Carolina whose players were mostly signed independently.

The Statesville Owls were part of the Western Carolina League, a circuit created to feed talent into the Contintental League, a proposed third major league. But when the Continental League folded — in part because the A.L. expanded into the Los Angeles market — the WCL scrambled to find its own talent.

“Affiliation” had a much looser connotation in 1961. A minor league club could still sign, trade and release its own players. But they could also get players from an affiliated major league club. Some got them from more than one.

The 1961 Owls had indy players from North Carolina and across the South, but added Angels players to their roster as soon as they arrived. Most Angels were from Southern California, although a few came from Florida and elsewhere. One player, Gaetan Boudreau, came from Quebec and spoke very little English.

Despite their disparate backgrounds, and the Jim Crow culture that still permeated the Southern culture, the team became a true band of brothers. White, black, Western, Southern or Québécois. It didn’t matter.

Three went on to major league careers. The rest went on to other lives, their playing careers forgotten except for the arcane world of minor league historical archives, and in their own memories.

But after four years of research, phone calls, letters, e-mails and an October 2009 gathering at the Angels’ minor league complex in Tempe, the 1961 Statesville Owls have finally returned to their home ballpark.

On June 17 and 18, the city of Statesville hosted a reunion of nine surviving Owls. The attendees were Dave Best, George Bryson, Walter Darton, Alan Flitcraft, Jerry Fox, Bob Lucas, Vito Porta, Richard Simpson, and Ed Thomas. Fox and Thomas, two of the 1961 indy players, still live in Statesville and helped organize the reunion.


The 1961 Owls pose with City of Statesville mayor Costi Kutteh. Left to right: Jerry Fox, George Bryson, Richard Simpson, Mayor Kutteh, Ed Thomas, Dave Best, Walter Darton, Alan Flitcraft (partially obscured), and Vito Porta.

The Owls were hosted by a new college team that has adopted the original name. The new Statesville Owls are part of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. The team set up a tent at a Friday night street fair where the players signed autographs on photos created from 1961 images. Later that evening, the 1961 Owls and invited guests gathered at a local restaurant for dinner and storytelling.

The next day, the players were treated to a barbecue at Jerry Fox’s farm. The players posed for a “Field of Dreams” photo in the corn field. They also called former teammate Jack Hiatt, recently retired as the San Francisco Giants’ farm director but still on the road as a special assignment scout.

And then it was on to their onetime home field.

The park looks much different than 1961. It’s used today as the home field not just for the college Owls but also Statesville High School. It’s in much better condition than 1961. The old infield was all dirt! The current infield is grass. One player joked that in 1961 they’d have been better off playing in the street than on that old rock-strewn infield.

The college Owls scheduled a fan fest before the doubleheader, but a thunderstorm passed through and the tents were gone with the wind, which seemed to affect attendance.

George Bryson, Alan Flitcraft and Vito Porta threw out the first pitches before the first game. Flitcraft went down to the bullpen to throw beforehand. He threw the first Angels’ organizational no-hitter on this field on August 26, 1961. When it came time to throw the first pitch, Alan threw a perfect strike.

Between games, the 1961 Owls were honored on the field with a City of Statesville proclamation, and a congratulatory statement from today’s Angels director of Player Development Abe Flores.

Five more alumni threw out the first pitch before the second game — Ed Thomas, Jerry Fox, Richard Simpson, Dave Best and George Bryson.

After the ceremony, they sat behind the third base dugout in an area set aside for them.

I filmed the weekend’s events. The, um, family-friendly version is available to watch online. Click here to watch the reunion video. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required. Photos from the weekend are below.

The Statesville Record & Landmark published a June 19 article about the reunion. In the print edition, the article was on Page 1 with a color photo of Flitcraft’s bullpen.

To put this event in perspective, it would be the equivalent of the 2011 Orem Owlz having a reunion in 2061. It’s a tribute to their camaraderie that the 1961 Owls were willing to return to this town of 27,000 people just so they could reunite their band of brothers and walk on that field one more time.

On a personal note … This ended my four-year odyssey to uncover the history of the Angels’ first minor league team. I walked on that field, met those players, and became one of them when they asked me to autograph their first-pitch baseballs. I have new friends in Statesville simply because we share a common love for baseball.

Fifty years later, the 1961 Statesville Owls are still a family.


At the street fair … Left to right — Walter Darton, Alan Flitcraft and Ed Thomas.

George Bryson discovers a photo of himself in 1961.

Statesville baseball historian Steve Hill (left) meets Alan Flitcraft.

The college Statesville Owls’ president Brian Suarez (left) with Bob Lucas.

George Bryson’s punch line gets a reaction at the reunion dinner.

The “Field of Dreams” photo at Jerry Fox’s farm. Left to right — Vito Porta, George Bryson, Alan Flitcraft, Dave Best, Jerry Fox, Walter Darton, Dick Simpson and Ed Thomas.

Vito Porta is interviewed by Statesville Record & Landmark reporter Jim McNally.

Alan Flitcraft throws on the sidelines at Statesville Stadium.

Alan Flitcraft (left) and George Bryson watch the college Owls play.

Dave Best (left) and Walter Darton discuss action on the field. Richard Simpson watches to the right.

The 2011 edition of the Statesville Owls. Is a 2061 reunion in their future?

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