“Where else can you see three good fights and a ball game for 75 cents?” — Statesville Owls fan Herb Lovette.
Interviewing the alumni of the 1961 Statesville Owls, invariably they tell me about two incidents. One was soaking the all-dirt infield with gasoline before the All-Star Game to dry it out after a rainstorm. (It didn’t work.) The other was a brawl against their rivals, the Lexington Indians.
Thanks to the scrapbook sent me by Owls outfielder Jerry Fox, we can now bring back to life that incident.
His scrapbook had two articles both written by Jerry Josey of the Statesville Record & Landmark. One was a report of the game, the other his column called “From the Press Box.”
You need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the articles.
It was May 31, 1961. Statesville was the class of the league, with the best winning percentage in the first half. Lexington was below .500, although by the end of August the Indians would qualify for the playoffs and eliminate the Owls.
League rules allowed only 18 players on the roster, so with a twinbill on the schedule manager George Wilson had to be judicious in the use of this roster. Just as now, minor league doubleheader games were seven innings each, not nine, although they went into extra innings in case of a tie.
In Game #1, Walter Darton was the starting pitcher. Darton was one of the Angels players on the roster. In that era, Statesville could also sign its own players.
The score was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 7th. Owls outfielder Carl Mutert was called out on strikes by home plate umpire Harry Reeder to send the game into extra innings. Mutert threw his bat in protest and was ejected. Manager George Wilson rushed in from the third base box to argue and was tossed too. Local veteran player Gail Thomas took over as manager, and sent Dana Worster to right field to replace Mutert.
Josey wrote that “Statesville partisans were up in arms.”
In the top of the 8th, Lexington infielder Bill Barr was ruled safe at first on a close play by infield umpire Alex Zouncourides. The fans were so irate, Zouncourides called time and instructed police officers to order the fans in the first base bleachers to sit down.
Darton’s first pitch to the next batter, Bob Gaiser, was up and in. Gaiser charged the mound with his bat and both benches emptied. “Several solid punches were thrown in the melee before umpires and police officers succeeded in separating the combatants,” Josey wrote.
Just as order was restored, “a fan from the third base bleacher section moved onto the field and cut loose a right at Zouncourides,” Josey wrote. “Officers quickly took Harwell in tow and warded off further incident.” The umpires later went to police headquarters and signed a complaint, leading to assault charges against Harwell.
In the pileup, Darton somehow fell back on the mound and jammed his elbow. He couldn’t continue, so Thomas brought in Worster from right field to pitch. But given the small Statesville roster, Darton couldn’t leave the game, and went to right field.
Statesville went on to score in the bottom of the 8th to win Game #1, 4-3.
Lexington won Game #2, 8-4.
Owls’ manager Wilson, a North Carolinian, apparently felt it necessary to apologize to the fans for his language after the ejection. (Somehow I can’t imagine Billy Martin or Earl Weaver doing that …) Josey wrote:
Wilson, after the game, asked that an apology by relayed to “the fans for the language I used there at the bench” when he was tossed from the game in the opener. “I’m sorry and I just lost my head,” the Owls’ skipper said.
Then Wilson had his say on umpiring. “The umpires in this league are ridiculous. (Game #2 starter George) Conrad threw one boy six strikes and he walked him. (Catcher Bill) Maupin said he would swear that the balls were within six inches all the time. If something isn’t done about the umpiring in this league, it’s going to fold.”.
The players I’ve interviewed have told me that Darton’s career ended after the injury, although I’ve found one box score where he pitched (poorly) in relief. At the time, Darton was 5-1 with a 2.12 ERA. In 51 innings, he had 62 strikeouts and only 19 walks, having given up just 35 hits. They’ve all said Darton was a very talented pitcher.
I may have located Darton. I sent him a letter in the mail a couple days ago. If I hear from him, I’ll let you know.