“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
— Philosopher Yogi Berra
The Statesville Owls played their home opener on May 3, 1961, against the Lexington Indians. Statesville won handily, 11-6, but the game would turn out to be pivotal months later when post-season matchups were on the line.
Well, another baseball season was opened here last night — amid more confusion and errors than anything else.
With the bases loaded in the top of the fourth frame, Lexington Manager Jack Hale charged plate umpire Jim Centineo on a called strike when Larry Hatchell swung — and missed — on a wide pitch by Gail Thomas. THe pitch hit Hatchell.
It was the first rhubarb here this season — and set the stage for a night of questions on playing tactics.
At the start of the Owls’ half of the fourth, Hale told Centineo he was playing the game under protest. Hale’s point was that any one of five Statesville players — and he named them as Frank Cofone, Gail Thomas, John Couch, George Wilson or Peter Curtis — was ineligible. Hale’s protest was lodged in connection with the WCL player rule for veterans.
The rule allows a club to have two veterans and two limited service, one veteran and three limited or four limited in the “four-player class rule.”
At the start of the fifth inning, Wilson countered with a protest that any one of seven Lexington players — he did not name them — was ineligible under the same rule.
At the start of the ninth, Wilson withdrew his first protest and lodged another — that Lexington’s third pitcher, Bill Barr, was not listed as a pitcher on the lineup cards exchanged in pre-game ceremonies. Wilson charged that anyone eligible to pitch had to be listed.
Wilson said, since the Owls had won the game, that he did not plan to file the written protest to the league office, accompanied by the $25 protest fee.
But Hale was firm in his stand and planned to get his off to League President John H. Moss today.
The Owls got off to a 9-0 start, and as the days passed the protest was quickly forgotten.
Until May 30.
Lexington was due in town to play a doubleheader against the Owls on May 31. The day before, Statesville owner Fleete McCurdy received a telegram from Western Carolina League president John Henry Moss informing him that Lexington’s protest had been upheld, slicing a game off the Owls’ first-place lead.
Sportswriter Jerry Josey, who was also the Owls’ official scorer, wrote about the telegram in his “From the Press Box” column. He quoted the documentation he filed with the Howe News Bureau, which was the official statistician for the league.
Josey wrote in his column:
Hale’s protest was that “any one of five” was ineligible. None of the five, at the present time, was ineligible. To me, it’s the same situation of quoting a wrong rule on a protest play and then having the protest thrown out because the rule was not applicable to the situation.
If the bylaws and constitution of the Western Carolina League, we do not have a copy but the club has one, are to be obeyed in strictness, we venture this question to President Moss:
Why did you not rule on this matter in accordance with the Western Carolina League bylaws and constitution?
In the bylaws, article five, section three and paragraph b are these words: “The President shall render a decision on all protests within five days after the game has been played upon which the protest is made.
That game was played on May 3rd.
The protest was allowed via telegram on May 30th!
There are, the elementary school students will easily know, many more than five days within that span!
The next day, on May 31, Statesville played their twinbill against Lexington. As I wrote on December 20, there was a massive brawl on the field during Game #1. During the brawl, Owls’ ace pitcher Walter Darton fell back on the mound and tore the ligaments in his pitching elbow, effectively ending his career. A drunken fan ran on the field during the melee and took a swing at one of the umpires.
Needless to say, Statesville and Lexington didn’t like each other much at this point.
Statesville won the first half of the split-season schedule. In the playoffs, they were assigned to play Lexington in a best-of-three series — and lost, 2-0.
If the Owls’ May 3 win hadn’t been forfeited, they would have finished the year with an overall record of 64-38, tying them with Salisbury for the overall best record. Statesville might have then played Shelby, which had a slightly worse record than Lexington, in the first round.
Jerry Josey wrote after the season:
Statesville could have lost more than a game on that mixup on eligibility. It occurred for five games, but only one protest was filed. It could have been worse than it was, but we’ll not argue about it.
We said then and we’ll repeat that stand that the protest, as lodged, didn’t have a leg to stand on. But the ineligibility question of the other games did have, and it now appears that Statesville may have escaped rather lightly on the infraction of the WCL’s bylaws and constitution concerning the veteran player limit.
Yet another example of the chaos that typified that first year of Angels minor league baseball.