The Statesville Owls Meet the Tempe Angels
Seven Angels minor leaguers from 1961 reunited September 25 at Tempe Diablo. Left to right — Alan Flitcraft, Dick Simpson, Dan Ardell, Walter Darton, Ed Thomas, Jerry Fox, and Dave Best. Bobby Lucas arrived shortly after the photo was taken.
Forty-eight years after their 1961 season ended with a playoff loss to rival Lexington, the Statesville Owls reunited Friday on a field in Tempe, Arizona.
To give you an idea of the scale of this accomplishment, if Tom Kotchman’s 2009 Pioneer League champion Orem Owlz were to hold a reunion forty-eight years later, it would be in the year 2057.
This project began nearly three years ago, when I began to dig into the Angels’ minor league history.
Gene Autry and his co-investors were awarded the Los Angeles expansion franchise at the winter baseball meetings on December 6, 1960. Their first major league game would be April 11, 1961. They had until then to assemble a major league roster.
General Manager Fred Haney, a former Milwaukee Braves manager, was hired on December 8 as the team’s first GM. Former Giants skipper Bill Rigney was hired on December 12 to manage. The first expansion draft was held on December 14, with the Angels selecting 28 players.
But a major league organization is more than a big-league team. It’s also a farm system and scouting department.
In early January, Roland Hemond was hired from the Braves to become the Angels’ first farm director and also the scouting director. He’d been a Fred Haney protégé in Milwaukee.
Angels minor league pitching coordinator Kernan Ronan reunites with his college coach, Alan Flitcraft. Alan threw a no-hitter for Statesville in his final start of the 1961 season.
Hemond had only three months to create affiliations with minor league teams, which operated much more independently than they do now. They could sign their own players and affiliate with more than one organization.
But he also needed players to send to those teams. A few came out of the draft, names that would one day become familiar to Angels fans — Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance, Bob Rodgers and Fred Newman.
Hemond signed agreements with two teams. The Dallas-Ft. Worth Rangers were a Triple-A team in the American Association. They also had an affiliation with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Younger players needed to go elsewhere, to a lower level where more time could be spent on development. The only place he could find was Statesville, North Carolina in the Western Carolina League. The league, once defunct, had been resurrected as part of Branch Rickey’s plan to create the Continental League, a third major league. But when Rickey’s principals jumped ship after being tempted by potential ownership of new franchises in the existing leagues, the WCL was left to its own fate.
The Statesville Owls were one of six teams in the league in 1961. The field with wooden stands and bleachers was part of the local high school. The infield was all dirt. A player’s clubhouse locker was a nail on the wall. And discrimination against African-Americans was rampant as the civil rights era dawned.
Hemond looked elsewhere but had no choice. The Angels affiliated with Statesville.
In mid-April, Hemond sent a group now known as the “first four” to Statesville. Jack Hiatt, Dick Simpson, Glade Cookus and George Conrad flew out of Los Angeles to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Charlotte, and took a bus from Charlotte to Statesville.
Hungry from their long trek, the four stopped in the first diner they saw. A cook approached them with a meat cleaver, pointed at Simpson who is black, and said, “You boys will have to leave, we don’t serve their kind here.”
And so it began.
Dick Simpson, Ed Thomas and Walter Darton watch the Tempe Angels go through a drill.
More would find their way from California to Statesville, but the Angels also signed players from other states, and one from Quebec. Many of the Owls were local players signed independently, technically not Angels employees but teammates nonetheless. They would establish a bond that lasted not just through the end of the 1961 season, but continued for the next couple years as some of them progressed through the organization. A few — Simpson, Hiatt and Dick Wantz — eventually made it to the big leagues. The rest eventually returned to a normal life, never to see their teammates again.
Or so they thought.
It began when I found Bill Moose, a local historian and college teacher who also wrote columns for the Statesville Record and Landmark. Moose went through the newspaper archives and sent me seven pages of notes, information culled 1961 articles about the Owls.
Two years of research, phone calls, letters and Google searches tracked down twelve surviving Statesville Owls. Glade Cookus, one of the “first four,” passed away in December 2008. We found that George Conrad, another one of the “first four,” had passed away in 1998 in Washington state.
The rest agreed to attend a reunion, as did Roland Hemond, who lives in Phoenix. Hemond went on to become general manager of the White Sox and Orioles, and came up with the idea for the Arizona Fall League. He currently works as a special assistant to the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
We also included Dan Ardell, who didn’t play at Statesville because there was no room on the roster. The Angels loaned him out to a Dodgers affiliate in Artesia, New Mexico. In 1962, he would join many of the Owls alumni on the San Jose Bees roster, where they won the California League pennant.
Four surviving members — Jack Hiatt, George Bryson, Paul Mosley and Vito Porta — wanted to attend but various personal matters kept them from the event.
Minor league pitching coaches Brandon Emanuel and Trevor Wilson meet Dick Simpson, who hit 42 homers for San Jose in 1962.
We chose to have the reunion in Phoenix for several reasons. One reason was that it was a major airline hub, and that Californians could drive there in a few hours if they preferred not to fly. Roland lives here. But the main reason was to give the Statesville alumni an opportunity to reconnect to their Angels roots, spending a day at the Angels’ Tempe Diablo minor league complex where fall instructional league would be held.
And so it was that on Friday, September 25, 2009, eight men gathered together for the first time since 1961 to don Angels caps and step on an Angels field.
At 10 AM, the instruction stopped so the alumni could be introduced to those who laid the foundation for Angels minor league baseball. They received applause from the players and coaches. At 1 PM, after instructions ended, they gathered to speak to the players about their experiences and remind them this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play professional baseball.
At 6 PM that night, they met with Roland who joined us at an informal dinner held in a local hotel. Lots of memories, of course, but also a lot of talk about issues facing the game today. Roland and Bobby Lucas talked about an idea to encourage more African-Americans to play baseball. Bobby is the brother-in-law of Hank Aaron and once scouted for the Braves; he’s now the head coach at Florida A&M.
On Saturday, most of the players had to leave for home, but a few remained behind to accept Roland’s offer to attend a Diamondbacks game at Chase Field. They were given a tour of the executive suites, then sat with Roland in field level seats behind the visitors dugout. In the fourth inning, they were shown on the video board and introduced as the 1961 Statesville Owls — but got booed a little for wearing Angels caps!
Everyone had gone home by Sunday, but it was made clear to me that I have a mission — to expand this reunion and add more players from the early 1960s for next year.
Below are photos from the various events, as well as links to audio interviews recorded earlier with some of the attendees. Windows Media Player is required to listen to the interviews. Video clips will be online in a couple days.
August 31, 2005 interview with Dan Ardell.
April 30, 2007 interview with Paul Mosley.
June 30, 2007 interview with Roland Hemond.
December 12, 2007 interview with Jack Hiatt.
Former Angels infielder Bobby Knoop (right) stopped by Tempe Diablo to visit his old friend, Ed Thomas.
Ed Thomas and Dave Best discuss instructional league training with Quakes manager Keith Johnson.
Left to right — Dick Simpson, Dan Ardell and Walt Darton.
The alumni roundtable at the reunion dinner. (That’s my wife in the background.)
Walt Darton and Bobby Lucas.
At the Diamondbacks game — my wife Carol, Ed Thomas, Jerry Fox, Roland Hemond and Dave Best.
great job! Whoever said you couldnt learn something on the internets?