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?
Seven Angels minor leaguers from 1961 reunited September 25, 2009 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.
If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you know that an ongoing project has been to reunite the 1961 Statesville Owls, one of two minor league teams the Angels had in their inaugural season. Statesville, North Carolina was Class D, a rough equivalent to today’s Low Class-A. The other affiliate was the Triple-A Dalls-Ft. Worth Rangers, an affiliation shared with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Angels are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, which means it’s the 50th anniversary of the Statesville Owls.
We staged a reunion in September 2009, held at the Angels’ minor league complex in Tempe, Arizona. Today’s future Angels had an opportunity to meet the original Angels minor leaguers. Click here to watch a video of excerpts from the reunion. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection required.
As the almuni departed, they tasked me with a solemn responsibility — to reunite them in Statesville for their 50th anniversary.
My wife and I moved from California to Florida in June 2009, so in March 2010 we drove 600 miles to Statesville. We met with Ed Thomas and Jerry Fox, two 1961 Owls who still live in Statesville. They took me to stand on the very field where Angels minor league baseball began. Click here to watch video of the Statesville ballpark visit. We established the initial contacts to make possible that 50th anniversary reunion.
Circumstances required me to bow out, so the locals took over planning, led by the new Southern Collegiate Baseball League Statesville Owls. They’ve arranged for a two-day celebration of the 1961 Owls, starting with a street concert in downtown Statesville the evening of June 17. The next day, as part of their FanFest, the Owls will play a doubleheader and honor the alumni. The first pitch in each game will be thrown out by the alumni, and between games they’ll be honored with a ceremony.
I didn’t think I’d be able to make it, but circumstances have changed so I’ll be heading north next week to record the events for posting on FutureAngels.com and this blog.
I do believe I’ll wear my 1961 Los Angeles Angels cap …
Ed Thomas, FutureAngels.com publisher Stephen Smith, and Jerry Fox in Statesville in March 2010. Thomas and Fox played on the 1961 Statesville Owls. Photo courtesy Steve Hill.
Statesville, North Carolina baseball archivist Steve Hill sent me the below images from his collection that show the Statesville Stadium circa 1962. This would have been the year after the Angels had their inaugural Class D baseball team in Statesville.
These are not photos of the Angels players. Steve believes that some or all may be of the Statesville High School team. The Owls used the high school’s field. It’s still the high school field today except the grandstands are gone.
The photos give us a much better look at what the stadium structure itself looked like in the Angels’ era.
When I visited Statesville last month, I brought home a copy of home movie footage filmed in 1961 by the family of Janet Fox, who is the wife of Owls’ player Jerry Fox. Click here to watch the video. Because the original film was 8mm, there’s no sound, but it’s our first (and so far only) look at the 1961 Owls in color.
Los Angeles Angels minor leaguers with the 1961 Statesville Owls, left to right. Top row: Dick Wantz, Jack Hiatt, Dick Simpson, Manager George Wilson. Bottom row: George Conrad, Glade Cookus, Paul Mosley, George Bryson. Photo courtesy Steve Hill.
Statesville baseball historian Steve Hill had in his collection the above photo of 1961 Statesville Owls, which I’d never seen before. The only common theme we could deduce was that each of the seven players was under contract to the Angels. Manager George Wilson was hired independently by the Owls.
Of those shown in the photo, four are still with us — Jack Hiatt, Dick Simpson, Paul Mosley and George Bryson. I’ve asked them if they recall when and why this group photo was taken.
From past research, we have some clues as to when it was shot.
Hiatt, Simpson, Conrad and Cookus were the first four Angels properties assigned to Statesville, arriving in mid-April. But Mosley and Bryson didn’t arrive until near the end of June.
Missing from the photo are three Florida players signed in mid-June — infielders Dave Best and Bobby Lucas, and pitcher Alan Flitcraft. Also missing is Walt Darton, the ace pitcher from L.A. whose career was ended by an elbow injury suffered during a brawl with Lexington on May 31. All three were with the team through the end of the season.
So we know it was taken no earlier than late June, but if it’s supposed to be only Angels players then why were the three Florida players excluded?
One explanation might be that all seven are from California — which could imply that a Florida-only photo might be around somewhere.
While in Statesville earlier this week, I went to Statesville Stadium to film an interview with former Owls Ed Thomas and Jerry Fox, and local historian Bill Moose. The video is now online.
Click here to watch the interview. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection are required.
The field is currently used by the Statesville High School baseball team. They were practicing just off-camera to the right of the image. A couple of the players came over to introduce themselves, and meet Ed and Jerry who were wearing Angels gear given them last September at the reunion we held at Tempe Diablo. I think the kids probably thought they were scouts or somesuch, but they were very respectful and had lots of questions.
I’m home from Statesville, with lots of Angels minor league history in tow.
Ed Thomas and Jerry Fox were two independent players signed locally by the Owls in 1961. Thomas was signed after the season by the Angels and spent two seasons in Triple-A. Fox retired from baseball and went back to real life.
Jerry’s wife Janet loaned me a home movie her family made that year of the Owls. It runs only about 1 ½ minutes, but it’s the only known footage of the original Angels’ minor league team.
Click here to watch the video. Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection are required.
More to come …
Ed Thomas, FutureAngels.com publisher Stephen Smith, and Jerry Fox. Thomas and Fox played on the 1961 Statesville Owls. Photo courtesy Steve Hill.
The resurrection of Statesville baseball history continues.
Ed Thomas and Jerry Fox were two independent players for the Statesville Owls in 1961. They were teammates of the Angels minor leaguers sent to Statesville from California, Florida and even from Canada. Thomas was signed by the Angels at season’s end and spent two years in Triple-A as a teammate of such future Angels as Jim Fregosi, Bo Belinsky, Dean Chance, Tom Satriano, Bobby Knoop and more.
Ed and Jerry took me to the home of Steve Hill, a local baseball collector. Steve has a wealth of Statesville and other baseball history in his home. In the above photo, behind us is a display he created of Statesville baseball history going back to 1939, when Statesville High School Stadium was built. Click here to view photos of Statesville Stadium circa 1961.
Steve has many photos in his collection I haven’t seen before, among them 8x10s of Jack Hiatt and Dick Simpson in Angels uniforms. Hiatt and Simpson, along with Dick Wantz, were the three 1961 Owls who went on to play in the majors.
My wife and I walked around downtown Statesville this morning shooting photos which I will post in a couple days. These are more for the alumni we reunited last year, so they can see what the town looks like today.
Ed and Jerry took me this afternoon to the Statesville High School ballpark, which is the site of the 1961 stadium. Not much remains from 49 years ago, and improvements are being added to prepare for a new college league that will play here this summer. We met up with Bill Moose, a history professor at Statesville’s Mitchell College who is also a baseball historian. I recorded a video interview with the three, which I’ll post in a couple days when I return home. We were standing on the infield just in front of the pitcher’s mound, the site of a legendary brawl on May 31 against rival Lexington. Click here to read more about the Lexington brawl.
Jerry’s wife loaned me footage of a home movie her family shot in 1961 of a Statesville game. It’s only about a minute, but so far as I know this is the only known film of the 1961 Owls — and it’s in color. I’ll post online later this week as well.
One thing’s for sure — a lot of people in this town are thirsting for the return of professional baseball. The wood-bat college league this summer isn’t quite there, but it’s a big step in the right direction. The proposed 50th anniversary reunion next year in Statesville should be another big step.
The Angels were here for only one year, but it was the Angels’ first year and remembered fondly by both players and fans who were here.