Monday, July 8, 2013

June 25- Kinston Indians

This particular cap purchase came as a result of a whim, rather the necessity. I found it at the New Era Flagship store across the street from the MLB Fan Cave in their quite respectable minor league section. I had spent a solid 20 minutes in the store which is way longer than I usually dedicate time toward shopping in one location, unless of course I’m chatting it up with the employees. Sadly, this was not the case. It was still pretty early in my time in New York City and for some odd reason I had the urge to buy a couple hats, but was having a lot of difficulty committing to any of them. This particular Kinston Indians hat I must have picked up and put down at least six times before I finally gave it the green light. My only problem with it is that it’s a custom cap. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, and will continue to mention throughout the year, I always prefer the actual game colors, logos and styles and very rarely pick up a custom cap… unless it’s something worth adding to the collection. Well… this one was definitely up to snuff.

The Kinston Indians wore this cap for all of their home games in 2011, their final season. The only difference between this cap and the one from 2011 is that this one features a gold outline and interior of the feather, as opposed to the tan outline and white interior to the feather featured on the game cap. Personally, I’d actually say that the look of this one is better, and pretty much the main reason why I rolled the dice on it.

Now, it’s pretty rare for me to get really caught up on things “that shouldn’t matter” to the point where it depresses me. I tend to focus on the long term effects and the historical sides of things way too intently. I bring this up because one of the many “things that shouldn’t” bother me is when a minor league team packs up and relocates. The same could easily be said about a Major League franchise, which has only happened once in my lifetime, but in most cases with the minor league system the deep-rooted history that goes along with each team is just laid to waste. It’s a common practice that’s merely part of the business, and very few towns have seen baseball come and go, thrive and die as much as Kinston, North Carolina has.

Established in 1987, the Indians, or "K-Tribe" as they were popularly known, were an advanced-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians and played through the 2011 season. A total of 17 managers led the club since the start of the Indians affiliation including two who have since managed the big league club. The Indians played in 3,458 regular season games and compiled a win–loss record of 1,925–1,533. Kinston has served as a farm club for ten different major league franchises and one minor league club as professional baseball in the hamlet dates back to a 1908 squad in the Eastern Carolina League. Despite having one of the smallest markets in professional baseball, Kinston has proved its viability for over a century.

Kinston was represented by many excellent amateur clubs since the late nineteenth century, but it was unable to sustain a viable professional team until the mid-1920s. Earlier attempts included an aborted campaign in the Class D Eastern Carolina League in 1908 and an "outlaw league" team in 1921 and 1922. The latter was notable for being managed by former major league pitcher George Suggs and College Football Hall of Fame member Ira Rodgers. Due to the efforts of the city's business leaders, former local amateur star Elisha Lewis, and George Suggs, the town secured a professional team in the Virginia League for the 1925 season named the "Eagles".

The Eagles were a Class B team playing out of a then newly renovated stadium designed by Suggs known as West End Park. The squad had little success against other teams in their league, but was successful enough in gate receipts to validate the city's capacity to sustain a professional team. Kinston's team remained in the Virginia League for three years and then migrated to a newly reformed Eastern Carolina League. This later affiliation collapsed along with the stock market in 1929. The 1920s Eagles' roster included a young catcher named Rick Ferrell, who later had a long playing career and even longer front office career in the major leagues. In 1984, Ferrell became the only former Kinston player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Another player, Frank Armstrong, gave up baseball for a career in the armed services and became one of the most decorated generals in the history of the Air Force.

The Great Depression took a great toll on the minor leagues, with only thirteen teams operating across the U.S. at a 1933 low point. Like most, Kinston sat out the first few years of the Great Depression but reentered play for the 1934 season in the semi-professional Coastal Plain League. By 1937 the circuit had become a fully professional, Class D league as ranked by the National Association. The city remained in the Coastal Plain League continuously until it was disbanded after 1952. As a member of this affiliation, Kinston saw many playoff appearances and won league championships in 1935 and 1947. Among the superior talent during this period was a young player named Charlie "King Kong" Keller who is listed as among the top forty major league players of all-time in terms of on-base percentage (.410). Keller won four World Series titles with the New York Yankees from 1939-1958 and made five All-Star Game appearances in that same stretch.

Kinston was without a team for the three-year period following the dissolution of the Coastal Plain League. In 1956, the owner of the Burlington Bees of the Carolina League moved his team to Kinston. At that time, the Carolina League was a Class B loop with teams located in Virginia and North Carolina. The team, calling itself the Kinston Eagles, were a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate and featured the city's first African-American ball players. In these early days of the Civil Rights Movement, the black players in the Carolina League received much verbal and psychological abuse from the largely white, Southern fan base. The first black players were Frank Washington and Carl Long. Long excelled during the 1956 season, setting an RBI standard of 111 that has never been surpassed by any later Kinston hitter. While the integration succeeded on the ball field, the team failed financially. The Eagles' owner was an inept businessman who brought the club near bankruptcy before it was moved 40 miles away to Wilson in 1957.

Kinston's re-entry into Carolina League baseball in 1962 was successful both on the field and at the turnstile. The Eagles were able to claim the first of its Carolina League crowns. At a time when Kinston's population was only 25,000, the ball club attracted over 140,000 fans. Part of the lure was the talent supplied by Kinston's parent club, the Pirates, which included Steve Blass (17–3, 1.97 ERA, 209 K's), and Frank Bork (19–7, 2.00 ERA). Another fan attraction was that the Eagles were for the first time a community owned team, operating under the non-profit Kinston Eagles Baseball Company, run by an elected eighteen-man, unpaid board of directors. Profits were reinvested into improving the stadium, promoting the team, and supplying playing equipment for the youth of Kinston. This arrangement continued through all thirteen years of Kinston's second tenure in the Carolina League, from 1962 through 1974.

In 1963 minor league baseball was restructured nationwide, with B, C and D classes eliminated. The Carolina League became a advanced-A circuit. The Eagles failed to win any championships during this second era of Carolina League play, but they managed to make the playoffs in six of thirteen seasons. The Pirates stuck with Kinston through the 1965 campaign. During three of those four seasons, the Eagles were managed by Harding "Pete" Peterson, who later oversaw the Pirates farm system, and became the Pirates' general manager, helping to build the late seventies team that won the World Series.

The Eagles became affiliated with the new Atlanta Braves during 1966 and 1967. From 1968 through 1973 the Eagles were affiliation with the Yankees; the fans saw a lot of future all-stars pass through the city including a young Ron Guidry. During the 1970s the popularity of minor league baseball reached its lowest point and the attendance in Kinston fell to only 30,000 for the 1973 season. The city needed a revival of interest, and the Montreal Expos were turned to for help. The young Montreal franchise boasted a strong farm system with a lot of talent. So much talent in fact, that they decided to experiment with having two advanced-A affiliates. Instead of dividing the players evenly between the two, all the top players were placed in the West Palm Beach club, while the newly renamed Kinston Expos had to make do with castoffs. The Kinston team soon found itself overmatched among its Carolina League rivals. The Expos fell to last place and attendance fell to only 27,000 for the year. Montreal declared the experiment a failure and withdrew from Kinston following the 1974 season. With no major league sponsor and very little fan support, Kinston likewise withdrew from the league.

Former airline pilot Ray Kuhlman brought minor league baseball back to Kinston by investing in a Carolina League franchise in the late seventies. The renamed Kinston Eagles flew unaffiliated their first season back in the circuit in 1978. By the next campaign, they were associated with the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto stayed with Kinston for seven years, and the team eventually took on the Blue Jay name. Kinston did not win any championships during the Blue Jays years. Kuhlman and his wife ran the team themselves and saw steady annual increases in attendance each year. The couple brought a string of marketing ideas to the team that have taken hold and remain to this day. These include increasing promotional days, fireworks displays, the introduction of Kinston baseball cards, an increase in branded souvenir merchandise, the establishment of the Kinston Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, and the hiring of a team mascot. Another fan attraction was a collection of future major league stars including Tony Fernández, Fred McGriff and Cecil Fielder.

Following the 1985 season, the Blue Jays dropped Kinston as a franchise, and professional baseball in the city seemed to be in doubt once again. There was talk of moving the franchise to Charles County, Maryland, but the city remained in the Carolina League with an independent ball club that took on the Eagles name. 1986 proved to be disappointing in the standings and at the gate, and talk of a move was renewed, but ownership secured an affiliation with the Cleveland Indians during the off season. For twenty-five years, Cleveland and the K-Tribe enjoyed a successful partnership which produced seventeen playoff appearances and five Carolina League championships (1988, 1991, 1995, 2004 and 2006). The value of the team has risen along with its on-field success. In 1983, Kuhlman sold the team for $100,000. The franchise was sold again in 1985 for $225,000, and changed hands again in 1989 for $750,000. The team's value in 1992 was estimated at $1.5 million.

Six figure attendance totals became the norm throughout the 1990s and into the new century. General Manager North Johnson fostered closer bonds with the mayor's office and helped create the Mayor's Committee for Professional Baseball in 1987. Dedicated to increasing season ticket sales and promoting ties with businesses, the committee accomplished much in a short span of time. Attendance increased by nearly twenty thousand in 1987 and by more than twelve thousand the following year. By 1991, the number of fans through the turnstiles topped 100,000 for the first time since 1964. Although a new ownership group purchased the franchise in 1994, continuity in day-to-day operations was maintained through general manager North Johnson, and front office mainstay Shari Massengill who took over the reins in 2006. The local government's dedication to keeping baseball in Kinston is evidenced by extensive renovations.
The Kinston Indians were last managed by Aaron Holbert, a former major league infielder. Their General Manager through the 2010 season, Massengill, and former Assistant General Manager, Jessie Hays, made up the only all-female General Manager/Assistant General Manager team in the Minor Leagues. When Hays departed for the 2008 season, her replacement, Janell Bullock, was also female. The final GM was Benjamin Jones, who was previously employed by the Wilson Tobs.

In 2007, the Indians won the Southern Division crown for both halves of the year, but they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the wild card team, the Salem Avalanche. It was the seventh season in a row that the Indians made the post season, which was a Carolina League record formerly held by the Burlington Bees (1945–1950). It was the second time a Kinston team had accomplished this feat. The Kinston Eagles of the Coastal Plain League also made it to seven post seasons in a row (1946–1952). Kinston's player development contract with Cleveland ended following the 2011 season and in 2012 the Carolina League franchise moved to Zebulon, North Carolina to become the new Carolina Mudcats.

When it came to marking up the cap I decided to keep it with the confines of the time and era.

#11- Somehow I actually screwed up on this one. I wrote the numbers with good intentions a few months ago, but made a mistake or saw a wrong a photo and wrote the wrong jersey number down. In any case, #11 belonged to Tyler Cannon, a catcher/third baseman who batted .246 with six home runs and 39 RBI for the Indians in their final season. But that’s not who I was interested in. I meant to write the jersey number of Drew Pomeranz, the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft out of the University of Mississippi. His jersey number with the Indians happened to be #51, which I must have misread based on the fact that I was looking off of baseball cards and got one with him in his pitching motion which distorted the number. Oh well! This isn’t a perfect system. Pomeranz went 3-2 with a 1.87 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 15 starts in 2011 before moving on to Akron with the Aeors, only to be traded to the Colorado Rockies not too long after that as a centerpiece in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. Pomeranz has since had a few starts in the Majors, the first of which came against the Cincinnati Reds on September 11, 2011. In that game he three five scoreless innings and picked up the win. On May 7, 2012 Pomeranz hit his first career home run off of Edinson Volquez of the San Diego Padres in the third inning of the Rockies’ 2-3 loss.

#’11- I think the saddest part about the Indians playing their final season in 2011 is the fact that they finished the season with a 76-62 record, winning the division title, but lost in the finals against the Baltimore Orioles affiliate the Frederick Keys in four games of a five-game series thanks in part to the Finals MVP, some “no-namer” who goes by Manny Machado. Had the Indians won the title that season it would have made for a wonderful send-off.

1 comment:

  1. I've been looking far and wide for a Kinston Indians cap. I'm a former resident of Kinston and sad to see the team go. Is there any way you'd be willing to sell the cap or send me to a site that has the original home cap not the custom? Either would be greatly appreciated