North Carolina has long been a hotbed of minor league baseball and home to perhaps minor league baseball’s most famous team, the Durham Bulls. Many of baseball’s most famous athletes have plied their trades under the hot North Carolina sun, waiting for their chance to be called up to the big leagues. While the Red Sox do not currently have a presence in the Tar Heel State, their Carolina League Single A Advanced team is in Salem, Virginia, that has not always been the case. Of course, the Sox have had minor league teams in the major markets like Charlotte and Greensboro. However, in the late 1930s, they called a mill town on the Tar River home. Rocky Mount, North Carolina was the home of the Red Sox’s Class B affiliate from 1936-1940 and in this post, I will profile the Red Sox of Rocky Mount. I want to make sure that I credit the archives of The Charlotte Observer and Rocky Mount Telegram for their great contemporary coverage of the team and their contribution to this post.
When the Rocky Mount Red Sox arrived in 1936, the town boasted a population of approximately 21,000 people, making it by far the smallest city in the Class B Piedmont League. The team had relocated from Charlotte, which had both given the team poor support and passed an ordinance banning Sunday baseball, factors that combined to push the Red Sox to other pastures. In late 1935, Red Sox General Manager Eddie Collins visited Rocky Mount and though he liked the city, it did not have a ballpark that was suitable for the team. Voters quickly remedied that however through a January 1936 special election that provided for such a stadium. Crews worked quickly to build the new stadium but flooding in the area prevented supplies from reaching Rocky Mount in a timely manner. The team held their first spring training in Goldsboro, a town approximately 50 miles to the south. Spring training didn’t quite go as planned however. The team had scheduled exhibition games but teams balked at the idea of traveling to Goldsboro. Before the start of the season, the team had only one exhibition game, against Eastern Carolina Teachers College (now East Carolina University).
When the team arrived in Rocky Mount to play in the newly completed Briles Park for their home opener on May 11, they drew 4,309 fans, the best in the Piedmont League and quite a feat given that Rocky Mount’s size. Though the team started strong, they were hobbled by injuries down the stretch and finished their inaugural season 74-69, good enough for 4th out of the 6 teams. The Norfolk Tar, affiliate of the New York Yankees, would win the pennant easily. Despite their dominance however, the team struggled to put away the Red Sox, winning 14 out of 28 games. Perhaps the most famous player from that 1936 team was Charlie Wagner, who would go on to play for the Boston Red Sox from 1938-1942 and then after a break for World War II, returned in 1946 for one final year. After his retirement, he would serve in a variety of roles for the Sox until his death in 2006.
The 1937 season would bring even less luck as the team faltered and posted a 67-75 record. This was followed by a pair of third places finishes in 1938 and 1939.
In 1940, the team would see perhaps its most famous player, a 19 year old player by the name of Johnny Pesky arrive in Rocky Mount. His arrival as a highly ranked prospect for the Sox was lauded in the local press and Pesky did not disappoint. Pesky would only spend one year in Rocky Mount before being moved to the Double A Louisville Colonels in 1941.
1940 would also be the final year for the Red Sox in Rocky Mount. Ultimately deciding the market was too small, they would depart for the much larger Greensboro market. Greensboro had actively courted the Red Sox, even offering to rescind their ban on Sunday baseball in order to lure the team out of Rocky Mount. Despite losing the Sox, Rocky Mount didn’t lose baseball altogether. The team would be replaced by a Class A unaffiliated team in 1941, a step-down from Class B.
As for what happened to Briles Park, the home of the Rocky Mount Red Sox. In May of 1939, the City of Rocky Mount opted to rename the park, “Rocky Mount Municipal Stadium.” The stadium would host a series of teams, from other minor league teams to the baseball teams of Rocky Mount Senior High School, in subsequent years before finally being demolished in 1987.