Perhaps the greatest triumph for any mill town came in 1936, when the Spartanburg American Legion team won the state’s first national championship in any sport by defeating a Los Angeles team in a five-game series (some twenty thousand fans attended the fifth and deciding game).
Union troops introduced baseball to South Carolina during the late stages of the Civil War. The game soon blossomed into a major social and athletic event in many rural and urban communities during Reconstruction. Both Columbia and Charleston formed local teams that played against the northern occupation forces. By the time Wade Hampton III became governor in 1877, the game was firmly established. In a game played the following year in Charleston between the “Carolinas” and the “Palmettoes,” attendance was so large that fans disrupted play by crowding onto the field. Spectators’ interest also included wagers on their favorite side. By 1886 professionalism had come to South Carolina’s game. Charleston’s Southern Association team reportedly paid its players as much as $2,000. Its biggest rivals in these early years were Georgia teams. Some Charleston fans even paid 15¢ to follow away games telegraphed, play-by-play, into Hibernian Hall. Amateur and semi-professional baseball had equally large followings. By 1889 Camden was the site of a “flourishing Base Ball Association owning a park where the best amateur games of the State are played.” Two years earlier, a lively game in Greenwood between the “Columbias” and the “Greenvilles” was so competitive that a riot nearly ensued after the Greenville team won, 7 to 6. By the end of the nineteenth century, some of the state’s most loyal baseball fans were found in South Carolina’s mill villages. In the 1870s and 1880s, when the textile industry began taking root in the upstate, mill-sponsored baseball clubs emerged, and they were thriving by the start of the twentieth century. Initially, mill teams consisted of the best players in each local workforce. But as the rivalries between mill towns grew, owners sought better talent and recruited talented players from outside the community, sometimes snatching the best players from rival mills. Mill baseball provided textile communities with both entertainment and a source of pride. One of the earliest mill champions was the Piedmont team led by Champ Osteen. In 1899, after beating most of the local opposition, the Piedmont squad received a challenge from a team from Augusta, Georgia, which they also defeated. Until the twentieth century, mill leagues were informal and focused on local tournaments and other games throughout the summer months. Some of the first organized mill leagues appeared in 1908 with the formation of the South Carolina Mill League and the Greenville Mill League. During the next half-century, regional mill leagues developed throughout the upstate and the Midlands, including teams from Anderson to Gaffney and Graniteville to Winnsboro. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of fans attended local games. Hotly contested matches sometimes led to fights both on and off the field. Perhaps the greatest triumph for any mill town came in 1936, when the Spartanburg American Legion team won the state’s first national championship in any sport by defeating a Los Angeles team in a five-game series (some twenty thousand fans attended the fifth and deciding game). Mill leagues continued to thrive into the post–World War II era. But by the early 1950s, automobiles and televisions undermined mill league baseball’s following. Attendance dwindled, and by the early 1960s the textile leagues had virtually ceased to exist.
Baseball continued to thrive in other leagues. In August 1875 one of the first recorded intercollegiate games in the state saw an all-black team from the University of South Carolina defeat an all-black team from an Orangeburg college by a score of 41 to 10. By the late nineteenth century the University of South Carolina and Clemson began their long baseball rivalry. Other schools also organized varsity squads around the same time, including Benedict, South Carolina State College, the Citadel, Furman, and Wofford. Competition centered on in-state schools and neighboring ones in North Carolina and Georgia. In 1958 Clemson became the first South Carolina school to reach the College World Series. Since then, competition for honors and star players accelerated at all levels of college baseball as each of the state’s schools competed to reach the College World Series. Several college stars have advanced to play professionally.
The minor league system that fed players into the major leagues has given excitement and pleasure to South Carolina fans since the 1900s. One of the most endearing of these has been the South Atlantic League, which began play in 1904. Initially consisting of teams from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, franchises have come and gone from Columbia, Charleston, and Greenville during a century of play. Other minor leagues that flourished at one time or another in the state include the Carolina League (Greenville, Spartanburg, and Greenwood) and the Palmetto League, ca. 1934–1951 (Orangeburg, Hartsville, Lake City, Kingstree, Georgetown, Camden, and Sumter).
Until the 1950s these minor and amateur leagues were segregated, allowing only white ball players. Black amateur leagues flourished in many areas of the state, but little documentation of their history remains. The earliest documented black textile league game occurred on September 4, 1895, in Newberry County between Newberry Mills and their counterparts from Anderson. Black textile teams disappeared for the same reasons that their white counterparts did during the 1950s. While Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues in 1947 and South Carolina native Larry Doby followed three months later as the first African American in the American League, the desegregation of baseball in South Carolina took longer. In 1955 one of the first African Americans to play professionally in the state was Frank Robinson, who starred with the Columbia Reds and later had a Hall of Fame career in the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles.
Youth baseball took the longest to integrate. When the black Cannon Street YMCA team from Charleston fielded an all-star team to compete in the 1955 Little League, white teams in the state refused to play against them. Other teams from the Southeast followed South Carolina’s lead, ignoring instructions from Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, directing that they play. Although the Cannon Street team was declared the winner by default, they could only watch the Little League World Series after being declared ineligible because they had not earned the right on the playing field. Having refused to accept Little League directives to allow black teams, white officials from South Carolina and other southern states formed an independent organization called Little Boys Baseball, Inc. In 1956 a Greenville entry won the league’s first World Series. The fledgling league changed its name to Dixie Youth Baseball in 1962 after Little League officials protested that Little Boys Baseball infringed on their trademark. By the middle of the decade Dixie Youth Baseball finally desegregated.
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Community, 1740–1990. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. –––. South Carolina in the 1880s: A Gazetteer. Orangeburg, S.C.:
Sandlapper, 1989. Perry, Thomas. Textile League Baseball: South Carolina’s Mill Teams,
1880–1955. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993. Price, Tom. A Century of Gamecocks: Memorable Baseball Moments. Columbia,
S.C.: Summerhouse, 1996. Sapakoff, Gene. “Little League’s Civil War.” Sports Illustrated 83 (October 30, 1995).