1961 American Legion team recalls city's last state title

Once baseball was king in Kannapolis, and thousands of fans filled the bleachers at Midway field for every game.

And in 1961, the former mill town's American Legion team reigned over all of North Carolina.

That was the last time any Cabarrus County American Legion team won a state championship. This year is the 50th anniversary of that feat.

Kannapolis Post 115 honored the surviving members of the 1961 team at a recent home game. The historic team's head coach and several players still live locally and cherish the memories of a long-ago summer that still bonds them.

In 1960, Post 115 hired Bill Ford, a 32-year-old former minor league ballplayer and recent Catawba College graduate, as its head coach. In a 12-year pro career, Ford had played against the likes of Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey, and he believed he could teach his young Legion players some of the tricks of the pro game.

Ford taught his team how to score runs by using the bunt and the hit-and-run. He introduced them to a pitch called a "slider," which they had only heard of by name. Assistant coach Gerald Blackburn was a Kannapolis native and former minor league teammate of Ford.

In 1961, slick-fielding center fielder Harry Mills was one of the returning leaders of a talented team. He was a five-tool player before the term was popularized, and he had been named to the American Legion all-state team the year before. Mills (from then-Wingate College) was one of several players who would go on to play collegiately.

"Harry Mills, in center field, was probably one of the finest athletes I've ever had anything to do with," said Ford, who was also a longtime baseball and football coach at Concord High. "He got tremendous jumps on balls, had a great arm and was used little bit as pitcher."

Not all the players lived in Kannapolis. Some came from Mooresville, Troutman, Landis and China Grove, because their towns did not have American Legion posts at the time.

Ford, Mills, spray-hitting rightfielder Ronnie Woodward, speedy leftfielder Ron Clodfelter and reserve catcher Mike Lear recently gathered at the Midway field and reminisced about the 1961 team.

The baseball field has long been replaced by a soccer field, but the 6-foot concrete wall that enclosed the stadium on the first base line through centerfield still remains. So does Mills' boyhood home, just beyond the wall in right field.

None of the former players could remember the team's final record in 1961, but they all agreed they went undefeated at home that season.

At the regular season's conclusion, Kannapolis cruised to the Area 3 championship series with best-of-five playoff victories over Lexington and Mocksville. In the Area finals, Kannapolis turned back Asheboro with the help of a throw from leftfield by Clodfelter that gunned down an Asheboro runner at the plate, killing a rally and clinching the sixth game of the series.

In the state playoffs, Kannapolis turned away Lincolnton-Cherryville, then beat Hamlet in the state finals. Players don't remember being specially recognized after the state championship, but they did experience the thrill of eating lunch at the YMCA with Cannon Mills mogul Charles A. Cannon after winning the Area 3 title.

Many of the players have hung onto the commemorative plaques and baseballs they autographed for each other from their championship season. Post 115 honored the team with meals and at Kannapolis home games in its 40th anniversary year in 2001 and again for the 50th anniversary.

Ford and 10 of the team's 17 players attended Kannapolis' game at Fieldcrest-Cannon Stadium on June 20.

Six players and Blackburn, the assistant coach, have died. The bond between the team's players and coaches may not have been more evident than after Blackburn's funeral service in 2005.

Some of Blackburn's relatives insisted that Ford and his former players take responsibility for Blackburn's ashes. They promptly took the ashes to the field at Midway and sprinkled them there.