Scott Fowler

Frances Crockett, the first lady of Charlotte baseball, to be honored Sunday

The first lady of Charlotte baseball is 76 years old now, long past the days she employed former pro wrestlers as groundskeepers and occasionally helped pull a tarp over the field at Crockett Park in her high heels.

But Frances Crockett still has her same contagious laugh and still lives in Charlotte. She was born and raised in the Queen City as a member of the well-known Crockett family, which promoted everything from wrestling to boxing to baseball.

With a colorful history like that, you can never tell what story Crockett might launch into next.

She begins one: “A Japanese wrestler taught me how to swim.”

Another starts with the fact that her father – Big Jim Crockett, the family patriarch – would often take her to matches featuring her favorite wrestler, Gorgeous George, so Frances could catch some of the gold bobby pins that Gorgeous George and his valet would throw into the crowd.

But while wrestling was the family’s moneymaker, baseball was where Crockett made her own mark in the sports world. She and her family will be honored Sunday by the Charlotte Knights, who have planned a 40th anniversary tribute to the 1976 Charlotte O’s. That Double-A squad in 1976 featured eventual hall of famer Eddie Murray, and Murray along with 16 other former Charlotte O’s players are scheduled to show up for the 7:05 p.m. game.

Crockett was the O’s general manager for a decade starting in 1976, winning a number of awards along the way as one of the few women to ever serve in that role. She presided over a minor-league team that set attendance records, won championships and eventually saw its Dilworth-area park burn down in 1985 in a case of arson. Crockett had a temporary facility rebuilt on the same site within a month.

‘You felt like it was a family’

Crockett did all that as a divorced mother of five children, all of whom worked at Crockett Park alongside her doing everything from selling popcorn to collecting bats. “I never remarried,” Crockett said. “I was a little busy working and raising five children.”

Crockett said she treated her team like a family – “like 21 extra kids,” she said.

Former Charlotte minor-leaguer Jeff Schaefer, who played for the O’s from 1982-84 before eventually making it to the majors, agreed.

“It was definitely a different vibe from anywhere else I ever played,” Schaefer said. “This was a family that had grown up in the wrestling industry and completely understood how to entertain the fans. It was amazing. You didn’t feel like a pawn that could be easily replaced. You felt like it was a family.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games. The O’s barely broke even many years, and Crockett was a tough businesswoman who smoked three packs of menthol cigarettes a day. She would sometimes yell at or even fire people who displeased her.

“She’d start with that laugh,” Schaefer said, “and then she’d put the hammer on you.”

Crockett went to college at Queen’s and learned the rest on the job and from her ever-busy family. She had grown up a tomboy playing baseball in south Charlotte, back during a time when, as she said: “Everyone played baseball.”

“I was the best first baseman you ever saw,” she said. “Listen, I was the only girl in the neighborhood. I had my own glove. I could hit and run.”

A $2.50 ticket

Minor-league baseball in Charlotte has a longstanding tradition, but it had hit a dry spell in the early 1970s. The Crockett family bought a franchise from Asheville, moved it to Charlotte and eventually installed Frances as GM. She was a single mom with five young children, so it made more sense for her to stay home with the baseball team and let her brothers travel with the wrestlers.

“I enjoyed the people, that was the No. 1 thing,” Crockett said. “Athletes are a special group of people, and baseball players are different from wrestlers. They’re both crazy. The difference is that wrestlers are individuals, while baseball is a team game.” 

Tickets sold for $2.50 to $4.50 at Crockett Park during most of Frances Crockett’s tenure. A good crowd was 3,000, although they could get 5,500 on a big night, like when Bo Jackson came to town. Sometimes they actually would let the overflow crowd stand near the foul lines, because they hated to ever turn away a ticket-buyer.

“It was like the fans were in the game with you,” Schaefer said. “You took three steps from the foul line and it was ‘Hey, how are you doing?’”

Hall of famer Cal Ripken played for the O’s in 1979 and ’80. He told me once about those years: “Old Crockett Park was really cool. I remember Klondike Bill was the groundskeeper – he was a former wrestler. There was a great character to that ballpark. Great wood grandstands. The fences were pretty reachable, which was fun as a hitter. It had a real nice charm to it – a fun place to play. We drew a good crowd, probably in the thousands each night.”

In the late 1980s, the Crockett family sold the team to George Shinn, who eventually renamed it the Charlotte Knights and moved it to Fort Mill.

Frances Crockett eventually quit smoking, retired and now stays busy helping run her homeowners’ association and the non-profit Crockett Foundation. But the memories of her days as GM remain.

The O’s gave out kazoos to form “the world’s biggest kazoo band.” They once gave free admission to anyone who brought a banana or a picture of a banana to the ballpark. They discounted Sunday ticket prices to anyone who brought in a church bulletin. They passed around “the world’s largest ice cream sundae” and let fans help themselves.

“It wore me out,” Crockett said. “It wasn’t until September every year I’d realize how tired I was. But those are some great memories.”