London’s Friday Night Legend: Holy Cross
By Mike London
Leonard “Holy” Cross was a strong football player at old Landis High, but mostly he remains a legend 21 years after his death because he thumped baseballs out of sight.
Cross was a meteor who burned across the Southern sports landscape from 1943-53. He was so gifted he signed a contract at age 16, but his pro career was over at 26.
The statistics suggest Cross, who had a “moon face,” but the “wrists of a lumberjack” hit balls as hard, as far and as frequently as any Rowan slugger ever has.
Karen Stamey, Cross’ daughter, owns a thick scrapbook of clippings preserved by her grandmother. The book is bursting with memories and tape-measure home runs.
Two in this game. Three in that one. Four in one ungodly power surge at Duncan Park in Spartanburg, S.C., on Sept. 3, 1948. Studying that Tri-State League contest 60 years ago produces chills because it’s possible no pro slugger ever had a better night.
Cross, a right-handed hitting third baseman for the Spartanburg Peaches, homered in the first inning. He also homered in the second. And the third. And the fourth.
Cross always maintained he launched a fifth, down-the-line homer that was ruled foul by an umpire because he stood too long at the plate admiring its impressive trajectory.
Officially, Cross singled in his last three at-bats to go 7-for-7 with six runs and 12 RBIs in a 30-6 rout of Asheville. Not a bad night’s work, even though he said he didn’t “feel especially good.”
The story begins with Leonard’s father, Ed Cross, a renowned infielder who moved his family to Landis in 1936 to work as a mill overseer and to manage and play for the local baseball teams.
Leonard, who was born in 1927 in Mount Holly, would have been 9 then.
All three of Ed Cross’ sons ó Leonard, Don and Bob ó were fine athletes, proficient at football, golf and baseball. With their father, they could form an all-Cross infield.
Don and Bob were also fine basketball players, but Leonard lacked the stamina for hoops because he’d had half of an abscessed lung removed when he was a toddler. The operation left a dent, a hole under his arm where the cut had been made, and the nickname “Holy” Cross was a natural. It followed him wherever he went.
In the fall of 1942, the 15-year-old Cross starred at left halfback for Landis. His touchdown pass to Bill Wilhelm, who would go on to considerable fame as Clemson’s baseball coach, beat Spencer.
In a 14-0 win against Barium Springs, Cross returned a kickoff 70 yards to score and threw a TD pass to his brother, Bob. In a close loss to rival China Grove, “Holy” accounted for both Landis TDs.
In 1943, at 16, Cross played third base for the Landis Millers in the local Victory League. He was a teammate of his father’s and made the all-star team. In July, the all-stars played against the Carolina PreFlight School Cloudbusters from Chapel Hill, a squad that included big leaguers Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky and Johnny Sain.
On Aug. 12, 1943, the Atlanta Crackers ó an independent team that competed in at the Double-A level and was known as the “Yankees of the Minors” ó offered Cross $1,000 to sign, and he dropped out of school.
He played in 13 games for the Crackers, quite a feat for a 16-year-old. In 1944, the Crackers shipped him to the Kingsport Cherokees of the Appalachian League and he started belting homers.
When the kid hit three homers in one weekend, fans passed a hat around the bleachers. His windfall was $32.75, and a hardware store threw in two $25 war bonds.
Joseph Higgins, president of the team, wrote Ed Cross a letter informing him his son had just hit the longest home run ever seen in Kingsport.
But it was wartime, and the draft snared Cross once he was old enough. But he was a good ballplayer ó a good ballplayer with a hole in his side ó so his duty was relatively tame. He kept up ballfields, played for the Fort Dix army team and stood guard duty in Bermuda.
The military detour didn’t ruin his swing. He was discharged on Sept. 21, 1946, and joined the Tri-State League’s Knoxville Smokies for the stretch run. He hit two homers in one inning against the Reidsville Luckies.
Cross’ early 20s were a flurry of longballs ó 21 for the Smokies in 1947 and a league-leading 29 for Spartanburg in 1948. Besides the immortal four-homer game, he had another spree of three homers in consecutive at-bats.
Cross married Sarah Groce after the season ó the couple had turned down good money to get married at home plate ó and he rapped 40-plus homers for the Florence Steelers and Rock Hill Chiefs in 1949.
In 1950, he played for the Concord Nationals and had 25 homers and 95 RBIs.
Cross had the bat to escape the minors, but his glove didn’t always keep up. He also had a sense of humor. Asked about a failed tryout with the Charlotte Hornets, Cross commented, “I don’t think my fielding impressed me much. It didn’t impress me either.”
He had a monster season for Statesville in 1951, batting .325 with 33 homers and 103 RBIs. The 24-year-old took over as player/manager at midseason and hit a long one measured at 535 feet.
The 1952 season was his best. As player/manager for the Big Stone Gap Rebels, Cross batted .357 with 40 homers and 128 RBIs. The story goes Cross always took batting practice last. If he hit earlier, the supply of baseballs was exhausted.
The Rebels were affiliated with the New York Giants, and it was his last chance to move up, but he chose to stay near home. Besides Sarah, there was a baby and a new house in Landis.
In 1953, he agreed to manage and play third for the Rutherford County Owls in Forest City and got in the best shape of his life, trimming down from 225 to 190 with running and handball.
He hit two out of the park opening day, but he broke his wrist, and his homer-hitting days were at an end.
He managed the Owls to a 58-34 record, but he was fired after refusing to play a rookie at shortstop. “I’ve always played to win,” said Cross, as he collected his last check from the Owls.
Cross became a nursing assistant at the V.A. Hospital and played lots of golf. He crushed it off the tee and he made two holes-in-one.
Cross often revisited Spartanburg, and his children ó Eddie Cross, Wanda Lowe and Karen Stamey ó saw the impact he’d had. Decades after he played for the Peaches, fans still recognized the man they’d idolized as “Holy” Cross.
In 1994, the Spartanburg Phillies left Duncan Park for a new facility in Kannapolis, a few miles from where Cross had grown up.
His family bought one permanent seat in the row behind third base for each of Cross’ grandchildren.
Sections of the field at the new stadium were made available for symbolic purchase, and Cross’ children bought the area around third base. The hot corner, they believed, should always belong to “Holy” Cross.
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kids, bring your parents downtown! Come rain or come shine, Friday, Sept. 5 is going to be a great night... read more