Sports obituary: Kannapolis Legion legend passes away at 75

Published 3:58 am Sunday, May 20, 2018

By Mike London

MOORESVILLE — Ronald Lee “Ronnie” Clodfelter, who made one of the immortal  plays in Kannapolis American Legion baseball history, passed away on  Friday.

He died at 75 in his hometown of Mooresville.

In the summer of 1961, Clodfelter was a key member of  the last Kannapolis Legion team to win a state championship. It may have been the best Kannapolis team ever assembled.  It was a true all-star team, the cream of the crop from Kannapolis, Mooresville, China Grove,  Landis — and even Troutman.

Bill Ford was the coach.

“It was a great team, all excellent ballplayers,” said Harry Mills, the Cabarrus County Hall of Famer who roamed center field. “Every player who made that team had a chance to go on to play at a higher level.”

A left-handed hitter who could fly, Clodfelter was the leadoff man, the perfect table-setter for Kannapolis sluggers such as Mills, Johnny Walker, Jim Deaton and Danny Loftin,

Clodfelter played high school ball for Mooresville, and Mills remembers the first time he saw him.

“I went to A.L. Brown and we’d played Mooresville in football but not baseball,” Mills said. “I’d heard about Clodfelter, but I hadn’t seen him play. His first at-bat, he hit the ball right back to the pitcher and he was out at first base, but it was  a bang-bang play. I was amazed at his speed. He was extremely fast.”

Mills was certain Clodfelter would be playing center field for the Kannapolis Legion team, but Coach Ford preferred Clodfelter in left and Mills in center. Clodfelter had lightning in his legs, but Mills got a better jump on flyballs.

In the semifinals of the 1961 Area III playoffs, Kannapolis got past Davie County, while Asheboro was defeating Rowan County.

In the climactic game of their playoff series, Asheboro had to beat Rowan County in an 11-inning game. Asheboro pitcher Robert “Snake” West threw all 11, out-dueling Rowan County flame-thrower Barry Moore whose night ended after nine innings and 14 strikeouts.

While Kannapolis had a monster team, it wasn’t a routine best-of-seven series against Asheboro for the Area III championship.

With the help of home-field advantage, Kannapolis won games 1, 3 and 5, but Asheboro won games 2 and 4 at McCrary Park.

In the opening game of that series, Clodfelter socked a homer and scored three of Kannapolis’ four runs. In Game 5, his three hits included a double and a triple.

Game 6  in Asheboro  went into the history books, one of the great games in Area III history.

It was played on Monday, July 17, 1961, the  same day Ty Cobb died of cancer.

Kannapolis built a 7-2 lead and had ace Grey Clarke, who already had blown away Asheboro twice, on the mound, but Asheboro put together a six-run inning and forged ahead, 9-8. Kannapolis tied it in the top of the ninth on Deaton’s clutch double.

And then it stayed 9-all a long time. The teams battled past midnight. Asheboro reliever Martin Smith struck out 13 batters. Kannapolis reliever Jim McAbee  kept putting up zeroes.

In the bottom of the 14th, Asheboro appeared to have won the game. With West at first base and two men out, Terry Durham walloped one off the left-field wall, and West raced around the bases. Clodfelter got to the ball quickly and fired a strike home. Walker made the tag at the plate, and the game went to the 15th inning.

That’s when Kannapolis finally won the game — and the Area III championship —  with Loftin driving home the go-ahead run. It was 12:20 a.m. when Jim Wagoner, the fourth Kannapolis pitcher, got the last out.

“Clodfelter had a really good arm and that throw home was about as good a play as you can make,” Mills said.

Kannapolis went on to beat Lincolnton-Cherryville for the Western North Carolina championship and beat Richmond County to win the state.

With a few breaks, Mills still believes Kannapolis could have gotten through the regional and gone all the way.

“It was a great season, a great team,” Mills said. “I’ll remember Ronnie Clodfelter as a  great player, but more than that, he was a great person, a great  teammate.”

Clodfelter signed with the Washington Senators in  1962, but his pro career  was brief.

“Ronnie got hurt,” Mills said. “He stepped in a hole in the outfield  and messed his knee up the same way Mickey Mantle did (in the 1951 World Series).”

Clodfelter came back home to Mooresville. He married his high-school sweetheart Becky Alexander 55 years ago, and that marriage lasted until his death. They had two children.

In his post-baseball life, Clodfelter’s passions were golfing and gardening.

By trade, he was a skilled carpenter and made his mark in Mooresville as one of the finest craftsman and homebuilders around.

A memorial service will be held for Clodfelter at Mooresville’s First Baptist Church at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23.