American Legion baseball: Rowan had remarkable run 40 years ago

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 27, 2024


Dale Thomason


Jeff Simpson


Tim Texler


By Mike London

SALISBURY — Rowan County’s American Legion baseball history is remarkable for a number of reasons — Newman Park, longevity, winning, legendary coaches, players, broadcasters and administrators.

And fans.

Forty years ago, Rowan County put together a season that may have been the most remarkable of all.

The 1984 Rowan County squad was a fourth-place team in the Southern Division of Area III. It was a team that started the season 2-6 and a team that would lose 16 times. It was a team that batted a modest .271 as a group, didn’t steal of lot of bases (45 in 51 games) and didn’t hit a lot of homers (21). A few years earlier, Coe Brier was hitting that many by himself.

Yet in an era when the best players from every community grew up with the dream of playing Legion baseball, those guys pulled together and won a state championship.

How did it happen? Well, start with coach Joe Ferebee. He was the Jim Gantt of his era — or maybe Gantt is the Ferebee of his era. If they didn’t have a game, the 1984 squad practiced, and they got better and more cohesive with every practice. That was a Ferebee trademark.

Another thing that stands out: all five schools in Rowan County contributed at least one player to the standard starting lineup. A different day and a different time.

Compared to today’s era, the 1984 Rowan team played an extraordinary number of games. Five players accumulated more than 200 at-bats — not 200 plate appearances, 200 at-bats — so that doesn’t even count the walks, HBPs and sac flies. That’s partly because they played in an era when the Legion playoffs were a long string of best-of-seven series. The concept of a congregation of an elite eight from all over the state at one site was still 16 years in the future.

Rowan did have solid pitching — a 3.27 team E.R.A, with twice as many strikeouts as walks. Four horses (Jeff Holhouser, Kris Huffman, Tim Wyrick and Rob Linder) combined for 34 of the 35 wins the team finished with. Huffman won 11; Holshouser nine, and Linder and Wyrick seven apiece.

The low point of 1984, everyone agrees, was on June 12 and June 13. On June 12, Rowan left the bases loaded six times against Lexington, which has to be a national record, and lost 16-13. On June 13, Rowan lost to Mooresville 8-6 to fall to a dismal 2-6 mark.

Normally staunch fans who planned their summers around the Legion schedule, jumped off the bandwagon at that point. Not since 1952 had a Ferebee-coached team failed to make the playoffs, but this one had little chance. Rowan’s last losing season under any coach had been in 1965, but this one seemed headed in that direction.

“The stands at Newman Park started out full, then they were getting kind of empty, but Coach Ferebee never batted an eye,” Rowan catcher Chris Cauble remembers. “A lot of people stopped believing in us. He never did. He just kept plugging, moving people around, getting people in the best spots.”
Cauble auditioned at second and third base before finding a permanent home behind the plate. He became known as “The Cannon.”

Ferebee died in 2020 when he was 101 years old, but 15 years ago he had plenty to say about the 1984 squad.
“That team started slow because it just hadn’t gotten together,” he said. “I don’t think anyone expected us to go anywhere, but we had good material. We practiced every day we didn’t play. Then we got a little chemistry going.”

Huffman (the shortstop), Linder, third baseman Brad Mickle and Steve Clark, who played quite a bit at first base, had played for a 21-3 Salisbury High team.

Holshouser (the center fielder), right fielder Greg Holmes and second baseman Tim Trexler had keyed a North Rowan squad that made the state playoffs.

Thomason, a slugger as well as the fifth pitcher, was the key addition off a South Rowan team that won the South Piedmont Conference championship.

Cauble and Wyrick were East Rowan guys. Left fielder Jeff Simpson was from West Rowan.

On June 15, with the team at low tide, Joe Ferebee Night was scheduled at Newman Park, with the proceeds earmarked for the baseball field at Pfeiffer that now bears the legendary coach’s name. There were a lot of empty seats. Not many showed up to honor the coach of a struggling team.

Joe Ferebee Night proved to be a turning point. Huffman, who had been brilliant that high school season — 11-1 with three one-hitters — wasn’t going to lose on Joe Ferebee Night. That night Rowan beat what may have been Concord’s best team ever. Huffman threw a shutout. Concord pitcher Jeff Riley allowed only one hit, but it was a two-run single by Holshouser.

Rowan went to Kannapolis the next night, carrying a .208 team batting average. But Rowan got 17 hits, and Wyrick needed only 87 pitches to throw a nine-inning complete game. That’s right, he pitched nine innings. In that era, starting pitchers, especially Ferebee’s starting pitchers, were expected to.

When Holshouser hit a dramatic homer to beat Mocksville’s star pitcher David Mabe, Rowan County reached the .500 mark for the first time at 6-6.

And the fans came back to Newman Park. Four teams from the Southern Division made the playoffs. Rowan managed to finish fourth.

Then Rowan moved up to the No. 3 seed for the playoffs when that powerful Concord team was disqualified. Paperwork had been turned in a day after the deadline, and protests were filed. Thomasville joined the playoffs as the No. 4 seed.

Rowan swept Mocksville in a first-round series that featured a 15-strikeout effort by Holshouser.

The Southern Division of Area III finals were staged by two unlikely teams — Rowan County and Thomasville, with Thomasville playing its home games at Lexington’s Holt-Moffitt Field. Rowan hit very little in that series, but got great pitching and won the series four games to one.

The memorable game was the second one. Huffman lost a shutout on the last pitch he threw, but he won 2-1. On that final play, Rowan executed a double relay on a ball hammered into the right-field corner. Holmes, headed for the Marine Corps, threw to Trexler. Trexler fired home to Cauble, who made the tag at the plate to cut down what would have been the tying run.

The series against Asheboro for the Area III championship went seven games and was one one of the greatest Legion series of all-time. Three games went to extra innings, including Game 7 at Newman Park on the final day of July. It was 12-12 in the ninth inning when Linder came through with the clutch single that decided the series.

It was an exhausted Rowan team that faced Area IV champion Paw Creek in a series to decide the Western North Carolina championship. Ferebee had used Huffman, Holshouser and Linder in that seventh game with Asheboro, and Rowan had only one day off before taking on a Paw Creek team that was 31-5 and rested.

Wyrick won the critical opening game, 6-5, and a surging Rowan team won the series in shocking fashion — four games to one. The play that is remembered most from that series was a tumbling catch by Holshouser in center field for the final out in Game 4.

The state championship series pitted Rowan County against an equally weary Hope Mills team. Ferebee had expected to be facing Wayne County in the finals, but there were upsets in the east.

“It wasn’t like Hope Mills was bad,” Ferebee said back in 2009. “Probably there wasn’t that much difference between them and us. We just got the jump on them.”

Rowan jumped all over Hope Mills. When the best-of-seven series began at Newman Park, the place was packed and the fans were intimidating. Rowan scored 11 runs in the bottom of the first and went on to win 21-0. Thomason had one of the greatest first innings of all-time — a two-run double and a three-run homer.
Hope Mills never recovered. Rowan hitters went wild. The last three games were 14-1, 14-3 and 16-6. Almost half of Rowan’s homers that season came in the state championship series. Trexler hit four of his six homers in those final four games.

After that, Ferebee took 13 players to Florida and won three games in the Southeastern Regional before being eliminated by two losses to champion Puerto Rico.
Huffman (11-1) lost his perfect season against Puerto Rico.
“What I remember about Puerto Rico is one of their guys tagging up from second base and scoring on a fly ball to center field,” Cauble said. “And Holshouser had a pretty good arm. That was kind of unheard of.”

Still, from 2-6 to 35-16 was a memorable journey for all of those who were part of it.”To start out so slow,” Ferebee said years ago, “that was a team that had a great ending.”

Holshouser is in the Salisbury-Rowan Hall of Fame. Cauble is part of the Hall of Fame Class of 2024, although at least as much for his incredible high school coaching career as his days as a very good player.

Thomason and Trexler batted .330 to lead the 1984 team.

Thomason had 47 RBIs with Simpson getting 46 and Holshouser and Trexler driving in 41 each. Holshouser scored 57 runs. Huffman, who had 15 steals, scored 52. Thomason scored 50.  Thomason had 75 hits. Next were Trexler with 69, Simpson with 63 and Holshouser with 60.

Simpson had 12 doubles, while Trexler had 11. Trexler also had six triples and led the team with six homers.

Holshouser (9-5) led the team in E.R.A. (2.03) and struck out 143 batters in 119 2/3 innings. Huffman had a 2.91 ERA and 94 strikeouts.