Carolina League (1945-Present)
Born: 1980 – Carolina League expansion franchise
Moved: December 1980 (Hagerstown Suns)
Stadium: Rocky Mount Municipal Stadium
Owner: Lou Haneles
Minor league baseball’s Rocky Mount (NC) Pines were a one-year wonder in the single-A Carolina League in the summer of 1980. The team has attracted a minor cult following among baseball people due to its 24-114 record (.174 winning percentage), one of the worst in the history of the game.
The Pines were independent – no Major League parent club – which was one of the reasons for their epic futility. Of the 136 minor league teams active in the summer of 1980, the Pines were the only one to make a go of it without Major League affiliation.
The Pines owner, a 63-year old former minor league ballplayer named Lou Haneles, operated a handful of low-level minor league teams over the years, typically running them as independents and stocking the rosters with wanna-be pro ballplayers from his chain of instructional baseball schools. During the summer of 1979, Haneles owned the independent Newark Co-Pilots of the short-season New York-Penn League.
Carolina League President Jim Mills approached Haneles’ Co-Pilots manager Mal Fichman about moving up a competitive notch in 1980 by fielding a team in his Carolina League, which was expanding from six to eight teams. Rocky Mount, North Carolina’s Municipal Stadium sat empty and available after hosting Carolina League ball from 1962-1975. Fichman cobbled together the 1980 Pines roster from a handful of ex-Co-Pilots, some training camp cuts from Major League organizations and a group of dreamers that paid $220 apiece to attend instructional camps/tryouts run by Fichman and Haneles in Florida.
There’s little reason for me to write much here the season itself, because it would all be redundant to E.M. Swift’s rollicking September 1980 profile of the Pines for Sports Illustrated, which provides the definitive account.
The citizens of Rocky Mount took little interest in the Pines. The club reported attendance of 26,702 for the season, of which nearly half the tickets were given away for free. The tight-fisted Haneles lost $80,000 by his own estimation to The Los Angeles Times.
By Swift’s account, Haneles never attended a single game to see his team play. He considered folding the club in midseason in June 1980 and after the season attempted to move the club to Hagerstown, Maryland. The Carolina League revoked the franchise and sold it to Lou Eliopulos in December 1980, who promptly relocated it…to Hagerstown, Maryland. Haneles responded by suing everyone in sight – the Carolina League, Mills, the governing body of minor league baseball and its President, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Haneles sought $5 million in damages for restraint of trade and violation of anti-trust laws.
According to The Los Angeles Times, a U.S. District Court judge in Tampa, Florida named George Carr gave a gloomy assessment of Haneles’ legal prospects during court proceedings in late 1980:
“(Haneles) likelihood of prevailing on the merits is somewhat less than the likelihood of the Rocky Mount Pines prevailing over their opposition during the past season.”
Pro baseball never returned to Rocky Mount, NC after the Pines’ lone season in 1980. But the Carolina League franchise itself still exists today. The team played in Hagerstown as the Hagerstown Suns from 1981 to 1988. In 1989, the franchise shifted to Frederick, Maryland as the Frederick Keys, who continue to play to this day.
Former Pines catcher David Littlefield, who appeared in 11 games for Rocky Mount in 1980, later became General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (2001-2007).
Lou Haneles briefly invested in the Miami Tropics of the low-level United States Basketball League in the late 1980’s. He spent his later years on a quixotic quest to get a Major League team to offer a contact to a 59-year Cuban gas station owner named Raul Hernandez. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 90.
In 1980, it was exceptionally unusual to find an independent team active in minor league baseball. By the mid-1990’s entire independent leagues had sprung up around the country. Mal Fichman managed in several, winning three championships in the Midwest-based Frontier League. Fichman later became a scout specializing in the independent leagues for the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. Through his efforts, more than 160 independent league players gained contracts in organized baseball and 17 ultimately reached the Major Leagues with the Padres. Fichman declined an interview request for this post.