Moss Has Seen It All

Legendary Sally League president says farewell

CHARLESTON, S.C.—John Henry Moss has sat between Cy Young and Shoeless Joe Jackson at a dinner table. He knew Ty Cobb. He watched Hank Aaron play minor league baseball. Dustin Pedroia, too. But perhaps his extraordinary 50-year run as South Atlantic League president is better defined by the name of a rock 'n roll icon.

"I'd like to tell you that Bruce Springsteen will throw out the first pitch, because he lives just up the road in Rumson," Lakewood BlueClaws general manager Geoff Brown said in 2001 as the new Sally League franchise prepared for Opening Day on the New Jersey coast. "We'll leave four tickets for he and his family for every game."

That the passionate, persuasive Moss was able to grow a collection of cash-strapped owners once known as the Western Carolinas League into a string of new ballparks stretched from Georgia to the outskirts of Cleveland to Springsteen's New Jersey backstreets is testament to the shrewd Southern gentleman inside the seersucker suit.

"He's the last of the last of the breed," Ron McKee, former general manager and co-owner of the Asheville Tourists, said during a recent luncheon honoring Moss.

The reign of the longest-tenured league president in minor league baseball officially ends Jan. 1. Moss, who guards his age as carefully as he negotiated facility improvements, is in his late 80s. Before giving way to former Minor League Baseball executive Eric Krupa, he attended the Winter Meetings in Nashville and received the prestigious Warren Giles Award honoring the outstanding service of a league president.

Krupa knows this is a tough act to follow. Among the Moss highlights:

• 43 cities

• 115 ownership groups

• A 16-team league spread over eight states

• Improved attendance the last five seasons in a row

• Turnstile growth from 179,998 in 1960 to nearly four million in 2007

Moss, who for 24 years also doubled as the mayor of his native Kings Mountain, N.C., personally founded the modern South Atlantic League in 1960, dropping the Western Carolinas title. His political background came in handy when he took to twisting arms in pursuit of new ballparks.

"Joe Riley," Moss said of the longtime Charleston, S.C., mayor. "We've worked together on committees at the National League of Cities convention. Let's just say I'm able to discuss some major issues with credibility. It helps."

But he raised eyebrows at the 1989 Winter Meetings when he asked his league's board members to break from a tradition of one-year contracts and offer the president a three-year deal. A committee huddled. Moss was told to wait in a hallway.

"John looked pretty worried when we asked him to come back into the room," former Hagerstown Suns owner Winston Blenckstone said.

McKee delivered the news.

"John," he said, "we have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is, we're not going to give you a three-year term. The good news is, we've elected you President For Life."

Moss, who thought he might be asked to retire, was humbled. But not enough to lose his sense of humor.

"I tried to get the owners to extend the title," he quipped at the time, "but I was unsuccessful."

His league strayed so far from its "South" and "Atlantic" roots that the pied piper got a Chris Bermanish nickname: John "An Expanding League Gathers No" Moss.

"My whole objective is to grow the league," Moss admitted. "As Robert Frost said in 'Snowy Night,' we still have miles to go."

His obsession also included family, or lack thereof. Moss' late wife Elaine served as the league's administrative assistant for most of her husband's tenure as president and is a South Atlantic League Hall of Fame member. The couple had no children, unless you count the member clubs

Building A League

Moss played briefly as a second baseman for Shelby, N.C., in the old Tar Heel League after signing a minor league contract with the big league Washington Senators. By 1947, he'd formed a semi-pro league, the Western Carolina League. In 1948, Moss took the circuit pro with eight North Carolina teams: Lenoir, Hendersonville, Morganton, Newton-Conover, Rutherfordton, Shelby, Lincolnton and Marion.

Former major league pitcher Wes Ferrell played outfield for Marion. Moss lined up ex-major leaguers as managers and coaches, but he was off to a front-office job with Rock Hill in the Tri-State League in 1949 and a stint in the Tigers minor league system. Moss was general manager of the Central States Professional Football League before leaving sports to take a job as vice president with International Safety Co., which led him back to Kings Mountain in 1958.

"I'd barely been back in town and some of my old cronies came knocking on the door wanting me to organize a league," Moss said.

He had promised his young wife Elaine that hectic days in pro sports were over. "I'd married this dairy farmer's daughter in Wisconsin," Moss said. "I told her we'd settle down."

The compromise was a baseball league revolving around the Moss home in Kings Mountain. With the aid of Branch Rickey's upstart Continental League, Moss opened the Western Carolinas League in 1960, with all the teams in North Carolina and South Carolina. In 1980, the league expanded to include Macon, Ga., and changed its name to the South Atlantic League, a previously used title abandoned by the Southern League.

The league matured with the decades.

 "We had a lot of people who had played at a higher level who were back in their native towns," Moss said. "We're talking about small towns in western North Carolina . . . As we moved into the '50s and '60s, you begin to see the younger players come up, and then somewhere in the mid-60s, we got where we wanted to sign players who had the possibility of playing major league baseball."

Still Work To Be Done

Moss was named "King of Baseball" in 1990, an award traditionally presented to someone on his way to retirement, though he still had many years of service to come. He received his first Warren Giles Award in 1993, and he still serves as vice chairman of Minor League Baseball's council of league presidents.

While he's stepping down as president, Moss plans to visit all 16 South Atlantic League ballparks in 2008.

"A farewell tour for a no-hitting second baseman," he said.

Moss will work on finding a permanent home for the South Atlantic League hall of fame, and he's trying to select a list of the league's 25 greatest players.

He is old school to the tune of keen recollections of league Hall of Famers such as Willie Stargell, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson and Enos Slaughter.

"Did you know Aaron Pointer hit .402 in 1961?" Moss asked. "Still a league record."

Pointer played in 1961 for Salisbury, N.C., which never drew more than 38,857 fans in a season. Lakewood drew 482,206 fans in its first season.

A stickler for league history, Moss delights in telling about the first game in the original SAL.

"April 26, 1904," he said. "Charleston Sea Gulls 3, Savannah Pathfinders 0. Of course, Ty Cobb won the first South Atlantic League batting title."

But Moss is not stuck in the past. He promoted the use of local nicknames such as Sand Gnats, Crawdads and RiverDogs and encouraged teams to hire more women for front office jobs.

"I'm glad to see we have a lot of women working in good jobs all over the league," Moss said a decade ago. "This is what American opportunity is all about."

He coined official South Atlantic League subtitles "The League of Choice" and "Where Dreams Become Reality," and he's never at a loss for ideas.

"I wish we could have had more tryout camps where undrafted players had an opportunity to play in our league," Moss said.

Moss didn't invent minor league baseball fun but he has seen changes ranging from a total season attendance of 22,908 in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1974 to Charleston RiverDogs co-owner Mike Veeck staging Nobody Night and Silent Night (and attempting Vasectomy Night) with co-owner Bill Murray whistling in the background while grabbing air time on ESPN's "SportsCenter" and HBO's "Real Sports."

Veeck, not coincidentally, received the first John H. Moss Horizon Award presented to "individuals who bring national attention to the league" by offering innovation and a commitment to community involvement.

"Our fans understand our strange sense of humor and so does John," Veeck said.

Most of all, Moss has relished close proximity to the hopes and dreams of young ballplayers.

"That has not changed," Moss said. "Through all the years, you still have that same aspiration, players confident they can become major leaguers."

There were lots of those guys at the 1995 South Atlantic League all-star game in Albany, Ga. The major buzz was about two participants in particular, Andruw Jones and Vladimir Guerrero. But Moss, eyes always on the future, hustled a reporter away from a debate over the skills of the two teenage outfielders.

"Let's go over here," Moss said. "I want you to meet a prospective ownership group. Believe it or not, we might eventually have a team as far north as New Jersey."

Gene Sapakoff is a columnist for the Charleston Post and Courier