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Then and now: South Atlantic League

From Carolina origins, circuit now ranges from New York to Georgia
March 28, 2022

Following Major League Baseball's announcement that historical league names are returning to the Minors in 2022, provides a refresher on each of the 11 circuits from Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A -- including past champions, famous alumni and more.

Following Major League Baseball's announcement that historical league names are returning to the Minors in 2022, provides a refresher on each of the 11 circuits from Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A -- including past champions, famous alumni and more.

Take a tour of the High-A South Atlantic League, where Carolina roots expanded up the East Coast, the Ryan Express made one of its earliest stops and Mr. Celery lives at the top of the food chain.

South Atlantic League

Established in 1903, known in 2021 as the High-A East

North Division

Aberdeen IronBirds: Baltimore Orioles, Ripken Stadium – Aberdeen, MD (Ballpark Guide)
Brooklyn Cyclones: New York Mets, Maimonides Park – Brooklyn, NY (Ballpark Guide)
Greensboro Grasshoppers: Pittsburgh Pirates, First National Bank Field – Greensboro, NC
Hudson Valley Renegades: New York Yankees, Dutchess Stadium – Wappinger Falls, NY (Ballpark Guide)
Jersey Shore BlueClaws: Philadelphia Phillies, FirstEnergy Park – Lakewood, NJ (Ballpark Guide)
Wilmington Blue Rocks: Washington Nationals, Frawley Stadium – Wilmington, DE (Ballpark Guide)

South Division

Asheville Tourists: Houston Astros, McCormick Field – Asheville, NC
Bowling Green Hot Rods: Tampa Bay Rays, Bowling Green Ballpark – Bowling Green, KY
Greenville Drive: Boston Red Sox, Fluor Field – Greenville, SC
Hickory Crawdads: Texas Rangers, L.P. Frans Stadium – Hickory, NC (Ballpark Guide)
Rome Braves: Atlanta Braves, State Mutual Stadium – Rome, GA
Winston-Salem Dash: Chicago White Sox, Truist Stadium – Winston-Salem, NC (Ballpark Guide)

2021 champion: Bowling Green Hot Rods (High-A East champion)
Most championships, all-time: Greenwood Braves (six)
Most championships, current teams: Asheville Tourists, Greensboro Grasshoppers, Greenville Drive (all with four)

Did you know? The South Atlantic League name has been used by several circuits in Minor League Baseball history, dating back to 1904. All of them have utilized the nickname of the “Sally League.” The original South Atlantic League was a Class C league until 1919, moving to Class B in 1921 and Class A in 1946. That circuit became the Double-A Southern League in 1963 after the fall of the non-integrated Southern Association in 1961. Both the Southern League and the South Atlantic League have laid claim to events from 1904-1963 as part of their respective histories, including Hank Aaron’s 1953 season with Jacksonville.

Notable alumni: Hank Aaron, Roberto Alomar, Sparky Anderson, Craig Biggio, Ty Cobb, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Tom Glavine, Goose Goslin, Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Harmon Killebrew, Kenny Lofton, Dale Murphy, Eddie Murray, Tony Perez, Mariano Rivera, Frank Robinson, Ivan Rodriguez, Nolan Ryan, Ryne Sandberg, Tommy Lasorda, Sammy Sosa and Willie Stargell.

Although the South Atlantic League name has circulated in the Minor Leagues for over a century, the modern-day South Atlantic League began as the Western Carolina League in 1948.

Founded by baseball executive John Henry Moss, the initial run of the WCL as a Class D league lasted until 1952. Moss revived the circuit as the Western Carolinas League in 1959 again as a Class D league, and it became an affiliated Minor League in 1963. Future legends Steve Carlton (1964), Dusty Baker (1968), Dwight Evans (1970), Dale Murphy (1975) and Eddie Murray (1974) spent time on the circuit during its 16-year run.

The WCL changed its name to the South Atlantic League in 1980, beginning with eight teams as a Class A league. Three of those clubs are still active today: the Asheville Tourists and Greensboro Grasshoppers, and Single-A Charleston RiverDogs of the Carolina League. Nicknamed the “Sally League,” the circuit went from having seven of its eight teams located in the Carolinas and swelled as large as 16 teams with clubs spread across the eastern United States.

After a one-year run as the High-A East in 2021, the South Atlantic League returns this season as a 12-team circuit that reaches from New York to Georgia. There have been many baseball legends to cut their teeth in the Sally League. Nolan Ryan and Tommy Lasorda both played for Greenville, 17 years apart. Ryan once struck out 19 in a game against Statesville in his only season on the circuit in 1966. Lasorda’s first year in the Dodgers organization came in the Sally League in 1949.

What's new: The 14 teams that comprised the South Atlantic League in 2019 were split between the High-A East and Low-A East during the 2021 reclassification of the Minor Leagues, with three organizations departing affiliated baseball. The Charleston RiverDogs, Augusta GreenJackets, Columbia Fireflies, Delmarva Shorebirds and Kannapolis Cannon Ballers now compete in the Carolina League. The West Virginia Power and the Lexington Legends joined the independent Atlantic League and the Hagerstown Suns folded.

What’s familiar: The Hickory Crawdads, Greensboro Grasshoppers, Jersey Shore BlueClaws, Asheville Tourists, Rome Braves and Greenville Drive have been members of the league since 2005. Asheville and Greensboro share the distinction of being the longest-tenured clubs, having joined in 1980.

For the record: Justin Foscue (MLB Pipeline's No. 83 overall prospect) homered in eight consecutive games for the Hickory Crawdads last season, equal to the Major League record shared by Ken Griffey Jr., Don Mattingly and Dale Long. His torrid stretch between July 9-23 made up almost half of his home run total of 17 for the year.

Ben’s Biz memory – Wilmington’s “World’s Largest Celery Snap,” and tribute to Mr. Celery

"Much like the Crazy Hot Dog vendor [in Reading] who is, in all fairness, a 'real person,' but Mr. Celery is similar in that he is just this bizarre franchise icon who built a reputation organically through the years. It's kind of shrouded in mystery how he came about in the first place. There was apparently a healthy eating night and a celery mascot was left behind. But, whatever the story is, he is one of the most well-known elements of the Blue Rocks gameday experience. he only appears after the Blue Rocks have scored a run. Blur's ‘Song 2’ plays over the P.A., and he just emerges from his subterranean lair, celebrates, and then goes back to his lair. Kind of blink and you miss it, but he's a cult icon. So, I was there for a larger tribute to celery. Which is a really fun night in general with Bloody Mary's with celery and celery at the concession stands with various dips. But they literally handed out celery stalks to fans as they walked into the game. Just to see people's confused expressions like, 'I'm just walking into the gates of the stadium, and you're handing me celery?' But it was all in the service of the World's Largest Celery Snap. Where, before the game, they had a countdown, and then had everyone snap their celery at the same time. These are the things as I'm talking and rambling that makes sense to people in Minor League baseball, but when you think about it -- this Minor League team, named the Blue Rocks, with a Moose mascot, has a cult mascot who only appears in very certain situations and is a piece of celery, and he's like the most popular guy at the ballpark. Go figure. ... It was not a huge crowd, and people often kind of show up a little late, so you're not going to have everyone in their seats 15 minutes before a game or whatever. So, in my dreams, it would have been 8,000 people, not an empty seat in the house, and just this echoing snap. It wasn't that dramatic, but I can see how the foley artists of the world doing sound effects could use the celery snap for those sort of purposes and maybe should look into contacting the Blue Rocks if they still have that on audio and having so many pieces of celery snapped in unison might be something that can really enhance an upcoming motion picture."

What to look for in 2022: Bowling Green and Hudson Valley entered the league in 2021 and won division championships by margins of 12.5 and nine games respectively. How will long-standing members of the league respond? Greensboro and Greenville were the only two returning teams to have winning percentages over .500 last season.

Nick Trujillo is an contributor for