Franklin ‘Cubs’/Southampton ‘Kildees’ baseball

Published 2:11 pm Wednesday, July 6, 2022

During the period from 1948 through 1951, Franklin had a professional baseball team. The team started out in 1948 as the Franklin “Cubs” – a farm team of the Portsmouth “Cubs”, owned by Frank Lawrence. The Franklin-based team played in the Virginia League, a D-League team. The Virginia League in 1948 consisted of the Petersburg “Generals”, Blackstone “Barristers”, Lawrenceville “Cardinals”, Emporia “Nationals”, and the Suffolk “Goobers”, and, of course, the Franklin “Cubs”. Many of the players on that 1948 team are unidentified but some HAVE been identified: John ”Tink” Cornwell, Jim Gillette, Harold Atkinson, Vernon “Moose” Shetler, and John Zontini.

In 1949, ownership of the team was transferred from Frank Lawrence and the Portsmouth Cubs to the Southampton Athletic Association which was made up of individuals in Franklin and Southampton. With Harold Atkinson as business manager, and George Lacey as team manager, the Franklin team was “ramped up” and officially renamed the Southampton “Killdees” – and from then on, the team, however, was called variously – the Franklin Kildees or the Southampton Kildees. Atkinson, due to an
injury while playing for the 1948 team, discontinued as an active player.

Under Atkinson’s leadership, the team developed dramatically in talent and financial support. He was sending out contracts to prospective players and was developing and organizing the 1949 Kildees team. He was going right ahead with the matter of signing up players, getting the field in “apple-pie” order, and attending to the multitude of details involved in having everything in readiness to receive the players when they arrived on the scene. He developed a relationship with the Lynn, Massachusetts, team of the Class B New England League; exchange of players between Franklin and Lynn took place. Actually, Franklin became that year the site for Lynn’s spring training at Franklin Field when thirty athletes reported for the initial practice. While in Franklin, the Lynn team played an exhibition game against the Portsmouth Cubs at Franklin Field – which at that time was located on Hill Street (now Charles Street), just behind the old Franklin High School. In addition to all of his other duties and activities, Atkinson was busy lining up housing for the Lynn and Kildee players. He was asking people, who had spare rooms, to make them available to the players.

The 1949 Virginia League, Class D, consisted of the teams that were in the 1948 league except the Hopewell “Blue Sox” replaced the Blackstone “Barristers”. The 1949 Southampton Kildees ended the season as state champions. Membership of the team were John Zontini, Bob Harkins, John Ricardo, Lennie Luke, Bucky Jacobs, Bruce Ware, Gene Hoberg, George Lacy, Bob Carlton, Christoff, Atkins, Jim Gillette, Joe Marsello, Tim Talas, Vermeil, Jim McKinney, Tink Cornwell, and Red Williams.

For a good part of the time, Johnny Peterson was the groundskeeper and, with much assistance from volunteers, kept “Franklin Park” in good order. Dean Wagenbach and Bobby Guyton were batboys for the Franklin team.

The 1950 Virginia League consisted of the Petersburg “Generals”, Hopewell “Blue Sox”, Elizabeth City “Albemarles”, Emporia “Nationals”, Franklin “Kildees”, and the Suffolk “Goobers”.

The 1951 Virginia League consisted of the Colonial Heights-Petersburg “Generals”, Edenton “Colonials”, Elizabeth City “Albemarles”, Emporia “Rebels”, Franklin “Kildees”, and the Suffolk “Goobers”.

By 1951, attendance at Franklin Field was dropping. Television was blamed for the decline and ultimate demise of minor league baseball in small towns such as Franklin. A headline in the June 29, 1951 edition of The Tidewater News told the story. “Killdees may be forced to quit Virginia League. Poor attendance at home games to date seen as reason for tossing in sponge.” The article stated that unless the team started to draw an average of 650 fans per game, they would be forced to suspend play. The team did survive long enough to close out the season. The team finished in fifth place for the second straight year. Other teams in the Virginia League were experiencing significant decline in attendance and support – obviously, the future of the league itself was in jeopardy.

An average attendance of 650 fans was needed for the Kildees to break even; the crowds were frequently less than half that amount. They were able to play out their schedule only because the stockholders were unwilling for the team to quit in mid-season and came through with funds necessary to meet all expenses. An editorial in the August 31, 1951 edition of The Tidewater News aptly titled “Baseball Bows Out”, said goodbye to the national pastime in Southampton and Franklin.

However, officially, the last rites for the Kildees and the Virginia League were read later. In the January 25, 1952 edition of The Tidewater News, an article titled ”Virginia League quits fight to prolong career,” revealed that the Southampton Athletic Association, on January 8, had voted against fielding a team in 1952.

Clyde Parker is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is magnolia101@charter.net.