The Highlanders of 1956 by Thad Mumau

It was 62 years ago when Fayetteville won the Carolina League baseball championship. The Highlanders finished fourth in the regular-season standings, then surged through the playoffs by knocking off two teams led by future major league stars.

A Cleveland Indians affiliate back then, the Highlanders boasted a terrific starting rotation comprised of five right-handers. They anchored a pitching staff that finished second in the league in earned run average.

All five starters won 10 or more games, Larry Dressen leading the team with 17, followed by Wynn Hawkins with 16, both posting sub-3.00 ERAs. Danny Osinski, Ray Konkoleski and Ted Fowler rounded out that outstanding rotation.

The Highlanders were a fine team. They had Donnie Montgomery, a .300 hitter who could play several positions. Long-time Fayetteville resident Bob “Rabbit” Mayhew was the shortstop. Ed Cook and Dick Hofleit were power-hitting outfielders.

Jim Pokel was the club’s glamor guy. The left-handed-hitting first baseman belted long home runs, possessed Hollywood good looks and drove a convertible, attracting hordes of female followers. Fans voted him the Most Popular Highlander.

Pokel, who had 38 home runs a couple years earlier and 41 in 1957 at a higher classification, blasted 25 home runs in ’56. Cook hit 28 and Hofleit 20.

The best players in the Carolina League were on opposing teams. The headliner and Player of the Year was Curt Flood. The speedy High Point-Thomasville center fielder went on to stardom with the St. Louis Cardinals and ultimately issued a challenge that led to free agency for all of major league baseball.

Danville had a pair of sluggers. Left fielder Leon Wagner smacked 51 home runs that season. First baseman Willie McCovey belted 29 as he was beginning a journey that would lead to Cooperstown.

McCovey hit 521 homers in a 22-year big league career, Wagner had 211 home runs in 12 seasons and Flood batted .293 over 15 years. Osinski won 29 games in eight years and Hawkins had 12 victories in three seasons.

In the 1956 Carolina League playoffs, Fayetteville swept regular-season champ High Point in a best-of-five series, with Pokel clouting a grand slam in the opener and winning the clincher with a three-run shot in the 14th inning. Hofleit also hit a dramatic homer, a two-run job in the 11th that won the second game.

The Highlanders then took care of Danville, winning the best-of-seven in six games. Second baseman Bill Kallas homered and drove in four runs to even the series after the Leafs had won the opener. Ted Fowler pitched a four-hitter and Cook smashed a two-run homer as the Highlanders also won Game Three.

Wagner’s grand slam drew Danville even before Fayetteville took two straight to capture the championship. The Highlanders got a three-run homer from Hofleit and rallied for seven runs in the eighth inning for their Game Five victory.

Osinski took care of business in the title-clincher. He threw a five-hitter and contributed three hits and two RBIs.

It was a grand ending to the season.

Turned out it was also the end of professional baseball in Fayetteville until the Generals arrived 31 years later.

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