Tommy Helms had his baseball baptism in the tiny community of Leaksville (now Eden), where he served as the batboy for his father’s team in a mill league. “We had four major league players come out of there in the years after World War II,” he recalls. “Whitey Lockman, Ken Wood, Pete Whiseant and me. Must have been something in the water.”
By the time he reached high school, Helms was excelling in baseball and basketball at West Mecklenburg High School near Charlotte, where he received all-city honors in both sports. It was his performance on the diamond as a shortstop that earned him a professional contract.
“I was scouted by the Cubs, Indians, Senators and the Reds, and signed with Cincinnati,” Helms says. “They sent me to Palatka, Florida, Class D ball, the lowest rung on the minor league ladder. That’s where they started everybody back then.” Helms, who had just turned 18, needed the seasoning. He played for Palatka for two seasons and then began moving up the rungs of the minor leagues. In 1962, he was in Class A ball, on the Macon, Georgia, farm club; his double-play partner at second base was Pete Rose.
A year later Rose was in the big leagues, winning Rookie of the Year honors for Cincinnati, and a year after that, on September 23, 1964, Tommy Helms made his major league debut. Two years later, Helms, now targeted for second base, became a starter. But that meant moving Rose to a different position. “They moved Pete off second and put him at third to start the season,” Helms says. “But Pete didn’t like third and after about two weeks, we switched positions. It was unusual. I’d come up as a shortstop, then they moved me to second and now I was playing third. I’d never played third base.”
But Helms made it look easy, so easy in fact he was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1966. He followed up that honor by being selected to the 1967 National League all-star team, and he was named the starting second baseman for the following year’s mid-summer classic.
He joined several of his teammates on those all-star teams. The Reds had a talented group of youngsters reaching the big leagues in the mid-1960s: Rose, Tony Perez, Lee May, Gary Nolan, and a young catcher out of Oklahoma by the name of Johnny Bench. By the late 1960s, the Reds lineup was leading the league in offense and it had been dubbed “The Big Red Machine.”
The Reds were also one of the best defensive teams in baseball, and Helms, by this time back at second base (with Rose at third), led the way in the infield. He won Gold Gloves in 1970 and 1971, when the competition included players such as future Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski and Joe Morgan (then with the Houston Astros). His 1971 performance included turning 130 double plays, which remains a Cincinnati club record for most double plays in one season by a second baseman.
Despite winning the National League pennant in 1970, the Reds decided, after a lackluster 1971 season, to shake up their lineup by adding more speed. Although he had just won his second Gold Glove and hit .258, the Reds included Helms in a blockbuster trade with Houston that involved eight players. Cincinnati acquired Morgan and four other players, but gave up the popular Helms and slugging first baseman Lee May.
Helms was the Astros’ starting second baseman for the next three years. He retired in 1977 with a career batting average of .269. Never considered a home run hitter, he still managed to hit homers off Hall of Famers Jim Bunning, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton and Ferguson Jenkins. Helms also hit the first home run by a Red at Riverfront Stadium; it came in the second game at the new ballpark on July 1, 1970.
A few years after his retirement Helms was back in baseball, coaching for manager Don Zimmer on the staff of the Texas Rangers. His old team, the Reds, invited him to join their coaching staff in 1983, where he served as infield instructor and first base coach for seven years.
Baseball talent continues to run in the family. Tommy’s two sons, Ryan and Tommy Jr., both signed professional contracts and appeared in the minor leagues in the early 1990s.
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Jamestown native had 10-year major league career. Considered the best fielding second baseman in the 1930s. Led the majors in double plays (with Arky Vaughan) at Pittsburgh in 1938. [more...]
Appeared in 535 games during 19-year major league pitching career, winning 186. Had 12-0 season for New York Yankees in 1929. Won three World Series games. Threw pitch that Babe Ruth hit for 60th home run in 1927. [more...]
Native of Lenoir known for his 15-game winning streak in 1937 and the infamous shirtsleeve incident with the Cleveland Indians in 1938. Spent 13 years as a major league pitcher, achieving a lifetime 142-75 record. Appeared in two World Series with New York Yankees (1932) and Brooklyn (1941) [more...]
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Caroleen native who spent 18 years in the major leagues with five different teams. Compiled .295 lifetime batting average. Hit 21 home runs in 1955. One of the all-time leaders in pinch hits with 145 during his career. [more...]
Believed to be the State’s first “home grown” major league baseball player. Nicknamed “Long Charlie.” Played from 1876 to 1888 with a .299 batting average. Had 55 home runs for his career. First to hit two homers in same inning. [more...]
Star pitcher at Wake Forest, who went on to compile an 85-69 record in 13 seasons in the major leagues. Had 1-1 record in four World Series appearances, all with the New York Yankees. Had a 16-5 record and a 15-7 mark for his best seasons. [more...]
Goldsboro native who played baseball and basketball at UNC-Chapel Hill. Pitched seven years with Brooklyn and Cincinnati. Managed for five years at San Francisco, Atlanta and New York Yankees and has served as Yankees executive for 23 years. [more...]
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For much of the second half of the 20th century, Tony Lee Cloninger, a big right-handed pitcher with a blazing fastball, occasionally had difficulty talking about his 113 career victories, his 24-11 season in 1965, or the fact that he was Atlanta’s starter in the first major league game ever played in the South. [more...]
First North Carolinian inducted into the Baseball HOF in 1972. Known as the “Black Lou Gehrig” , he starred for the Homestead (Pa.) Grays and Brooklyn Royal Giants from 1933-50. Was on nine consecutive Negro National League championship teams. [more...]
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Durham native and the only major league player/coach to earn four World Series rings with four different teams. Pitched 12 seasons for six NL teams and managed at San Diego and San Francisco. Won 1989 World Series with Giants. [more...]
Standout performer for the New York Giants for 13 years. Hit key run-scoring double in dramatic 1951 National League playoff game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Managed the Chicago Cubs for 3 years. [more...]
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Apex native who played three sports at N.C. State before becoming involved with minor league baseball for over 50 years as a player, manager, general manager, and umpire. Was president of Carolina League for six years. [more...]
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Cy Young Award winner in both American League and National League. Pitched 300th victory May 6, 1982. Among all-time major league leaders in victories (314) and strikeouts (3,534). Inducted in baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1991. [more...]
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