The Best North Carolina Baseball Players

North Carolina is well known for its plethora of collegiate basketball legends. Whether they be coaches or players, the state has held claim to the sport for quite some time. However, when it comes to baseball, not a lot is said about The Tar Heel State. This is quite odd, considering that they boast seven Hall of Famers. Now, our search for the best North Carolina baseball players doesn’t quite cover all of them. Sadly, two fall outside the list. Even so, having seven Cooperstown plaques is definitely something to talk about.

As with the other entries in our best-of-each-state series, we will be counting down by means of WAR on Baseball Reference. The only criteria aside from that are simply that they had to have been born in the state. If a player meets these two factors, then they are suited for inclusion on this list. Now, there are some notable names that have just barely missed the top ten. These honorable mentions are Madison Bumgarner, Kyle Seager, Ray Durham, Kevin Millwood, Brian Roberts, and Brandon Phillips. Sadly, their WAR numbers just weren’t high enough to warrant a spot on the list. Now, without further ado, let’s jump in.

The Best North Carolina Baseball Players

Tom Zachary
Born: Graham
39.90 WAR

Tom Zachary spent 19 years in the big leagues, pitching for seven different franchises. His status as a journeyman afforded him very little consistency. He also retired with a losing record and more career walks than strikeouts. However, he did have moments in the spotlight. His best season by WAR was in 1924 with the Washington Senators. That year, he went 15-9 with a 2.75 ERA and a career-best 1.238 WHIP. In 1929, now with the New York Yankees, he posted an undefeated record of 12-0 with a 2.48 ERA and a 156 ERA+.

Ryan Zimmerman
Born: Washington
40.07 WAR

 Ryan Zimmerman is the greatest position player in Washington Nationals‘ history. There are only three former Montreal Expos that rank ahead of him in terms of franchise WAR among position players. He has a higher WAR than Montreal/Washington cornerstones like Vladimir Guerrero, Bryce Harper, and Larry Walker. He’s a two-time All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, and a two-time Silver Slugger recipient. Finally, he holds the all-time Nationals franchise records for runs scored (963), hits (1,846), homers (284), and RBI (1,061). A 2019 World Championship is the cherry on top.

Catfish Hunter
Born: Hertford
40.86 WAR

 Our search for North Carolina’s best baseball player makes its first visit to Cooperstown. The honor is well deserved as Catfish Hunter spent the early 1970s helping lead a dominant Oakland Athletics franchise. He’s a five-time World Champion, an eight-time All-Star, and the 1974 AL Cy Young winner. His prime years were especially productive. From 1972-1976, he won 107 games between the A’s and the New York Yankees with a sparkling 2.77 ERA. His command of the strike zone was also excellent, as he struck out 808 batters during the stretch while only walking 336. To top it all off, he was an absolute workhorse, logging 181 complete games and nearly 3,500 innings in his career.

Jim Perry
Born: Williamston
41.60 WAR

 Jim Perry is third on the all-time North Carolina wins list (215). However, these were hard-fought wins. In fact, Perry’s career might best be summed up in two parts. During his early days, he was one of the game’s best young talents. His sophomore season of 1960 saw him lead the American League with 18 victories. However, it wasn’t until he was deep into his decade-long tenure with the Minnesota Twins that he found sustained success. In 1970, this culminated with a league-leading 24 wins, his first All-Star appearance since ’61, and the Cy Young Award. He’s sixth on the all-time Twins wins list and ranks in the top ten in innings pitched and strikeouts.

Mark Grace
Born: Winston-Salem
46.40 WAR

 Mark Grace spent the first 13 years of his 17-season career making Wrigley Field his home. Indeed, Grace was a fixture at first base for the Chicago Cubs. He was defined by a reliable bat and defense that, while not always perfect, still won him four Gold Gloves. His career started with a bang in 1988, as he placed second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He went on to finish in the top ten in Cubs history in games played and runs scored. That said, his offensive output was driven by his ability to double. He’s second only to Cap Anson in Cubs history. His 511 career doubles rank him ahead of Hall of Famers like Rickey Henderson, Tony Perez, and even Babe Ruth himself.

Hoyt Wilhelm
Born: Huntersville
46.77 WAR

Hoyt Wilhelm has to be considered one of the greatest pitchers to never win the Cy Young Award. Certainly, he’s one of the best relievers in history. His Hall of Fame status is well-earned, as he made eight All-Star appearances. He led the league in ERA twice. His career exploded into being in 1952 with the New York Giants. He won 15 games out of the bullpen, leading the league with a 2.43 ERA. A runner-up finish in Rookie of the Year voting and a fourth place in MVP voting were his rewards. From there, he stumbled a bit. However, he soon found sustained success with teams like the Baltimore Orioles and especially the Chicago White Sox. Throughout the 1960s, Wilhelm was the most feared reliever in the American League and his inclusion here is well-earned.

Enos Slaughter
Born: Roxboro
57.81 WAR

Our search for North Carolina’s best baseball player takes its first true leap in terms of WAR metrics. This is not without reason, as Enos Slaughter leads all North Carolinians in triples and RBI. He also ranks in the top five in hits, doubles, and runs scored. A 10-time All-Star and four-time World Champion, Slaughter is best known for his 13 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a cornerstone of the franchise throughout the 1940s. From 1941-1953, the Hall of Famer did not miss a Midsummer Classic, save for the three years of military service he had. He finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five times. His best season by WAR was 1942 when he led the league in hits (188), triples (17), and total bases (292).

Wes Ferrell
Born: Greensboro
60.14 WAR

 Wes Ferrell was the definition of a successful journeyman. Over 15 seasons, he experienced stints with six different franchises. He was also one of the more up-and-down players of the 1930s, posting seasonal ERAs as diverse as 3.31 and 6.28. That said, he did have his strengths. From 1929 through 1932, he did not win fewer than 20 games in a season. In 1935, with the Boston Red Sox, he led the league with 25 wins. He was also a dynamic workhorse, leading the league in complete games four times. He retired with 227 completions, second only to another player on this list in North Carolina history.

Luke Appling
Born: High Point
77.57 WAR

 Luke Appling was one of the most dominant pure hitters of the 1930s and 40s. Our search for North Carolina’s best baseball player wouldn’t be complete without him. He’s arguably the greatest hitter to not crack the 3,000-hit mark. He’s a two-time batting champion, a seven-time All-Star, and a two-time runner-up for MVP. His best season by WAR came in 1943 when he hit .328 with 192 hits in a league-leading 155 games. Appling was also an astoundingly patient hitter, walking 1,302 times and only striking out 528 times. Finally, his 2,749 hits and 1,319 runs scored are the most in North Carolina history.

Gaylord Perry
Born: Williamston
90.04 WAR

 Gaylord Perry was the Teflon of the baseball world. A never say die attitude (and no small bit of controversy) helped him to 22 seasons, two Cy Young Awards, and five All-Star appearances. He won 314 games among eight different franchises. However, his time with the Giants is probably his most well-known. He’s eighth in Giants history in innings pitched and strikeouts. He won 134 games during his decade by the Bay, posting a 2.96 ERA in the process. However, he wouldn’t win his first Cy Young until he got to Cleveland in 1972. By WAR, that was his best season. He won 24 games with a sub-two ERA and a sub-one WHIP. In 1978, at the age of 39, Perry garnered his second Cy Young with the San Diego Padres.

Main photo:
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Players mentioned:

Madison Bumgarner, Kyle Seager, Ray Durham, Kevin Millwood, Brian Roberts, Brandon Phillips, Tom Zachary, Ryan Zimmerman, Vladimir Guerrero, Bryce Harper, Larry Walker, Catfish Hunter, Jim Perry, Mark Grace, Cap Anson, Rickey Henderson, Tony Perez, Babe Ruth, Hoyt Wilhelm, Enos Slaughter, Wes Ferrell, Luke Appling, Gaylord Perry