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The first ever UNC Major League Baseball player, and his role in basketball history

A notable Tar Heel baseball player had impact that went beyond the baseball field.

NCAA Basketball: Tulane at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

In current times, UNC is strongly represented in Major League Baseball by relief pitcher Andrew Miller. The Tar Heels have consistently been a solid baseball program, and its professional alumni is one piece of evidence.

To find the first ever Tar Heel to play in the majors, you have to go all the way to the turn of the 20th century. The Tar Heel presence in MLB all started with a player whose connection to the school goes beyond just throwing a baseball.

Bob Lawson was a pitcher for North Carolina in the late 1890s. He was described as “the greatest curve pitcher.” He was said to have almost perfect control, to the point that he could even throw curveballs on three-ball counts

After leaving UNC, he signed with the Boston Beaneaters in 1901. He became the first ever Tar Heel to play in a major league game on May 7, 1901. Lawson appeared in six games for Boston that season, finishing with a 3.33 ERA. He was released later that year. In May 1902, Lawson signed with the Baltimore Orioles. He played in another three games for Baltimore before eventually leaving them as well.

After that, Lawson gave up professional baseball and eventually got a medical degree from UNC. He later had a couple different stints as the Tar Heels’ baseball coach, and became a professor of medicine at the school. It was also around that time that his name popped up as a key figure in another sport.

In 1906, the now Dr. Robert Lawson was purported to have brought basketball to the University of North Carolina. Fifteen years after the sport’s invention by Dr. James Naismith, Lawson supposedly introduced the game in physical education classes.

Five years later, Lawson was one of the figures that gave permission to start a varsity basketball team. Student Marvin Ritch lobbied to organize a team, and they played their first game on January 27, 1911.

Today, basketball is probably the biggest sport at UNC. The Tar Heels are six-time champions and one of the biggest powers in the sport. At least some of that is due to the historic Bob Lawson, a Tar Heel from another sport.


Baseball Reference Bullpen

Battle, Kemp Plummer. History of the University of North Carolina. Vol. II. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1912.

Chansky, Art. 100 things North Carolina fans should know & do before they die. Chicago, IL: Triumph LLC, 2015.

Powell, Adam, and Phil Ford. University of North Carolina basketball. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2005.