Those who enjoy professional baseball and understand the deep history of the sport in West Virginia are ecstatic that the Pittsburgh Pirates are locating their New York-Penn League affiliate in Morgantown beginning with the 2015 season.
Minor league baseball has had a long association with the Mountain State.
“That’s great,” said Bob Akin, author of West Virginia Baseball: A History, 1865-2000, when he heard the news that affiliated pro baseball was coming to the northern part of the state. “I thought it was going to be something like the Frontier League when I first heard the news.”
Akin’s knowledge of minor league baseball in the Mountain State is unsurpassed, having studied the sport for years. Akin said he first planned to published a book on the history of coal in West Virginia before moving on to what he considered a much more appealing subject.
According to Akin, West Virginia has quite an extensive professional baseball history dating back to the late 1800s in Wheeling.
“Back 100 years ago, from about 1900 to 1918 when the United Stated got into World War I, was probably the peak of minor league baseball in West Virginia in terms of the number of teams,” he said. “There were teams in Clarksburg, Fairmont, Grafton … even Mannington had a team for a while (in the northern part of the state). In the southern part of the state, Charleston and Montgomery had teams. Both of those were in the Ohio State League. Point Pleasant had a team, too.”
But Wheeling was where professional baseball started in West Virginia dating back to 1887. Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty played for one of the Wheeling teams, as did long-time professional Jack Glasscock. About 40 percent of the Major League baseball players the state has produced played during the pre-World War I period.
“Honus Wagner had a contract with (Wheeling) but he never played with them so we can’t count him,” noted Akin. “Jack Glassock was the first West Virginian to play in the Major Leagues and he played for Wheeling later in his career when he was on the downhill side.”
Wheeling dominated professional baseball in the state through the turn of the century until Martinsburg assumed that status around 1915.
“In the 1920s they were terrific,” said Akin. “Lefty Grove (considered one of the best lefthanded pitchers in Major League history) started in Martinsburg and (Hall of Famer) Hack Wilson was a catcher with Martinsburg.”
Martinsburg professional baseball thrived until the Great Depression hit the state in the late 1920s.
“During the Depression there really wasn’t that much (professional baseball) but after World War II those teams in the southern part of the state really got going,” said Akin. “Bluefield, later Princeton, Charleston and Huntington all had very good teams. The peak years were 1947, 1948 and 1949 for attendance. Today, they still haven’t topped what they were drawing back then.”
“There was a real boom in minor league baseball after the war, but not really in West Virginia,” added Bob Barnett, retired Marshall University professor and author of the book Hillside Fields: A History of Sports in West Virginia. “I think there were only like three teams that came back after the war.”
||Charleston's Watt Powell Park was once the place to be in West Virginia for professional baseball.
According to Akin, television and the development of Little League baseball were two key factors in the decline of minor league baseball in many West Virginia cities. By 1952, local professional baseball had lost a great deal of its appeal in the Mountain State.
“After the War it seemed like everyone wanted to go to ballgames, but then in about 1951-52 it was like minor league baseball fell off a cliff in West Virginia,” Akin said. “I’ve got stats in places in West Virginia where there were more people watching little league games than they were professional games.”
Two areas that were able to support professional baseball franchises well enough to hang on to them were Charleston and Bluefield.
In fact, Charleston was a Triple-A city for most of the 1950s, parts of the 1960s, throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s before waning interest forced the Cleveland Indians to move their Triple-A affiliate to Maine.
“(Charleston) had some interesting teams because for a while they had Triple-A teams there,” noted Akin. “They just kind of backed into that. (In 1961) the Miami, Florida, franchise folded and the owner moved them to Charleston (for a few months). They were called the Miami Marlins and when they moved, well, there were not any marlins swimming in the Kanawha River but the owner of the Charleston franchise said, ‘No, no, there are lots of Marlin rifles and we’re not going to have a fish logo but instead a rifle logo.’ I thought that was ingenious.”
The peak of Charleston professional baseball occurred in the early 1970s when the Charleston Charlies were affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pittsburgh then had several talented young players in its farm system and many of them began their careers in the Capital City, such as Dave Parker, Rennie Stennant, Richie Zisk, John Candeleria and Kent Tekulve.
The old-timers in Charleston still tell the story of Dave Parker once hitting a 500-mile home run at Watt Powell Park. The railroad tracks used to run behind the right field fence where Watt Powell Park used to sit and Parker once blasted a mammoth home run that landed in a freight car on its way to Cincinnati, or so the locals say.
Other West Virginia cities were also the home to some great major league players through the years, such as Williamson where Stan Musial got his professional start, and Bluefield, where Cal Ripken, Jr., first cut his teeth in pro baseball.
At its peak in the early teens, there were many West Virginia cities with minor league teams playing in such leagues as the Pennsylvania-West Virginia League, the Ohio-Pennsylvania League, the West Virginia League, the Ohio-Indiana League, the Virginia Valley League, the Mountain States League, the Blue Ridge League and the Potomac League.
“Between 1900 and 1915, I believe, there were like 14 minor league baseball teams in West Virginia,” Barnett said. “That’s the most ever and it was because of the railroads. The railroads connected those cities and that made it easy to create leagues.”
Today, there are only three West Virginia cities currently hosting affiliated minor league franchises: Charleston, Princeton and Bluefield. Now, Morgantown will make it four.
Having an affiliated minor league baseball team is a huge deal to the status and prestige of a community because there are less than 200 operating around the country right now. Huntington was once the home to a Chicago Cubs minor league team in the early 1990s but was not able to hang on to the franchise.
“Huntington got the Cubs’ rookie league team on the basis that the city would build them a stadium for both Marshall and a minor league baseball team,” said Barnett. “The reason that the franchise left is because the stadium never got built. The Cubs would just not allow them to keep the franchise without a decent place to play.”
Akin, a retired Dean, athletic director and history teacher at Ursinus (Pa.) College, said minor league teams and the new ballparks that come along with them are transformational to those regions fortunate enough to acquire a franchise.
“Ballparks can help develop an area,” he noted. “By itself it’s not going to re-develop a downtown, although Morgantown doesn’t have to worry about re-developing its downtown; most cities in West Virginia do, but Morgantown doesn’t.
“Scranton (Pa.) is an example of what a ballpark can do,” Akin added. “Nothing was happening there and then they built the ballpark and suddenly people started building chalets out there, businesses came in and it’s been booming for 15 years now. I can see the ballpark (in Morgantown) contributing to that kind of economic development.”
Bob Rich, owner of the new franchise moving into Morgantown, said that economic revitalization is exactly what can happen when a new affiliated minor league team comes into an area.
“Clearly there is an economic impact and when you see the site of the new ballpark you know right away that this has great opportunity up on the hilltop for economic revitalization or urban redevelopment, in the case of our Buffalo franchise,” he said.
Rich said bringing a minor league baseball franchise to a college town is a great opportunity for everyone involved – the team because it is moving into an area with a well-educated population base possessing a disposable income looking for good, affordable entertainment in the summertime, and the University, because it now has a summertime entertainment option and also because of the potential job opportunities that are available for its graduates in sports and business related fields.
But Rich said there are some challenges, too.
“It’s like a trust and we take it very seriously that it’s now up to us to translate what the people in the region want to really come out and support this club,” said Rich. “We look at that as job No. 1.”
Akin believes the Morgantown area is now big enough to support a minor league franchise and doesn’t see why it won’t be a success once the team begins play in 2015.
“There will be some players who come through Morgantown that will one day play Major League baseball,” Akin concluded. “I think that’s terrific.”