It was a good-news, bad-news deal for Dale Ramsburg when he was hired to succeed Steve Harrick as West Virginia University’s baseball coach in 1968.
The good news was he was going to get to coach his alma mater. The bad news was he no longer had a conference in which to play in, his baseball field was being turned into a new 14,000-seat basketball arena (the WVU Coliseum) and the budget the baseball team once had was about to be whittled down to nothing.
West Virginia had a tremendous baseball program in the mid-1960s around the time Ramsburg was Harrick’s starting shortstop, the Mountaineers regularly qualifying for the NCAA tournament and finishing among the top 20 teams in the country. But by the late-1970s, WVU baseball was struggling to keep its head above water – or play games on a field that wasn’t always under water.
Actually, Ramsburg’s first three seasons coaching the Mountaineers in 1968, 1969 and 1970 were spent playing at St. Francis High School’s Father Flynn Field, located right across the street from the Towers dormitories near where the soon-to-be-completed College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences/Student Health and Wellness Center will reside.
Bridgeport attorney Rick Gallagher, who pitched for Ramsburg in the late 1970s, grew up in Morgantown and played high school games at Father Flynn Field. Gallagher said the facility had nice concrete football seats out in center field and a big grandstand along the first base line with the Towers providing an attractive backdrop.
“It looked nice like a stadium with the bleachers, but it had some rough spots in the infield,” Gallagher remembered.
It also wasn’t West Virginia’s field, and that was quite an embarrassing situation for a major college athletic program to be playing its home baseball games on a high school field.
So in 1971, West Virginia’s “second” Hawley Field opened on a patch of empty land down below the Coliseum. This was before the WVU Natatorium and the WVU Shell Building were constructed.
“There was nothing down there but a small strip of houses,” recalled former Mountaineer third baseman Jerry Mahoney.
The athletic department had very little money to invest in a baseball diamond, and what the school first came up with was basically an open field that was enclosed by a three-foot-high, chain-linked fence.
There were no grandstands for the fans to sit in or dugouts for the players to use; they sat on wooden benches that were propped up by cinder blocks. The wind often whipped across the field with gale force strength, requiring the guys sitting on the bench to huddle up together to try and stay warm.
“Cold” is how Gallagher described Hawley Field in the mid-1970s. “When I wasn’t pitching I was always trying to figure out how to stay warm,” he said.
Ramsburg stored the team’s equipment in HIS car and used HIS lawnmower to cut the grass. Players were instructed/ordered to chase down all foul balls no matter where they landed – in someone’s yard, garden, driveway or dining room.
Despite the necessary frugality, late Pitt coach Bobby Lewis, in 1995, recalled Ramsburg being much more liberal with his meager finances than his predecessor Harrick ever was.
“Dale used six baseballs in a game while Steve only used three,” Lewis joked.
Lewis also recalled showing up for a game once at Hawley Field in the early 1980s and seeing WVU assistant basketball coach Butch Haswell standing out on the field in an umpire’s outfit. When Lewis walked out to hand his lineup card to the home plate umpire (who wasn’t a WVU staff member) he quipped, “Who the hell do you have calling the bases for tomorrow’s game, Dale, head coach Gale Catlett?”
It was almost impossible for Ramsburg to locate umpires for mid-week games back then because the good ones were always working for more money at the bigger baseball programs that could afford to pay them better.
“Most of the umpires were local and were much more familiar with the players and were certainly a little biased for WVU,” recalled pitcher Rick Wagener.
“I guess he did it for the love of the game,” added Carol Ramsburg, the widow of the late coach. “I used to stand up on the bank and watch them hit balls right through a big mud puddle along the first base line.”
The guys either dressed in one of the empty locker rooms up at the Coliseum or in their cars in the parking lot before games. The WVU baseball players had no locker room of their own to use – and didn’t until Oliver Luck became athletic director in 2010. Richard “Kubla” Burns, an outfielder who played for Ramsburg in the mid-1970s, said he once had his game jersey taken right out of his unlocked car.
“Somebody stole it,” he recalled. “Coach Ramsburg thought I was lying to him, but about four months later when some of us were downtown helping him work on one of the houses that he rented out to WVU students, one of the players saw a kid wearing it in Sunnyside. When we got there (teammate) Tom Gilbert already had him down by his throat asking him where he got it.
“I said, ‘I told you coach – I didn’t steal my own jersey!’”
Wagener, a left-handed pitcher who won all eight games that he pitched as senior in 1971, said the only people who came out to the games back then were the players’ girlfriends and family members.
“There was a little hill there that came off of what is now the soccer field and there were people who sat up there with blankets,” he said. “My current wife, who I met at West Virginia, was a big baseball fan. We met when we were freshmen in college and she told me that she used to come out with some of her girlfriends and watch the games.”
Unfortunately, there were not many others.
“There might be 10-15 people at some of the games,” Gallagher said. “If it was a really nice day, there might be 50 or 60 people, but that was it.”
Some of the players remembered a couple of porta-potties that were lined up along the first base line for people to use, but some of them would just go over the hill to relieve themselves between innings instead of waiting in line until their girlfriends were finished.
When Hawley Field opened, West Virginia was lucky to play 10 homes games a year or 30 total games for a season. The field was often under water for the entire month of March, and sometimes for much of April, too.
“There would be weeks that we would lose games because the field was so bad, and we never made them up,” said Mahoney.
|Dugouts completed in 1984 were a major improvement to Hawley Field.
Carol recalled her husband once becoming so frustrated with rainouts that he decided to use some old tires to try and burn the water off the field. That only left a black patch on part of the infield that remained for about a year and a half.
“My husband was extremely intelligent – he taught statistics in college – but that one didn’t turn out too well,” she chuckled.
Someone once asked Ramsburg what he would like to have most – a hard-throwing lefthander, a power-hitting corner outfielder, a soft-handed shortstop or a fleet center fielder.
His answer? “Sunshine.”
Roughly 10 years after first opening, the athletic department finally invested in an infield drainage system right around the same time that the Mountaineers joined the Eastern 8 Conference, which later became the Atlantic 10. Those two things enabled West Virginia to have some semblance of a home schedule. Then, a couple years later 84 Lumber donated the materials used to construct team dugouts.
In the meantime, the multi-purpose Shell Building behind the left-field fence was completed in 1982 and soon Ramsburg’s teams began winning games again, even making return trips to the NCAA tournament in 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1994.
“A lot of things from 1980 to 1982 were influential in our upswing here,” Ramsburg recalled in 1985. “First of all, we started to have a field that resembled a diamond, which is very important. In addition, we got a drainage system under the infield and later under the outfield, then new dugouts, new bleachers and a warning track.”
By the late 1980s, a permanent 1,000-seat grandstand and a press box were added to the complex, but Ramsburg didn’t live long enough to see other improvements made to the facility such as lights, a new scoreboard and the large batter’s eye erected behind the center field fence.
Cancer had claimed him in 1995 when he was only 53.
Today, a new $21 million ballpark is under construction right above Hawley Field on the hillside to the west, across the Monongahela River. When completed it will usher in a new era of baseball at West Virginia University with coach Randy Mazey now at the helm.
In the meantime, this weekend’s three-game series against 19th-ranked Texas will provide a memorable conclusion to the 43-year-old facility – one Dale Ramsburg spent 23 years building from scratch.
Ramsburg, who once blamed the women’s volleyball team for some tobacco juice that was on the floor of the office that he shared with wrestling coach George Nedeff, never lost his sense of humor - right up until the end.
Following a particularly difficult day when the dreadful disease was beginning to take its toll, a nurse asked Ramsburg if there was anything else she could do for him.
“Yes,” he answered. “Can you find me a hard-throwing lefthander?”
A little sunshine would have been nice, too.
Editor's Note: Bob Fleenor of Martinsburg pointed out that the first-ever game at "new" Hawley Field was actually on April 9, 1970 when West Virginia defeated California, Pa., 4-2, before "a scant crowd of about 50 at the game," according to news accounts of that contest. The 1971 season was the first full year of play at Hawley Field.