The Major League Baseball Draft is over. The College World Series is in progress and that means that once again for small cities and towns in the Appalachian region of the country it is time to play ball.
It was 105 years ago in 1911 that the Appalachian League of professional baseball was born. It’s gone through several incarnations. It began as what was called as a “Class D League.” I have no idea what that means other than the teams like the Asheville Moonshiners had no affiliation with a Major League club. In 1963, the Appalachian League or “Appy League” as it is commonly known has been a Rookie League for Major League Baseball. Over the years teams have come and gone, but one thing has been consistent. It has brought summer time minor league baseball to places that would never have had such.
The Appy League along with Pioneer League – which is based in the Northwest – are the two true Rookie Leagues for Major League Baseball. Most players just drafted a couple of weeks ago particularly the high school kids will start their professional careers in either the Gulf Coast League in Florida or the Arizona League in Arizona. Those leagues play their games at the Spring Training Complex of their respective Major League teams, in the middle of the day and in front of no paying customers. There are no fans, no concessions and no real atmosphere. It’s all about learning the pro game from the ground up.
Typically after a year in the Gulf or in the desert, those players will advance to the Appalachian League. Some college players will bypass the Gulf Coast and head straight to the Appalachian League. If a high school kid is a top pick he might also start in the Appy. Regardless, of when the player arrives, it will be the first time he experiences a true game atmosphere.
The current communities that host minor league teams are mostly small towns. Teams in the league include Bluefield, Burlington, NC, Danville, Va., Princeton, WV, Pulaski, Va., and Bristol, Elizabethton, Greeneville, Johnson City and Kingsport in Tennessee. They are all owned in part or in whole by the Major League team and operated by a small local staff and plenty of volunteers. Former places to host Appy League teams include Covington, Va., Wytheville, Va., Marion, Va., and Paintsville and Harlan, Kentucky. The league season begins in late June and continues until late August or early September encompassing about 65 games. The top teams participate in playoffs and the league crowns a champion. For some players, this will be the only championship they ever experience even if they make it to the Major Leagues. The communities in which this annual rite of summer are played embrace the players and managers and support these teams with their time and money. In return, they may well see the next Hall of Famer begin his career.
Bluefield has one of the nicest – if not the nicest ballpark in the league in Bowen Field. Bowen was dedicated on May 11, 1939. In 1973, the Stadium burnt to the ground leaving only a small office untouched. The two Bluefields, Bluefield, WV and Bluefield, Va. rebuit the stadium. In recent years the Bluefield Baseball Club has added weight rooms and batting cages to the stadium. For 53 years, Bluefield was affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, which stands as the longest running affiliation between a minor league city and a Major League Club in history. But, in 2011 the Orioles ended their affiliation and were replaced by birds of a different feather in the Toronto Blue Jays. But during the 53 year association, the locals saw Boog Powell, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Jr. begin their Hall of Fame careers. Long before Jason Werth was on television telling his critics to kiss his ass as a member of the Washington Nationals, he began his career in little ole Bluefield, WV.
Other recognizable names have begun climbing the pro baseball ladder in the Appy League. Burlington turned out Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Bartolo Colon and C.C. Sabathia. Bristol turned out Lou Whittaker and Alan Trammel, Elizabethton Kirby Puckett, Johnson City Yadier Molina, and Kingsport both Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Princeton can lay claim to current L.A. Angel Josh Hamilton, and also has the distinction of being the smallest incorporated city in the United States to host Minor League Baseball with approximately 6,400 residents. Pulaski not only turned out future All-Star David Justice, but long before winning two National Titles as the head football coach at Florida and one as the head football coach at Ohio State, Urban Meyer played minor league baseball for the Pulaski Braves in 1982.
Since the current Appy League set up began in 1963, the Elizabethton Twins have the most league championships with 10, followed by the Bluefield Orioles with 9. Bluefield has the most Appy League titles overall with a total of 13, but hasn’t tasted a title since 2001 and never with the Blue Jays affiliation. When I first began my television career at WVVA, one of the first people I met was Bluefield General Manager George Fanning, who was simply Bluefield’s Mr. Baseball. Fanning who was in his 80s and passed away in 1995, did everything at the ballpark including mowing the grass.
So, this Thursday night another season of Appalachian League baseball opens. It’s truly the bottom rung of professional baseball with long bus rides and a per diem that allows for most meals at McDonald’s. But, during those bus rides, life-long friendships are formed, and Hall of Fame careers are launched and done so in places that truly embrace this annual sign of Summer. If you’ve ever get a chance go to an Applachian League game. I can promise that it will be money well spent and you will enjoy it.