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Play Ball! What Baseball Means Inside Appalachia

Jim Antonini, an occupational health science researcher, fields a ball at shortstop for Chico's Bail Bonds. As team captain, Antonini is in charge of the always-entertaining game write-ups that recap the misery suffered by the Morgantown softball team.
Jesse Wright
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Jim Antonini, an occupational health science researcher, fields a ball at shortstop for Chico's Bail Bonds. As team captain, Antonini is in charge of the always-entertaining game write-ups that recap the misery suffered by the Morgantown softball team.

Spring is here and that means baseball season. This week on Inside Appalachia we’re taking another look at baseball throughout the region. We’ll learn about the history of early baseball in the coal camp towns of southern West Virginia and go inside the legendary baseball bat factory — the Louisville Sluggers. And we’ll meet a man who went from living in an isolated timber town in Pocahontas County, West Virginia to being a professional umpire for the Cincinnati Reds.

Charleston’s Biggest Baseball Fan: 'The Toastman'

Have you ever heard of man known as "The Toastman," a sort of unofficial mascot who comes to every home game of the West Virginia Power. We’ll learn what his story is, and why he has been making, and throwing, toast, at his local baseball games for nearly 30 years.

Morgantown's 'Bad News Bears'

WVPB's senior political reporter Dave Mistich takes us to the softball field in Morgantown — and to 123 Pleasant Street for the afterparty — to meet the guys from Chico’s Bail Bonds. Steeped in history and baptized in mythology, the Bonders are an Island of Misfit Toys-like team that prioritizes a good time over a winning season. 

Coal Miner Baseball 

And we'll learn why the early history of baseball has some roots in the coalfields. 

"Baseball players could make more money working for a coal company than they could playing in the minor leagues playing professional ball."- Historian Stan Bumgardner

"Baseball was really a phenomenon in the early 1900s like we can’t imagine today," said Stan Bumgardner, historian and editor of Goldenseal Magazine. "I mean it was the national pastime, and it was the West Virginia pastime."

During the turn of the 20th century, just as baseball was rising in popularity, coal camp towns also began popping up throughout southern West Virginia. And with them came baseball teams. 

"In a town of a few 100 people you may have thousands of people show up, cause people from the other towns would come in for the game," Bumgardner said. "It was really a whole day event."

These games were usually played on Sunday afternoons in coal camp towns, which were essentially communities that sprang up in the middle of the wilderness, entirely built and owned by the coal companies.

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The companies also sponsored their own baseball teams, and they were quite competitive, pitting town against town. Coal mine operators could show off their teams while competing against each other.

"And you had some very athletic people who worked in the mines too," said Bumgardner. "These were some strong people I mean to do the work that coal miners had to do. I mean they’re natural athletes."

Coal companies would even recruit baseball players to work in the mines and assign them less risky jobs, like office work. This arrangement was enticing for good baseball players from the coalfields as the wages for coal miners increased in the 1940s and 50s.

Bumgardner said baseball players could make more money working for a coal company than they could playing in the minor leagues playing professional ball.

But he notes, the coal camp baseball culture was tied to the coal industry's fortunes. The height of coalfields baseball was the height of the coalfields.

"So at one point you had 125,000 people working in West Virginia coal mines," he said. "When you see the decline of coalfield baseball not coincidentally it goes with the decline in employment in coal mining."

Music in this episode was provided by Dinosaur Burps, the Hillbilly GypsiesSpencer Elliott, and Ben Townsend.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. He and Glynis Board edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

You can always reach out to us on Twitter @InAppalachia

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Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Eric is a native of Kanawha County who graduated from Marshall University with a degree in journalism. He has written for newspapers and magazines throughout his career. He is an author, writing both nonfiction and fiction, including a series of thriller novels set in locations around the world. You can reach Eric at edouglas@wvpublic.org