Norton writer finds diamond in coal baseball history
The outlook was not bright for the Dorchester nine that day in 1949.
Trailing in the seventh inning of a deciding Lonesome Pine League playoff game, Wise County Coal Camp’s top team was one victory away from a championship. With a trophy on the line, mighty Roy Flanary, Dorchester’s powerhouse catcher who had spent time in professional baseball, hit a home run into the cornfield beyond center field to put his crew. Dorchester won the match by a score of 6-2 to claim the playoff championship in late summer 1949.
Victory tasted bittersweet, as Southwest Virginia writer Lynn Sutter writes.
“It was a fitting end for Dorchester baseball,” Sutter wrote. “The camp didn’t field a team in 1950. … Unfortunately, coal baseball was also coming to an end, but within a few years the camps that spawned the teams were dwindling.”
Virginia’s coalfields teemed with ball clubs for much of the early and mid-1900s, as men worked in the mines during the day and played baseball until sunset. Perhaps no one has chronicled the history of coalfield baseball as thoroughly as Sutter, who wrote a book about Appalachian baseball and wrote a monthly column for The Coalfield Progress, Norton’s bi-weekly newspaper.
Sutter’s work has earned praise and accolades from fellow baseball researchers across the country, a picky, arrogant and often clannish group of beachheads that includes writers, historians and stat geeks. Two of his books have won awards from the renowned Society for American Baseball Research, which honors outstanding baseball research projects.
Sutter might be an unlikely documentarian of coal baseball lore. A 63-year-old Memphis native who arrived in Norton two decades ago after years of living out west, Sutter was admittedly a casual baseball fan who had little knowledge of the game’s past or even the Appalachians. After moving from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, following frightening wildfires in the early 2000s, she settled in southwestern Virginia on the advice of a friend. , a place she luckily found to be “wet and green”. Her desire to learn more about the area led her to research the history of mining towns, which led her to learn about coal camp baseball teams.
Sutter, who writes as LW Sutter, went story-hunting and found diamonds among coal towns—baseball fields, usually spread across a coal town’s few flat acres. Coal camps set up ball clubs for men who needed to blow off steam after a day underground and so locals could play for bragging rights against other nearby towns and businesses.
“Coal camps loved baseball to the point of being distracted,” Sutter said in a phone interview.
Industrial-scale coal mining changed the mountains of western Virginia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving rise to booming coal company towns and the communities that grew there. lived, worked, played and died.
Baseball games have become social outlets for cities, as well as sources of civic pride. Playing games also relieved pressure for men working in dangerous jobs.
“It may be hyperbole, but the constant threat of death in the mines meant players played as if they had nothing to lose,” she said.
In recent columns for The Coalfield Progress, Sutter chronicled the close races between the loosely affiliated independent Lonesome Pine League, which included clubs from Dorchester, Coeburn, Clintwood, St. Paul and other coal-fueled towns.
Competition among ball clubs was so fierce that some teams raided other towns’ rosters offering better or easier mining jobs. A good pitcher or outfielder might be attracted by the promise of light work above the ground. Some players eventually made it to the major leagues, sometimes being replaced by older guys whose careers were coming to an end.
“There were so many ringers in the coal camps who were either on their way to the major leagues or coming down from the major leagues,” she said.
Jim Mooney was a young ringer from Tennessee who was brought to the Dorchester team just a few years before he ended up playing in the big leagues with the 1934 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, an outfit known as the “Gashouse Gang” which included Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean.
She also met former big leaguers Dave Hillman and Tracy Stallard, both coalfield-born pitchers. Stallard, perhaps most famous for returning New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris’ record 61st home run when he pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 1961, returned to live in Southwest Virginia after his career ended.
“Tracy Stallard, what a charismatic and interesting guy he was,” Sutter said. “There was much more to his story than just a pitch.”
The mountains contained other rich veins of baseball lore. Because the coalfields were a rare place for black men to find decent work in segregated Virginia, many African-American players took to the field in Appalachia. In his 2008 book, “Ball, Bat and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball in the Appalachian South”, Sutter wrote that Bob Bowman, an undersea-style pitcher from Virginia, became the first black player to dress for a former all-white team south of the Mason-Dixon line when he joined the Middlesboro (Kentucky) Athletics in 1951.
That same year, Norton fielded the first integrated Little League team in the South, a team that Sutter wrote about in a two-part newspaper article earlier this summer. She has also written about Appalachian players and fans, including a story about a group of women from Norton who saved the team from that town, if only for one season.
The Norton Braves were to move to a new home in Tennessee, “[b]But at the last minute, a group of enthusiastic female fans, led by Edith Bullion, stepped in to announce that if baseball left Norton, they would leave too,” Sutter wrote in a column published in early August. “If the franchise was to stay, the women promised the board that they would run the club, keep the books, do all the paperwork and ticket sales, run the concession stand, sell candy in the stands, watch the fence and even chase balls if need be.
The Braves survived to play one final season—under female leadership—in the Class D Mountain States League in 1953.
The area hosted barnstorming big league clubs, some of which stopped to play games between the end of spring training and the start of the regular season. The Cincinnati Reds were fan favorites, particularly because the team was one of the closest major league clubs to the coalfields, long before expansion brought major league baseball to the South.
Sometimes, however, publicity related to hosting a major league team can be problematic, due to the rampant stereotypes that plague newspaper coverage. Managers and umpires often told wild stories of menacing mountaineers filling baseball diamonds, threatening violence.
In the early 1920s, when the Cincinnati Reds traveled through Appalachia to play exhibition games, players posed for a photo with guns to their hips, a comical show of self-protection against wild hillbillies. Everyone expected the Hatfields and McCoys to face off in the stands, it seemed.
(Again, Sutter included a note in a column about the wife of a Pennington Gap school superintendent who used to shout threats at umpires and yell at players to “beat him to death!” Former big leaguer Dave Hillman, who was born in Scott County and pitched for Coeburn before an eight-year career in the big leagues, told Sutter that “the women in the coal camps were the loudest fans and the more assertive people in the world because they couldn’t get out of the house much. Baseball games leave them screaming and getting things on their chest.””)
Sutter published many of his Appalachian baseball stories in his 2008 book, which earned him a Baseball Research Award from the SABR – commonly pronounced “saber” – the renowned Society for American Baseball Research which generally rewards research strongly based on statistics. Sutter’s work, however, is more historical and people-centered.
His follow-up book, “New Mexico Baseball: Miners, Outlaws, Indians and Isotopes, 1880 to the Present,” was also honored by the SABR in 2011. Both books can be purchased on Amazon. Sutter said she was the first woman to achieve SABR honors.
Sutter graduated from Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) with degrees in medieval history and physical anthropology – an experience that might not have benefited her when she spent 20 years in run a bar, but his academic and real-world background gave him the research and people skills that aided his historical writings.
“It took time to root itself in the ground” in the coalfields, Sutter said. “I think the people here, despite the abuse that has been inflicted on them by the outside world, are the nicest people I have ever known. They are generous in spirit and in pocket. There is a charm about them that has been eroded in most people.
The era of coalfield baseball slowly died out, as Americans watched more games on television and minor leagues and small-town independent teams withered away. Eventually, places like Dorchester also dried up, as mines closed and families moved out.
The memories remained, however. As she wrote in July, the Dorchester players “were remarkable athletes who played two games a weekend, sometimes in doubles, and trained five nights a week, a schedule that should tire most of us just to consider. But they loved it, every minute. As [former player] Jim [Daniels] said, ‘You worked all day and you were tired but you stayed out until dark just to practice. And practice. And practice.
“All for the love of the game.”