In the coalfields, baseball was truly America’s game. Baseball games created a community spirit, bringing together black and white, immigrant and native born. It was on the playing fields that the immigrants who came to mine coal truly be a part of America. In fact, historian Stuart McGee points out that the significance of the sport can be demonstrated by the physical placement of the ball field. In an area where precious little flat land existed, that flat land was where the ball field was located.
In the beginning, the owners supported the teams in order to instill a sense of pride in the miners and the coal camp community. It was a social outlet for many in the coal mining communities. Some historians have said the owners sponsored the games to keep the men occupied and prevented the men from having idle time to think about their lot in life and to keep them from organizing and joining the unions. But the majority of the coal miners played ball for the sense of competition, camaraderie and community spirit. Many of the owners enjoyed having a team they could be proud of and that gave them bragging rights when their teams were victorious, some even going as far as hiring players that were good ball players, giving them comfortable jobs above ground. There were a great many players among the coal miners such as Charles “Stubby” Seay, who played professional baseball, but returned to the mines because they could earn more money digging coal than playing professional baseball.
What started out as coal mine versus coal mine soon spread to other leagues. Towns would form county leagues. Paul J. Nyden noted, in an article in Goldenseal Magazine, that by the 1930’s Raleigh County had a County A League, a County B league, a United mine workers league, and a loosely organized league of all black teams. Leagues were formed in other counties such as Fayette. The vast majority of the players in these leagues were coal miners.
The games were played on Sundays and, along with card playing, were the largest part of important community events. Large crowds would come to follow their favorite teams and after the games food and the miners’ favorite beverages were often served to players and spectators alike.
Since not all miners possessed the ability to play baseball on the highest level, other forms of the game were introduced. William “Uncle Billy “McKell, Superintendent of New River Coal’s Glen Jean operation, introduced the game of softball to the miners. This game became known as “Big Ball” or “Let ‘Em Hit It.” The latter name came from the fact that no strikes were called on the batter and the batter could wait to swing until he got a pitch he liked. The big ball was 14 inches in circumference and had to be thrown slowly so that the batter could hit it.
After the Second World War, there was a great deal of change in America and the coal fields. Factors such as unionization, mechanization, the introduction of television and the access to automobiles allowing for more movement from the towns to town saw the end of coalfield baseball. But the glory days of coal field baseball still lives on in the memories and lore of the coal camps.
By: Gene Worthington