Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball Documentary

Bluefield Blue Grays of 1930s

Bluefield Blue Grays of 1930s

As the boys of summer are swinging their bats, I want to give a shoutout to the boys of summers past.

For anyone interested in the history of Appalachian baseball, check out the 1990s documentary, Extra Innings: Coalfield Baseball, from the archives ofWSWP Beckley/Grandview and distributed by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.


Having trouble? View on YouTube.

As the description says, “Many Southern West Virginia coal camps had baseball teams in the 1930s. This is the story of coalfield baseball’s golden era.”

Slab Fork Indians, an all-black team

The Sunday games after church were a “raucous displays of coalfield culture,” said the late Stuart McGehee of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in the doc. “Every little coal company town, and there were maybe 500 of them in Southern West Virginia, had a baseball park. Everyone’s game was baseball…Quality of ball in the coalfields was as good or better at any level of semi-pro or amateur ball in America.”

The late Stuart Mcgehee of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives

The late Stuart McGehee of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives

The players interviewed were John, Willard and Gene McGraw (the “best brothers groups to play in the coalfields”), Harry Perkowski, Willard Artist McGraw, Angus Evans Jr., Charlie Kowaleski, Charlie Karbonit, Okey Mills, John Kerzic, Jimmy Harper, Tom “Lefty” Tudor, and Idie Scott.
McGraw Brothers

McGraw Brothers

And for some, coalfields  paid better than pro ball. “We would have played for nothing,” Angus Evans Jr. said. Many players went to the majors.
Teams mentioned include Ikeagle, Lillybrook, White Oak, Soap Creek, Kincaid, Raleigh Clippers, Hindale, Ethel, Amigo, Coal City, Layland, Montcoal, Marfork, Beckley Bengals, Bluefield Blue-Grays, Charleston, Williamson, Welch, Gary, Elkhorn, Moose Juniors, and Minden Reds.

County League system peaked right before WWII and disbanded in mid-1950s.

Baseball Tonight! Bowen Field

Baseball Tonight! Bowen Field

Do you have stories about Coalfield Baseball? Share them in the comments!

~Melissa

If Stubby had an iPhone

sports_social_media

I can envision if Stubby Currence was around today, he’d be sharing his quips about Foggy Bert, Groggy Gert and Buff Says on Facebook and Instagram. I’d bet he would have applied for the Millennial Ambassador Program if the City of Bluefield had the program in 1921.

Follow The Stubby Currence Project on social media!

~Melissa

Winning ‘Crown of West Virginia Champions’ – Lessons Learned from Coach John Chmara

“Coach John Chmara, sitting at his office desk in the Beaver athletic department Friday, awaiting his troops to file in for a short final drill outdoors yesterday, appeared as unruffled and as calm as a breeze on a peaceful Pacific isle,” Stubby Currence wrote in an Nov. 22, 1975 article about the West Virginia state high school football championship game that was to be played at Mitchell Stadium that day. “That, despite the fact that the entire school, other than the athletes, appeared in complete chaos.”

The Bluefield Beavers would go on to win their fifth state football championship, defeating the favorited South Charleston Black Eagles by 20-7.

A major contributor towards the win was Don Jackson, a Beaver halfback who scored the first touchdown of that day’s game. He would later receive the 1975-1976 Stubby Currence Award.

Don Jackson kindly shared his story from that era.


1975 Bluefield Beaver State Champions. Photo by Melvin Grubbs.
1975 Bluefield Beaver State Champions. Photo by Melvin Grubb.

By Don Jackson

Throughout the region Stubby Currence covered, southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia, most of the high schools bear the name of the town. Accordingly, the community of Bluefield closely identified with Bluefield High School athletics, similar to thousands of small cities and towns across America where local pride is measured against neighboring communities largely by its win-loss record.

In Bluefield, this was particularly true of football. Coach Merrill Gainer came to Bluefield in 1959 and proceeded to win four state championships from 1959 to 1967 with an overall record of 87-6-1.

Don Jackson, 1975 Bluefield Beavers Halfback

His assistant and my eventual coach, John Chmara, took over the program in 1968. The 1968 team finished 9-0 but did not win the state championship since Bluefield ended the regular season ranked #3 in the state and only the top 2 teams made the postseason in those days.

Although Coach Chmara did not replicate the record of Coach Gainer, his 1969-1972 teams averaged 8 wins per season and Bluefield made the playoffs in 1972 when the postseason was expanded to the top 4 teams. The 1972 team lost the semifinal playoff game in overtime by 2 points but the bulk of the players were returning for the 1973 season, my first year as a sophomore at Bluefield High.

With lofty expectations, the 1973 team started the year 5-0 and then unexpectedly stumbled the second half of the season to finish with a 6-4 record including 3 straight losses to end the season. The 1973 team was loaded with seniors, and we sophomores rarely saw any game action.

We faced the 1974 season with a great deal of uncertainty. We probably had 70 players at the first preseason practice on August 1, 1974. By the time the season started, we were down to about 35 including just 4 seniors.

The preseason practices were especially tough that year as the coaching staff was determined to avoid a repeat of the finish of the prior season. Fielding a team of inexperienced juniors, we started the 1974 season 0-3. We had now lost 6 games in a row. That equaled the total number of losses from 1959 to 1968. I guess people in Bluefield were wondering if the dynasty had ended.

However, Coach Chmara understood he had a young team. He and the rest of the coaching staff worked even harder to prepare us for the rest of the season. Stubby Currence continued to write articles expressing his belief that our young team would turn it around … and we did.

Head Coach John Chmara

Head Coach John Chmara

We won 6 of our last 7 games to finish our second straight season with a 6-4 record. However, the 6-4 record in 1974 felt dramatically different than it did in 1973. We now had a team full of returning seniors for the 1975 season.

Coach Chmara was an excellent teacher of the game. Many things he taught us were applicable in all areas of life. Some of the most important included:

Discipline

Discipline represented the foundation of Coach Chmara’s coaching style. I think most players would say “extreme discipline”. Everything in our locker room had to be in its correct place…locker chairs, locker keys, shoes, equipment, even the soap in the shower…or we were given “six-thirties” meaning we had to come to school at 6:30 am to run. Practices started at 8:27 am or 3:27 pm and the coaching staff would walk into the film room where we gathered prior to practice precisely on time. If you came into the room after the coaches, you were given a six-thirty. We reported to the school 7 days per week during the season. On Saturdays after a Friday night game, we had to wax any opponent marks off our helmets and shine our game cleats until they passed inspection. Inspection included searching for tiny specks of dirt or grass anywhere on our cleats. Every question was answered with “sir.” It seemed almost too burdensome at times, but there was no question about who was in charge and what was expected of us.

Precision

Coach Chmara believed you had to practice with precision in order to execute with precision in a game. We would run the same play over and over repetitively during practice until he was satisfied every player knew exactly what he was supposed to do. He would say that every play is designed to score a touchdown if it is executed perfectly. Then, at film sessions on Sundays after our game, he would point out the reason or reasons each play was not executed perfectly and who was responsible. The obsession with precision even extended to our pre-game warmup. We would practice our pre-game exercises the day before each game, and again on the afternoon of the game, until everyone was counting, clapping and slapping thigh pads in unison. The intent was to “send a message” to our opponents even before the opening kickoff that we were fully prepared.

Teamwork

Coach Chmara often said, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link…don’t be the weak link.” He usually said this during practice to the player who had messed up an assignment. Accordingly, we developed a sense of the importance of teamwork early and often. Each player wanted all the other players to be as good as possible in order to field a strong team. That attitude resulted in strong support for each other both on and off the field.

Championship fever… Championship football fever has spread throughout Bluefield as fans will notice on their way to today’s State AAA title game at Mitchell Stadium. At the top is the message flashing at the First National Bank in downtown Bluefield while Appalachian Power (bottom left) its own version as they welcome the Eagles to town and while the Holiday Inn message does the same. Kickoff is set for 1:30. (Photo by Jim Gilreath and Ray Lynch).

From the front page of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Nov. 22, 1975: “Championship football fever has spread throughout Bluefield as fans will notice on their way to today’s State AAA title game at Mitchell Stadium. At the top is the message flashing at the First National Bank in downtown Bluefield while Appalachian Power (bottom left) its own version as they welcome the Eagles to town and while the Holiday Inn message does the same. Kickoff is set for 1:30. (Photo by Jim Gilreath and Ray Lynch).”

Stubby Currence provided media coverage and enthusiastic support for the teams and players in our region. The majority of sports writers were located in Charleston and their bias for players in that area were evident.

I believe Stubby personally ensured players in our region were fairly considered in statewide awards such as all-state teams. Stubby also helped generate interest from colleges in local players.

It was reassuring to see Stubby’s confidence in our team in the newspaper on an almost daily basis. I would read his “Into the Press Box” column religiously every morning. I learned a great deal about other players and coaches in our region through Stubby’s writings.

The Stubby Currence Award was given annually to the area athlete of the year and it was a great honor to win that award. Looking back, I still consider it a great honor since I knew so many of the potentially deserving players at Bluefield, Princeton, Graham and other area high schools. To be recognized as one of the best across multiple high schools was an appropriate award to bear Stubby’s name.

Beavers Defensive Unit ready for South Charleston's High powered Offensive Attack

“Beavers Defensive Unit ready for South Charleston’s High Powered Offensive Attack”

Back to the 1975 season … we started 5-0 including defeating the same three teams we had started 0-3 against in 1974. Our season opener was on the road against Stonewall Jackson of Charleston, the defending state champions and a team that had beaten us 26-0 in 1974. After a late goal line stand, we escaped with a 19-12 win giving us confidence for the rest of the season.

We experienced an unexpected 14-6 loss in our sixth game at Welch and then faced our biggest game of the season against Beckley. Beckley had lost only 2 games since 1972 and both losses were by less than 3 points. They had defeated us in both 1973 and 1974. Another loss would kill any chance we had of making the playoffs.

We rebounded from the previous week’s loss with probably the best game of our season and won 50-14. Again, I give credit to Coach Chmara and his staff for making us focus on the task at hand rather than dwelling on our recent loss.

Going into the last week of the season, we were ranked #5 in the state with only 4 playoff spots (the rankings were based on a win-loss and strength of schedule point system). Fortunately, one of the teams ranked ahead of us lost their final game allowing us to make the playoffs as the #4 seed.

So, suppose you fellows ask me what I think. In case you don’t already know, I’ll tell you again. You are going to win this football game and thus wear the crown of West Virginia champions for 1975. It’s a crown you’ve earned a right to wear; it’s due you. It’s something you have already earned the right to prove. I’m sure you’ll do just that. So is every youngster in your school, and all your teachers, and your great coaching staff, and everybody in Bluefield. Don’t waste time asking. Just go out there and do what we all know you are capable of doing.”

By Stubby Currence, “An Open Letter to Our Lads,” Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Nov. 22, 1975.

We beat the #1 ranked team in the semifinals by a score of 42-0 and were allowed to host the State Championship game in Bluefield for the first time in school history.

From Nov. 23, 1975 Bluefield Daily Telegraph: “BING, BING, BANG! – There goes Donnie the Magnificent of Beaver diving into the end zone to ring the bell for the game’s first touchdown, an eight yarder, before an overflow crowd estimated unofficially at about 12,000 at Mitchell Stadium Saturday as a great Bluefield team vanquished a good South Charleston team 20-7 to capture the school’s fifth state championship in recent years.”

On November 22, 1975, we defeated South Charleston 20-7 giving Coach Chmara his first championship as a head coach. The win restored Bluefield’s championship tradition and gave Stubby bragging rights about southern West Virginia football once again!


Stubby Currence's Press Box column the day of the 1975 West Virginia AAA Title Game was to be played at Mitchell Stadium

Stubby Currence’s Press Box column the day of the 1975 West Virginia AAA Title Game was to be played at Mitchell Stadium.


I want to give a big thanks to Don Jackson for allowing me to share this story. I enjoyed digging through the Daily Telegraph archives about this game, which provided me with a greater appreciation of all that it takes to be a championship team. I’m proud it all came together for Bluefield in 1975.

What are your John Chmara stories or recollections from this storied season? Share them in the comments.  

~Melissa

1955: Golden Age of West Virginia High School Basketball

I’ve been contacted by many who have shared great insights on the sports and athletes mentioned here at StubbyCurrence.com. I was lucky to hear from Josh Hall, whose dad is Don Hall, a 1955 Logan Wildcats center named to that year’s West Virginia High School Basketball All-State Team by a selection board overseen by Stubby Currence.

Hall found the 1955 All-State selections “fascinating” and points out “Jerry West was relegated to the Honorable Mentions in spite of averaging 24.5 points per game and being named Player of the Year in the powerful Kanawha Valley Conference as a junior for East Bank.”

Oh, I would have loved to ask Stubby why!

Hall has since been in contact with 16 of the 18 living members of the 1955 First, Second, and Third Team West Virginia All-Staters and has complied a book. Here is the intro:


1955 West Virginia High School Basketball: Introduction

By Josh Hall

If a basketball enthusiast was to select one year to chronicle out of nearly a century of West Virginia High School basketball, they could find few more interesting and historic than the 1954-1955 season.

The basketball world in 1955 looked somewhat different than it does today partially due to slow integration. Major League Baseball was integrated in 1947. The NBA (which consisted of only eight teams) was integrated in 1950. In the West Virginia High School ranks, there would be two more seasons after 1955 before complete integration. Bill Lewis of Grafton High School, however, became the first black player in the history of the West Virginia High School Basketball State Tournament in 1955.

The way the game was being played was changing too. This was the era of crew cuts, Chuck Taylor All-Stars, narrow foul lanes, and players who were still referred to as “cagers”, but the mid-50’s marked a transition to the modern game. Two hand set shots were becoming modern jump shots. The fast break was the weapon of choice for many teams. Games were often played at a frenzied pace before packed and in many cases, rowdy gymnasiums. Three of the state’s top teams; Mullens, Wheeling, and Huntington High Schools, averaged nearly 90 points per game. In 1955, single game team scoring records were set three times in a one-month span.

One constant, however, has been the source of pride that high school sports teams have been to communities throughout West Virginia and in the 1950’s, the toughness of their basketball teams often reflected a town’s identity. “Coal Camp” towns produced lean, hard-nosed, gritty players. One such team, the 1955 Logan Wildcats, went 22-3 with wins over both 1955 state finalists.

The following is a compilation of games, scores, teams, and players from the remarkable 1954-1955 West Virginia High School basketball season. Some of the highlights include:

  • The season included most of the players that would make up the roster of West Virginia University’s 1959 NCAA Finals team.
  • A 146 to 110 contest between Wheeling and Weirton…still the highest scoring game in West Virginia High School basketball history.
  • At least seven different players had 50 points in a game.
  • The undefeated regular seasons of Class “A” schools, Gauley Bridge and Clarksburg-Washington Irving and the Class “B” school, Gassaway.
  • Charleston-Garnet defeated Beckley-Stratton to win the W.Va. Athletic Union Championship.
  • Fairview beat Chattaroy to win the Class “B” state championship.
  • Mullens defeated Huntington to win the Class “A” state championship.
  • The 1955 West Virginia All-Stars would be called the states’ best ever to battle Kentucky.
  • A player with a record 40 points per game scoring average and five others who averaged over 30.
  • A player who overcame a childhood bout with polio would lead his team on an amazing run in the state tournament with an historic scoring spree.
  • And a junior from East Bank High School would show his first signs of greatness in 1955 and would eventually become one of the greatest in basketball history.

The 19th All-State Team (1955) included First Team: Forwards Leo Byrd of Huntington, Wille Akers of Mullens; Centers Theryl Willis of Big Creek and Nick Humley of Wheeling, and Guards Alex Hawkins of South Charleston, Robert Smith of Stonewall Jackson, Robert Hart of Clarksburg Washington Irving.

The 19th All-State Team (1955) included First Team: Forwards Leo Byrd of Huntington, Wille Akers of Mullens; Centers Theryl Willis of Big Creek and Nick Humley of Wheeling, and Guards Alex Hawkins of South Charleston, Robert Smith of Stonewall Jackson, Robert Hart of Clarksburg Washington Irving.

Special thanks to Josh Hall! If you have a question for Josh or are interested in a copy of the book, email me at stubbycurrence@gmail.com and I’ll make sure to connect you.

~Melissa

Vic Sorrell: World Series Pitcher, Bluefield Blue-Grays Player and Manager

Vic Sorrell’s 1932 Goudey Gum Company Baseball Card.

We are celebrating Major League Baseball’s Opening Day! Stubby Currence added so much to the legacy of baseball, especially in Four Seasons Country.

I found this article talking about Stubby’s connection to 1935 World Series Winner and Detriot Tiger pitcher Vic Sorrell, who played for the Bluefield Blue-Grays in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Sorrell was lured back to Bluefield, West Virginia, one year after his big-league career ended. According to his son, Sorrell and sportswriter Stubby Currence had maintained a close friendship since the pitcher’s coalfield league days in 1924. Currence persuaded Sorrell to pitch for the Bluefield Blue-Grays, recently admitted to the Class D Mountain State League. Down-to-earth and level-headed, Sorrell was a popular, beloved figure in the town of 25,000 residents. He took the mound for the Blue-Grays in his final three years of professional baseball (1938-40), went 26-11, and managed the club in in 1939 and ’40. He announced his retirement after the 1940 season, and 15 years in Organized Ball. In his ten years with the Tigers he was 92-101, logging 1,671⅔ innings with a 4.43 ERA.” -Gregory H. Wolf
Read the Sorrell’s biography by Gregory H. Wolf  on the Society For American Baseball Research. Sorrell went on to become the head baseball coach at North Carolina State University from 1946 to 1966.
Here is a column Stubby wrote about Sorrell in 1935.

March 14, 1935 Press Box column by Stubby Currence. Story references Victor Sorrell, baseball player, pitcher for Detroit Tigers and former player for Bluefield Blue-Grays and Wake Forest University. Click to zoom.

~Melissa

Legacy of Naming School Sports Teams

I’ve seen it mentioned that V.L. “Stubby” Currence provided the nicknames for at least two Southwest Virginia High School sports teams.

Graham G-Men

Graham G-Men

Graham High School, Bluefield VA – nicknamed the G-Men

While the Town of Graham was renamed Bluefield in a ceremony with its “sister-city” Bluefield, West Virginia, the school retained its name and adopted the moniker of “Graham Men” or “G-Men.”  The origin of the moniker dates back to ca. 1936 and Bluefield Daily Telegraph reporter Stubby Currence.  He often said in reference to the football team, “just as the FBI ‘G’overnment Men always get their man,” so do the “Graham Men” or “G-Men” get their man.  Athletes were also referred to as “G-Men” when they received a letter in sports.
Graham High School website

Richlands Blue Tornado

Richlands Blue Tornado

Richlands High School, Richlands, VA – nicknamed the Blue Tornado

The story I’ve always heard about Richlands is that the nickname originated with Stubby Currence in his description of a game played back in the 1930s or thereabouts. RHS wore blue jerseys and in this particular game generated a lot of offense. In his description of it for the Daily Telegraph, Currence supposedly described the Richlands team as moving down the field like a “blue tornado.” – By RichlandsAlum on How our schools got their nicknames, SWVASports.com Forums

I haven’t be able to personally verify if these stories are true. But was a cool legacy, if so. I’ll post if there are more teams Stubby may have helped name.

Comment how your favorite high school sports team got its name. I’d love to hear them.

~Melissa

Stubby in the New York Times

newyorktimesSo good ole Stubby Currence was mentioned in the New York Times a little while back in an opinion piece by Erin McKean titled “The Wise Words of Maya Angelou. Or Someone, Anyway.”

The author, the chief executive and founder of the online dictionary Wordnik.com, was writing about a new Maya Angelou postage stamp which attributes this quote to Angelou:

A bird doesn’t sing because he has an answer, it sings because he has a song.

But it was in fact written by children’s book writer Joan Walsh Anglund. 

McKean goes to to use Stubby as another example of possible misattribution for the master Mark Twain:

A favorite Twainism-that-isn’t is “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work,” which might be the work of a 1930s newspaper columnist named Stubby Currence, but is more likely a variation of an older, anonymous joke.

Quite the mystery! I guess only Stubby would know for sure. And keeping company with the New York Times, Mark Twain and Maya Angelou sounds about right for Stubby.

Wishing all dads a very Happy Father’s Day. I’m missing The Dad a lot today, but he’s always in my heart.

~Melissa