Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

June 22, 2012

Campbell a constant over the years at Bowen Field

BLUEFIELD — The names and faces and uniforms have changed over the years at Bowen Field, but the attraction to minor league baseball has remained strong for folks like Ron Campbell.

The successful investment planner from Bluefield has a long attachment to the historic venue that will host the Bluefield Blue Jays’ first home game of the 2012 season tonight.

Campbell said, “My dad first took me to the ballpark when I was about 5 years old. It was the old wooden ballpark back then. I remember the old Bluefield Blue-Grays were playing when I attended my first game with Dad.

“That was almost 60 years ago — it’s something you never forget.”

“Smokey [James] Shott and I attended the ballgames together when we were really young. We still have box seats near each other; we still go to ballgames together. And Don and David Kersey … they’ve spent their life at the ballpark, doing what they could to make the ballclub a success.”

“I started working at Bowen Field when I was probably 9 or 10 years old. I was one of the vendors who sold peanuts, popcorn and Coke to people in the grandstand. You’d keep track of how much you sold. I got a penny a bag for selling peanuts and popcorn.”

“You had a lot of really old fans that had attended ballgames forever. They knew you by name, and when you came up to where they were, you would talk to them for a little bit.”

There were “five or six boys” selling, he said, plus a character who looked to be in his 50s, named Catbird.

“Everyone would want to buy from Catbird,” Campbell said. The colorful vendor dispensed poems with his wares, Campbell said. “They were semi-original. And they didn’t always rhyme. Often he would force a rhyme at the end. But people enjoyed them, and they always had some humor.”

He said the soft drinks the vendors sold suffered some depreciation with time.

“When you left [the concession stand area] they were cold. By the time the customers at the far end got them, they were slightly cool,” he said. “You poured it in a cup and drank it.”

His boss was George Fanning, the hands-on general manager of everything from the lawn mowers to the payroll for years at Bowen Field.

“Later, I went to work with him in the office,” Campbell said. “I’d try to help him keep some semblance of organization in that office. People who knew him would tell you that he didn’t have great organizational ability.”

“He was part of that tradition, and when George McGonagle joined him, he became part of that wonderful tradition that carried on from the early days.”

Campbell saw plenty of talent on the field, mostly after his vending days were over.  

“As I got older and I didn’t sell, I got to watch [the players] more closely,” he said. “When you saw them, you knew they would be outstanding.

“There was Tony Oliva, playing for the Wytheville Senators. This was before [the Washington Senators] moved to Minnesota.”

“Then, with the Kingsport Mets, there was Darryl Strawberry. He was phenomenal. You could see he wouldn’t be an ordinary baseball player.”

Baseball buffs would turn to the Daily Telegraph through the years to follow the major league exploits of the players they saw in Bluefield.

“You’d always read to see who were the best hitters in the league,” Campbell said.

The Bluefield Orioles began their 53-year affiliation with Bluefield in 1958. Campbell and Shott were able to observe many of their players’ comings and goings on a very personal level, as the players stayed in a boarding house run by a “Mrs. Hill.”

Campbell said, “At that time, Smokey lived down on College Avenue, and a number of the players lived across the street from him. When they would come to town, they’d rent from Mrs. Hill. She was a real pleasant, older lady. She cooked for them, did their clothes, took care of them.”

“Boog Powell was there. … For a lot of these fellows, it was their first time away from home. They were kids, we were kids. It was a simpler time.”

“And there was also Mrs. Short. She lived down from where the Community Center is now. Cal Ripken stayed there. They would come home late at night, after a ballgame, and Mrs. Short would have a meal ready for them. She’d press their clothes.”  

“I have heard that for years, after Cal Ripken made it to the [Baltimore Orioles], he would send a Christmas card, every year, to Mrs. Short.”

At Bowen Field, Campbell said, “I can remember George Fanning talking to Cal in the office. Then there was Don Baylor, Mark Belanger, Bob Grich, Doug DeCinces, and Dean Chance. He was a really good pitcher in those days.”

He said when Ripken was first assigned to Bluefield by the Orioles, they already had a shortstop with more experience, Bob Bailor.

“For the first two weeks of the season, he was the starter, and Cal had to sit on the bench,” Campbell said. Ripken didn’t like that one bit, the story goes.

“He told George Fanning he was going to leave the club and go home,” Campbell said. Fanning told him later that he called up Ripken’s father, Cal Ripken Sr., and handed the phone to his new infielder.

Ripken stayed, Bailor “moved up” to another level of the minor-league system, and the career began for the gritty infielder who would become baseball’s all-time leader in consecutive major-league games played.  

When Powell first arrived in Mercer County, he was a teenager aboard an airplane that had landed at the Mercer County Airport on Hurricane Ridge. Fanning drove up to pick him up, and remarked, “That was the biggest 18-year-old kid he’d ever seen in his life,” Campbell said.

“He was just a wonderful ballplayer,” Campbell said.

The Bluefield businessman said he and his wife visited Baltimore years after Powell retired from playing baseball. “We stopped in at Boog’s Barbeque, a nice restaurant he has there,” Campbell said. “He was there, and he came out and talked to us for quite a while.

“I told him, ‘I saw you play in your first baseball game,’ and he told us of his fond memories of Bluefield, and of George Fanning.”

Campbell’s connection with minor-league baseball in Bluefield has continued through good and bad times at Bowen Field.

Through the bleak year after a fire demolished the wooden structures in the 1970s. Through renovations and resoddings.

Through years full of top-notch players and years when the lack of talent was painfully obvious.

“You just felt like you had a part in it,” he said. “You felt like you were a part of the start of things.”

Campbell said that McGonagle, the prime mover the Bluefield Baseball Club, has been “an integral part of being able to carry on the tradition of Bluefield baseball. Any way we can maintain it … we will, somehow.”

“You have that old Bluefield baseball tradition around here, and we’re trying to carry it forward for everyone to see and to benefit from.”

— Contact Tom Bone at

tbone@bdtonline.com

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