PRINCETON — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of an ongoing series of articles commemorating the 25th year of professional baseball in Princeton.
Twenty-five years ago Princetonians were filled with excitement as professional baseball was on the verge of making its debut in the Mercer County seat.
In a the short time between the baseball winter meetings in late 1987 in Dallas and the beginning of the Appalachian League season in June, organizers and volunteers manged to cram 15 months of work into six by the time the Princeton Pirates played their first home game.
Dewey Russell was president of the Princeton Baseball Association from 1991 to 2009 and worked closely with the initial president of the Association, Jim Thompson, who passed earlier this year. Russell talked about how baseball came to Princeton.
“Mr. Thompson was very good friends with Allen Coppinger who was very big in baseball in Bluefield. He (Coppinger) loved baseball and Jim was a sports fanatic. They just thought it would be neat if the two communities, Bluefield and Princeton, had professional baseball,” Russell said. “Probably because of Allen's involvement in baseball in Bluefield, they collaborated and Allen probably made some calls. I think it happened a lot quicker than they thought.”
And happen quickly it did. Records from early 1988 indicate that the ball started rolling at the baseball winter meetings in late 1987 and on Feb. 4, 1988, the Pittsburgh Pirates announced they were placing a team in Princeton for the upcoming season. Russell recalled some of the events that occurred.
“Harry Finkelman, he could talk an elephant to its knees, went out to the winter meetings, I think it was in Texas, they sent him as a missionary,” Russell recalled. “You ought to have seen people scurrying to get the field ready, just get things done to be ready for the season to open.”
While there was a baseball field in Princeton, according to Russell it was not playable. Once word came that the city was getting a franchise, things shifted into high gear.
“As I recall it was quite hectic. There was a lot of volunteer work. Charlie Pace was very involved, Harry Finkelman and many others,” Russell said. “The volunteerism and the benevolence of this area, the community rallied real quick. Jack Brown was GM of Pepsi Cola in Princeton, he got them to buy the first scoreboard. You had people like R.C. Belcher, the premier mason in the area, he did a lot of work on the dugouts, things like that just to get it ready.”
In addition to all the volunteers and community support, Russell said there was one group that was vital to baseball not only coming to Princeton but helping keep it in town for a quarter century.
“Nothing in this community would have happened without the benevolence of the Hunnicutt Foundation,” Russell said. “Bill Stafford and Buck Sarver, those were the two son-in-laws of H.P. Hunnicutt. The Hunnicutt Foundation, they've always been behind it. Obviously they're 90 percent responsible for all we've got out there right now.”
The community has been involved with the team in Princeton from day one. Whether it was the Pirates, Patriots, Reds or Rays, the fervor for the home team can be seen throughout town and on game days by the fans that turn out to root, root, root for the home team.
“It's been a great source of community pride and it's been good for the community, just as well as the Bluefield team there. Who can remember when there wasn't a team in Bluefield? Most of the people who don't remember are, I guess, dead,” Russell said. “Baseball in Princeton is good for the community. When you see those elderly people out there, I guarantee ou there are people out there who haven't missed a game since it started in '88.”
Russell said that he and others who work with professional baseball in towns like Princeton and Bluefield do it not for personal attention, but for the common good.
“I did it for the community. I didn’t do it for self-glory or any such thing like that. It's just like the guys over in Bluefield, or the guys down in Elizabethton, or wherever they do it, because it is for the community,” Russell said. “You do things as a community volunteer and that's why I did it.”
Russell ended his tenure as president of the Princeton Baseball Association in 2009, but he can still be seen at the Hunnicutt Field cheering on the Rays. He believes that baseball will have a long life in the town for one basic reason and he shared a conversation he had with a fellow Princetonian.
“Will Stafford said to me one day, 'Dewey, the Hunnicutt Foundation is going to do everything it can do to keep professional baseball in Princeton for the main reason it's good family entertainment.’”
The 2013 Princeton Rays open the season Thursday night in Danville. The home opener is Sunday, June 23 vs. Burlington.
— Contact Bob Redd