Seven decades of baseball. Plus.
Since the late 1940s, George McGonagle has been walking the confines of Bowen Field, soaking up baseball lore and toiling on behalf of the sport he loves.
His work has been noticed, for sure. The Appalachian League became the latest, on Friday, to honor Bluefield’s premier ambassador of baseball by naming him to its new league hall of fame.
The historic ballpark opened its gates briefly for McGonagle’s enshrinement ceremony, and the honoree said that when he first became a regular at the field, “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought, after so many years … I would still be involved, let alone to be inducted into the Appalachian League Hall of Fame.”
“I just love this ballpark,” he said. “It just stuck with me.”
Running the ceremony was the general manager at Bowen Field, Rocky Malamisura, who talked about the “immense” pride that Bluefield area baseball fans have for his boss.
At the age of 77, McGonagle still serves as president of the Bluefield Baseball Club, a position he has held since 1988. The club is responsible for all of the off-the-field aspects of hosting Minor League Baseball at Bowen Field — an enterprise put on pause this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
David Kersey, vice president of the club, said at the induction, “George truly is the reason that we’re still here, that we still have a team in this community, and that the Appalachian League overall has advanced, and prospered, and been an excellent starting ground for professional baseball players.”
“We’ve been blessed with such leadership — that I think is rare in today’s world,” Kersey added. “The guidance and leadership that George has provided over these decades is, I think, unprecedented.”
As with many of the world’s gatherings during the pandemic, the ceremony was planned with health safeguards in mind.
Chairs were almost uniformly 6 feet apart, set up in the open-air courtyard of Bowen Field. McGonagle and Malamisura, shaded by a tent on a sunny afternoon, wore blue facemasks with Bluefield Blue Jays logos on them.
In addition to McGonagle family members and local dignitaries, representatives of the Princeton and Bristol league franchises made the trip to Bowen Field for the festivities.
Checking in via Internet connections to offer their congratulations were Dan Moushon, president of the Appalachian League, and Charlie Wilson, the director of minor league operations for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Malamisura said, “That is a true testament to the influence George has had in professional baseball throughout the years … that these folks would take time out of their day for an induction ceremony via the Internet. Both of them would have liked to have been here, but could not be here.”
“So the respect that baseball as a whole, the minor leagues, the Appalachian League, and the teams involved, for George, is on display today.”
Wilson told McGonagle that his induction was “very well deserved.” He spoke of the “tremendous partnership” that the Bluefield Baseball Club and the Toronto organization have participated in for nine seasons.
“Our players and staff have been the beneficiaries of so many great things that you have led and accomplished,” Wilson told McGonagle via the computer link. “We want to say thank you and congratulations.”
Moushon said that McGonagle’s name was “at the top of the list” for the hall of fame’s second induction class.
An Appy League hall of fame had been discussed for around 18 years, Malamisura said. In the last couple of years, it took shape as a “virtual” entity rather than a brick-and-mortar building, he said.
The inaugural class was limited to former Appalachian League players who went on to become Major League Baseball successes. The next class, which was elected last fall, was open to “general administration folks,” Malamisura said. McGonagle was a shoe-in.
“George is probably the only inductee into the hall of fame right now (for whom) the nomination process was 100 percent, and on the ratification process was 100 percent.” Malamisura said.
That class includes Jim Holland, former general manager for the Princeton Baseball Association for 24 years. His induction ceremony is scheduled for noon on Monday at the Vietnam Veterans building in Princeton.
McGonagle, an Air Force veteran, was the general manager for Bluefield from 1995 to 2007, not counting a couple of stints as interim GM after that. Minor League Baseball honored him with its annual “King of Baseball” award at the 2012 baseball winter meetings. He was also named Appy League Executive of the Year three times.
He learned the ins and outs of baseball administration from his predecessor, George Fanning.
“He taught me how to work,” McGonagle said. “Of course, I’d had my own business for years, and I was coming over here and volunteering at nights, to help him. He taught me how to work, taught me the game of baseball, taught me the business side of baseball. … He taught me how to work on the field. Taught me the whole thing. I learned so much.”
McGonagle said that Fanning was the “greatest guy I ever met. I think about him, every day.”
Friday was also a day to think about other friendships made over the decades.
“You make so many friends, and they’re lifetime friends,” he said. “They’re not here today and gone tomorrow. They’re here forever. And I’m still in communication with a lot of ‘em.”
Lenny Johnston was a minor-league coordinator for the Baltimore Orioles and spent every summer in the clubhouse at Bowen Field, looking over his crop of prospects. Lee Landers, who retired as Appy League president in 2018, was also a frequent visitor to Bluefield.
“Both of those guys are very, very good, but they were also very hard on me,” McGonagle said. “I talk to both of them very frequently.”
McGonagle credited the “great fans we’ve had here at Bowen Field over the years.” The success of minor league baseball locally “wasn’t just me,” he said. “Our board of directors has been involved, and corporations and individuals (donating). If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know where we’d be.”
He praised cooperation proffered by the governments of both Bluefields.
“It was never a Bluefield, Va., or Bluefield, W.Va., thing,” McGonagle said. “It was a baseball thing. They both supported what we were trying to do over here.”
He said the Bowen Field operation employs “roughly 45” people each summer, drawn partly from area colleges and high schools — but not this year, due to the absence of a season.
About the economic development benefits to the area, he said, “We figure that between Bluefield and Princeton, it’s probably close to $15 million, (and) that’s just for 34 (home game) days.”
He said his biggest challenge in his job over the years was “keeping up with park standards.”
He recalled that in the late 1980s, the Orioles franchise sent an architect to Bluefield to give the local baseball club a “heads up” on physical improvements to minor league ballparks that were soon to be required.
“Ever since then, it’s been something, every year,” he said, with the price tag coming in around $2 million or more over the years. “We’re always willing to do that for them,” he said. “We think we have one of the best parks in rookie-league baseball.”
Kersey said, “Every aspect of this ball club and this facility has George McGonagle’s fingerprints all over it.”
Malamisura said, “Now, we rely on his knowledge of baseball, of the the business of baseball, and of the community as a whole. We draw on that knowledge, that wealth.”
McGonagle said, “I still do something ‘baseball’ every day. … I still do the bookwork, and the payroll, and pay the bills, and do that taxes. I’ve never given that up.”
“We’re still doing improvements. I don’t stay all day, but I’m here most of the time. … Rocky’s here, and we keep in touch with what’s going on.”
“I stay busy enough,” he said, laughing. “I’m old. I’ll be 78 in August — and I still work. I still try to mow the grass, but it’s getting harder.”
Malamisura said McGonagle has been “a staple of the baseball world for decades. And (he) has been a mentor, a friend, at times a disciplinarian, and at other times like a father figure to me.”
“He has truly been instrumental in having kept professional baseball in Bluefield as we know it.”
— Tom Bone is a retired Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. His beat included covering Appalachian League games from 2000-2019.