It wasn’t that long ago when the Appalachian League appeared to be on the brink of disappearing from the baseball landscape.
Those murmurings are no more, and if anyone knows that for sure, it is Pat O’Conner, who is the president and chief executive officer of Minor League Baseball.
He visited Bowen Field at the end of last season for what turned out to be one of the final games played by the Bluefield Orioles. He also visited Hunnicutt Field and the Princeton Rays.
“The Appalachian League is fine, they have updated facilities, there is nothing wrong with this physical plant right here,” said O’Conner, of Bowen Field, which has been in use since 1939.
It’s not just Bowen Field. Improvements have taken place all over the league.
The Appalachian League is a collection of small towns, nine of which started playing baseball from 1905 to 1942. The circuit has been a part of 32 cities/towns in six states since its creation in 1911.
The league, itself, started 100 years ago with six clubs in three states, but it only lasted three years before folding. It was rekindled with six teams in 1921, surviving four years this time. It was brought back in 1937 with four clubs, and unlike many minor leagues, continued playing right through World War II.
It lasted until 1955, a season that saw minor league slugging legend Leo “Muscle” Shoals win his fifth Appalachian League home run title.
Two years later, in 1957, the circuit was back again, with six teams, including Bluefield, which became part of the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system for one season. Bluefield had played as the Blue-Grays in the Mountain State League from 1937-42, and continued as an affiliate with the Braves, Senators and Red Sox in the Appalachian League.
The league has stayed around since ‘57, with Bluefield catching on the Orioles in 1958, a relationship that continued for 53 years until last August.
O’Conner expects the tradition of the Appalachian League to continue on.
“If you have been around baseball long enough like me, if you work around baseball long enough, these things are cyclical,” O’Conner said. “What goes around comes around.”
Not all that long ago, there were apparently legitimate fears that the league would cease to exist as some in Major League Baseball thought money could be saved by shaving down some leagues.
Fortunately, for Bluefield, Princeton and the rest of the Appalachian League, that move never came to fruition. Apparently, the thinking is different now, and those possibilities appear to have ended.
“What young executives think are great new ideas have been talked about and rethought,” O’Conner said. “At this point I have heard nothing that would lead me to believe there are any dangers that were discussed before.”
Many of the facilities in the Appalachian League have been around a while, but all have been improved, including a much-needed new playing surface in Princeton. Bowen Field has also made similar changes in recent years.
There hasn’t been any choice. Major League Baseball has set down guidelines for its teams, and even in a league with older ball parks — in most cases — those changes have been made.
Some of the oldest parks in America are in the Appy League, including Bowen Field (1939), which is actually four years younger than Calfee Park (1935) in Pulaski.
Others have also been around for a while. Howard Johnson Field in Johnson City (1956), Burlington Athletic Stadium (1960), DeVault Stadium in Bristol (1969), Elizabethton’s Joe O’Brien Field (1974) all have their quirks, but have continued to support baseball.
Newer facilities include Hunnicutt Field (1988), Dan Daniel Park in Danville (1993), Hunter Wright Stadium in Kingsport (1995) and the league’s top modern stadium, Pioneer Park in Greeneville (2004), which replaced Martinsville, which wasn’t able to meet the new standards.
O’Conner said the rumors and murmurings were during a time when even Major League teams were thought to be on the chopping block. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had spoken of contraction, possibly eliminating such small market or financially-scrapped teams as the Twins and Marlins.
Yet, the Appalachian League has managed to withstand much in its history, and that includes talk of league elimination.
“They have upgraded facilities, they have a new park in Greeneville, they have done renovations in Pulaski and Princeton, there is nothing wrong with this physical plant here in Bluefield,” O’Conner said. “The physical plant is only part of what makes the Appalachian League so great, the way the communities embrace them, I think the health of it is fine.
“The issues that came up were a ripple of what was happening at the big league level.”
Fortunately, contraction talk appears to have ended for now, but it’s still up to the local communities to support their teams. No team is safe, as was proven last August when the Orioles pulled out after 53 years.
There is a commitment between affiliates and local clubs, but there must be support in the form of people in the seats. Don’t just assume your area team will always be here.
“I think Major League Baseball is committed to the league, they own these franchises and sign these operating agreements with these communities,” O’Conner said. “Our position has always been for Major League Baseball to be fair with these communities, be open with them and let them know what is going on, recognize their commitment and their investment.”
While attendance figures continue to dip somewhat in the major leagues, Minor League Baseball has seen an upswing, having its best year ever in 2008. O’Conner hopes those numbers continue in a suffering economy.
“It is a good situation, but the overall health of Minor League Baseball is such now, we have a great relationship with Major League Baseball,” O’Conner said. “We are in a situation where we are dealing with problems from the same angle, from the same side and the same business, not really in dispute over anything.”
With that in mind, area teams can be confident that local baseball will remain, although it is still up to communities to do better than Bluefield did last year when attendance figures dropped by more than 11,000 spectators from the year before.
Teams can leave, the Orioles certainly did.
As for the Appalachian League as a whole, it appears to be safe for now.
“Anytime you have a relationship that is contractual in nature you are going to have differences in opinions on minor things, that is like being in a family,” O’Conner said. “It is a marriage, we’ve been in love for 108 (now 109) years so nothing makes me think there is anything on the horizon that is structurally altering to what we know is the minor league system right now.”
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor with the Daily Telegraph. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org