The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Dorchester nine that day in 1949.
Trailing in the seventh inning of a pivotal game in the Lonesome Pine League playoffs, the best coal-camp team from Wise County stood one victory away from a championship. With a trophy on the line, mighty Roy Flanary, Dorchester’s powerful catcher who had spent some time in professional baseball, clubbed a home run into the cornfield beyond centerfield to give his team the lead. Dorchester won the game by a score of 6-2 to claim the playoff championship in the late summer of ’49.
Victory’s taste was bittersweet, as written by Southwest Virginia writer Lynn Sutter.
“It was a fitting end for Dorchester baseball,” Sutter wrote. “The camp didn’t field a team in 1950. … Sadly, coalfield baseball was nearing its end as well, all but over in another few years as the camps that spawned the teams were diminishing.”
Virginia’s coalfields burst with ball clubs for much of the early and mid-1900s, as men worked in the mines during daylight and played baseball till sunset. Perhaps no one has chronicled the history of coal-camp baseball as thoroughly as Sutter, who has written a book about Appalachian baseball and pens a monthly column for The Coalfield Progress, Norton’s twice-weekly newspaper.
Sutter’s work has earned high praise and honors from fellow baseball researchers across the country, a picky, snooty, often clannish group of seamheads that includes writers, historians and statistics geeks. Two of her books won awards from the well-known Society for American Baseball Research, which honors outstanding baseball research projects.
Sutter might be an unlikely documentarian of coalfield baseball lore. A 63-year-old Memphis native who arrived in Norton two decades ago after living for years out west, Sutter admittedly was a casual baseball fan who had little knowledge of the game’s past or even of Appalachia. After moving from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, following frightening wildfire outbreaks in the early 2000s, she settled in Southwest Virginia on the advice of a friend, a place she happily discovered was “wet and green.” Her desire to learn more about the region led her to researching the history of coalfields towns, which in turn resulted in her discovery of coal-camp baseball teams.
Sutter, who writes under the name L.M. Sutter, went mining for stories and found diamonds among the coal towns — baseball diamonds, usually spread upon the few acres of flat ground in a coal-company town. Coal camps fielded ball clubs for men who needed to blow off steam after a day underground and so the locals could play for bragging rights against other neighboring towns and companies.
“The coal camps loved baseball to the point of distraction,” Sutter said in a telephone interview.
Industrial-scale coal mining changed Virginia’s western mountains in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving rise to coal-company boomtowns and the communities that lived, worked, played and died there.
Baseball games became social outlets for towns, as well as sources of civic pride. Playing games also relieved pressure for the men who labored in dangerous jobs.
“This might be hyperbole, but the constant threat of death in the mines meant that the players played like they had nothing to lose,” she said.
In recent columns for The Coalfield Progress, Sutter has chronicled the tight races among the loosely affiliated independent Lonesome Pine League, which included clubs from Dorchester, Coeburn, Clintwood, St. Paul and other coal-powered towns.
Competition among the ball clubs was so fierce, some teams would raid the rosters of other towns by offering better or easier mining jobs. A good pitcher or slugging outfielder might be lured away by the promise of light work above ground. Some players eventually made it to the major leagues, sometimes replaced by older guys whose careers were winding down.
“There were so many ringers in the coal camps who were either on their way up to the major leagues or on their way down from the major leagues,” she said.
Jim Mooney was a young ringer from Tennessee who was brought to the Dorchester team just a few years before he ended up playing in the big leagues with the 1934 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, an outfit famously known as the “Gashouse Gang” that included Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean.
She also met former big-leaguers Dave Hillman and Tracy Stallard, both coalfields-born pitchers. Stallard, perhaps most famous for surrendering New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris’s record-breaking 61st home run when he pitched for the Boston Red Sox in 1961, returned to Southwest Virginia to live after his career ended.
“Tracy Stallard, what a charismatic, interesting guy he was,” Sutter said. “There was much more to his story than just a single pitch.”
The mountains contained other rich veins of baseball lore. Because the coalfields were a rare place where Black men could find decent-paying work in segregated Virginia, many African American players took the field in Appalachia. In her 2008 book, “Ball, Bat and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball in the Appalachian South,” Sutter wrote that Bob Bowman, a submarine-style-throwing pitcher from Virginia, became the first Black player to suit up for a previously all-white team south of the Mason-Dixon Line when he joined the Middlesboro (Kentucky) Athletics in 1951.
That same year, Norton fielded the first integrated Little League team in the South, a squad whose story Sutter wrote about in a two-part newspaper story earlier this summer. She has also written about women players and fans in Appalachia, including an account about a group of women in Norton who saved that city’s team, if only for a season.
The Norton Braves were set to move to a new home in Tennessee, “[b]ut at the last minute, a group of enthusiastic women fans, led by Edith Bullion, stepped up to announce that if baseball left Norton, they’d leave too,” Sutter wrote in a column published in early August. “If the franchise could only stay, the women promised the board that they’d run the club, keep the books, handle all administrative work and ticket sales, run the concession stand, hawk goodies in the bleachers, police the fence and even chase balls if need be.”
The Braves survived to play one final season — under the women’s management — in the Class D Mountain States League in 1953.
The region played host to barnstorming big-league clubs, some of which stopped to play games between the end of spring training and the start of the regular season. The Cincinnati Reds were fan favorites, especially because the team was one of the nearer big-league clubs to the coalfields, long before expansion brought major league baseball to the South.
Sometimes, though, the publicity from hosting a major league team could be problematic, due to the rampant hillbilly stereotypes that pervaded newspaper coverage. Managers and umpires often told wild stories of menacing mountain people filing ballparks, threatening violence.
In the early 1920s, when the Cincinnati Reds rolled through Appalachia to play exhibition games, the players posed for a photograph with pistols holstered on their hips, a comic show of self-protection from the wild hillbillies. Everybody expected the Hatfields and McCoys to battle it out in the bleachers, it seemed.
(Then again, Sutter did include a note in a column about a school superintendent’s wife from Pennington Gap who used to yell threats at umpires and holler at players to “Beat him to death!” Former big leaguer Dave Hillman, who was born in Scott County and pitched for Coeburn before an eight-season career in the big leagues, told Sutter that “coal camp women were the loudest most assertive fans anywhere because they couldn’t get out of the house much. Baseball games ‘let them holler and get things off their chests.’”)
Sutter published many of her Appalachian baseball stories in her 2008 book, which earned a Baseball Research Award from SABR — commonly pronounced “saber” — the famous Society for American Baseball Research that usually rewards heavily statistics-based research. Sutter’s work, though, is more historic and people-centered.
Her follow-up book, “New Mexico Baseball: Miners, Outlaws, Indians and Isotopes, 1880 to the Present,” was also honored by SABR in 2011. Both books can be purchased on Amazon. Sutter said she was the first woman to earn honors from SABR.
Sutter graduated from Memphis State (now Memphis University) with degrees in medieval history and physical anthropology — experience that might not have benefited her when she spent 20 years tending bar, but her academic and real-world backgrounds gave her the research and people skills that aided her historical writings.
“It took a while to put roots in the ground” in the coalfields, Sutter said. “I think that the people here, despite the abuse that has been heaped on them from the outside world, are the kindest people I have ever known. They are generous of spirit and of pocketbook. There is a charm to them that has been eroded out of most people.”
The era of coalfields baseball slowly wound down, as Americans watched more games on television and the small-town minor leagues and independent teams withered away. Eventually, places like Dorchester dried up, too, as mines closed and families moved.
The memories remained, though. As she wrote in July, the Dorchester players “were remarkable athletes who played two games per weekend, sometimes doubleheaders, and practiced five nights a week, a schedule that should make most of us tired just to consider. But they loved it, every minute. As [former player] Jim [Daniels] said, ‘You worked all day and you were tired but you stayed out ’til dark just practicing. And practicing. And practicing.’
“All for love of the game.”