Game woven into fabric of mill village life

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Textile Baseball:

Game woven into fabric of mill village life


Textile League baseball was something once woven into the fabric of everyday mill-village life.  The times from the late 1800s through the 1950s were special in that they bonded the human spirit with a sport called baseball. This developing sport caught on quickly in the South and was embraced by mill-village workers. 

   After the Civil War, the textile industry blossomed throughout the South. And workers were regularly putting in 12-hour days. 

   Mill owners began developing mini-communities surrounding the mill for those who were traveling great distances to work each day. Owners saw the advantage of creating mill-village housing for workers. 

   But they also recognized the need for recreational opportunities and socialization outside of the day-to-day grind at the mill. Mill owners realized a happy worker was a productive worker. 

   To keep folks happy, owners began to seek recreational opportunities for their employees. 

  The new game of baseball was already a passion among mill workers. Owners understood the game also offered participants preparation for working at the mill. Baseball provided an atmosphere to teach respect for authority. It taught self-control, discipline and increased employee morale. 

   It also provided a place for people to socialize outside of work. 

   One of the earliest games in the South was in 1873 in Cokesbury, S.C. By the late 1880s, leagues were popping up throughout South Carolina. 

   These weren't just baseball games. They were social events. Hundreds flocked to watch a little baseball, but also to participate in sack races, enjoy the barbecues and listen to concerts. 

   But outside of mill-village life, little credence was given to Textile League baseball. 

   The city folks referred to the mill workers as "lintheads" and paid little attention to their game. 

   That all changed when a player from Piedmont - Champ Osteen - took his skills to the North. He played in the majors before returning to coach at Furman University and Erskine College. Osteen made more money playing baseball than many of the well-to-do city folks. 

   The success of Osteen and some of the early players from the South helped create a shift in attitude. Mill workers were no longer severely judged as second-class citizens. 

   City businesses began to see the large crowds attending games. They also recognized there were opportunities to advertise in front of a big, consumer-oriented crowds. 

   And as advertising revenue poured in, mill owners began to scale back the work week in order to give players more time to prepare for games. It became a money-making opportunity for mill owners.  Teams began bidding for players to stay competitive. 

   At Greenville's Brandon Mill, a young 13-year-old floor sweeper started attracting attention with his great talent. Young Joe Jackson began to create a stir among the pro scouts from the North. 

   Greenville-News reporter Scoop Lattimer once reported how young Joe had to play in his stockings one game because of blisters on his feet. He called him "the Shoeless Joe Jackson." The name stuck. Jackson went on to play for the Chicago White Sox. He was a member of the 1919 that was accused of conspiring with gamblers to throw the Series. Jackson never admitted to doing so, and his impressive Series stats tell a story of an honest ballplayer. But Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw "Mountain" Landis saw things a different way and banned Jackson and others from organized baseball for life. 

   As pro scouts came south to look at Jackson in the pre-White Sox years, they got to see a plethora of talent they didn't realize existed. Players such as Ware Shoals' Johnny Wertz were also drawing attention. This pitcher took his talents to the big leagues in the 1920s before arm trouble cut short his career.  But a recruiting base was forming. And with this came some interesting happenings on mill grounds. 

   There were rules about who could participate in Textile League games. The most important rule: You had to be a mill employee. 

   Suddenly, young men were walking around mill grounds with jobs that required little more skill than carrying a hammer. If you looked the part, you were an employee and thereby qualified to play. 

   As Textile League ball became more important to communities, the game became increasingly intense. In earlier days, games would be played on open fields. And some of the fields where hillarious. There were even ground rules for when balls hit machinery or rolled down steep hills in the outfield. 

   Leagues began requiring roped areas surrounding the field to keep angry fans from storming onto the playing surface. 

   There were reports of games being postponed because fans stormed the field in protest of an umpires' calls and refused to leave. 

   In a game between Ninety Six and Ware Shoals, it was reported that an umpire drew a gun and fired into the air to control an angry crowd. 

   By the end of the 1920s, the Textile Leagues were known as the unofficial farm system of the major leagues. The 1930s were considered textile ball's glory years. Where the average mill worker would make $7-$10 per week, the average mill worker/ball player could make as much as $100-$200 a week. 

   The increased revenue for players and owners meant bigger and better fields.  Some fields were ridiculously large.  Ware Shoals' Riegel Stadium - which still stands - was said to be so big that virtually no one could hit the ball over the center field fence. 

   At the same time, women's Textile Leagues and Negro Leagues began to flourish. Unfortunately, few newspaper reporters covered Negro League games. So finding reports of these are difficult. However, those who lived at the time - such as Ninety Six's Rosel Williams - can tell great stories about the legends you've never heard of and the stories you wish you had. 

   Williams, who still lives in Ninety Six, played for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues and later with the Cincinnati Reds organization. 

   Greenwood (S.C.) Negro League player Chino Smith was recently voted to Sports Illustrated's Top 100 Athletes of the Century. 

   During the 30s, technology and advancements in communications were having their effect, as well. WFBC radio on Greenville, S.C., had one of the South's first radio broadcasts of a Textile League game. And games were now being played under the lights - although the lighting left much to be desired. 

   But war came in the 40s and wreaked havoc on many leagues. But there were still many great players who emerged from war-time textile ball. 

   Lou Brissie, a pitcher from Ware Shoals, played with the Philadelphia Athletics and Brooklyn Dodgers. Tommy Lasorda, the famous Dodger, brought his talents to Jonana, S.C., as a member of the Fort Jackson team. 

   And Bill Voiselle put his little town of Ninety Six on the map by wearing the No. 96 jersey. He is the only player to ever wear the name of his hometown on his jersey. He had to get special permission from the league in order to do so because pitchers weren't allowed to wear such high numbers. 

   Another player, Ben Johnson, of Greenwood, pitched for the Chicago Cubs. Although his stay, by his own account, was "just for a cup of coffee," he returned to his home and became a coaching legend for American Legion Baseball. Johnson, who lives just outside of Greenwood in a town called Waterloo, is still one of the area's most-respected men. He helped shape the lives of many great area athletes who excelled in baseball - and also in college and pro football. 

   Brissie's story still inspires those who live in this area. He was drafted by Philadelphia. But he was also drafted into the service. He had to put his budding baseball career on hold. But while in the service, his legs were wounded. He eventually had to have 23 operations on his right leg. But in 1949, he still managed to make the all-star team. Brissie will always have a special place in the hearts of those who witnessed what he overcame. 

   The Voiselle story is an interesting one that tells a perfect tale of the traditional mill-village baseball family. Bill joined brothers Claude and Jim as Textile League greats. 

   But it was Bill who earned his ticket to the majors. He played with the Boston Braves and the New York Giants and pitched in the World Series against Cleveland. 

   In 1944, he earned the National League Most Valuable Rookie  honor after winning 21 games. He's still proud of his 25 complete games. He stresses that today's pitchers aren't groomed to go the distance the way his generation of hurlers were. 

   Voiselle still gets tons of autograph requests. Fans of all ages send him balls, pictures and other memorabilia in hopes that he'll sign them. He does. No matter how long it takes him to form his stroke-stricken arm into a writing position, he'll do it. 

   Johnson gets similar requests. In fact, a Major League player stumbled upon an old Johnson card recently and sent it to the former Cub for an autograph. 

   Voiselle will always be remembered for his charitable acts. He brought several of his Major League buddies to his hometown to put on an all-star charity game for Jackie Spearman, a teen-age girl who had to have her arm amputated because of a tumor. The proceeds helped Spearman get a prosthetic arm. 

   While war time was having its effects, leagues were still surviving. Advertising on outfield fences - the kind you see today at minor league parks - became commonplace.  But following the war, work began to overshadow recreation - and baseball. The 1950s saw a major decline in Textile League baseball. 

   There were many reasons: 

   Mill owners began selling mill-village housing to outsiders, who didn't bring with them the same kind of enthusiasm and community pride as those who lived AND worked there. 

   And the widespread purchases of automobiles took people to places they had never been. A walk to the ballpark was suddenly replaced by a drive to the lake.  But maybe the worst of all was the growth of television. 

   TV brought the magical world indoors, without the fear of bad weather. 

   As community bonds began to weaken, the crowds at games began to shrink. Less crowds meant less financial support from mill owners and advertisers. 

   By the mid-50s, there were mass league shutdowns throughout the South. Some leagues held on through the 60s, and even a few into the early 70s. But the old-time magic of Textile League ball had passed. 

   As I look at the small crowds at college and legion baseball games in the 21st Century, I can't help but feel empty. 

   I know you can't blame the fans. The world has changed and there are many other things other than small-town baseball. But, if you get a chance, take a walk down memory lane on one cool summer afternoon and head out to the nearest ballpark. 

  Let you imagination wander, and maybe you'll open a window to the past for a few brief moments. 

   NOTE: Much of the historical information in this report was derived from Thomas Perry's book "Textile League Baseball." Perry lives in Newberry, S.C. He also wrote a book on Textile League Basketball. Perry researched many old South Carolina newspapers. He cites the Spartanburg Herald (now the Herald-Journal), the Greenwood Index-Journal and the Greenville News. 

   Some of the information comes from my personal interaction with Voiselle, Johnson and Williams. I work at the Index-Journal and have had the privilege to meet many of these greats. 

Greg Deal works for The Index-Journal in Greenwood, S.C. 

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