In the first 20 years of the 20th century, professional baseball teams were organized in every area of West Virginia. The earliest town to have a team was Wheeling, which played several Midwestern cities in the Class B Central League from 1903 through 1912.
Fairmont, Clarksburg, and Piedmont played in the Class D Western Pennsylvania League in 1907. When the league folded a year later, Fairmont and Clarksburg switched to the Class D Pennsylvania-West Virginia League. Mannington spent less than half a season in professional ball, combining with Fairmont, Clarksburg, and Grafton to form the Class D West Virginia League in 1910. When the Grafton team disbanded on July 5, the league folded. Those early teams, which consisted mostly of local players, were not associated with the major leagues.
By 1920, 14 West Virginia cities and towns had spent time in professional baseball. They were Charleston, Clarksburg, Fairmont, Follansbee, Grafton, Huntington, Mannington, Martinsburg, Montgomery, Parkersburg, Piedmont, Point Pleasant, Wheeling, and Williamson. By the early 1930s, there were 11 teams, at Beckley, Bluefield, Charleston, Clarksburg, Fairmont, Huntington, Logan, Parkersburg, Welch, Wheeling, and Williamson.
In the early 1920s, future Hall of Fame members Hack Wilson and Lefty Grove played for Martinsburg of the Class D Blue Ridge League. In 1938–39, Stan Musial played for Williamson of the Class D Mountain State League. The minor-league boom of the late 1940s largely bypassed West Virginia. At that time, only Charleston, Bluefield, and Welch fielded teams.
Charleston entered professional baseball in 1910, calling its team the Statesmen. The Statesmen played in the Class D Virginia Valley League with Huntington, Point Pleasant, Parkersburg, Montgomery, and Ashland-Catlettsburg (Kentucky). It was the start of a busy and productive century of baseball in the capital city. After one year in the Virginia Valley League, Charleston participated in the Class D Mountain State League (1911–12) and the Class D Ohio State League (1913–16). In 1916, the city built Kanawha Park, a 3,500-seat wooden structure on the site of what later became Watt Powell Park, but spent the next 15 years without a pro team. In 1931, Charleston joined the Class C Middle Atlantic League (1931–42), a 12-city affiliation that included Beckley, Huntington, Fairmont, Clarksburg, and Wheeling.
By 1936, Charleston and Huntington were the Middle Atlantic League’s lone remaining West Virginia cities. That year, Huntington’s Walter Alston, a future Hall of Fame member, led the league with 35 home runs. Huntington dropped out after the ’36 season, leaving Charleston as the league’s only state representative. The other West Virginia cities offering professional baseball on the eve of World War II were Bluefield, Logan, Welch, and Williamson of the Class D Mountain State League.
Beginning with construction of 5,000-seat Watt Powell Park in 1949, Charleston began moving up the baseball ladder to the Class A Central League (1949–51), Class AAA American Association (1952–60), Class A Eastern League (1962–64), Class AAA International League (1961, 1971–83), and Class A South Atlantic League (1987–present). Charleston’s move to the American Association in 1952—the highest level ever for a West Virginia city — happened suddenly and unexpectedly. On June 23 of that year, the Toledo Mud Hens moved to the West Virginia capital, thereby thrusting Charleston into competition with Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Paul, Louisville, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Columbus. As a member of the American Association in 1956, Charleston produced the only future Hall of Fame member in the city’s long baseball history. Jim Bunning pitched for the team for three months before going to the Detroit Tigers. On April 14, 2005, Charleston opened a new baseball facility, Appalachian Power Park, to replace Watt Powell Park. Charleston’s team, the West Virginia Power, is an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
By 2010, only Charleston, Bluefield, and Princeton had professional baseball teams. Except for a one-year absence in 1956, Bluefield has thrived as a member of the Appalachian Rookie League since 1946. The team produced major-league stars Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray. Nearby Princeton joined the league in 1988, its Devil Rays offering the Bluefield Orioles some cross-county competition. Huntington had a rookie team, the Cubs, from 1990 to 1994. The team, a Chicago Cubs affiliate, competed against Bluefield and Princeton and others in the Appalachian League.
Written by Mike Whiteford
Johnson, Lloyd & Miles A. Wolff, eds. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Durham: Baseball America, 1993.