Ben Huffman. Floyd Baker. Two Players & Luray.

They should have been best friends, Ben Huffman and Floyd Baker.

And, who knows? Maybe they were.

They were farm kids who went to the same high school, played together on the same semi-pro team, played for the same St. Louis Browns – although at different times – and each became a successful scout after his playing days ended.

Ben Huffman

Floyd Baker

One was a good infielder with a so-so bat. The other could hit, if only things had worked out. One played 13 seasons in the big leagues; the other, just one. But, on average, similar stats, if you put them side by side. You can look it up if you want.

Luray, Virginia – pronounced LOO-ray, please – is a tiny town just shy of a 100 miles SW of Washington, DC.

Here.

If you’ve heard of Luray, you are either from Luray, or from somewhere near Luray, or have at some point in your life been one of the 500,000 people who come to Luray each year to visit its famous caverns.

And, I promise, we’ll get to the caverns. In a sec. But, first, baseball.

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Culpeper’s Hall of Famers – Talking Baseball at the Culpeper Museum, March 19

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Pete Hill, outfielder, Negro League & pre-Negro League (left). Eppa Rixey, pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies & Cincinnati Reds (right)

I’m delighted to announce that I have been invited to speak about the lives and careers of Culpeper Virginia’s two National Baseball Hall of Fame members, Pete Hill and Eppa Rixey. The talk will be at the Museum of Culpeper History in downtown Culpeper on Sunday, March 19 at 2:00 p.m.

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Just five ballplayers in the National Baseball Hall of Fame were born in Virginia.  If this seems a little light to you – it did to me, too.  Still, that’s five more than North Dakota, Arizona, Hawaii, and Alaska – combined – so  there is that.

California has 24 members, Alabama has 12, New York 31. Maryland, Virginia’s neighbor to the north, has 12. Not that this Hall of Fame thing is a competition. (Except that it is.)

But, back to the five from Virginia.

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Jim Sullivan — Mine Run, Virginia & The Christmas Cow

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Here is Jimmy Sullivan.

His curve is a beauty,

His fast ball has the hop,

And his control is so good

He may land on the top.

George MacKay describing Jim Sullivan in The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 21, 1922.

Posed action of Philadelphia A's James Sullivan

Public Domain

Sullivan pitching with the Philadelphia Athletics, 1922.

Jim Sullivan’s story is that of a 1920s-era right-hander who never could figure out how to control his fastball. (George MacKay’s rhyme was really just wishful thinking). It’s also a tale of three cities. And, a story about a cow wearing a Christmas hat.

(If the promise of a cow wearing a Christmas hat doesn’t keep you reading, then, clearly, you’re not the person I thought you were.)

Jim Sullivan was born in Mine Run, Virginia in 1894.

mine-run-va

Here.

The Sullivan family didn’t settle forever in Mine Run. By the late ‘teens, Sullivan is playing professionally and his family is in North Carolina. Later, he spends an off-season with his father in Kentucky.

Sullivan’s big league career is rather brief.

He played parts of the 1921 and ‘22 seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics and two games with the Cleveland Indians in 1923.

jim-sullivan-with-cleveland-indians-1923

Public Domain

Sullivan, with the Indians (briefly) in 1923.

Twenty-five big league games total, 73.1 innings pitched (all but five with the A’s), an 0-5 record, a 5.52 ERA, and a reputation for wildness.

(Keep reading. I promise … Christmas Cow is on the way …)

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Clay Bryant – The Alabaman From Virginia

When a ballplayer’s career in the majors is brief – just a game or two – he is said to have had just “a cup of coffee” in the big leagues.

So, if your time in the town where you were born was brief, does it become your “cup of coffee” hometown?

Clay Bryant had more than a “cup of coffee” with the Chicago Cubs.

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The right-handed fastball pitcher spent about six seasons with the Cubs – from 1935 through 1940 – including their pennant-winning and World Series-losing 1938 season.

It’s his birthplace that’s the cup of coffee in this story.

Bryant was born in 1911 in Madison Heights, Virginia.

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He wasn’t there long. Maybe a year – or a couple of years at most – before the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where his father found work as a pipe fitter. And, that’s where they stayed.

But, being born in Virginia, cup of coffee or not, gets you on my Virginia-Born Project list, even if everyone in baseball forever knows you as “the big, curly-headed kid from Alabama.”

Bryant dropped out of high school when he was 16, and left Birmingham to work his way through the minors. He was called up and played a few games for the Cubs in 1935, and settled there in 1936, where he played until his arm finally gave out in 1940.

Cubs fans who know their history remember Bryant for just one season – 1938.

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Garland Shifflett — The Pitcher From Elkton

Elkton, Virginia is the halfway point between where you are now and where you want to be.

elkton-virginia

It is snugged tight between the Blue Ridge Mountains on its east side and the Massanutten Mountains on its west side.

It is halfway between here … and there.

It’s an anonymous town. The town you pass through, but where you never stop unless you need gas, a snack, or a bathroom.

All my friends around here tell me they’ve been to Elkton. But, when pressed, I discover they mean they’ve been through Elkton, or driven past Elkton, or they’ve stopped out on the highway at the Dairy Queen, but they’ve never actually been to it.

Garland Shifflett, who pitched in the majors, but mostly the minors, from the 1950s into the 1970s, was born in Elkton in 1935.

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The Los Angeles Times once profiled him on their front page.

His major league career was brief, just 16 games. A few games in 1957, a few more in 1964. But, his minor league career, over 16 seasons, was much longer and richer.

But, there he is on the front page of the Los Angeles Times in the spring of 1972. Next to stories about the Hanoi Offensive, an indicted New Jersey Congressman, and President Nixon’s doctor’s enthusiasm for acupuncture.

Top of the fold. A story about Garland Shifflett and his long career in the minors.

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“Anonymous Man.”

A front-page profile in the Los Angeles Times about a player I didn’t know should have made this story simple. Instead, it has bothered me for a couple weeks now. Ever since I found it and ever since we made our visit to Elkton.

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Monroe’s “Terrific & Terrible” Ken Dixon

In 1903, a mail train departing from Monroe, Virginia derailed 80 miles away in Danville.

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Monroe, Virginia

This may not be something you know anything about. But, it was one of Virginia’s worst train crashes and is retold in the old country song, “The Wreck of the Old 97” that Johnny Cash once covered.

 

The derailment, the result of excessive speed and trying to keep the train and the mail on schedule, killed 11.

That pretty much sums up all I knew about Monroe. (And, to be fair, even that is mostly about Danville and when we get to Danville on this Virginia-Born Project, I’m sure you’ll hear about it again.)

That train wreck 80 miles away may be all anyone knows about Monroe, Virginia, because, if you set your GPS to Monroe, it will lead you off Business Route 29 and to an empty and desolate rail yard.

(You’re going to have imagine some train tracks running through a spooky, empty field. Editor/Husband told me to take a photo of the tracks. I said we didn’t need to bother because I was sure that we would find something better to show Monroe. I should listen more to Editor/Husband.)

When cities start to sprawl, the one-time little towns that were out on the edges start to dissolve or just get absorbed into a ghostly kind of suburbia. Who needs a grocery store when the big city, in this case Lynchburg, is just 10 minutes away?

We found railroad tracks, houses, churches, and a community center.

In case the GPS was lying, this sign is the only proof that we actually visited Monroe.

Monroe seems to be split today by Route 29, the four-lane highway that will take you south to Lynchburg in just a few minutes, or Charlottesville, about an hour north. Houses cluster on both sides of the highway.

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Editor/Husband: “There’s a lot of Monroe, and there’s not a lot of Monroe.”

 

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While an island filled with possums sounds delightful, this sign was just a cruel tease. We saw no possums or island on this road.

Monroe was also the birthplace of Ken Dixon, who was born there in 1960 and pitched for the Baltimore Orioles between 1984 and 1987.

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Marvin Goodwin, “The Gentleman of Gordonsville”

I have 290 Virginia-born ballplayers to account for. I have 114 Virginia birthplaces to visit.

Where do I start?

Somewhat unrandomly, I’ve ended up in a little town just 25 minutes away from our house – a place I’ve been to scads of times.steinbeck-travels-with-charley

Not exactly out seeing the unseen world, but you gotta start somewhere.

What were you expecting, John Steinbeck? (Steinbeck made up a lot of Travels with Charley, you know. He said he listened to the Yankees-Pirates World Series while driving around with his dog in the fall of 1960, but now I’m not even sure that’s true. In any event, I’m not making up any part of my trip to Gordonsville, Virginia.)

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Marvin Goodwin was born in 1891 in Gordonsville, which is a little town in the middle-ish of Virginia. He was a pitcher who had a few good – well, good enough – big-league seasons between 1916 and 1925.

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Gordonsville was a small town back then and it’s a small town now.

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Let’s Go Virginia’ing!

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” – Susan Sontag

You should probably know a little bit about the place where you live.

You know, the stuff they teach you in school. Your state song. Your state flower. Your state motto.

But, what if you’re not from around here? What if you moved to a place once you were out of school? How are you supposed to learn all that?

Virginia postcard

I moved to Virginia after college and have lived here for more than half of my life. And, sure, I know a few things about this place.

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