Early last month, Major League Baseball announced a realignment of franchise structures, evening out the minor-league affiliates to four per franchise. That left about 40 minor league teams without an MLB affiliate.
Included in the cuts are all four of West Virginia’s minor league teams: the West Virginia Power (Charleston), West Virginia Black Bears (Morgantown), Bluefield Bluejays, and Princeton Rays. While some of them may play next summer in an independent or summer college league, the era of professional baseball in the Mountain State—at least for now—is over.
For a small and predominantly rural state, West Virginia has a rich history within that of America’s Pastime. The first recorded organized game was played in Wheeling in 1866 against a team from Washington, PA. The rest of the decade saw amateur teams spring up across the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad corridors, with teams in Parkersburg, Martinsburg, and Fairmont formed by 1868. Early baseball was concentrated in the nation’s urban areas and spread from there; after the Civil War, West Virginia only had one true city, and the larger towns were concentrated in the northern half of the state. As such, baseball did not reach southern West Virginia until the end of the century. Even Charleston didn’t organize a team until the 1890s.
The first professional team in the state was formed in Wheeling in 1877. The Wheeling Standards had been sponsored by a local newspaper publisher since 1874, but reorganized as an independent entity. With nine salaried players, the 1877 squad played (and beat) teams from much larger cities such as Wilmington, Delaware and Cincinnati, but were sorely beaten by the Boston Red Stockings: today’s Atlanta Braves.
Parkersburg fielded the second professional team in the state in 1897 as one of four teams in the short-lived Ohio-West Virginia League. The Parkersburg Greeks never made a profit, however, and both the league and team folded by mid-summer.
The 1890s were more successful for baseball in other parts of the state, with civic leaders and businesses promoting the sport. Transit companies in Wheeling and Fairmont invested in ballparks outside cities to draw crowds via their streetcar lines.
The formation of Major League Baseball in 1903 included an organized minor-league system with four classes (lettered A through D). The Wheeling Stogies joined the class-B Central league that year and remained a class-B team (in different leagues) until 1925. The Fairmont Coalers became the first professional team in north-central West Virginia in 1907, playing in the class-D Western Pennsylvania League. Competing teams were formed in Grafton and Clarksburg, and the West Virginia League was created in 1910 with the addition of a Mannington team, though the league folded by 1914. The early 1910s were a high point for baseball in the Mountain State, with 14 teams playing in various minor leagues.
By 1910, the population deficit between the northern and southern halves of West Virginia had begun to shift, with Charleston and Huntington barreling toward Wheeling’s position as the state’s largest city. Both cities fielded teams in a class-D league, with the Huntington Blue Sox winning the Virginia Valley League’s first pennant before that league also dissipated in 1914.
Wheeling remained the only class-B team in the state until 1925 when the Stogies joined teams from across the Northern Appalachian region into the class-C Middle-Atlantic League, along with Clarksburg and Fairmont. By 1931, half of the league’s 12 teams were from West Virginia, including the Beckley Black Knights in the southern coalfields. The Stogies’ 1925 roster included two brothers from Pittsburgh: Art and Dan Rooney, the former of whom would go on to found the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL franchise eight years later.
Art and Dan Rooney in Wheeling. Via Pittsburgh Steelers Collection.
The Wheeling Stogies moved to Akron in 1934, ending Wheeling’s professional baseball era. The other Mountain State teams left the league around the same time, except Charleston, whose Senators would continue to play in the Middle Atlantic League until 1942. By the 1940s the north-south divide had firmly flipped, with the state’s three professional teams hailing from Charleston, Bluefield, and Welch. Charleston replaced Wheeling as the state’s premier baseball city, and after a six-year hiatus the Senators joined the class-A Central League in 1949. Charleston, and indeed the rest of the state, reached their professional baseball peak in 1952 when the Senators joined a AAA league, only one level below the Major Leagues.
Though the city witnessed a few summers without professional ball in the second half of the 20th century, Charleston retained its position as the state’s top-tier city for baseball. The Charleston Charlies played in a AAA league from 1971 until 1983, and the current franchise began playing A ball in 1987 as the Charleston Wheelers, today’s West Virginia Power.
At the southern tip of West Virginia, Bluefield did not rival Charleston in its level of play but can claim to be one of the most successful baseball cities in the state. The first team was formed in the 1930s, and the Bluefield Blue-Grays (most recently the Blue Jays) joined the class-D Appalachian League in 1946. With the exception of the 1956 season, Appalachian League baseball was played in Bluefield until the cancellation of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. The Bluefield Orioles were the rookie league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles from 1958 until 2010 and helped propel the success of future all-star Cal Ripken, Jr. Neighboring Princeton has also had a rookie-league team since 1988, which played up until last summer, most recently as the Princeton Rays.
Professional baseball returned to north-central West Virginia after a multi-decade absence in 2015 with the Pittsburgh Pirates-affiliated West Virginia Black Bears in Morgantown. The team played in the class-A Short Season division, just below Charleston’s WV Power.
While West Virginia’s early baseball fortunes were tied to local investment and promotion, the modern game is heavily influenced by Major League franchises. All four of West Virginia’s remaining teams were affiliated with an MLB team, without the funds from which most of the Mountain State’s teams would struggle to survive. Though professional baseball in West Virginia—at least at the minor league level—may be ending, scholastic ball at both the secondary and collegiate levels remains strong, and there are chances for the existing minor league teams to join independent leagues. Regardless of the outcome of those discussions, the state’s professional teams have certainly provided generations of West Virginians with excitement and entertainment.
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Nick Musgrave first became fascinated with West Virginia’s history while growing up in Parkersburg. He continues to read, research and write on the Mountain State’s past from its birthplace in Wheeling. For more neat history and some political snark, follow him on Twitter: @NickMusgraveWV.