Baltimore Orioles

Baby Birds learn to fly in Bluefield

The handshake, a quaint form of sealing a deal, has worked for the Baltimore Orioles and their Rookie-level team for half a century, an affiliation unmatched in organized baseball.

"We've never had a contract," says Bluefield Orioles general manager George McGonagle. "When the team leaves town Sept. 1, we say, 'See you next year.'"

In today's modern sports world, where moving vans come and go and owners change the name of their city of affiliation on a whim, a simple and dignified gentlemen's agreement is a throwback.

Just like the Bluefield Orioles and Bowen Field.

Forget about foam fingers and fancy food. You won't find them here.

When the umpire's call, "Play ball," rings off the deep, green woods that surround the field, "it's like a little trip back in time," says Dan Collison, an independent documentary maker who has been touring old ballparks for more than a decade.

An old-fashioned grandstand rises behind home plate, and individual voices stand out as they greet a neighbor, cheer a player or razz the men in blue. Programs are $1. Hot dogs, loaded, are $2.25.

Plunk down $20, not for a foam finger but for a Cal Ripken Jr. bobblehead in a Bluefield uniform, or a set of 50 baseball cards depicting some of Bluefield's most famous player-citizens.

Square one
Bluefield, with its 10-week season, is square one in organized baseball.

"We've had more than 100 players make the bigs. That sounds like a lot. But when you flip the numbers around, the percentage is horrible," McGonagle says.

Fewer than one in six Appalachian League players reach the top. The lucky and talented Baby Birds, as they are called locally, move up the ladder, perhaps to the Aberdeen IronBirds, the short-season Single-A team or the Delmarva Shorebirds, the low Single-A team.

But Bluefield's humble status belies its place in Oriole history.

"This is where Cal Ripken got on the bus to start his career," says Bruce Adams, who, with his wife, Margaret Engel, wrote the book, Ballpark Vacations: Great Family Trips to Minor League and Classic Major League Baseball Parks across America. "Bluefield is the one most people haven't experienced, and if they love baseball, they should."

In addition to Ripken, who played in Bluefield in 1978, there are Eddie Murray, Boog Powell, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich. Dean Chance, signed by the Orioles in 1959, passed through town on his way to the Los Angeles Angels in the 1960 expansion draft and a Cy Young Award in 1964.

Last Sunday, Grich returned to town for the first time in 40 years to celebrate the team's golden anniversary and conduct a baseball clinic for local kids. "It's the same old ballpark, it's the same place, it's beautiful," Grich told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. "What a great place to play ball."

Powell is expected to make a guest appearance next week, and Chance before season's end.

Building on the past
This summer, the Orioles are averaging 1,135 fans a night. But it's more than fans in the seats that makes the baseball here special.

Over the past 15 years, the Bluefield Baseball Club has raised and spent $3 million, installing new lighting and a new field drainage system and replacing the antiquated clubhouse with a building that has indoor batting cages and pitching rubbers. The grandstand, rebuilt after it was gutted by a 1973 fire, has been fitted with 1,850 stadium seats salvaged from Anaheim Stadium.

This night, the ticket taker is David Kersey, one of the city's leading lawyers. Sitting in his usual seat down the left-field line is Heber Stafford, who has been watching games here at Bowen Field since it opened in 1939 - maybe even the first game, but he can't be sure. Kitty and Joe Graham, white-haired and full of life, helped with the 50th-anniversary festivities and cheer the team from plastic lawn chairs in their season box beneath the press box.

In its modern history, the Bluefield club has had just two general managers: George Fanning, who ran things from 1948 until his death in 1995, and McGonagle, who then added that job to his duties as club president.

"It's not one person or one group, it's the whole community, and this community loves the Orioles," says Lee Landers, president of the nine-team Appalachian League. "In today's market, I couldn't see this happening anywhere else."

Baseball found Bluefield in 1882, seven years before the city was incorporated. Railroad men who hauled coal from the surrounding mountains to the cities played on company teams.

In 1924, fun became work, when the Blue-Grays entered the Coalfield League, an organization that lasted just two seasons. From that time until the late 1930s, baseball fans got their fix watching semipro teams and barnstorming major leaguers returning north from spring training in Florida, looking for a little pocket change.

Stan Musial pitched a game here before an arm injury forced him to the outfield. Ted Williams, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige also made appearances.

The first game at Bowen Field took place May 14, 1939, between the Blue-Grays, then a Boston Braves affiliate, and the Welch Miners.

The "Appy" League was formed in 1946, went dark for a year in 1956 and sparked to life again the next season.

In 1953, Bluefield switched allegiance from Boston to the Washington Senators and back to Boston, this time to the Red Sox organization. After one season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bluefield and Baltimore shook hands for the first time in 1958.

Though it sits in a valley, Bluefield is 2,655 feet high, earning it the nickname "Nature's Air-Conditioned City." Whenever the temperature exceeds 90 degrees, free lemonade is served downtown.

Geographically and politically, there are two Bluefields, just across the Virginia-West Virginia line from each other. The ballclub has a Bluefield, W.Va., address and a Virginia phone number.

"Go out that door and you're in Virginia," says McGonagle, pointing at the front door of the low-slung administration building. "Go out the other one and you're in West Virginia."

At 50, Bluefield is at a junction. McGonagle, 65, is retiring Aug. 31.

"There are days and there are long days," says McGonagle, by way of explanation. "With some new blood, they can take things up another level. I know there'll be some missing, but I'll get used to it."

Team directors haven't decided how they'll replace the tireless one-man front office.

When asked if he could imagine the team picking up and leaving, Stafford, 89, stops and shakes his head. "It wouldn't be Bluefield without the Orioles."

• Orioles

• Class: Rookie

• Stadium: Bowen Field (1939, 1975)

• Adult/youth general admission: $3.50/$2.50

• Jumbo hot dog: $2.75

• Mascot: Bluefield Oriole

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