Most of Mount Airy’s “boys of summer” have passed on to the baseball diamond in the sky, but one local man is working extra innings to keep their memories alive.
Long before the days of modern big-leaguers, and even bigger contracts, small towns throughout America had their own minor league teams that captured the hearts of fans, and Mount Airy was no exception.
“It flourished in baseball about the time it was really beginning its stand in the cities,” longtime city resident David Beal said during a presentation Saturday at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
While Beal, now retired, is known for wearing many hats — including those of Surry County clerk of court and city commissioner in Mount Airy — the first he donned was that of a batboy for a team in his hometown of Lenoir.
And that early love of the sport has continued throughout the life of Beal, including a mission of trying to learn everything he can about Mount Airy’s two minor league teams, the Reds and Graniteers. They played a total of 13 seasons between them.
He shared some of those findings Saturday with an appreciative audience of about 35 people at the museum as part of its “History Talks” series.
While baseball in the Granite City is now limited to high school games, that wasn’t true during the Great Depression and post-World War II years. “Baseball was the consumption for us who grew up in the ’40s and ’50s,” Beal said of that era when many towns had professional teams.
This tradition dates to 1934 locally when the Cincinnati Reds placed a team here.
The Mount Airy squad was part of the Bi-State League, which consisted of clubs in North Carolina and Virginia. Mount Airy competed against teams with names such as the Reidsville Luckies, Mayodan Millers, Bassett Furnituremakers, Martinsville Manufacturers and Danville Leafs. The players were of the Class D variety, which Beal said were comparable to the lower echelons of minor-leaguers today.
Mount Airy played its home games at what was then known as Floyd Poore Park, at the present site of the city’s high school football stadium. Among its notable players were Gene Handley, who later would be a member of the Philadelphia Athletics.
In 1938, the local club’s name was changed to the Graniteers “and they became an independent team” without major league affiliation, Beal told Saturday’s gathering.
The Graniteers operated until 1941 when World War II erupted, but never made the playoffs.
Beal said, “1941 ended baseball in Mount Airy — it ended for a lot of places. We lost our team. There was no baseball. It went to war just like the men who played it.”
And there was a question about whether it would ever return, Beal said.
However, the Graniteers were resurrected in 1946 as a member of a new baseball circuit, the Blue Ridge League, consisting of five teams in North Carolina and Virginia.
The first Mount Airy team to make the playoffs was the 1947 Graniteers, bolstered by players such as Sam Moir, Francis Essic, Pete Treece, Jack Williams and Bob Bowman. Their manager was Chubby Dean, a city native who had spent time in the majors and ended his playing career with the Cleveland Indians.
The next year, the local group won the Blue Ridge League championship against a Galax, Va., team.
Among the players in that era were Eddie Dorsett, Stanley King and George Holmes (who later would become a state legislator).
In 1950, the Graniteers again would capture the league title, against Elkin, but that year was bittersweet. It was also the last for minor league baseball in Mount Airy, with Beal saying that “1950 brought to an end baseball as we knew it in small towns.”
The Blue Ridge League folded in 1951, and was followed by a reorganization of minor league baseball nationwide. In 1952, there were 59 leagues encompassing 400 cities. Ten years later that had dropped to 21 leagues spread among 100 cities.
But in its heyday, local fans embraced their team. Attendance at home games averaged 1,600 in the Graniteers’ final season and would balloon to 3,000 or more for those on the Fourth of July, Beal said. Similar to modern times, a season could exceed 100 games in all.
In addition to the park at the present high school grounds, Mount Airy minor-leaguers played games at Reddick Field, near where the Municipal Building now stands.
Local Baseball Lore
As part of Saturday’s presentation, Beal displayed memorabilia including photographs, newspaper clippings, uniforms and equipment. Among his collection is the last ball in play at the Graniteers’ final game, a broken bat used in the majors by Chubby Dean and a scrapbook sent to him by Dean’s widow Jean, now 98.
The local teams also left behind a legacy of interesting characters, including Frank “Moose” Solters, “one of the most colorful players to ever play baseball in Mount Airy,” Beal said.
One of his exploits occurred when Solters was trying to beat a throw while sliding into third base, with the ball going through his jersey and becoming trapped in his clothing instead. Everyone in the park thought the ball had kept going to some unknown destination, but Solters “went on home,” Beal said.
He didn’t reveal anything until after the game, when the call couldn’t be overturned.
In response to a question from audience member Ronald Boyles, a longtime local sports fan, Beal also relayed the story of the “knothole gang.” It was a group of boys who couldn’t afford tickets, but would watch games through a fence at Reddick Field which extended along what is now Spring Street near Hutchens Cleaners & Laundry.
The history of baseball in Mount Airy mirrored the development of the country’s pastime as a whole. To illustrate the nation’s infatuation with the sport, Beal referred to a quote Saturday from Jacques Barzun, a French-born American historian who wrote about culture and other topics:
“Whoever wants to know the heart and soul of America better learn baseball.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.