West Virginia Officially Loses All 4 of its Minor League Baseball Teams

Moundsville’ is a PBS movie about the history of a small town on the Ohio River, and this blog collects articles and essays about the town, and West Virginia.

Major League Baseball made it official today: West Virginia, a state with a rich baseball history, is losing Major League Baseball affiliation for all four of its minor league clubs.

It’s a sad day for West Virginia, and Appalachia. Baseball is an essential American institution, and minor league baseball affiliation has been an important cultural bridge between Appalachia and the country’s richer cities. Fans in tiny West Virginia towns saw Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken play before they got to Baltimore. Cheering for those players brought rural and urban Americans together. For West Virginia, this is another example of capital and talent fleeing the state, and MLB’s move won’t do anything to help heal the country’s urban and rural divisions.

MLB, eager to save money and spend more money per player on development, has announced that Princeton and Bluefield will compete in the wooden-bat Appalachian League for rising college freshmen and sophomores. The Black Bears in Morgantown will play in the MLB Draft league, for draft-eligible rising college seniors. The Charleston, WV-based West Virginia Power, a Seattle Mariners affiliate in 2019, are still without a league for the 2021 season.

Theoretically, the new amateur leagues mean that minor league towns will still be graced by the presence of future MLB stars. But it’s unclear how many top amateur players will want to play in these leagues. Prospects, especially pitchers eager to minimize pitch counts and not get hurt, are spending more and more of their offseasons training with highly specialized coaches.

Clubs are happy to cut their ties with aging communities and rusty ballparks. In their eyes, it’s hard to justify sending high-priced prospects to places like Bluefield, where Bowen Field was originally built in 1939 as a WPA project, and only rebuilt after a fire in 1975.

That’s why the Pittsburgh Pirates chose to base their so-called High-A team in Greensboro, North Carolina instead of Morgantown. Under political pressure, MLB tried to persuade the Pirates to stay with the offer of money to help a new stadium. To no avail. “The player development system is always going to be critical to our future success at the Major League level,” said Pirates president Travis Williams said in a statement. “It is more important than ever that we partner with affiliate organizations that share in this commitment to our players and facilities.”

The contractions are part of MLB’s plan to eliminate a quarter of its 160-some affiliate minor league teams. The list of squads getting whacked is heavy with smalls towns and Rust Belt and Appalachian names, places like Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Frederick Maryland, and Lexington, Kentucky, where minor league stadiums have become community pillars.

West Virginia’s affiliated pro teams go back over a century, with a pre-TV era of leagues involving factories, firehouses and even prisons and now including American Legion and men’s leagues. More than 120 Major League Baseball players were born in the state, including Lew Burdette, Bill Mazeroski and Toby Harrah, and a couple of 19th century greats, Jack Glasscock and Jesse Burkett. George Brett was born in the Moundsville area.

The West Virginia state legislature has condemned MLB, noting that 226,000 fans attended minor league games in the state in 2019, and that minor league baseball offers “paychecks to dozens of full-time and hundreds of part-time employees in our state” and generates “millions of dollars in economic impact.”

John W. Miller

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