Greenville's baseball roots stretch back to 1870s

Nationally, baseball’s beginnings can be traced to New York in the 1840s. It came to Greenville about 30 years later, as an unintended import brought by the Federal troops who were stationed throughout the former Confederacy during Reconstruction.

While the first team in the Upstate was organized in Prosperity in Newberry County in 1874, the earliest local reference dates to 1877. The Greenville News reported that on July 4, there had been a baseball game played between “the boys of the town” and the soldiers at the federal garrison stationed in Greenville.

They probably played on a makeshift field on the vacant land then known as “Boyce Lawn,” now a part of the Pettigru Street historic district.

After the Greenville Military Academy leased the property in 1878, local teams created a field near modern day Pinckney Street; the backstop was located approximately where the altar of Central Baptist Church would be built. In 1882, Piedmont and Pelzer mill villages began playing what became annual Fourth of July doubleheaders.

Pickup games were often organized by wealthy young men who had returned from Northern colleges enthusiastic about the sport. For example, William Beattie learned to throw a curve ball as a student at Princeton in the late 1880s; during summer vacations and later, he played with teams of young clerks, Furman students, and mill villagers. In the 1890s, Beattie became a volunteer coach of Furman's unofficial team.

In 1896 Furman’s board of trustees agreed to permit games with other colleges as long as students paid all expenses incurred.

Even before Greenville's textile crescent formed after the turn of the century, baseball had become a community preoccupation. In 1898 and 1899, “Champ” O'Steen starred on the Piedmont Mill Team and was drafted by the Washington Senators of the new (1901) American League.

He later coached the Brandon team. But baseball was not just the preserve of whites. In the 1890s, black players also created teams, among them the Greenville Stars, which played in the Negro Baseball League. In later years, mills with black workers supported black teams as well as white ones.

After Mills Mill, American Spinning and Poe Mill opened in 1897, and Brandon and Monaghan Mills in 1900, local interest focused even more intently on baseball. Cotton mill management, constantly searching for ways to recruit and retain workers in an increasingly competitive environment, turned to baseball as a way of forging bonds with workers.

The mills built baseball fields, supplied bats, balls, gloves and uniforms to players and paid a premium of $3.50 a game to team members. For men and boys who were earning between $7 and $10 a week, it was an incentive. So were the crowds who gathered to watch the players and cheer them on to victory.

When Joe Jackson began playing for Brandon Mill in 1903 (the year of the first World Series), his brothers would pass a hat through the crowd every time he hit a home run. Since he was famous for drilling the ball into the trash dump behind center field, Jackson could sometimes collect as much as $25 from a single game.

So much enthusiasm was generated that mill management began to pay good pitchers and hitters substantially higher salaries than other employees and frequently assigned them easier work. In 1907, L.P. Hollis, head of social services at Monaghan Mill, formed the Greenville Cotton Mill Base Ball League, and team standings were regularly reported.

There were other local amateur (or semi-professional) leagues over the years, but Greenville also had a professional team, the Sally League Greenville Spinners.

Joe Jackson, who moved from mill to mill seeking the most lucrative employment, was playing for the Spinners when a scout from the Philadelphia Athletics recruited him in 1908.

Sports writers in Philadelphia, learning of “Barefoot Joe,” publicized his hitting ability long before he arrived in the city. (He had earned his nickname at a Spinners game, when he had removed tight new shoes. After hitting a triple late in the game, he ran the bases barefoot.) For Northern sophisticates the name was perfect: here was the ideal Southern country boy with natural talent.

In 1909, though, after a disagreement about their playing field, the Spinners packed up and left the city without a team. They returned in 1910.

Tommy Lasorda, who would go on to manager the Los Angeles Dodgers posted a record of 7-7 and an ERA of 2.93 with the Greenville Spinners in 1949. He was inducted into the Greater Greenville Baseball Hall of Fame in July 2014.+

Although popular among Furman University students, the school had no official field until Camperdown Mill president Alan Graham, a fan, gave the university land at Augusta Road. Furman soon played an intercollegiate schedule at Graham Field.

Local baseball interest probably peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, when local teams, both white and black, amateur and professional, played at Riverside Park. Meadowbrook Park became the primary venue in the 1930s, and was home to minor league teams for more than 40 years.

During World War II, the game declined because players joined the armed forces. After the war, mills sold off their villages and no longer supported teams.

Their ballparks have now disappeared. The ball field at Union Bleachery, complete with bleachers, backstop and dugout, is hidden by trees and marshy undergrowth along Old Buncombe Road; the field at Mills Mill was developed into a strip shopping center. Graham Field became the site of the university's veterans' and faculty housing after the war.

Meadowbrook Park was home to minor league teams throughout the 1950s and 1960s. But when it burned to the ground on Feb. 14, 1972, Greenville was without a professional team until Greenville Municipal Stadium was built in 1984. It was home to the Class AA Greenville Braves though 2005; In 2007, West End Stadium, on South Main Street, opened with the Class A Greenville Drive as the home team.

Abe Hardesty

  • The Greenville News