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In Western North Carolina, memories of old-time baseball endure

In Western North Carolina, memories of old-time baseball endure

For much of the 20th Century, small-town life in Western North Carolina revolved around the large-scale industrial enterprises that had sprung up across some of the most rural settlements in the state. 

From Asheville to Sylva — and all points between and beyond — tanneries, cabinet shops, paper plants, textile mills and can companies often served as the economic and cultural epicenters of existence for generations of Appalachian families. 

The very fabric of these communities was imbued with the sickly-sweet smell of factory life, the noontime whistle, the bustling teamsters, the promise of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, the chance for a better life in a region traditionally poverty-stricken. 

But as those workers rose from their beds in the pre-dawn, scrambling in the dark for an old lunch pail or a dinged up hard hat or a pair of work-worn coveralls on their way out the door in pursuit of that American Dream, it wasn’t always all about the tools of the trade; some of those workers also grabbed a tool emblematic of America’s Pastime — a freshly oiled leather baseball glove. 

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Champion Coated Paper of Hamilton, Ohio, was organized in 1893 by retired printer Peter Thompson. In 1906, the Champion Fibre Company was established in Canton, North Carolina, by Thompson’s son-in-law Reuben Robertson as a source of wood pulp for the Ohio mill. 

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According to a photo in a company newsletter called The Log of Champion Activities, the Canton workers almost immediately took to playing baseball. 

The photo in The Log may or may not be slightly misdated (1905), but even if it is, it’s still significant. Baseball had yet to become the international corporate behemoth it is today, mostly due to a lack of mass media coverage. 

 

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A February 1957 issue of The Log includes a photo purportedly of the 1905 Champion Coated Paper Company baseball team, which included Logan Thompson, Peter Thompson’s son and namesake of Haywood County’s Lake Logan. The Log photo

 

Even today’s major leagues were still in their infancy at the time; the National League was founded in 1876 to replace the pre-existing National Association of Professional Base Ball Players and a second league, the American League, wasn’t founded until 1901. 

Most of what is known about baseball at Champion comes from The Log, a company-issued monthly magazine-style periodical that began in 1914 and continued in that format through at least the 1960s. The Canton Area Historical Museum  in downtown Canton hosts a substantial repository of issues, some from as early as 1926.  

Usually running about 48 pages, The Log serves as more than just a chronicle of daily life at a bustling early-1900s paper mill. It’s the diary of an entire community. 

 

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The Log was Champion’s employee newsletter through the early part of the 20th Century.

 

“As we build our future in Canton, we’ve made it clear that it’s also important to us to honor our past,” said Zeb Smathers, Canton’s mayor. “What The Log does is, it allows us a glimpse not only into the past at the paper mill but also a glimpse into the traditions and personalities that we still celebrate today.”

Features, briefs and snippets in The Log record births, deaths and marriages among the company’s workforce, in addition to promotions, resignations and transfers among the company’s Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas divisions. 

During the lead-up to World War II, The Log notes Adolf Hitler’s European aggression, as well as that by the Empire of Japan in the Pacific. Some stories mention beefed-up U.S. defense spending as early as 1938. Other stories proudly display the sons of Haywood County in Army green, photographed at boot camps or outposts across the country. 

Later would come reports of their deaths in combat, half a world away. 

All in all, The Log serves as an important reminder of America’s corporate culture from a bygone era. Its glossy pages show that Champion held company picnics and banquets frequently, hosted retreats at Lake Logan and provided myriad educational opportunities that would allow workers to rise through the ranks at the mill. 

Throughout the history of The Log, it’s impossible to ignore the substantial recreational opportunities offered to workers at Champion — and later, through the Champion YMCA — all meant to foster unity and comradery among colleagues who might spend their entire working lives together. 

There was a bowling team. A checkers team. Horseshoes. Basketball. Softball. Many of the sports offered both men’s and women’s teams, although Black faces rarely grace The Log’s coverage. 

Some sports were so popular that the leagues were purely internal, pitting employees in one section of the mill against employees from another. Other sports, like baseball, were highly competitive and had teams that participated in travel ball to play against other teams in what’s generically referred to as “textile league” or “industrial league” baseball. 

Champion’s 1905 team played in what was called the KIO (Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio) League, a defunct semi-professional baseball association featuring teams of brewers, butchers or cops. It’s likely Canton’s team was included in this league due to the company’s established presence in southwestern Ohio. 

Although there are substantial gaps in the history of the milltown nine, The Log demonstrates the team’s enduring presence. The first verified mention of a baseball team at Champion comes from a May 1937 issue and features both a brutal assessment and a dose of optimism familiar to sports fans of all stripes across space and time. 

“Our baseball team has been failing in many ways in the past four years,” it reads. “This year the fellows are really digging in to make it a success.”

A May 1939 issue contains an early reference to the WNC Industrial League, in which the Canton Pigeons — named not for the bird but for the river that flows through town and through the mill itself — would play. The story implores employees to try out for the team, stating that all positions were available “for any player who can deliver the goods.”

 

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This July, 1960 photo shows one of the last Champion teams to play WNC Industrial League hardball. The Log photo

 

WNC Industrial League was just one of a hodge-podge of several dozen semi-pro baseball associations actively competing across the country during the prewar ascendency of Major League Baseball. 

On Wednesdays, the Pigeons would host visiting squads at their field across from Canton Middle School. On Saturdays, the Pigeons would travel to play against nearby teams in places like Brevard, Enka, Hendersonville and Swannanoa. 

Brevard’s team was sponsored by the Ecusta Paper Corporation, which was established on the banks of the Davidson River in 1939 and produced fine cigarette paper until closing in 2002. The team was known as the Papermakers.  

The American Enka Company, the country’s largest manufacturer of rayon fiber, was one of the original Fortune 500 companies and fielded a team called the Rayonites. 

Hendersonville’s team was based at a textile plant called Berkeley Mills and therefore took the name of the Spinners. The Spinners’ home field still exists, on Balfour Road, and also appears on the National Register of Historic Places

Founded in Massachusetts in 1904, the Beacon Blanket Company relocated to Swannanoa near the start of the Great Depression and fielded a team known as the Blanketeers. 

From time to time, there was even an Industrial League team in Sylva, called the Plowboys

Of course, no industrial league in Western North Carolina would have been complete without a team from the Haywood County town of Hazelwood, quite possibly one of the most heavily industrialized municipalities in the region. 

 

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Haywood County historian Alex McKay owns this authentic baseball jersey from one of the Hazelwood baseball teams. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Hazelwood was home to a number of major furniture and apparel manufacturers through the 1980s. Accordingly, the team was called the Manufacturers and it garnered regular press coverage throughout its existence in the county’s oldest newspaper. 

The April 22, 1937, front page of the Waynesville Mountaineer  holds a treasure trove of information on the Manufacturers, and includes a team photo. 

That early in the year, the occasion must have been the league’s opening day. 

A box showing WNC Industrial League standings lists Enka, Canton, Tryon and Beacon all tied for first at 1-and-0, with Hazelwood, Green River, Sayles and Brevard all at 0-and-1. 

A separate entry says Hazelwood won the league in 1932 and 1933, and suggests the team had hit a rough patch ever since. 

Player bios read like a who’s who of Appalachian personalities, both past and present. There are Inmans, Wyatts and Truitts. The manager, J.F. Shields, was a native of Cades Cove. R.A. Gaddis had been manager of the Waynesville High School team. Andy Wyatt played for teams as far as Charlotte. Roger Monteith, a Sylva High School grad, had by that time played for 20 years with teams in Bryson City and Greenville, South Carolina. 

The roster also notes a familiar figure in Haywood County lore, Clyde “Dutch” Fisher. Fisher, a lefthanded second baseman, was the captain of the 1937 team and had been with the club for a full decade, after playing three years at Waynesville High School and one year for the Pigeons. 

Fisher went on to become Hazelwood’s longtime mayor in 1941, as eventually did his daughter Maryann Fisher Enloe. 

For a number of reasons, the league dissolved  in 1962, but its impact on generations of blue-collar workers, and on their descendants, hasn’t faded just yet. 

Today, the memory of the old Western North Carolina Industrial League as well as Fisher’s legacy are appropriately memorialized in Hazelwood, at a little league baseball field  named in his honor. 

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