In Gaston County, mills lured the best baseball players to work in factories and play on their teams.
The riverbend steam station stands just across N.C. Highway 16 at the end of a twisting two-lane road that runs north from Mount Holly. The building’s bricks are faded. The smokestacks are stained with rust. But the Duke Power plant still burns coal and generates electricity for the region.
On a clear morning, Bobby John Rhyne eases his sedan onto the shoulder of an isolated street near the power plant. He looks out his passenger’s side window. The steel transformers sprouting from the ground nearby disappear, and his mind replaces them with the lush, green grass of center field and the sharp, white line that runs toward home plate. The hum of traffic on N.C. Highway 16 fades, and instead, his ears hear the crack of a wooden bat punctuated by the muffled pop of a leather glove swallowing a baseball.
“This is where the field was,” says Rhyne, who spent nearly a decade after World War II playing baseball for a team funded by Riverbend Steam Station. “There’d be 150 people there on any day . . . just waiting for us.”
Rhyne was one of hundreds of ballplayers in Gaston County in the 1940s and 1950s who played baseball three days a week in the area’s textile leagues. Others, like Rhyne, look at sites today like a BB&T in Belmont or a high school in Cramerton and see home plate, a crowd of men in overalls, and a horse-drawn buggy selling Tony’s Ice Cream.
At the time, mills and local companies, such as Lance and Duke Power, sponsored semipro and amateur teams with rosters stocked with men from their factory floors. Teams represented Sterling Mills in Belmont, Rex Mills in Ranlo, and American Yarn in Mount Holly. Other mills pulled together to field teams in Cherryville, Cramerton, and Stanley.
The sport was a fabric of life in textile towns across the Piedmont. It provided entertainment for the residents of insular mill villages; it gave locals a sense of pride in where they worked; and at a time before television beamed images of players like Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams into homes across the region, it gave boys their first sports heroes.
“It was something that pulled us together,” says Neb Hollis, who grew up in the county’s Woodlawn Mill village and played for Cramerton’s baseball team. “I still remember watching Mr. Rhyne (Bobby John’s dad) play. He was a super fielder, knew the game, and was a good sport. That’s what I wanted to be.”
Mills to major league
The history of textile league baseball in North Carolina goes back to the beginning of the textile industry. The first mill in Belmont was built in 1901, and by the 1940s, 20 mills employed the majority of the town’s 4,000 residents. Each of the mills bought bats, balls, gloves, and uniforms to outfit a team, and the teams adopted nicknames that reflected where they worked, such as the Sterling Spinners and the Belmont Combers.
Just like today’s minor league baseball, the quality of play varied from league to league and county to county. Teams in Gaston County alone played in at least three different mill leagues.
Amateur players in Belmont represented mills in community leagues. Better players represented their towns. The area’s top talent wound up on semipro teams.
The players weren’t paid to play. Instead, the mills recruited players and offered them manufacturing jobs. A good ballplayer was guaranteed steady work, favorable hours, and paid leave to practice and play.
James “Red” Joye returned home to Belmont after World War II and took a job at the town’s Majestic Mill as a doffer, replacing full bobbins in the machines with empty ones. In 1946, a supervisor at nearby Sterling Mills approached him and asked him to join the mill’s baseball team.
Joye, a broad-chested man with a reputation as a power hitter, was interested but didn’t want to give up his job on the first shift at Majestic. The manager offered him a second shift at Sterling instead. When the Sterling team had games, the mill counted Joye’s time in the outfield as his shift.
The Piedmont had a reputation for producing quality ballplayers. Many of them landed on a team after playing college baseball and spending a few years bouncing around the minor leagues. Some moved from the textile leagues up to the majors.
Ted Abernathy, a pitcher from Stanley, played for Riverbend and became a relief pitcher with the Washington Senators and Chicago Cubs. Jimmie Hall, a left-handed hitter from Mount Holly, played for Stanley and went on to play for the Minnesota Twins. The New York Yankees signed Harold Stowe, a pitcher from Belmont who played for Stanley.
But the good times could only last so long.
The last team
At his home today, less than 20 minutes from Riverbend Steam Station, Rhyne reaches for a white sheet of paper on the kitchen table and slides on his glasses. He looks down at a diagram of a neighborhood etched onto the paper and runs a finger across a series of 86 squares representing houses.
“This was the village at Riverbend,” he says. “It was almost heaven.”
Duke Power opened Riverbend in 1929. Although it wasn’t a textile mill, it provided power to the mills in Gaston County, and its village was designed much like the nearby mill villages. There were small, wooden homes that the workers rented from Duke Power. The company also gave them coal and water.
He grew up watching his dad play on the Riverbend baseball team and became the first son of a ballplayer to play on the team when he joined the team as a high school student in 1947. He was the team’s catcher for seven years.
Rhyne places the diagram of the mill village on the table and lifts the cloth-bound cover of a rectangular notebook. It’s the old score book from the team’s 1951 season when it went 28-9 to win the regular season. The parchment-colored pages crinkle as he flips them and ticks off the names of teams they beat.
“You’ve got Cherryville.”
The pages tell the story of the last great ball club Rhyne can recall at Riverbend. Not long after that, in the late 1950s, the team and league folded.
It was that way across the county. The mills began disbanding the villages and relocating the homes to private land nearby. Televisions became the glowing centerpieces of family dens, and more and more men opted to play softball.
Rhyne, who by that time had been relocated by Duke Power to Allen Steam Station, says he gave up the sport before the era of textile baseball faded away. Most of what he has left is in the notebook.
As he closes it, he regrets that he can’t remember details from any of the games. He can only remember his teammates. If only Riverbend had baseball to bring them together again.
Tripp Mickle is a native of Charlotte and a staff writer at Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal. He is traveling to London this summer to cover the 2012 Olympic Games. His work has appeared in Tahoe Quarterly and on SportsIllustrated.com.