Jac Gelb stood on the mound at Withers Field on the evening of Aug. 28, 1989, got the sign from catcher Brad Huff and unleashed a pitch to a Pulaski Braves hitter to begin the top of the first inning in what was his 15th and final start of the season for the Appalachian League’s Wytheville Cubs.
About a year ago he stood in nearly the exact same spot as he had nearly three decades earlier, but the place had changed.
“The area is a public park now,” Gelb said. “The cement bleachers were still there and there’s a plaque in the ground where home plate once was. … It was pretty cool being there and reflecting back. Funny thing is as a kid playing back then, I was so focused on baseball, I did not realize the beauty of the backdrop of the surrounding mountains and the area’s offerings. It was nice to experience it both as a player and now as an adult.”
Little did Gelb know that he was making history on that night back in 1989 since Wytheville’s 10-6 loss to Pulaski turned out to be the final professional baseball game played in the small Southwest Virginia town.
Wytheville’s last stint as a minor league town was a five-year run as the host of a Chicago Cubs affiliate and it produced many memorable moments for those who were around.
All that remains now are a few mementos, memories and wistfulness for a bygone era when America’s pastime wasn’t a thing of the past on North 4th Street.
“It’s kind of hard to believe that the Cubs used to play games at what is now Withers Park,” said Avery Mabe, a senior at George Wythe High School. “I can’t imagine how many nights I’d spend at games throughout a summer if we had a team in town.”
Wytheville’s genesis as a pro baseball town occurred in 1948 when the Wytheville Pioneers compiled a 47-74 record in the Blue Ridge League. Mickey Weintraub was not only a player in those early years, but was the manager, owner and wrote about the squad for the Wytheville Times according to a 2009 story in the Jewish Chronicle.
In the years that followed, the St. Louis Browns, Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Senators, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City A’s, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs sent big-league hopefuls to Wythe County.
Tony Oliva hit .410 for the Wytheville Twins in 1961, a batting average that is still a single-season record in the Appalachian League. Three years later he won the American League batting crown as a rookie.
Charlie Manuel – the pride of Parry McCluer High School in Buena Vista, Virginia – made his professional debut for the Wytheville Twins in 1963 and one of his teammates that summer included future seven-time MLB All-Star Reggie Smith.
Joe Rudi broke in with the Wytheville A’s in 1964 and was a cornerstone of Oakland’s World Series title teams in 1972, 1973 and 1974.
Jeff Burroughs played for the Wytheville Senators in 1969, five years before earning American League MVP honors with the Texas Rangers.
There was an Appalachian League hiatus in the town from 1974-1984, but pro baseball returned in the summer of 1985 when the Chicago brass decided to move their rookie-league farm team from Pikeville, Kentucky, to Wytheville.
“The excitement was definitely there,” said Marty Gordon, who worked for the team. “A lot of people remembered past teams like the Braves being there and were licking their chops for something like this. When the team arrived the first year, they were given a police escorted parade down Main Street.”
That revival season of baseball in Wytheville was special as the Cubs led the Appy League in attendance as 26,696 total fans came through the gate over the course of the summer.
“The Cub home games were a popular destination for me, my brother and our friends,” said Jeff Bourne who served as the team’s bat boy for a couple of seasons. “We would often times ride our bikes across town to the games.”
Withers Field had a lot of interesting quirks, but one stood out above the rest.
“Center field had a hill that went up about eight to 10 feet on a slope,” said Kenny Sayers, who served as the general manager of the Wytheville Cubs. “We were going to take it out, but it was solid rock underneath, so we left it and put the fence at the top of the hill. That hump is still there. I was at the baseball winter meetings one year and was talking to [former MLB player and manager] Whitey Herzog and he asked me if we still had that damn hump in center field. I talked to Dale Murphy, who played in Kingsport as a catcher, and he asked about the hump also.
“It was kind of a landmark, I guess.”
It took some getting used to for the players who navigated the unique piece of real estate.
“No matter how athletic our outfielders were,” said Dan Kennedy, a catcher on the 1989 squad. “That was always a challenge.”
Anytime you take players with different personalities, different backgrounds and different career trajectories – some prospects, other suspects – and put them together in a small town for 2 ½ months far from home, it will provide many stories to tell.
Most all of the elements of the timeless film “Bull Durham” – which happened to be released in 1988 when the Cubs were playing in Wytheville – had some semblance of truth.
It was no different for members of the Wytheville Cubs.
“One of the days after I had pitched, I was jogging through Wytheville and when I stopped, I was approached by a gentleman,” Gelb said. “He asked, ‘You one of them ballplayers?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘I thought so; I pretty much know everyone from around here and I don’t know you.’ That’s a small town. I grew up in Leesburg, Florida, which I thought was small.”
Speaking of visitors, there was an unwelcome one that showed up at Withers Field one night.
“We had a bat that kept landing in the infield during one of our games that we had to capture in order to continue play,” Gelb said.
How about off the field?
Matt Walbeck and a teammate lived in a small apartment in the back of a pet store.
Others stayed at local hotel, which wasn’t exactly a five-star establishment.
“I made 750 dollars a month and all of it went toward rent at the Knights Inn,” said Paul Torres, a member of the 1989 squad. “I can remember thinking it was a good thing that I got a bonus to play or I would have never been able to eat. We did have a deal at Shoney’s for a five dollar buffet coupon that we used just about every day.”
On the field, youngsters had to adapt to a new level of competition.
Wytheville’s average age that final season was 19.1 years old for the hitters and 19.8 for the pitchers.
“We were playing the Johnson City Cardinals and I was pitching,” said Michael Gladu, a member of the 1988 Wytheville Cubs. “Our pregame report had their No. 3 hitter as a dead fastball killer. When he came up I shook off our catcher twice on curveball signs and wanted to throw the 91 mile-per-hour fastball. Well, that kid hit it well over the fence in right field. I then received a visit from our pitching coach, Bill Earley, and needless to say it was the last time I shook off a sign from the catcher.”
There was another instance where the Cubs did the crushing.
“One day early in the season, Earl Cunningham [a highly-touted Cubs prospect] hit his first home run,” Torres said. “I was clapping and pretty happy for Earl. On my left, Mike Little, was also clapping, but I could see he had this look in his eye that he wanted to say something. Mike wasn’t starting and hadn’t played much up to that point. I said to Mike, ‘I think Earl got all of that one.’ Mike looked at me and said, ‘If you think Earl can hit them, wait until you see me.’ … Mike didn’t have a hit yet and I think he had struck out in four of his seven at-bats at that point. I remember thinking he should just be happy putting the ball in play.
“The very next night, Mike came up and in his first at-bat hit a home run that dwarfed Earl’s shot the night before. I congratulated him and said, ‘You called it.’”
Like most Appalachian League teams, there was a large international contingent on Wytheville’s roster each year.
“It was interesting to watch foreign players adjusting to being in a small farm community,” Gordon said. “I spent many days on a pay phone that was at the main gate trying to translate language barriers to American operators for players trying to call collect to their moms back in their home countries.”
The Wytheville Cubs never did win an Appalachian League title, but 16 guys who called Withers Field their summer home from 1985-89 reached the majors.
The most notable was Jerome Walton, who won National League Rookie of the Year honors in ‘89 while wowing fans at Wrigley Field like he had done at Withers Field.
“There was one stretch when he was here [in 1986] where he reached base like 16 straight plate appearances or something,” Sayers said.
Matt Walbeck played 11 seasons in the majors and credits his initial season in Wytheville as key to his development.
“You had to grow up quick,” Walbeck said. “Or the game would chew you up and spit you out.”
Shawn Boskie, Les Lancaster, Matt Franco, Derrick May, Alex Arias and Frank Castillo were among the others who passed through Wythe County and made their mark in the big leagues.
It turned out that the summer of 1989 was Wytheville’s swan song in the Appalachian League. Or any professional league.
“We found out the Cubs weren’t coming back after the ‘89 season was over,” Sayers said. “They wanted a lot of renovations done and we couldn’t find the money to do it. Then they contacted us and told us they were going to Huntington.”
The club played in West Virginia from 1990-94.
“It was a totally different environment,” said Steve Roadcap, who managed the Wytheville Cubs and Huntington Cubs. “Huntington’s a college town.”
To get an Appalachian League fix these days, many folks from Wytheville make the short drive north to watch Pulaski’s rookie-league team.
“My family frequents Pulaski Yankees games and everywhere we turn you see someone from Wythe County,” Mabe said. “Either working or just enjoying the ballgame. It’s great to see baseball supported by our communities.”
Meanwhile, a home plate-shaped marble slab was dedicated in 1993 at Withers Park, forever honoring those who played there.
“There is a walking track that goes all around the field now,” Sayers said. “The park is used a lot by people who walk and the town has concerts and people use the park for a lot of other things. The Relay for Life is held there each year. There have been times when I would be at the park walking with my wife and someone would come up and say I played minor league baseball here back in the 1960s or 1970s. It’s been a great place for a lot of us who have lived here all our lives.”
Gelb has been back.
So has Roadcap, who is burning up the roads these days as a scout in the Cincinnati Reds organization.
“My wife and I still talk about Wytheville and it holds a lot of memories,” Roadcap said. We’ve taken our kids back there and I make sure to stop in there anytime I am down that way.”
When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016 and ended a 108-year championship drought, among those celebrating the title was bullpen coach Lester Strode. He was the pitching coach for the Wytheville Cubs in their final season.
As the Cleveland Indians try to wrestle the American League Central Division lead away from the Minnesota Twins down the stretch, you might catch a glimpse of bench coach Brad Mills on television. He was Wytheville’s skipper in 1987.
The next time Atlanta Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz makes a visit to the mound to chat with Mike Soroka or Max Fried, keep in mind that he held the same position with the 1987 Wytheville Cubs.
The Welch Miners.
The Paintsville Brewers.
The Marion Mets.
The Wytheville Cubs.
They’re defunct Appalachian League baseball teams that are simply a page on baseball-reference.com to some. Yet, they remain a large part of the fabric of their communities, even after all these years.
“I’ve heard plenty of stories about the Wytheville Cubs from my parents, who both attended several games throughout their childhood and teenage years,” said Mabe, who happens to be one of the top high school baseball players in Southwest Virginia. “My father still has a broken bat he got from one of the games at our house. I’ve also spoken several times with Kenny Sayers. All three of them can go on all day talking about great times spent at the stadium and how everyone in the community attended the games.”