Yogi Berri, an American professional baseball catcher, manager and coach who played 19 seasons in Major League Baseball, mostly with the New York Yankees, died at a prime 90 years of age but was quoted as saying, “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too!”
And baseball has been a love in Craig County for many years, especially in the ‘older’ days. “Before softball and football came about, we didn’t have much to do back then as there weren’t many television sets or cell phones,” ex-player Clayton Caldwell shared. “That was our weekend pastime and the entire family came out to enjoy it.” Guys from their teens all the way up to 40s years of age made up the team and they seemed to play with zeal.
Recently a town team baseball picture from 1959 appeared on a Facebook page and brought out reminiscing comments as well as favorable memories. It was taken of the team and their banner which read; Pennant Winner Virginia Mountain League 1959. “It’s fun to think of the fairgrounds looking like this,” Diane Givens shared. “The good ole’ days!”
“New Castle had some really good baseball teams in the 1940s, 50s and 60s,” Clayton Caldwell shared. “Our players came from Craig County, Blacksburg, Virginia Tech, Salem and Roanoke but mostly from CRAIG COUNTY!” They played in the Virginia Amateur League and Virginia Mountain league.
It was mentioned that baseball in the 50s and 60s was just about all they had to do in Craig. “Many of us played with sticks and rocks, hitting them between chores on the farm,” seemed to be a common statement.
Yogi Berri added a little sideline look to it; “Little league baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parent off the streets!” And it kept most of Craig in the Grandstands back then!
“Every Sunday, we had a big crowd in the grandstand,” Dallas Helems, pitcher of the team, shared. “We played one game home and another away,” Caldwell added. “We alternated weekly.”
Bob Burger, also a team member said, “You couldn’t hardly find a place to sit back then…it was nice,” It seemed many would talk of the ‘old-time’ baseball legends. “Baseball was an American sport and everyone loved it, even my granny!” one community member shared with a grin and pumping their arms to signify the Atlanta Braves movement.
Jim Bouton, an American retired professional baseball player of 16 years said, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end, it turns out it was the other way around all the time.”
“I remember Atkins coming out and watching me in pitching practice to see if I could play with them,” Helems shared. He was one of the pitchers and according to Caldwell, he was good. “He and I played together in school and we had a pretty good record in high school in the mid 50s.” Caldwell started playing at age 15.
He left to attend Lynchburg College but said he looked forward to the summer, as he came back and played summer baseball on the weekends. He played the position of catcher until his early 30s.
“We always had a real good Town team,” Helems said. “Sometimes a few of the out of towners would join us who were good ball players.” They played area teams from Glassco, Buena Vista, Covington, Clifton Forge and Hot Springs to name a few. Caldwell added, “Buchanan was a big rivalry,”
Bob Burger, who also pitched, remembered the positions of many of his teammates (and some after he stopped playing), with a joy in his voice. “We had fun back then,” he shared with a smile that could be felt miles away. His wife Geraldine added, “That was a great time in Craig County! The Grandstand was packed and we had a nice concession stand underneath.”
Many times, they played on both Saturdays and Sundays. Back then, the fee to enter the ballgames was between .50 and a dollar. “It’s what they used to buy the balls and bats,” Burger added.
Burger and Helems both shared that many Sundays they brought their uniforms to church and went straight to the ball diamond to play after leaving the service. That was a regular Sunday afternoon for them.
“Arnold Helems and Clayton Caldwell were catchers, Minnie Helmes played first base, Chuck Huffman from Sinking Creek played second, Dickie Huffman was our short stop and playing third was Earl Atkins,” he said. “Walt Mitchell played outfield, Charlie and Eugene played wherever they put them and Pooch Caldwell played left most of the time.” he added. “We also had some good pitchers like Dallas Fisher, Carlton Zimmerman and Jim Trainer,” Caldwell said.
“No one seemed to be able to get a ball past Minnie Helems,” Geraldine Burger shared. The team that played back then could play a pro team and win I think,” she added. Minnie was also a coach. “Ole Doc Mitchell was really into baseball too!” Burger shared.
“Walt was a great player!” Caldwell added. “And, so was Burger.” Caldwell added that Leo Burke went to Virginia Tech and then went pro to the Majors and played with the St. Louis Cardinals, while others did go on to play in the professional Minor Leagues.
Many comments were made on Facebook of how good the teams were back then. “We were sort of like the Yankees,” Caldwell shared with a faint giggle. “We would be way behind and pull it out in the eighth or ninth inning.”
Caldwell shared one memory. “There were runners on first and second and I hit a triple and scored them in,” he said. “Also, one time I was on third base and Arnold Helems drove me in for the winning run.”
Burger added his fondest memory was one time when they played Buchanan. “I pitched a double header in Buchanan and a guy came up to me and handed me $20 and said if we could beat Buchanan, we deserved this money.” Burger said that meant a lot to him as his dad had played Buchanan when he played baseball.
Burger added that Waldo Craft was the batboy and if one of the other team members accidently grabbed a New Castle bat, he was quick to grab it right back.
Memories seemed to be embedded deep in many hearts in Craig when it comes to baseball and their favorite pastime memories. Since, however, the Grandstand has been demolished and a new look has been added to the fairgrounds. However, Trena Boudreaux shared that she has a bench made from the wood from the bleachers. “Vince made it for me.” she said.
An unknown author seemed to have caught the art of baseball as well as life in saying, ” In life, you are going to make mistakes, you’re going to fall down, but it’s the getting up that counts. Just like in baseball…you’ll get a few hits, but most likely, you’ll strike out more than you’ll get on base. But don’t quit! Find your focus, relax, take a deep breath and give it a good swing!”
Many ex-baseball players who played for New Castle, seemed to have lived that quote. “We just got older and the game went to football and softball,” Caldwell shared. “But many of us loved it while it was here.”
Babe Ruth seemed to echo that feeling when he said, “Baseball is and always will be to me, the best game in the world!” ‘Babe’ played from 1914 through 1935 and was known as a slugger and was also one of the first five players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.
Though known for having the most home runs, he was also known for having the most strikeouts. But he said, “Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back.” The New Castle baseball team of then proved that statement true and won many games and pennants. “It was our little treasure that was priceless,” many agreed.