Book Review: Textile League Baseball: South Carolina’s Mill Teams, 1880-1955

I accidently stumbled upon Thomas Perry’s book, “Textile League Baseball,” while conducting some research on a bit of hometown trivia. Oddly, in the 1950’s and 60’s you could hear the Chicago White Sox broadcasts in my hometown of Greenville, SC on radio station, WMRB-1490 AM. As I grew older I wondered why where Chicago games broadcast into the Deep South. My interest was rekindled in 2006 when an investor purchased and relocated the last house that Shoeless Joe Jackson lived in. Unbeknownst to me, Jackson’s house was located just two blocks from where I attended elementary school. His house was eventually moved to downtown and became the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum. I pondered, was the Shoeless Joe Jackson’s legacy connected to the broadcasts? Were the broadcasts the result of a fan base that had developed around Shoeless Joe? A posting on Facebook speculated that the Brandon Mill baseball team (where Shoeless Joe Jackson played) might have adopted the Chicago White Sox as their team. I purchased Thomas Perry’s book in the hope he could shed some light on my quest.

Perry’s book intrigued me because I was born in Greenville. At one time, upstate South Carolina was considered the textile center of the world. I only lived two miles from Brandon Mill where my wife and her parents worked prior to its closure. Perry explained, not only was baseball a part of the textile community, but why textile mills sprang up where they did. He stated you frequently found a textile mill near a water source as running water was necessary to generate electricity. The mill was the heart of the community and its employees were not viewed just as workers, but as family. Textile mills were often located in remote areas lacking convenient access to entertainment and other amenities.

Thomas Perry states that baseball became a fundamental part of textile village life and was an outlet to the grueling work scheduled. The games fostered competition and community pride for players and spectators. Teams sprang up in every corner of the region and by 1908 the first league was born. As time wore on, teams and leagues would form and fold, but the interest never waned. Spectators would travel for miles by foot, horse drawn buggy, or train just to watch Textile Baseball. The Textile League baseball glory years were the 1930’s. Many believed their level of play was equal to Major League baseball and teams were not shy to send a prospective player packing if he wasn’t up to their standards. Mill owners recruited good players and sometimes would bend employment rules to the benefit of the team. Indeed, owners were investing capital and resources to make the teams competitive and attendance would frequently exceed a thousand per game.
Perry also identified the great players of the league with chapters devoted to Champ Osteen and Shoeless Joe Jackson. In addition, he offers an appendix of Textile League players who made it to the majors. Unfortunately, I could find not collaborating evidence of textile mills adopting Major League teams. This was an immediate source of disappointment. The very fact that Perry didn’t mention this is probably because the teams didn’t adopt. However, much to my delight, I did find the names of two baseball players: my former pastor, Dan Greer of Washington Avenue Baptist Church, and my father-in-law, John Blackston. Both were listed in the second appendix, “Records and Rosters.”

Perry cites several reasons for the demise of the Textile Leagues in the chapter titled the Decline and Fall: mill owners began to sell houses in the mill villages destroying community pride; post WW II prosperity meant more folks bought automobiles making a trip to the lake, mountains, etc. more preferable than a walk to the ball field; television; mill management allocated less money as teams lost money due to less attendance; disparity among the teams, as larger mills could field better ball players; and the final death nail occurred in 1959 when South Carolina applied an Admission Tax to the gate receipts.

Reading the chapter Decline and Fall left me feeling profoundly sad. I’m not sure why except that it reminded me of each time I visit Greenville. As I travel through the city, I notice all the abandoned mills with their rusting water towers appearing as headstones marking a bygone era. I certainly don’t relish the times when the Ready River would change colors when mills would dump their waste. But I do reminisce about the hustle and bustle of the mill activity and the community spirit that once thrived.

Even though the book didn’t help me collaborate a Chicago White Sox radio broadcast and Shoeless Joe Jackson connection, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. (I eventually confirmed that Shoeless Joe had nothing to do with the Sox broadcasts. It turned out to be just an odd coincidence.) The book did have one distraction however. I was annoyed at the statistical and performance details the author would include in his attempt to highlight some of the more memorable or significant games. I suppose box score numbers are helpful in some circumstances, but I found them distracting. Descriptions are entertaining in the sports pages but make for dull reading in a history book. Nevertheless, in one instance those details come in handy when an associate told me of a relative who played for Easley. A quick check of the book found the player, Wayne Johnson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, on page 72 facing Lou Brissie from Monaghan who was owned by the Philadelphia Athletics. So I suppose I should repent of my egotistical view and be thankful for that added detail.

If you love baseball and are a student of sport history or folklore, Thomas Perry’s book belongs on your bookshelf.