Bluefield, Princeton stretch baseball history from old ballparks
Now that Morgantown has a minor league team, it gives West Virginia four professional baseball franchises.
Two of the country’s oldest baseball franchises hold quirky ballparks that were built long before creature comforts or electronic wizardry were even considered for the pleasure of paying customers.
The Bluefield Jays inhabit ageless Bowen Field, opened in 1939 and able to shoehorn 2,500 people into its historic confines.
Bowen Field was purposely built straddling the state line between West Virginia and Virginia. The Jays can draw from the 5,000 people in Bluefield, West Virginia, and the 10,000 living in Bluefield, Virginia.
Low-slung mountains surround the grounds where the ballpark was built. When standing at home plate and gazing out over the center field fence, it appears the place is going to be swallowed by a large monster that seems to loom right behind the outfield fence all the way from the left field to the right field foul lines. That monster is a mountain that covers half the sky, and ends the level land in that direction.
Bowen Field is not uncomfortable. Its covered grandstand is complete with plastic, chairback seats. There are uncovered bleachers down each foul line. The clubhouse is from decades ago, but has been modernized because Major League Baseball has such civilized rules for minor league players these days.
Longtime baseball followers know the Bluefield franchise was home for “prospects” of the Baltimore Orioles from 1958 through the 2010 season. Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray got their professional starts in Bluefield, as did Boog Powell.
The lights are on low poles and not much different from the ones around in the 1960s. Hitters have no advantage when playing at Bowen Field.
There may not be any “ghosts of baseball past” lingering at ageless Bowen Field, but it sure feels like history oozes from all over the premises, where Appalachian League teams have plied their trade seemingly forever.
In Princeton, the smallest town in America that has a professional franchise associated with Major League Baseball, it’s Hunnicutt Field that stands tall on its limited flat space between summer’s green mountains.
The population of Princeton in 2010 was only 6,432, yet the Rays drew nearly 900 fans per game last season.
The mountain in Princeton creeps down to the edges of the grandstand behind home plate at Hunnicutt. The center fielders wait for the mountain’s jaws to open and take away the covered seating area and leave it empty of its buildings.
Seating capacity is only 1,950 and only aluminum rows without any backs await the crowds that come to spend an evening watching Appalachian League players in their first summer of professional playing.
As at Bowen Field, the hitters don’t get any conveniences from the layout. There are four outfield light poles, which are very low in height. Pitchers should find the shadows at home plate to their advantage and a .300 batting average for a summer spent in Princeton would be quite an accomplishment.
Uncovered metal bleachers reach away from both ends of the covered grandstand.
Toronto places its youngest farm hands in Princeton, and only one in 25 players who spend time there ever see the inside of a major league stadium as a player.
A bare bones clubhouse was in place long ago, but there is space alongside for the bus that carries the 17-to-23-year-olds to destinations in Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee, where athletes in similar situations attempt to adjust to life away from home, family and friends while traveling for much of the five-month minor league season.
Bowen Field and Hunnicutt Field. Old but mostly ageless. Two of West Virginia’s iconic landmarks – especially if you ever played there on your way to the major leagues and its multi-figure contracts.