The Shenandoah Valley is a great place to live with a great history. You are never too far from a Civil War landmark, an exciting festival or thriving small businesses. Things in the Valley tend to move a little slower and seem a bit more relaxed. The times may change and the people may come and go, but the history remains. One tradition in the Valley is the greatest game ever played: baseball. From amateur to professional, baseball fans in the Shenandoah Valley have always had their choice of baseball games to watch and teams of which to root. The Shenandoah Valley and baseball have become intertwined throughout history. There have been at least twenty semi-professional baseball leagues in the Shenandoah Valley since the game of baseball was invented. This is proof that the people of the Shenandoah Valley love this game. I chose to expand on the two most well-known and local leagues: The Valley Baseball League and the Rockingham County Baseball League. These two leagues represent the Shenandoah Valley and all of its history and perseverance through tough times.
The Valley Baseball League, or the VBL, began in 1921 as written records show the first all-star game being played. However, after speaking with former VBL League Commissioner Don Lemish, I was informed that research by Chaz Weaver uncovered records that show the VBL being organized on May 15, 1897 in Edinburg, Virginia by Mr. Laughlin, who was the original chairman. The original teams were Winchester, Woodstock, Strasburg, Edinburg, and Front Royal. The League was then reorganized in 1914 to be the Class Virginia Mountain League. The VBL dissipates in 1924, reappears in 1928, disappears after one season then reappears in 1933 and disappears again in 1937, but reappears one season later but baseball around the country disappears until 1946, except the MLB which took players from leagues like the VBL to stay afloat, due to World War II. The VBL reappears in 1947 and has been around every season since except 1953. The VBL definitely went through some tough times at the beginning but it persevered and has turned itself into a great league that is proud of the product it puts out on the field. The VBL is much more stable now than it was in the past and is considered “one of the top five or six summer baseball leagues in the country.” This stability has allowed the league continue to grow and prosper. Just last season, the Harrisonburg Turks were ranked number four out of all the summer league teams, which proves the VBL can now attract top college players and prospects to reward the very loyal fan base the league has created over the past few decades.
The VBL, much like the Shenandoah Valley itself, has evolved with the times. There is great diversity in style of play and coaching that the league did not have before. The style of play is very similar to that of Major League Baseball, so fans can get a big league taste but at a small town price. With attendance in the hundreds, close to one thousand fans, per night depending on the team; the VBL was turning a tidy profit. In 2011, however, Major League Baseball ruled leagues like the VBL had to become non-profit to continue to receive grant money. The VBL now runs completely off of volunteers and each team has had to add a Board of Directors to run the franchise. Even with this transition, the VBL plans to add a new team next season from Charlottesville that is expected to be a strong team with talent and a fan base eager to play baseball.
The Valley Baseball League has grown and evolved with the people and the Shenandoah Valley as well. At times, things may get rough but perseverance and dedication gets through tough times and into greener pastures. The people of the Shenandoah Valley have grown up watching the Valley Baseball League and the future stars that have come through. One league that often gets overlooked by most people but has managed to build a strong loyal fan base and talent level despite its shortcomings in geography and is the Rockingham County Baseball League.
The Rockingham County Baseball League, or RCBL, has overcome its own adversity and hardships to turn into the prosperous league it has become. The RCBL, much like the Valley Baseball League, had a tough time getting settled and stable. He league was founded in 1924 under the inspiration of Polly Lineweaver, a sports writer at the Daily News-Record, and Claude C. Michael, the RCBL’s first League President. From 1924 through 1932, the pennant winner played the Augusta County League in a bi-county series. The league dissolved in 1933 due to the start of the Valley Baseball League but was again activated in 1938. The original purpose of the league was to be a farm set up for the Harrisonburg Turks of the Valley Baseball League. Just like the Valley Baseball League, the RCBL was shut down during WWII, and reappeared for the 1946 season and has been running ever since. Much like the Valley Baseball League is now, the RCBL is a non-profit organization and each team is responsible for funding its season. All proceeds come from attendance, concessions, and sponsorships. During the playoffs, the league collects one dollar per ticket sold, which serves as the primary income for the league. The league has enjoyed some success and would like to add a new member two in the near future. When talking to a member of the league’s Board of Directors, he was quoted saying: “I’m only just a single member, but I think there is a sentiment that we would like to add a new team” citing the success of the new Luray team. The primary reason for Luray being so successful is that the Valley Baseball League team left to Charlestown, West Virginia but the fan base still remained.
Attendance among teams is usually in the 300 to 400 fans per night. Although powerhouse Clover Hill can pull in 750 to 1000 fans a night during the playoffs.
The RCBL was also the first baseball league in the United States to have an “all colored team” in 1970, thanks to the efforts of Roscoe Burgess who was the RCBL’s first African American player. The RCBL also has an age minimum at 16 years old. However, that is untrue, as records show a Bobby Weiss playing at age fourteen and Keith Spitzer playing at the age of fifteen. “Talent is all that is necessary” to play in the league.
In 1974 when the RCBL was celebrating its 50 year anniversary, RCBL President Karl Olschofka, received a letter from the Bowie Kuhn, The Commissioner of Major League Baseball. The letter read:
“Dear Mr. Olschofka:
Congratulations to the Rockingham County Baseball League on its 50th anniversary of baseball competition.
Baseball, founded in rural America and nurtured in communities such as the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, has its origins in the grass roots of the United States.
I wish you every success in this anniversary year and in the years ahead and salute you for many and memorable years of play.”
The Commissioner of Major League Baseball, at that time, realized how important leagues like this are to the people who watch and the players on the field. The RCBL has been a place for great people and baseball players to get together and play the game of baseball. When the RCBL was celebrating its 80th anniversary, letters from Adam H. “Bud” Selig, the current Commissioner of Major League Baseball and Dale Petrosky, the President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, saluting the RCBL for the hard work and positive influence the league has had on youth baseball players. Bud Selig went on to say these players “will develop character and work habits that will carry over into their lives.” Dale Petroskey believed the league “provides a wonderful opportunity” and allows individuals to “grow through effort, failure, success and teamwork.” These two men understand the value of hard work and the importance of leagues like the RCBL that mold the young men this nation needs.
The history of baseball in the Shenandoah Valley is often overlooked but its importance cannot be. Even the Commissioner of Major League Baseball understood how important baseball is and was to the Shenandoah Valley. He understood this is where baseball took off around the country and allowed larger leagues, such as Major League Baseball, to flourish they way they have. Without the Shenandoah Valley, among other places, baseball may not have taken off and be considered America’s pass-time. The Valley League and the Rockingham County Baseball League have been instrumental in the growing of the Shenandoah Valley into what it is today. The more things seem to change, the constants and throwbacks of the Valley Baseball League and the Rockingham County BL continue to thrive and prosper. Their rich history is often overlooked but deserves the proper time and attention.
Bruce Thomas. Baseball Leagues in the Valley. Bridgewater. 2012.
Candace Sipos. “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” Shenandoah Journal (Harrisonburg, VA). April 30, 2014.
Don Lemish (League Commissioner), Interview, April 18, 2014.
Karl Olschofka. Rockingham County Baseball League Golden Anniversary Bridgewater. 1974.
Keith Spitzer (RCBL Hall of Famer), Interview, April 30, 2014.
Letter, Bowie Kuhn to Karl Olschofka, March 14, 1974.
Letter, Bud Selig to Karl Olschofka, March 23, 2004.
R.C.B.L. 80th Anniversary. Harrisonburg. 2004.