Mount Airy News

Power was at play with mill-town baseball

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Baseball usually is thought of as a simple, straightforward game that is, after all, America’s pastime.  However, a complex undercurrent of politics, social agendas and manipulation was at play among the teams that flourished in Mount Airy and other textile towns during the 1930s and 1940s, according to a baseball historian who spoke here Saturday.

“Mill-town baseball was much more than a game — it gave meaning to life,” Robert Billinger told an audience at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History during a presentation that included images and colorful stories from a long-ago chapter of the sport.

Baseball was vitally important not only to residents of a town, but the mill owners who used it as a source of control, added Billinger, a retired professor from Wingate University who is part of a “Road Scholar” program of the North Carolina Humanities Council. He was the final speaker in a six-part History Talks series hosted by the local museum.  Before the Great Depression, there were 26 different leagues around the country, Billinger said in described the prevalence of minor league baseball at that time.   But similar to a Louisville slugger, the sport wielded a huge clout in the so-called “Textile Belt,” an area encompassing Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama where that industry was prevalent.  “Everybody had a dog in the fight,” Billinger said.

In Mount Airy’s case that was a team known as the Graniteers, which competed in the Bi-State League and was among numerous Class D squads dotting small towns at the time. The Graniteers played against clubs with other colorful names such as the Winston-Salem Twins, Danville Leafs, Reidsville Luckies and Tri-City Triplets (of Draper, North Carolina).  “Bigger places like Concord had numerous mill teams,” the speaker related.  Yet the same dynamics were prevalent regardless of venue. Those who owned the textile companies footed the entire bill for fielding a team, including paying players. The 1929 budget of the Concord Weavers, for example, was $350 per week for the total team salary, and no player could make more than $40 weekly.  While that is nowhere near the exorbitant salaries earned by baseball players today, Billinger said it must be remembered that the average textile worker made only about $10 per week in 1929.  Ostensibly, players came from within a mill’s employee base, but that didn’t keep “ringers” from joining teams at times when the price was right.  Billinger related one case in which a coveted player on a particular team secretly offered his services to another for $50. But when the management of his regular team found out about it, concern spread because that would interfere with a big game against the Kannapolis Towelers. So it upped the ante by paying the player $75.

Manipulative Owners

Those in charge of textile firms that sponsored teams didn’t do so for the betterment of the world, but had their own agendas, Billinger added, which involved more than just what occurred on the diamond. Mill owners not only sought enthusiastic workers, but loyal town residents as fans.  “Mill owners, of course, had an interest in getting people to support their mill team, or home team,” the historian said.  Baseball also influenced what went on in the workplace, Billinger said, with mill owners using it as a way to build unity, cohesion — and discipline — there.  “If you could train a country boy to do that,” Billinger said of mastering baseball skills, he also could be taught to rapidly remove and replace bobbins on machinery, or similar tasks.  And when strikes or other labor issues arose, owners would threaten to withdraw funding for teams as a bargaining chip.  The small-town fans also had their own special reasons for backing a team, the baseball historian said.  “During the Depression, it was fairly good enjoyment,” he said. “It was a diversion…people could be proud of.”  That sense of escapism was a huge factor especially for those who lived in company-owned neighborhoods sometimes resembling the worst kind of slums.  “You couldn’t go to Disney World,” Billinger said of one’s entertainment options at the time. “But to go to a baseball game is to kind of get out of the back yard.”  Collectively, a winning team allowed a community to achieve a sense of pride by beating other towns’ teams through a mindset not unlike warfare, according to Billinger.

The historian referred to a quote by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general and military theorist who lived from 1780-1831: ““War is the continuation of politics by other means.”  For the North Carolina mill towns, the message was that “baseball was the pursuit of power/empowerment by other means,” according to Billinger’s presentation.  “And there were a lot of winners,” he said, with baseball a game people often would play or watch to seek empowerment.  Fans pursued a sense of excitement or group identity, while the players sought self-esteem and personal glory, Billinger said.

Graniteers’ Glory

The Mount Airy Graniteers achieved a measure of success during their tenure, Billinger said.  This included capturing the Blue Ridge League championship in the late 1940s.  But the club also gained a bit of notoriety in 1948 in the form of a written reprimand from a national governing body for the sport.  A leader of that association fired off a letter to Dr. Otis Oliver, the president of the Mount Airy Baseball Club, complaining about the bad treatment of umpires by individuals involved with the Graniteers.  The local team also produced some interesting players, including Bobby Byrne Jr., Billinger said.  After signing his first pro contract with Knoxville of the Southern Association in 1939, Byrne was assigned to the Mount Airy Graniteers.  But just as his playing career was taking off, World War II broke out and Byrne found himself a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps, who built a distinguished military record that included shooting down German planes in Africa.  The Graniteers folded after the 1950 season.

TV Aided Demise

Mill-town baseball thrived in an era when many people didn’t even have radios in their homes for listening to Major League games, which motivated many to take in a live contest of their local team.  In turn, the advent of television in the 1950s would spell its demise, Billinger said.  For the first time, fans had something to compare their hometown teams to by being able to watch clubs such as the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals perform.  “Then the local teams sort of looked like amateurs,” Billinger said.  People also had more money in the post-World War II years and could drive to larger cities with big-league teams, he mentioned.  “Baseball was THE game.”

Moonshine was racing’s founding fuel

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NASCAR executives who wear expensive suits and occupy fancy corporate suites prefer to portray modern stock car racing as a sport inhabited by squeaky-clean role-models promoted by slickly produced TV coverage.

But that is a departure from racing’s hardscrabble early days, when moonshine was just as important as gasoline in fueling its growth, according to an event Saturday at Mount Airy Museum of History.

Rex White, a retired competitor who recently was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, was the guest of honor for the occasion — which included a racing roundtable discussion and other activities — but one could argue that moonshine had equal billing.

“I didn’t like the stuff — I never was a whiskey drinker,” said White, 85, who in 1960 won the points championship in a series that was the precursor to today’s Sprint Cup Series. He is now the oldest-living champion of NASCAR’s top division.

White said the influence of moonshine was hard to ignore in racing’s early days, which flowed like a river through drivers and other key figures in racing — and even spectators.

“The biggest fight I ever saw at a track was at North Wilkesboro,” he said of a venue that was part of the NASCAR circuit for years.

“There was probably a thousand or two (people) fighting in the grandstand,” White of the alcohol-fueled conflict.

The cars on the track kept running unencumbered as the drivers witnessed the melee in the stands — until someone threw a bottle through the windshield of Bob Welborn’s car.

Finally the crowd was brought under control. “But that was one heck of a fight,” White said.

This was part of a culture associated with racing’s beginnings, NASCAR expert Dr. Dan Pierce told the audience gathered Saturday at the museum. Pierce, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and author of the book “The Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France,” said those controlling the sport today can’t deny its moonshine heritage.

Pierce said drivers, track owners and others were part of that culture, to which White agreed.

“A lot of them were good honest people,” the retired champion said. He pointed out that those in the illegal liquor trade also had a lot of money, which gave them prominence during the hard times the country was going through.

“It was something people had to make a living,” Pierce, the author, said of moonshining.

Many fans are aware of how pioneering drivers such as Junior Johnson cut their teeth running moonshine on the back roads of North Carolina and transferred those skills to the track. But that was equally true of people who ran the sport, including track owners.

There is the question of why bootleggers would want to build a racetrack, Pierce said, and the answer was simple.

“People who make moonshine and make a lot of money have a problem,” the author and professor explained. “What do you do with the money?”

Depositing large sums of cash in a bank would draw the attention of the authorities, Pierce said, and keeping it stashed somewhere could invite trouble. He cited a long-ago incident in Wilkes County in which men with sub-machine guns infiltrated a place where a poker game took place and stole $17,000.

“It was a dangerous thing to have a lot of cash around.”

White recalled one establishment from those days where money was hidden in a jukebox. “You know what that building is now?” the racing legend said. “A church.”

Given the risk of such practices, some involved in moonshining saw having a track as a legitimate enterprise to funnel money through.

That included some of the sport’s founding fathers, Pierce said, including Clay Earles, who opened Martinsville Speedway in the late 1940s, and was known for having a framed set of brass knuckles on his office wall.

“They ought to name one of their races the Bootlegger 500,” Pierce said of the two Martinsville tour dates on the NASCAR schedule, because that activity enabled the track to be developed.

The late Enoch Staley, longtime owner of North Wilkesboro Speedway, also was in the illegal alcohol business, Pierce said.

Staley had a “day job” driving a truck for Coble Dairy, the NASCAR historian related. “But he would deliver liquor in his trucks as well.”

Even NASCAR co-founder Bill France Sr., himself a former driver, was linked to the liquor trade. “Bill France knew a lot of bootleggers,” Pierce said, and would have had to be aware of the side business many of those who he dealt with often were involved.

“You could actually make more money hauling liquor than you could racing,” said Pierce, who marvels at how NASCAR rose into a prominent sport from such humble beginnings.

“It’s amazing how a bunch of people not given much credit by society were able to do this.”

But Pierce says that those who run the sport today should be capitalizing on the present status of moonshine — including the emergence of a popular television show and the production and advertising of legalized moonshine, which is “going crazy.”

“If I could give NASCAR a piece of advice, I would say embrace this culture,” he said.

Veteran Recalls History

White participated in Saturday’s roundtable discussion with Jerry Hatcher, a longtime NASCAR official who was a flagger for races, and Steve Ramey, who heads the Richard Childress Racing Museum.

During his championship run in 1960, White won six races, and in his career scored 28 wins, took 36 poles and finished in the top five in nearly half of his 233 starts in NASCAR’s elite division.

The NASCAR pioneer, who responded to questions from audience members, said the youthful Kyle Larson is among his favorite racers today. “I think he’s going to be a good driver.”

He also commented about Danica Patrick.

“For a woman, she’s doing great,” White said with a smile, pointing out that she is now ahead of her team co-owner, Tony Stewart, in the point standings.

“She’s got good equipment,” he said, which allows Patrick to run well at times.

“You’ve got less chance of being in a wreck the closer to the front you can be,” White said.

He also relayed the story of his last days in racing, after one audience member asked White if he knew that the end was near.

This was in 1965 after White had built some Chevrolet Chevelles to race in Mexico.

White recalled Saturday how he went about 90 feet down the side of a cliff in a desolate area during one road-racing event, while riding with a Chevelle owner who swerved to miss two cows in the way.

“I had a broke back — I couldn’t move,” he said.

On that side of the road, no one came to help. “They just put a candle out where you went off,” the veteran remembered.

Two hunters finally came by and pulled him up the embankment, but this did not lead to visiting a treatment facility such as the infield care centers of today’s tracks.

“It was 24 hours later when I got to a hospital, in Mexico City,” White said.

But he was able to heal up and win Sportsmen races afterward, including one about 10 weeks later in North Carolina — while still wearing a brace.

NASCAR Hall of Famer to make stop here

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A recent inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame who also happens to be the oldest-living points champion of its top division is scheduled to make a stop in Mount Airy Saturday.

Rex White, a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2015, will be at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History as part of a two-pronged sports program Saturday, initially devoted to NASCAR and which later in the day will focus on Mount Airy High School football.

All the activities are free and open to the public.

Museum Executive Director Matt Edwards, a longtime motor sports fan and auto enthusiast, said the museum is happy to be hosting one of stock car racing’s legendary figures who joined the Hall of Fame in January.

White will be part of a “NASCAR Racers Roundtable” discussion to begin at noon on the museum’s third floor. Edwards said others from the racing world also are expected to attend and he was working to finalize those appearances at last report.

The roundtable will be set up by two talks earlier Saturday at the museum, including one beginning at 10 a.m. to be led by NASCAR Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim. He will discuss the evolution of the sport from its beginnings in the South to the nationwide phenomenon NASCAR is today.

Then at 11 a.m., the racing theme will be continued with another program led by Dr. Dan Pierce, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

Pierce, the author of the book “The Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France,” will speak about early dirt track racing and NASCAR’s formation.

Saturday’s sports programs at the museum are part of a weekly series being held there in conjunction with a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution, “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America.” It is on loan here through April 11.

Activities dedicated to NASCAR originally were scheduled for Feb. 28 when that exhibit opened but were postponed, leaving museum officials scrambling to find a replacement date in a manner similar to pit crew members going over the wall.

“I didn’t want to lose the NASCAR program because it’s one of the fun parts of this exhibit,” Edwards said.

White Going Strong

Despite being 85 years old, White remains in a relative fast lane as far as public appearances and his willingness to discuss the sport he helped pioneer.

In addition to presently being the oldest-living points champ — having won the Grand National crown (the forerunner to today’s Sprint Cup Series title) in 1960, White is the smallest man ever to capture the championship at 5 feet, 4 inches tall.

Yet White, a product of Taylorsville, who was one of the drivers originally competing for the Ford racing team, is considered a giant in the sport.

During his championship run in 1960, he won six races, and in his career scored 28 wins, took 36 poles and finished in the top five in nearly half of his 233 starts in NASCAR’s elite division.

White had a reputation for running up front even if he did not win, as evidenced by White finishing in the top 10 in the points standings in six of the nine years he competed in that division.

He also captured most-popular-driver honors in 1960.

Football Program

After the NASCAR-related events at the museum Saturday, the program dedicated to Mount Airy High School football will gear up, beginning at 2 p.m.

Doug McDaniel will present “The History of Mount Airy Football from Roots to Present” as part of the museum’s sports “History Talks” series.

McDaniel lives in Missouri, but has a local link.

“He’s originally from Mount Airy,” Edwards said, and has maintained a keen interest in the storied history of Bears football. “He started compiling the history and statistics about the Mount Airy football team years ago.”

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association, which he has contributed statistics to, is among the beneficiaries of McDaniel’s knowledge of the Bears’ gridiron exploits. He also frequently is cited as a reference in newspaper articles.

Smithsonian Sports Exhibit Arrives

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“Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America,” a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution, isn’t the kind of thing that can be set up anywhere.

“There were 21 crates of stuff,” said Matt Edwards of Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, the first venue in North Carolina chosen for the exhibit that arrived here aboard a tractor-tractor.

On Wednesday, Edwards, the museum’s executive director, and Amy Snyder, curator of collections, were joined by a handful of volunteers in busily unpacking the crates and setting up the exhibit under the direction of Terri Cobb, a Smithsonian representative from Washington. They were preparing for its grand opening on Saturday, when the public can view it for free.

Although the black crates still held much of the display, one could see it slowly taking shape in a 1,200-square-foot space in the changing exhibits gallery on the museum’s third floor, en route to a mission of telling the story of how sports has shaped America.

The workers unpacked a banner that soon revealed a giant image of the storied Wrigley Field in Chicago while being fitted to a metal frame in one part of the room. Meanwhile, larger-than-life images of basketball and hockey players emerged in another.

Nearby, another part of the exhibit that had been completed earlier displayed the heading “More Than a Game.” It featured sports magazines, baseball cards and even a collectible Barbie doll dressed in a soccer uniform.

“There are seven sections,” Cobb explained as the various pieces came together, including a section of aluminum bleachers — a universal fixture of the nation’s sporting landscape, along with other come components that collectively will tell the story.

“It’s really a way of celebrating all the things that sports brings to us, as individuals and communities and athletes and fans,” Cobb summed-up regarding the exhibit’s message overall. It features not only the role played by professional teams, but sports’ existence on a grassroots level on Little League fields or in high school gyms.

In addition to “More Than a Game,” the themes of the self-contained modules include “Rooting for the Home Team,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Sports Explosion,” “Playing the Game” and others. One section is dedicated to sports’ portrayals in movies.

On Wednesday, the assembly team was referring to a series of diagrams spread around the floor to guide it in completing the exhibit.

Plans originally called for the set-up process to also include more than 20 people from other localities in North Carolina where the touring exhibit will go after leaving Mount Airy. They were to come here as part of an overnight workshop to learn how to arrange the various pieces once they leave here.

But today’s forecast of inclement weather forced the cancellation of the workshop, Edwards said, with volunteers recruited to help with the task.

Grand Opening

The grand opening for “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America” will kick off Saturday at 10 a.m. at the North Main Street museum and last until 5 p.m.

Local high school wrestlers who recently won state championships are expected to be on hand for the event, according to Edwards.

The public will be able to view the Smithsonian exhibit for free on Saturday, and afterward it will be covered in the regular admission price at the museum.

“Get out and break the cabin fever,” Edwards said in inviting everyone to come by on Saturday.

“Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America” will be housed there through April 11.

Basketball Presentation

Edwards also mentioned two activities that will accompany the traveling exhibit, a weekly series of sports-related programs and the preparation of a permanent exhibit on this area’s sports history.

“We’ve had a few changes in our original programming,” he said.

Included is the rescheduling of a NASCAR-oriented program initially slated for this Saturday, featuring Rex White, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015.

That event has been moved to March 21.

The schedule reshuffling also includes shifting to this Saturday a program on women’s textile basketball which was to be held later in the series.

It will be led by Pamela Grundy, a sports historian, who is to present the story of teams prevalent decades ago when companies sponsored all-female basketball squads.

One such group, the Elkin Blanketeers, a mill team representing Chatham Manufacturing Co., was a national champion.

The program on women’s basketball begins Saturday at 2 p.m. on the museum’s third floor where the traveling exhibit will be displayed.

Actor and playwright Mike Wiley, who heads a production company in Durham, also will present a program on Jackie Robinson as part of the series. Among other presentations will be one focusing on Mount Airy High School football.

Another activity linked to the traveling exhibit involves a permanent exhibit now being developed to highlight local sports history.

It presently exists on a small scale, with a large exhibit to result during the coming weeks, Edwards said.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and the surrounding community were expressly chosen by the North Carolina Humanities Council to be the kickoff site of “Hometown Teams” as part of the Museum on Main Street program. It is designed to bring high-quality traveling exhibits to smaller rural communities through a national/state/local partnership.

This city was picked as part of a grant-application process, the museum executive director has said.

The Smithsonian exhibit also is being funded in part by a $2,500 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation, which was awarded in January in support of the museum’s annual changing exhibits program.

Beginner genealogy class planned

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Classes will begin Tuesday for local residents who want to research their family tree, but don’t know how to get started.

The genealogy course for beginners involves a five-part series to be taught by Esther Johnson, a veteran local genealogist.

In addition to this Tuesday night’s session, classes are scheduled for Feb. 17 and 24 and March 3 and 10, each lasting from 6-8 p.m.

Classes will be held at different locations.

The second-floor classroom of Mount Airy Museum of Regional History will host the first two sessions.

On Feb. 24, the third class is planned at the Surry County register of deeds office in Dobson, with the fourth on March 3 to occur at the Carlos Surratt Genealogy Room of Surry Community College in Dobson.

The final installment on March 10 will be back at the museum classroom.

Laptops are welcome, but not necessary, with many handouts to be provided.

The class is limited to 25 students.

Museum members will be admitted free, but there is a fee of $5 per class (or $25 for the course) for non-members. Annual memberships are available for $25 for seniors and students or $40 for others.

Amy Snyder of the museum staff can be contacted for additional information or registration at (336) 786-4478, Extension 227, or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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