(Wytheville, Va.) – Wytheville, Virginia is known as “The Crossroads of the Blue Ridge,” the convergence of Interstates 77 and 81 create a welcome rest stop for travelers coming from four separate directions. The town is steeped in history from the Civil War to the birthplace of former first lady Edith Boling Wilson. Baseball plays a prominent role in the heritage of the community, as Withers Field hosted baseball for 25 seasons between 1948 and 1990. While the stadium is mostly gone now, a park includes many of the stadium’s original landmarks and a glimpse into the rich heritage that has roamed the southern-Virginia countryside.
In their initial year of existence (1948), the Wytheville Pioneers had a unique combination in Mickey Weintraub. Weintraub led the team with a .366 average, he was their manager and their owner. He even covered them as the beat writer for the local newspaper, The Wytheville Times. His hometown newspaper, The News, from Paterson, New Jersey said of Weintraub, “He has the knack of selling players to big league organizations.” Withers Field would host a 17-inning game that year between Galex and Radford in the longest game for the league that season.
Playoff baseball came to Withers field in 1949 as the Wytheville Statesmen, led by Manager Frank Subb, won their first round series against Mount Airy but would fall to North Wilkesboro in the championship. Unfortunately, a polio epidemic in Wytheville meant the team would drop out of the league in the 1950 season. Baseball would not return until 1953 when Wytheville entered the Appalachian League and found major league affiliation for the first time with the St. Louis Browns.
The Cardinals and their rich farm system moved into Wytheville in 1957. Led by Manager Johnny Grodzicki, the Cardinal roster had three players that would eventually land in the show. Other organizations to follow included the Senators, A’s. Twins, Red, Braves and Cubs. From 1960 to 1963, Adelbert Norwood was the manager and finished with 156 career wins, which was the most by any Wytheville manager.
The Braves took up residence in 1971 with Paul Snyder at the helm. Snyder had a 40-year career with the Braves, including as a player, manager scouting director and director of player development. He was key component to the Braves dynasty beginning in 1991. Eddie Haas managed the team in 1972 and would become the Braves major league manager in 1985. Douglasville native and future Braves left fielder Terry Harper spent his first professional season at Withers Field where he would hit an inauspicious .235 in 1973.
After the Braves exit in 1973, the park would sit silent for 12 years until the Cubs came calling for in 1985 and their opening night brought a record crowd of 2,175. The last game professional game for Wytheville was on August 28, 1989, a 10-6 loss to the Pulaski Braves. Jac Gelb will be footnote in history as being the losing pitcher in the final game.
In terms of big-time names, Tony Oliva who won the 1964 American League Rookie of the year award played his first professional season in 1961, when he hit .410 and drove in 81 runs in only 64 games. 1974 AL MVP Jeff Borroughs played his first professional season in Wytheville as well, when he hit .355 while playing first base.
While part of the spectator stands are still intact and the signature hump in centerfield is still in play, Wytheville mostly lives in the memories of those who watched. There is still baseball north of town in Bluefield and Princeton, West Virginia, but the memories and moments at Withers Park are worth the visit.