Note: This article is adapted from “‘A Good Base Ball Club Is a Splendid Advertisement to a Town’: Baseball and the New South in Clifton Forge, Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 124, No. 3 (2016): 186-215.
Clifton Forge, Virginia, is (and was) a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, but in 1890, the town was growing fast. Several thousand people flocked to the town for promising new careers in mining or railroading. Most locals, especially leadership, assumed Clifton Forge would be the next Southern Appalachia success story to rival larger cities like Roanoke and Knoxville. To build a top-notch city, leaders believed the town needed all the bells and whistles that made a city, constructing in short order a quality police department, fire department, quality hospital, and a posh hotel. There was one more thing though that town leadership wanted in their town – a baseball club. As articulated by Clifton Forge Review editor WHH Frenger, “A good base ball club is a splendid advertisement to a town, and should meet the approval of all classes, especially the business men.”
A trio of brothers – John, James, and George Mahaney – led all local efforts to form athletic clubs. Throughout the 1890s, the Mahaneys organized YMCA basketball games, an Olympics-style athletic competition, and, most importantly, a baseball club. Before going into the details of the Mahaney’s efforts, it should be noted that these athletic events were exclusively white. As for African-American athletic events, white newspapers make at least passing mention, but there are no sources detailing these events (at least that I have found in my searches). Clifton Forge, like the rest of the South, embraced Jim Crow segregation during the late-nineteenth century. The white residents of this town actually enforced more brutal segregation than most in the South as evidenced by a lynching in 1891, numerous executions of black men throughout the 1890s and 1900s, and that hundreds of black men fled the area for employment elsewhere. But all throughout this hardening of Jim Crow segregation and mob justice, the white men of Clifton Forge created their own approach to baseball – a discussion of why they did this is left for the conclusion.
The Mahaneys approached their Clifton Forge Base Ball club (aka the Cliftons) in a manner unlike other clubs in the region – they sought to both win every game and present themselves and their club as “gentlemanly.” The idea of “gentlemanliness” was common enough and generally described a specific type of manliness that could be acquired through public refinement, dignity, order, fairness, courage, and respectability. All of these traits could be demonstrated on a baseball diamond, and many people, especially the Mahaneys, believed that a baseball diamond was the best (perhaps only) place a working-class man could acquire a gentlemanly reputation. A gentlemanly approach to baseball was nothing new in the 1890s. Gentlemanly approaches to baseball existed as early as the 1840s in New York City and largely fell out of favor by about the 1880s as athletic competitiveness took hold nationwide. Baseball historians typically represent an inverse relationship between gentlemanly and competitive baseball – as one fell away, the other surged in popularity. However, the Cliftons are evidence this was not the case.
The Cliftons embraced competition while simultaneously performing as a gentlemanly club. As a brief example of the club’s competitiveness, the Cliftons won several regional tournaments throughout the 1892 season and celebrated these victories. During the end-of-year recap, newspapers described the club as “dominating” in their performances and proclaimed the team will “have to play Lynchburg, Richmond, the University of Virginia, etc., to make games more interesting to the spectators.” In addition to this competitiveness however, the Cliftons emphasized a “proper” approach to baseball. This included a range of actions seen with other clubs – maintaining decorum at games and in social settings, searching out honorable and honest men to serve as umpires, actively fighting against crowd rowdiness, and encouraging “ladies” to attend Cliftons games. Newspapers lauded these actions: the Cliftons were “popular with our best people,” offered the town a “cause to feel proud that in a town of this size they could draw such audiences,” and – most of all – the Cliftons’ players were “gentlemanly fellows, all of them.” In an effort to support the Cliftons’ gentlemanly efforts, the editor of the Clifton Forge Review proposed a publicly funded field and grandstand, an effort that was ultimately successful.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Cliftons was their active campaign against so-called “amalgamation” teams, meaning those who recruited players from outside of town. For instance, the Cliftons greatest rivals were clubs from nearby Covington. In 1896 and 1897, the primary Covington club recruited a number of outsiders, including a hot shot young pitcher who was the son of John Kenna, a former US Senator from West Virginia. The Cliftons and their fans openly rejected the young Kenna as being a true representative of Covington. In late-June, Cliftons captain James Mahaney led a train expedition to watch a Covington-Staunton game. According to Mahaney, the rooters took a “unanimous vote to root for the Staunton boys to make things interesting” because the Staunton team consisted of Staunton men and the Covingtons fielded their usual team “without Covingtons.” Another Cliftons rooter reported on a different game by consistently referring to the Covingtons as “the aggregation of Covington-Lewisburg-Roanoke-Lynchburg-Richmond-Jackson River ball players wearing the uniforms with the letters Covington sewed on the shirts.” As can be seen, the Cliftons were none too fond of this practice.
Resistance against outside recruitment ultimately meant the Cliftons became more marginalized over time as Clifton Forge’s population failed to grow as quickly as imagined. Without outside players, the Cliftons simply weren’t good enough to keep winning solely with local ballplayers. Ultimately, the club faded away as the Mahaneys approached their thirties and as professional clubs came to the area. Clifton Forge did not enjoy the financial success of larger cities like Charlottesville or Roanoke or even small cities like Staunton or Lynchburg. All of those places had professional clubs in place by about 1900, and most actively recruited away some of Clifton Forge’s best young players (as an aside, one of those young Cliftons was John Donovan, recruited by the professional Staunton Hayseeds, who would go on to found the coffee and tea company Red Diamond). By the mid-1900s, the Cliftons had been replaced by more typical youth clubs and informal clubs organized around industry, such as the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway ballclub (see below). The town experimented with a professional club in 1914 (the Clifton Forge Railroaders), but the club and league folded with the outbreak of World War I.
A big question lingers: why did the Cliftons pursue this approach to baseball? Was it jsut a personality quirk of the Mahaneys? The ramblings of an nostalgic newspaper editor? Some combination of economic and geographic determinism?
The real answer is because the Cliftons sought to play a part in rehabilitating – or outright masking – their town’s horrible reputation as a haven for racists, lynch mobs, and lingering pro-Confederate sentiment. Looking at other media outlets, Clifton Forge was generally known as a place where white men were quick to walk off the job to form a lynch mob. In 1894, Virginia governor Charles O’Ferrall denounced lynching not out of concern for African Americans, but because it caused social disorder and turned off Northern investors to the state. The men who played for the Cliftons were all men who either worked for the railroad or the children of recently-arrived business owners. They understood the importance of outside capital for an Appalachian town’s development. Thus, in order to maintain their “very good for a railroad town” reputation, the Cliftons played their part in a campaign to rehabilitate Clifton Forge’s public image. The Cliftons “played ball to win,” but they also played ball to attract investors to their small town. This baseball moment only existed for about a decade, but this example reveals how from early on, sport served as a marketing tool for business, an outlet for gentlemanly cultural values, and despite all its problems, as a popular mode of entertainment in this small mountain town.
A Note on References – No citations are provided with this blog post, but all citations can be found in the Virginia Magazine article cited at the top of this post. The featured image on this post is captained “Clifton Forge Baseball Club, circa 1905, Horton Bierne Collection, Alleghany Historical Society, Covington, VA.”
Josh Howard is an Assistant Professor of Public History and Founding Director of the Public History Program at Lamar University. He originally hails from Clifton Forge, Virginia, and played for the Clifton Forge All-Stars from age eight to eighteen.