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Baseball by the Books

Outlaws in the Hills
Book Review by Daniel Gabriel

R.G. (Hank) Utley and Scott Verner. The Independent Carolina Baseball League, 1936-1938. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1999, 292 pp., $35, cloth.

And you thought you knew every professional baseball league that ever existed. For the jaded historian of the national pastime, this book is a godsend. New box scores, standings, intrigues, heroes and villains. More chronicles of small-town gambits to attract an ever-increasing quality of play to the isolated hinterlands. Cameos by Max Lanier, Virgil Trucks, and dozens of cup-of-coffee big leaguers. Outlaws in the Carolina hills . . . and (surprise!) backstabbers and crooks running ball clubs in major American cities.

This account of Depression-era baseball in the impoverished mill towns of the North Carolina Piedmont region was clearly written, first and foremost, as a labor of love. Hank Utley followed the league as a boy, while Scott Verner's grandfather owned one of the teams. Together they have amassed a startling amount of information on a subject that many fans might consider too trivial to reconstruct. It's not a book for everybody-the narrative follows the vicissitudes of the league as a whole, rather than telling a story from any individual player or team view. Further, the authors are effective in a journalistic sense-accurate details, exhaustive footnotes, and crosschecking of batting averages-but rarely does the language sing.

If I were a native Carolinian, many of the background details would undoubtedly enrich my reading in ways that an outsider can only suspect. The infighting between the hill towns, the infrastructure of company towns built around mills, even the names of the local players probably hold meanings that only a local can appreciate.

So, what might an outsider enjoy about this book? Start with names and faces. There are plenty of photos throughout the book, and a slow perusal of team photos like the 1927 Carolina All Star Team (to choose merely one example) reveal all sorts of aspects of life in these hills: Ceph Safrit, Dub Allman, Mutt Miller, Rube Wilson, Buford Moose, and the boys kneel in their grimy, mismatched uniforms, staring out under hats pitched, raked and cocked, and let you know that if it's a ball game you want, they'll bring it on, no holds barred.

There are life stories here too: pitcher Manley Llewellyn goes straight from college to the New York Yankees, hurts his arm, spirals downward through the minors, and eventually becomes league president. His favorite joke is that he should be in the Hall of Fame, because hešs the only player to start his career in the majors and work his way to the bottom in five years. Center fielder Rev. Razz Miller fights his way out of a "wild ruckus" and tells his teammate, "I've got to quit playing ball or quit preaching. I can't go on like this." He quits preaching for seven years. . . . Virgil "Fire" Trucks (who will later pitch in the majors for seventeen seasons), in the midst of a Class D season in which he will strike out a baseball-record 418 batters, jumps the team to pitch in the outlaw Carolina League for four times the money. His daddy finds him and drags him back.

Even the team names evoke the region in wonderful ways: the Kannapolis Towelers, the Gastonia Spinners, Lenoir Finishers, Concord Weavers, and, my favorite, Cooleemee Cools.

To read the rest of this review, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2000 issue.

DANIEL GABRIEL's stories and articles have appeared widely in eight countries. He is the director of the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the Schools program in St. Paul, Minnesota.

© 2000 Daniel Gabriel

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