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Before the Braves

A Church Hill legend. Our brush with Babe Ruth. The triumphs and heartbreaks of Richmond baseball's stories past.



Such debate may sound all too familiar, but it wasn't about the Richmond Braves. These arguments were raging in 1913 after the collapse of the Richmond Rebels, launched with pretensions of attaining major-league status, and the persistence of the lower-class Richmond Colts.

In a different time, before television and a multitude of modern diversions, baseball was the city's passion. The teams came in a variety of shapes and sizes: the Crows, Bluebirds, Giants, Grays, Climbers, Johnny Rebs, Legislators, Lawmakers and then, of course, the Braves.

Greats such as Ray Dandridge, mentor to Willie Mays and perhaps the greatest third baseman ever, grew up in segregated Church Hill. Babe Ruth flirted with Richmond, too, nearly landing on a Richmond team at 19.

Richmond's baseball history serves as a mirror on the city. Sometimes there are flattering images with great crowds, players on their way to Hall of Fame careers and pennant-winning clubs. Other times we see the years marred by segregation and racism, a time Richmond never seems to shake. And then every few years we wonder what to do with ourselves: Stadium disputes pop up about once a generation, the drive for modernization clashes with tradition, and yesterday's new look becomes a dated embarrassment.

For whatever reason, baseball is different from other sports. It's ingrained in American history, unlike football or basketball. Perhaps it's the only sport where history matters more than championships — the furor over steroid-popping Barry Bonds has nothing to do with how many titles he's won; the concern is breaking Hank Aaron's home-run record could forever taint the record books.

Richmonders just don't get worked up over other sports, not like baseball. For the last three years, the region has vigorously debated if, and where, it makes sense to build a new stadium for the Richmond Braves. But no one sniffed when, a few years ago, University of Richmond's football team decided it would vacate UR Stadium, built in 1929. Eyeing a valuable property, in a few years the bulldozers will probably knock down with little fanfare all those memories from the gridiron to Tobacco Bowl parades to hippie rock concerts of the 1970s.

Yet we scrap over a 21-year-old stadium, living out an encore of all those painful redevelopment vs. renovation fights that racked the city through the postwar years, all over a proposed ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, a proposal that fizzled six months ago.

If you think the recent brouhaha is an exception, it is not. Baseball, throughout history, has always been one of Richmond's most passionate pastimes.

Carriages in the Outfield

Nineteen years after the Confederate capital burned to ashes, Richmond is booming.

In 1884, shaking off destruction, reconstruction and financial depression, a surge of factories and railroads bring new life to this suddenly modern city. The governor has funneled unheard-of amounts of money into the state's school system. In two years the nation's most important labor organization, the integrated Knights of Labor, will hold its national convention here. A year after that, the second-largest city of the former Confederacy begins constructing the world's first electric streetcar system.

With the 1880 census showing 63,600 people crammed into 6.16 square miles, Richmond is a rough-hewn city. Saloons line Main Street. Segregation lies mostly in the future, as the upper and middle classes live in close proximity to the poor. The poor are merely relegated to houses that faced the alleys, while the affluent homes line the streets. People mostly walk to work, school and the market.

Amid this first incarnation of the New South, baseball gains a foothold in the city. The game was popularized the year after the war, and a group of businessmen field a professional team in the new Eastern League, an ambitious minor-league circuit including teams from Baltimore; Newark, N.J.; and Wilmington, Del.

Evolved from a team of shoe-factory workers, the Virginia Club, commonly called the Virginias, serves as the city's first professional squad. Large crowds descend on Allen Pasture, a ballpark where the Robert E. Lee statue now stands. Groundskeepers mow the outfield with scythes and fans park their carriages there. For a spell the team jumps to the big leagues when an American Association franchise folds.

Richmond takes its place for a two-month journey in major-league baseball, though the squad posts a feeble 12-30 record.

"The thing that really impressed me in some ways [was] how different the game was," says Robert Gudmestad, a University of Memphis history professor and author of a scholarly paper on the Virginias. "These guys are playing without gloves. The balls would be hit to them and their fingers would be mangled."

"One time," he says, "… the ball got lost in a carriage in the outfield. These guys were amazing athletes."

Yet while this tide of modernization hits Richmond, a tragic undertow begins tugging at the city's heart. All through 1884, a new Democratic General Assembly — brought to power through a race-driven campaign that included scaring voters by playing up the fact that black principals held authority over white teachers and a race riot in Danville just before Election Day — sits in session almost the entire year. The legislature takes over the vote-gathering process, ejecting evenhanded boards and redrawing congressional district boundaries so the party guarantees itself seven of the state's 10 seats. It also practically eliminates the governor's patronage powers and ejects blacks from jobs across the state. The civil rights gained during Reconstruction are already ebbing, beginning to erode.

Blacks attend Virginias games. But with eight of the team's directors having served in the Confederate military and the son of the Confederacy's secretary of war acting as the club's president — not to mention the team's strong ties to the Democratic Daily Dispatch — Richmond's African-Americans cheer on opposing teams.

"I think the crowd was segregated, from everything I could tell," Gudmestad says. "The white spectators would have been the equivalent of middle and upper classes. There was a section of ladies." And the crowds were rowdy, he says: "We tend to think of these Victorian morals, where people sat on their hands and gave an occasional golf clap. … But people applauded when the umpire got hurt."

It is a potent mix. With black citizens cheering on the visitors, tensions nearly turn violent when the Toledo Blue Stockings, featuring black catcher Fleet Walker, arrive in the city. The son of Ohio's first African-American doctor, Walker is as educated as Virginias fans are rowdy.

Just before Toledo enters Richmond, the squad's manager receives a note: "We the undersigned, do hereby warn you not to put up Walker, the Negro catcher, the days you play in Richmond, as we could mention the names of seventy-five determined men who have sworn to mob Walker, if he comes on the grounds in a suit. We hope you will listen to our words of warning, so there will be no trouble, and if you do not, there certainly will be. We only write this to prevent much bloodshed, as you alone can prevent."

No one carries out the threat, because Walker, already sidelined with a broken rib, is sitting out the series. But the incident remains the most famous event in Richmond's brief spell in the big leagues. The American Association reorganized itself in the off-season, casting aside Richmond. The Virginias — stocked with players such as third baseman Billy Nash, a former Richmond shoe-factory worker who played 15 seasons in the major leagues — are back in the minors with the reorganized Eastern League, a predecessor of the International League, where the Braves now play.

In the following 1885 season, the Virginias run up an early lead over their archrivals, the Washington Nationals. But crowds dwindle, and the ownership sells off its best players. The remaining players rebel and form their own club, but attendance sinks further, and the Virginias disband before the season is over.

The best and worst era in local baseball history ends with a whimper.

Outdrawing the Yankees

The pinnacle of Richmond baseball comes on Labor Day 1908.

Baseball fever strikes the city as the Richmond Colts, also known as the Lawmakers, favored by a schedule that lets the local club play home games on weekends, packs in massive crowds. On this day, featuring a double-header against archrival Danville, thousands surge up Broad Street, stopping all traffic, blocking the sidewalks and piling into streetcars.

"The crowd was an inspiring one, and it was worth a trip to the park just to see it," pens a sportswriter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "The cars looked like a struggling mass of persons on wheels, moving like great ocean currents in the surging sea of human beings."

As the two squads battle for the Virginia State League pennant (at a ball field where the Science Museum now stands), fans stand eight to 10 rows deep in front of the outfield wall. Men mostly make up the crowd, but a large contingent of women supporters, known as fannies, turn heads with their brightly colored clothes.

A whopping 10,000 spectators see the morning game, a 2-1 Richmond victory that gives the Lawmakers the league lead for good, and an astounding 15,000 souls witness a 1-1 tie in the afternoon. The second game draws roughly 2,500 more people than could fit inside The Diamond, which can seat a maximum of 12,500.

"Such a crowd," owner W.B. Bradley told the Times-Dispatch.

The 1908 Lawmakers, with only one player who eventually reached the major leagues and playing in a modest organization, draw an unheard-of 442,622 people over 82 home games, an average of 5,300 fans a game, the equivalent of the Richmond Braves drawing 2.5 million over an entire season today. The Virginias outdraw five major-league franchises that year, including the New York Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In late July, boisterous Richmonders descend on Danville for a road game, marching from the train station to the ballpark accompanied by the Saint Leo's Catholic Club band. "Dignity went to the winds," one observer wrote, according to the Virginia Cavalcade. Ballots cast in a favorite player contest reach into the millions. The Times-Dispatch features three prominent supporters on its front page: Bleacher Jim atop his mule, Maude, and a figure simply known as "The Bugler."

After one August contest, 10,000 fans celebrate after a ninth-inning rally from a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win, and a cluster of children invades the field, grabbing the legs of Doc Sieber, who knocked in the two runs, and refusing to let go. When the game's hero finally frees himself from his admirers, the crowd erupts again.

The sudden surge of baseball mania remains a mystery. Attendance declined the next year and plummeted in 1910. The city turned on owner Bradley when he scuttled plans for a new team in what became the International League.

The authors of "Baseball and Richmond" found themselves slightly puzzled by the phenomenon. Scott Mayer, who wrote about the era, speculates that fans identified with a solid team. W. Harrison Daniel, a retired history professor at UR, felt the year encapsulated the era's chaotic baseball history.

"It's been up and down," he says. "It's been stabilized since the Braves were here." Daniel adds that during the early 20th century teams usually lasted no more than a few seasons. "There were a half-dozen leagues at different times."

Flirting With the Babe

In 1934, a Highland Park woman recounts the harrowing moment a few days earlier, when Babe Ruth approached her in bed.

"He sat down on the side of the bed and I was afraid he would break it down or toss me out, but it held," she told the Times-Dispatch.

The woman, Mary Ruth Moberly, is the great baseball player's sister, his only sibling to reach adulthood. Moberly lives with her husband, Wilbur, a garment cutter, and their daughter, Florence, at 3121 Edgewood Ave.

Ruth and the New York Yankees had played an exhibition game at Mayo Island before the start of baseball season. To his surprise, his sister didn't attend.

"He asked me what the trouble was and when I told him that it was something like a nervous breakdown, he snorted as he always does and said, 'You ain't going goofy on me, are you Sis?'" Moberly told the Times-Dispatch.

By then. Ruth's baseball career had begun its terminal decline. Every few years he struggled with his weight, and he'd begun putting on the pounds again. He started losing his home-run strength, his reflexes began deserting him, and his defensive skills seemingly disappeared. Once a fast, nimble player, he now bumbles around the outfield. He desperately wanted to start managing the Yankees, but his early reputation as a hell raiser had scuttled any chance of a leadership role.

At the preseason game, Ruth struggles as the Yankees down the minor-league Richmond Colts 20-12. After a weak pop-up, he playfully tries to bite his bat. People who came early for batting practice see glimpses of the Ruth of old when he smashes three balls out of the park. One ball hits the Naval Reserve Armory, the next rockets to the railroad trestle and the last splashes into the James River. The watery blast, a Richmond legend, was hardly unique. Young boys often rowed out beyond the fence for souvenirs. After a fourth-inning error, Ruth leaves the game.

Ruth, back when he was a trim 19-year-old pitcher, had nearly called Richmond home. He began his career in 1914 with the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles, but that club faced a big problem. The Federal League, an outlaw circuit that announced itself a third major league, invaded Baltimore with a popular new team called the Terrapins. The Orioles, who had been steadily losing fans, considered relocating to Richmond during the season. Local businessmen quickly raised money for the move, but the already existing Richmond Colts delay the move until the next year. As a result, the Orioles, hemorrhaging money, sell off a number of their best players to stay afloat, including the Babe.

Richmond sees Ruth play at least one other time. In 1922, coming off what many baseball historians consider the greatest season of any player in the sport's history, Ruth nails a homer against the Brooklyn Dodgers during another exhibition game in Richmond. People believed it was the longest hit in the Mayo ballpark's history, according to a Times-Dispatch account.

But it is a different Ruth from the one who'd visit his sister 12 years later. Young and badly lacking impulse control, the Bambino is already facing a six-week suspension heading into the season. He'll earn three more suspensions that season for arguing with umpires. After one incident in which he attacked a fan, he said, "I didn't mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands."

Years later, Ruth was more disciplined, thanks to maturity and his second wife, but he never shook his reputation as a big kid.

"He is a grand, big-hearted fellow, just like his father," Moberly tells a Times-Dispatch reporter, pointing out that Ruth paid for her doctor's bill and sent her a large arrangement of azaleas.

The note on the flowers read, "Get well quick, Regards, Brother Babe."

Richmond's Hall of Famer

To baseball buffs, the story's well-known and bittersweet.

In 1951, two black members of the minor-league Minneapolis Millers — the 20-year-old Willie Mays and the 37-year-old Ray Dandridge, a Richmond native who mentored Mays — sit in a Sioux City, Iowa, movie theater. A message, "Willie Mays wanted at the box office," runs on the screen.

Mays, at first reluctant to believe the message is for him, receives word he is promoted to the big-league New York Giants, where he becomes one of the greatest stars in the sport's history.

The Richmond-born Dandridge, despite winning the American Association's Most Valuable Player award the year before and ranking among the greatest third basemen of all time, never reaches the major leagues. A massive star in the Negro Leagues and in Mexico, where he worked as a wildly popular player-manager, the Giants feel the aging star is either too old or too big a box-office draw for small-market Minneapolis.

Born on Church Hill, Dandridge plays his first games in cornfields and attends George Mason Elementary School, where Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and State Sen. Henry Marsh would roam the halls years later. When he turns 10, his family moves to Buffalo, N.Y., but returns to the city eight years later. At 18, Dandridge plays for a series of Church Hill sandlot clubs.

After an exhibition game against the Detroit Stars, Dandridge and his family find a surprise in front of their home — the Stars team bus and manager Candy Jim Taylor pleading with his father, an injured textile mill worker, for the phenom to sign a contract.

Dandridge, who doesn't even know where Detroit is, hides in a pool hall. A few hours later, he sneaks home and finds the bus gone. He enters and discovers Taylor still inside. Dandridge rebuffs the squad again, so Taylor keeps the Stars in Richmond a second day and knocks on the Dandridges' door early that morning.

Finally, after Taylor slips his father $25 for some parental encouragement, the third baseman heads north on a $15-a-week salary.

Overshadowed in Negro Leagues lore — the ageless pitcher Satchel Paige created more legends, Josh Gibson smacked all those Ruthian home runs and Cool Papa Bell was so fast that Paige marveled that "once he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second" — the bow-legged Dandridge ranks among the greatest defensive third basemen in the game's history.

A quiet singles hitter in the outsized world of Negro League legends, Dandridge is the best player Richmond ever produced and the city's only member of baseball's Hall of Fame.

Remembering the Vees

In 1953 the prospect of Richmond fielding a triple-A minor-league franchise offers a new level of worldliness for Richmond. The minor league's highest level includes Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and, grandly, Hollywood.

Once again, the International League's Baltimore Orioles find themselves chased out by a new major-league franchise and eyes Richmond as a new location. Mired in low-level baseball since World War I, the city's mayor and top businessmen scramble to take advantage of the situation. Visiting teams, if the deal can be completed, would include some of the more exotic vacation destinations in Eisenhower's America: Miami, Toronto, Montreal and Havana.

But Eddie Mooers, the owner of the Class B Richmond Colts, who owned his own stadium, isn't about to walk away from his investment. He and aspiring triple-A owner Harry Seibold fight for months, issuing demands, negotiating in high-profile meetings and currying favor with the press.

Seibold, who made his money installing fire-sprinkler systems, holds most of the public's support. The sports sections of Richmond's two daily papers enthusiastically back the new venture.

"It was a big thing," says Andy McCutcheon, who helped cover the franchise move for the Richmond News Leader and served as the triple-A squad's first beat writer. "I'm not sure that Mr. Mooers liked it pretty much."

Mooers throws up harsh demands during the months of negotiations, including $200,000 for Mooers Field on the corner of Roseneath and Norfolk, an outrageous sum for the time. He also demands that the new team grant him the advertising rights, most of the ballpark's office space and the right to buy back the club for $1 if Seibold sells it.

"I have a big investment and it is only fair for me to have that protection," Mooers told the press.

"If [Seibold] accepts these terms, he should have his head examined," Frank Shaughnessy, the International League president, countered in the News Leader.

Tensions mount as other cities — from Springfield, Mass., to Caracas in baseball-crazed Venezuela — offer to take Richmond's place.

Then Richmond receives the glum news that the deal has died Dec. 2, a victim of Mooers' demands and the condition of Mooers Field. Public sentiment turns heavily against the owner.

Two weeks later, in a mysterious meeting in Washington consisting of Mooers, Seibold, Shaughnessy, the president of the Piedmont League and a representative from Richmond's City Hall, the Colts owner sells for a pittance of what he asked.

Santa Claus brings wonderful gifts for area baseball fans. Seibold announces that former baseball star Luke Appling will be the manager, and Johnny Mize, another future Hall of Famer, will coach.

But the pressure keeps building on the city. The International League accepts the new location, but demands that Richmond refurbish Parker Field, a dusty football facility blocks from Mooers Field. The league gives Richmond 24 hours to come up with the money.

After three months of twists and turns comes the final cliffhanger. Somehow, a group of elite businessmen guarantee the cash four hours before the deadline. After one final hiccup over the nickname — "Confederates" irritated the city's blacks and many Lost Cause enthusiasts equally — the Richmond Virginians, better known as the Vees, start spring training weeks after the city completes the deal.

The battle wrecks both men. Mooers moves his ball club to Colonial Heights and leaves the sport a year later. Seibold loses money, threatens to move in the middle of the first season, and the IRS seizes the club after that. Mooers dies five years after his triumph and after the government seizes two of his Cadillacs.

But the struggle, and the battle in the first few years to steady the franchise, stabilizes the baseball scene in Richmond. The Vees left town in 1964. In 1966, a new team came to town, the Richmond Braves, the top farm club for the Atlanta Braves.

The rest, well, is history. S

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