Editor’s Note: This is the first chapter of a series of stories that will focus on the history of the game of baseball in the Wheeling area.
A Man and His Game
The pitcher’s mound moved depending on the ages of his sons and his players, and at one time there were four different worn-out areas in his backyard along Edgwood Street in Woodsdale.
If it wasn’t pitching practice taking place, it was a game of whiffle ball because Ray Bauer’s yard was connected to other properties without fencing, and that allowed for a challenging-yet-reachable distance for a home run to land on Echo Lane.
This Bauer clan had been a quirky bunch even before moving to 105 Edgwood; all of their first names begin with an “R” and, of course, the surname a “B;” and his father-in-law’s name was, “Dobie,” and the man was a mean ol’ cuss to his adversaries but a pure and gentle man to those he cared most about. Bauer’s wife of 51 years, Rebecca, was a stay-at-home mother, a cake maker, and the anchor of a family with baseball on the brain.
“To this day, I have no idea why she put up with all of the baseball, but she was always good with it,” Bauer said. “I was on those fields a lot as a coach and as an umpire, and she was always OK with it all.
“She was always at all of the games for the boys or when the teams I was coaching were playing,” he continued. “But there were times when I was away for baseball, and I would miss our anniversary in July. That happened more than a few times, and she put up with that, too.”
Bauer is a Goosetown kid and as soon as he reached the age of 10 he became an East Wheeling Pirate like most other boys growing up in that area of the city. He was a catcher for the most part, but he admits these days that he wasn’t nearly as talented as other East Wheeling players like Joe Doerr, Bo McConnaughy, or Tommy Duffy.
“Back then there two levels; one for 10, 11, and 12 years old, and another for the kids that were 13, 14, and 15 years old. One was the Midget League, and the other was the Seniors,” Bauer remembered. “We all played ball before the age of 10, but it wasn’t in the leagues that were available at the time. My coach was ‘Chibe’ (Charles) McConnaughy, who was Bo McConnaughy’s dad, and I played for him for three years, and he was real old school.
“When I moved up to Seniors, I played for a man named ‘Pootie’ Pesta and Dick Lang,” he said. “As a ballplayer I was only so-so, but I was a student of the game, and I still am. I worked hard, but I didn’t have the natural ability that a lot of other people had. But I enjoyed the game. I really enjoyed the intricacies of it, and I still watch all kinds of baseball these days because I’m still learning the game.”
He refers to his childhood as “a real one” and as “not like the way kids seem to have to grow up these days.”
What Bauer means is that during his summer vacations he and his friends were set free to adventure.
“Goosetown was just a little burgh down the hill from East Wheeling, and there’s only one street left of it now, but most of the boys in that neighborhood played for the East Wheeling Pirates,” he said. “The field we had back then was a bigger one than what they have now. It was located where that whole interchange is now, and the backstop was up against that big support for the train bridge.
“It was called Tunnel Green back then, too, but there was no fence. It was just a wide-open field, but if you hit the ball into the yard of the Duquense Club in left field, that was a home run. On a bounce was a double, but the rest of it was open, and you ran as fast as you could to get as far as you could,” he recalled. “If we weren’t on that field playing, then we were probably swimming in Big Wheeling Creek, running from the trains in that tunnel, or fiddle-farting around inside the Lewis Wetzel Cave. We were allowed to be kids then, and trust me, it’s probably a miracle we all survived some of what we decided to do.”
The Game Stuck
She was the one and only new car Bauer has ever owned.
The 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle with a vinyl black rooftop, black vinyl seats, and graced with Cordon Maroon as her color. The exterior of that Chevelle sparkled, but the trunk was a dirty mess because of the ever-present duffle bag packed full with baseball equipment. The two shin guards, chest protector, and helmet and mask for the catcher joined a bevy of bats and balls in the green sack, and it was transported to all of the local, dusty sandlots in Wheeling, Dallas Pike, and all points in between.
“Becky picked out the color, and I ordered it, and I just loved it,” Bauer said. “I spent a lot of time washing and waxing that car, but yes, the trunk was always a mess.
“I always had all of the baseball stuff in there and of course, it was pretty dirty and it was always pretty hard to keep it clean. I’m sure I reached the point to where I just gave up on trying to keep that trunk clean,” he said. “For a lot of years, it was the only car I had so it went to all of the fields all of the time.”
One thing he did not care much about, though, was his backyard lawn. Instead of plush green grass Bauer was satisfied with worn sod from spring through the fall in exchange for the pop of the mitt, the back and forth of “Run Down,” and the pretty squabbles over balls and strikes.
“I can still remember the first time I took Robbie out in the back yard. That’s when he really wanted to learn how to be a catcher, and he wouldn’t leave me alone about it,” Bauer said. “I put all of the gear on him and told him I was going to teach him how to block a ball. One after another I threw balls in the dirt, and that’s how I taught him, and he certainly learned how.
“I would love to have a dime for all of the balls I caught out there, and not just from the kids but all of the other players who would come over,” he said. “That yard was a gathering place a lot of years and we loved every minute of it.”
The births of the Bauer boys were spaced out just enough to ensure only the middle son, Ricky, would play with either his younger or older brother every other year. Although Ray was a in charge of a team each year for two decades, he refused to coach his own kids until they reached the higher levels. He would assist always, but if Robbie were ready to move up to the next division, Ray would climb the ladder, too.
“I really didn’t coach any of my sons until Ricky and Robbie reached the Colt Division. Ronnie had given it up before then because he really didn’t like the practices,” Bauer said. “I know I coached them all a couple of times as a substitute, but never full-time because I’ve never thought that was a good idea. My opinion was that if you coached your own kids, you were either too rough on them or too easy on them.
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“Either way I always thought it wasn’t right to be guilty of one of those two things, so I just stayed away from it until they were older,” he said. “I had both Ricky and Robbie on the Palomino level, and of course Robbie was a catcher, and Ricky was the left fielder, but not when they were younger. That wouldn’t have been fair to my boys, and it wouldn’t have been fair to the other players, either.”
“Montani Semper Liberi”
He ended up cussing.
Bauer and a gentleman named Jim Wharton from the Greggsville area didn’t approve of what they thought they saw back in the early 1970s as far as what they believed was favoritism toward the boys from Elm Grove as opposed to how players from other sections of Wheeling were treated. While Bauer had his three boys, Wharton and his wife were raising a son and two daughters.
Initially, they requested reform.
“There was a time when a kid couldn’t play for an Elm Grove team unless they were from Elm Grove, and there were a lot more kids in Wheeling that didn’t have the chance to play,” Bauer explained. “When they did get to play, it didn’t seem as if they were placed with competitive teams but instead set up to lose all of the time. I just didn’t think that was right, and Jim agreed with me.
“So, one night Jim Wharton and I went out to Elm Grove to talk to a couple of people who were in charge of the league, and we met them under that streetlight near the bigger field out there. We explained to them that we felt they were forcing us to do something that really wasn’t necessary, and they didn’t really care what we thought. I’m pretty sure that’s when I did some cussing, and then the very next day Jim and I got started with forming the Mountaineer Baseball Association.”
In 1975, the Mountaineer League possessed more than 40 teams in the Mustang, Bronco, Pony, and Colt divisions. The Bauer boys, and later Ray’s daughter Renee, and the Wharton kids played for Fulton against teams like the Dimmeydale Rockets, the Pike Cubs, the Dallas Pike A’s, the Island Tigers and A’s, the North Wheeling Yankees, the South Wheeling Indians, and the East Wheeling Pirates.
These days the Mountaineer Baseball Association offers the Shetland, Pinto, Mustang, Bronco, and Pony divisions, and the Elm Grove Baseball Association is now an active member. The other teams are located in Benwood, Bethlehem, Cameron, Dallas Pike, East Wheeling, Glen Dale, Newellstown, Pike, South Wheeling, Warren Township, Warwood, Wheeling Island, and Woodsdale.
“Today, I will say the league is a success because of all of the kids I was able to keep busy. It kept them off the streets, and hopefully I taught some of them some baseball,” Bauer said. “And I do think it was a success because some of those kids went to college because of baseball, and some even played pro ball. Of all the kids I coached, yeah, some of them turned out rotten, but you’re going to have that.
“Most of them of, though, did fairly well in life. They turned out to be good human beings, and that was most important to us,” he continued. “Any time you can help kids, you’re going to have success, and that was the objective all of those years.”
A decade later Bauer, who also was an umpire for 15 years for Little League games and the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference, joined forces with McConnaughy and B.A. Crawford to launch a Palomino Division ballclub for players that aged out of Little League at 17 years old. In Ohio County, ballplayers had a chance to play for American Legion Post 1, but there were only 18 roster spots, and cuts were made.
Bauer, who was also a pro scout in the Wheeling area, welcomed those players and all other who wished to continue playing.
“American Legion was a big thing, and a lot of my players went to play for them. At the time we started the Palomino team, I told those guys to stay with what they were doing because they were a part of something great,” he recalled. “But there was a demand then, so we started it up, and it lasted for about a decade.
“It was impossible for me to be the coach and the schedule maker for about 60 games each summer and also raise all of the funds that we needed each year to do that team first class. That was the only way I was going to do it, and it took about $15,000 each season,” Bauer explained. “It wasn’t just baseball because there was a lot of business involved with it, too, and when I tried to find someone to take over the coaching side, I was successful so it had to go away.
“But the league is still going very strong, and there are a lot more people involved with it now,” he added. “It’s satisfying; it really is, but it is hard to believe it all started more than 40 years ago.”
Asleep In His Chair
He still watches baseball, in person or the college or pro games on the living room television, but those 7:05 p.m. games have become a little more difficult to watch in entirety.
Bauer, who is now 70 years old, retired from the Teamsters Local 697 a decade ago, and he and Becky celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary last July. Robbie is now 47, and he is principal at Warwood Middle and Elementary Schools; Ricky is 46 and president of the Teamsters Local 697; Ronnie owns Black Widow Cycles in North Wheeling, and Renee, 33, is a local hair stylist.
And yes, Becky is still putting up with baseball.
“For whatever reason, I found the game of baseball to be the most interesting thing and, even as a kid, I would pick the sport apart in my mind because of everything little things that goes into playing it,” Bauer said. “When I was kid there were teams all over the city, and the history of the professionals was something we talked about, and we also went to see the semi-pro teams play all of the time.
“There were a lot of good ballplayers in Wheeling back then, and even though they had jobs and were married, they still played the game. There was a lot of talent then, and I still think there is today but for whatever reasons they haven’t been at the right place at the right time,” he explained. “We have had a lot of players who could really hit the ball, catch it, and throw it. Baseball intrigued me more than any other sport when I was younger, and that certainly has continued. I may be 70 years old, but I am still learning the game.”