Duke Farrell had his eyes on one player when he visited Danville in 1911.
The scout, who worked for the Washington Senators, needed a solid contact hitter, someone who could drive in runs.
In 1911, Morgan’s .334 batting average led not just the Danville Bugs, but the Virginia League as well. On July 26, Farrell negotiated a deal, purchasing Morgan’s contract for $1,500 and sending him to the beginning of an eight-year career in the major leagues.
Morgan isn’t the only player whose career started in Danville. In fact, you might say the River City is also a city of prospects. Over more than 115 years, dozens of All-Stars and Hall of Fame players suited up for one of Danville’s teams. Before playing for the San Francisco Giants, Willie McCovey played for the Danville Leafs. So did Bill White and Leon Wagner. Before Joe Stripp stepped on the field for the Cincinnati Reds, he was a member of the Tobacconists. Just before Percy Miller Jr. made history, he played infield for the All-Stars. And before Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Jones and Ronald Acuna Jr. put on that Atlanta uniform, they were members of the Danville Braves.
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The story of baseball in Danville is a long one, with teams changing names as quick as you can swap hats.
The first Black player to integrate baseball in Virginia suited up for the Danville Leafs. Mill workers organized their own teams in the 1920s, building a league of their own. Each World Series ring, autograph and jersey tells those stories, materials carefully preserved by the Danville Historical Society.
A photo tells a story
While the World Series is over, residents may still drop by the society and see several of these artifacts from Danville’s baseball history.
Some are photos, documenting what Danville looked like in the early to mid 20th century. You can also find at least one photo of early mill teams. On July 22, 1882, six of Danville’s citizens founded the Riverside & Dan River Mills on the banks of the Dan River. This soon became the largest textile mill in the South and a big operation needs a lot of workers.
The company built an estimated 700 houses for mill workers in the early 1900s, creating the mill village of Schoolfield. It would later be annexed into Danville in 1951. And on the weekends, those mill workers formed baseball teams and played each other in a league of their own. The photo owned by the Danville Historical Society is that of the 1920 Riverside Division team. That group played their home games at the Danville Fairgrounds, which is now known as Ballou Park Shopping Center.
The idea of mill workers forming leagues wasn’t uncommon. By 1929, a survey of work in mill villages found that more than two-thirds of all mill villages in Virginia and North Carolina sponsored at least one baseball team.
The stadium that used to be
One specific location draws quite a bit of attention. It may just be a grass field now, but in 1948, the property at 151 Foster St. housed Peters Park.
They had a deal in place. During the late 1940s, the Black community in Danville had no place to watch baseball games and visiting teams, often from the Negro Carolina League, didn’t have anywhere to play. So James W. Peters Sr. and Ted Wilson came up with a plan.
“They used to rent a space at the white baseball park and would get secure dates when the white team was not going to be there,” said Peters’ son, James Peters Jr. He spoke about his father with the Virginia Center for Digital History in 2003, eight years before his death. In telling his father’s story, he also told the story of how Peters Park came to be.
“One day, they had two teams that were coming in,” Peters Jr. said. “[But] the white team had a rain date and canceled his ability to have those games, so he had two teams that he had to pay something for their coming. [Dad] promised himself that would be the last time that would happen.”
And so, James Peters Sr. and Ted Wilson built Peters Park in Danville. They borrowed $100,000 from the American National Bank to first create the Almagro Stadium Corporation and then, at some point before 1948, Wilson dropped out. Peters bought out his interest and started putting together a structure at 151 Foster St. that would be praised as one of the most up-to-date facilities of the day, even better than some of the minor league stadiums in the nearby Carolina League.
“It was a first class place at that time,” Peters Jr. said in his 2003 interview. “The lights that they had on it were considered the second-best lights in the country.”
That’s a claim that pops up in several places. It’s not easily verified, as there just isn’t anything on paper from official sources. But the argument goes that the lights and overall electrical system that Peters Sr. put in were better than any minor league stadium in Virginia or North Carolina.
So at this point, Peters Sr. had a park. Now he just needed a home team to play in it. He sponsored a touring team for the first year, but then a group called the “All-Stars” came through in 1948.
“The manager, Jim Williams, prevailed on Dad to be the sponsor for the team and so he [did],” Peters Jr. said. “They changed the name to the Danville All Stars and they traveled up and down the roads to wherever, but they always came home to play.”
The All-Stars were part of the Negro Carolina League and played for three years before shutting down. The park itself later closed in 1952.
What’s in the bag?
Some more of the Danville Historical Society’s baseball artifacts arrived at the office in a big bag. A Danville resident, who wanted to be anonymous, dropped off a bag of autographed balls earlier this year as a donation to the society, all from different teams in Danville’s past.
Some are from the 1950s, while a couple are from a decade before. Other balls in the collection took time. Over the years, older players from those early teams were asked to add their names.
One of those is Herb Britt. He pitched 11 games for the Chicago Cubs, finishing his career in 1925 with a 3.63 average ERA. After retiring, he became a manager in 1934, first for the Danville Leafs and then for the Rocky Mount Red Sox and Reidsville Luckies in North Carolina.
There’s also Al Ronay, who played in Danville from 1950 to 1952. Percy Miller Jr. later remembered Ronay as the first person who welcomed him to the team, including him in a game of “pepper” as the first practice started.
Who is Percy Miller Jr.? His name doesn’t show up on any of the baseballs, but he’s just as important to the city’s history. The Danville Leafs were in operation on and off from 1934 to 1958 and made history by signing Miller, as the first Black player to suit up for a minor league team in Virginia.
Miller was just two months out of high school when he got the offer in August. Days later, he hit a two-run single in his debut. By this point in 1951, the Leafs were bringing in white and Black fans, recording significant crowds.
“There were times when the Leafs drew more than 100,000 people in a year,” said Paul Gentry. The Danville baseball historian also points to the number of newspaper articles written at the time as an example of how popular they were.
But local popularity wasn’t enough to keep the team in town. By 1957, they were affiliated as a minor league club for the New York Giants. When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, the team wanted their minor league squad to be close to home.
One oversize ring, one historical mark
Our last artifact comes from 2006, when the Danville Braves won it all. On Sept. 3, 2006, Danville won their first ever Appalachian League championship, defeating the Elizabethton Twins two games to one.
Over the years, star players like Kimbrel, Jones and Acuna all came through Danville on their way to the major leagues. As soon as Atlanta drafted and signed players, most spent a season in Danville. Virtually all of Atlanta’s current players and previous top prospects over the last 27 years called the River City home for at least one season. But that ended in 2019, when Major League Baseball eliminated 40 minor league teams, including the entire Appalachian League.
The teams could still play, but not as affiliated clubs. That was a small problem for Danville, as the Braves were owned by their major league parent club. The Braves were sold to Knuckleball Entertainment in January 2021.
Now known as the Otterbots, the group is part of the rebuilt Appalachian League, which has become a collegiate summer league where prospects try to catch the eyes of major league scouts. And with that, the team and the city it operates in, has gone back to its beginning.
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