BLUEFIELD, WV — I spent the weekend on a three-night tour of southern West Virginia baseball, hitting up two Appalachian League games and a game featuring two teams from the college summer Prospect League. I’ll be writing up what I saw on the trip throughout the week, but before I leave West Virginia and head back home this morning, I wanted you to meet Norris and Doris Kantor.
I was pointed in their direction by a season ticket holder who knew I was a writer and said I might find the Kantors interesting. That was a bit of an understatement.
The Kantors, who sit just beneath the press box along the third base line at Bowen Field, don’t miss many, if any, Bluefield games. They are boosters of the team — the Bluefield Blue Jays have an organized Booster Club about which I’ll write later — and sponsors too. Norris’ law firm, from which he is mostly retired but which still carries his name, has a sign on the wall in left field. The man who pointed me in their direction didn’t do so because the Kantors are season ticket holders, however. He did so because of the stories.
Doris’ father, who was also an attorney, is the man who drafted and witnessed Cal Ripken Jr.’s first professional contract when he signed with the Orioles in 1978. Ripken, assigned to Bluefield when he was still just 17, didn’t really impress Doris at the time. People familiar with Ripken’s story are well aware of why that is, as the future Hall of Famer famously hit a mere .264 with no power and led the entire Appalachian League in errors with 33, forcing a move from shortstop to third base the following season. Dorris puts it more succinctly: “He didn’t hit, he couldn’t catch and he couldn’t throw.” She did allow, however, that he did improve over time.
Norris’ baseball stories go a bit farther back.
Born and raised in Logan, West Virginia, Norris’ first professional baseball exposure came via the short-lived and now-defunct Mountain State League, which was a Class-D minor league which existed from the mid-30s to the early-40s. At the ages of nine and ten Norris served as a bat boy for the Logan Indians. He recalls a game in either 1938 or 1939 against Williamson in which a young visiting pitcher got a bit roughed up. Afterwards, though, he heard a Logan coach talking about how, results aside, the kid looked alright, saying “I think that Musial kid might make it.” As was the case with Ripken, a position change and a little seasoning helped matters along for Stan the Man. Although I guess then he was Stan the Boy.
Back in Norris’ day the C&O Railroad ran passenger service throughout the coal fields of West Virginia and to points east and west. A favorite trip of his was when his father would take him to Cincinnati for Saturday or Sunday Reds doubleheaders. The train would leave Logan early in the morning and meet up in Huntington with other trains coming from Charleston, Parkersburg, Beckley and Montgomery, adding cars until it seemed impossibly long, filled mostly with baseball fans on their way to Cincinnati. They’d alight at Union Station, make the short walk to Crosley Field, take in the twin-bill and then get back on the train and head home. I asked Norris what he remembered about those games and he said what sticks out the most was how thrilled he was that he got to stay up until after midnight due to how long the trip home took.
Not that all of the games were forgettable. Indeed one game, when Norris was ten-years-old, stands out: Game 4 of the 1939 World Series.
While a 97-win Reds team was something special, it wasn’t anywhere nearly as special as a 106-win Yankees team that many argue was the best of all time. Norris says he and everyone else knew it too, and that it was no big surprise that his Reds were down 3-0 when he took his seat that Sunday afternoon. Even though the game went extra innings, it was no surprise that the Yankees won. Back then the Yankees always won. It was only a matter of time.
Two things in particular stood out to Norris that day. First, a fantastic Joe DiMaggio catch in deep center field which, while impressive enough, paled compared to the throw which Norris described as “bullet” which nailed a runner trying to tag up from third base. “Didn’t even hit the cutoff man. Didn’t even try to. He knew he could do it and he did it.”
The second thing Norris remembers was, after the game, waiting around outside the stadium, watching the players leaving. One of them was larger than most, but Norris didn’t remember seeing him in the game. Maybe he was injured and couldn’t play, Norris thought, as he was walking with a pronounced limp. It was then that his father told the boy, “take a look at that man, son. That’s Lou Gehrig. He’s the best baseball player you’ll ever see in your life.”
Norris is nearly 90 now and he has seen a lot of baseball, but he suspects that his father was right.