By Jim Buchanan
As the 1940s rolled toward the 1950s, Sylva and the rest of the nation were in the grip of a fever.
Not a fever in the sense of what’s dominating the news today.
It was baseball fever.
Following the hardships of World War II industry boomed, wages rose and people had free time. From that mix came a desire for entertainment, and baseball filled the bill.
At war’s end there were a dozen minor league organizations operating in the United States. By 1948 there were nearly 60, and North Carolina alone fielded 43 teams.
Sylva wanted in on that action.
Enter the Plowboys.
The Sylva Plowboys were a team in the Western North Carolina Industrial League, an organization that saw powerhouse clubs fielded by textile mills and other industrial concerns across the region.
Roots of the team
The Herald tracked the formation of the club and its progress. From June 16, 1949 was the following offering from legendary newsman Bob Terrell:
“With their first home game already in the record books, the Sylva Plowboys, recently organized local independent baseball team, turn their eyes toward an array of powerful teams coming up on their schedule. However, Coaches Rush Sumner and Malcomb Brown are ready to meet their opposition better than halfway and let them have it with both barrels. Off to a slightly worse than late start, the Plowboys are ready and willing to get the ball rolling and get on a fulltime schedule with games each Wednesday and Sunday afternoon. The full schedule is not complete but Sumner has plans of bringing the cream of the semi-pro crop before the critical eyes of the local public. Games with teams from four states are in the making. Georgia donates their outstanding teams including Habersham Mills, and Clayton. Tennessee offers Maryville and Greenville. South Carolina puts up Pickens and from the home state games are in the making with the fast WNC Industrial league combinations including Enka, Ecusta Berkeley, Beacon, Hazelwood and Canton. On top of that the locals want games with Murphy and Andrews. … Rush Sumner and Gray Woodard put their heads together and cooked up a scheme that would put the right kind of baseball before the local fans on a golden platter. They went to work pounding the streets scraping up funds from the local merchants. Results came in large, fast hunks. The merchants proved their interest by donating enough money to fully equip the team with new uniforms and equipment. Grey striped uniforms were obtained and players rounded up until the only thing lacking was games. This was quickly remedied by the fact that several teams from this locality and others from adjoining states remembered the lickings administered them by the Sylva Legionnaires last summer before the team folded in mid-season. Response for games came rapidly until Sumner could see his way clear. A schedule could be arranged, and at the present, Rush is wrangling with these outstanding semi-pro organizations… Admission to all home games will be 25 and 50 cents and all games will start promptly at 3 p.m. As an added attraction, Sumner planned to bring a good team to Sylva on the day the new fountain will be dedicated. Gov. Kerr Scott will be one of the celebrities to witness this contest.”
The outlook for the new squad
“Just how will the Sylva Plowboys stand up in the Western North Carolina Industrial Baseball League? To this question one gets a variety of answers. But let’s view the situation before we pass judgment. The league, composed of eight teams, definitely will be much stronger this season than last. That’s so because of the lifting of the restricted player limit. Last year no team could hold on its roster more than two players selected from outside the mill represented by the team. Now, teams can solicit their players from anywhere within a proper district around their plant. This makes way for Ecusta, Martel, Sayles Bleachery, like Sylva a new entry, Hazelwood and Sylva to strengthen their teams. Enka, Berkeley and Beacon will stick more to the factory-player rule than any of the others because in their plants are more and better baseball players and their teams are conducted more for plant entertainment and exercise. Jim Barnwell, Sylva skipper, is lining up a crew of veteran players that should hold its own in the Industrial league. The Plowboys, as they choose to call themselves because of the name’s originality, are already solidly set in the infield with probably Lard Cunningham at first, Junior Sherrill at second, J.D. Morgan at short, and Ben Dillard at third. This infield should hold its own both in fielding and in hitting power with any other inside group in the league. The outfield is not yet set although Barnwell and Bob Phillips are both on hand for action. Several other boys will try out and maybe make the grade before the opening game on April 22. In the pitching department, Jim Cunningham and Rush Sumner are already available. Possibly Rex Benton, Warren Deyermond and others from Western Carolina Teachers College will be acquired before the season’s opener. Joe Pressley and Bill Powell are the catchers at this stage of the game. Those boys along with others who will be added before the beginning of the 21-game schedule undoubtedly can win as many or more games than they will lose in the Industrial league. After all, Sylva has been whipping Enka regularly for a number of seasons. And Enka is and has been one of the top Industrial teams for many moons. The Rayonites won the league pennant two seasons ago and finished second to Berkeley last summer. Berkeley, Enka, and Beacon, the big three of the league, can be counted upon to field top-notch teams. … The league as a whole stacks up much faster than ever before. The Plowboys will have to fight to hold their own against the stiff competition…”
The Western Carolinian carried an article on an exhibition game between the Plowboys and Western Carolina Teachers College which showed the promise of the Plowboys, and featured some names still familiar with readers today:
“The Sylva Plowboys of the WNC Industrial League shut out the Catamounts in an exhibition game on the college field. Sylva bunched their hits and scored the 3-run margin of victory in the third inning. Jim “Coach” Cunningham, Bill Nevens and Joe Pressley worked three innings each for the Plowboys on the mound and limited the Cat batsmen to three base knocks. Cunningham gave up one hit, Nevens two and Pressley hurled hitless ball for the last three frames. All three Plowboy hurlers are students at WCTC. Charlie Howell went the route for the losers.”
Quirks of the league
As the 1950 season wound down the Plowboys took a 9-0 forfeit win over Sayles Bleachery. The Herald reported “Sayles failed to show up for the game but notified Plowboy officials well in advance that they would not be on hand to play.” The Sayles nine had a good reason, as the bleachery was seeing business boom and had moved to a six-day workweek.
No one could take a day off to play baseball.