Blast From the Past: Historian shares memories of Textile League at BHM

A cutout of local baseball legend Rudy York is displayed at the Bartow History Museum. BHM hosted a lecture about the Northwest Georgia Textile League, where York started his career, on Tuesday.

Long before the glory days of the Cartersville High School football team, the sports heroes of North Georgia were the baseball players of the Northwest Georgia Textile League.

“My father would tell me these stories of the Textile League players,” Heather Shores, executive director of the Chieftains Museum in Rome, said. “They became hometown heroes — figures that were larger than life.”

Tuesday, Shores shared her stories of the Textile League with a captive audience at the Bartow History Museum, bringing to life the sports stars of a long-gone age in an hour-long lecture.

Shores, who wrote her thesis at the University of West Georgia about the Textile League, spent years researching and gathering stories about the league.

“I was able to connect with a lot of mill workers, people who had seen the games, and a lot of the players,” Shores said. “It took me at least two years to do the research, to try to gather all the materials and put it all together.”

What she found was a rich vein of history and stories.

Those included the time that six supervisors from Brighton Mill pooled some of their own salary to try to lure Cartersville’s Rudy York away from ATCO, and tales about radio announcers who, if they were unlucky, sometimes had to sit behind the umpires to call the game.

Some of the audience Tuesday also had memories of the Textile League, like Cartersville resident Wendell Black, who remembered, as a kid, being terrified of Rudy York when the retired slugger came to paint his family’s kitchen in the early 1950s.

The Textile League was founded in 1927 as mill towns and communities started to pop up all across the South, but, Shores explained, the league could trace its roots back almost all the way to the Civil War.

With the economy of the South in ruins after the war, Northern industrialists saw the opportunity to move South, buying up cheap land and cheap labor while moving closer to the cotton and other agricultural products they needed.

“A lot of it was just really good swaths of cheap land,” Shores said. “For example, Massachusetts Mills, that came to Lindale, what became Pepperell Mill, there was a lot of cheap land, and there was a good water source right there. It was a great opportunity for them to come and expand their businesses, so you just see them pop up everywhere.”

The huge textile mills became the largest employers in many towns, and communities sprang up around the mills, complete with company stores, company homes and company churches.

The companies also sponsored recreation options for their employees, and the baseball teams were the prime draw. After long days of physical work, mill workers would practice for hours more.

Teams from mills based all over Northwest Georgia competed against each other and, in 1927, the Textile League was formally founded.

In the days before World War II, baseball was the nation’s favorite sport, and that was no different in the South.

Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of fans came out to see the Textile League games, paying the same ticket prices as at a major league game—10 cents for children and 25 to 50 cents for adults.

In Bartow County, the American Textile Company, ATCO, sponsored a team that was one of the best in the league.

Eventual MLB All-Star York, the greatest player ever to come out of Cartersville, got his start playing for the ATCO team.

He had the best career, but players in the Textile League were routinely signed by professional teams.

The league was hard-hit by World War II, and played its last year in 1947 after losing most of its young, male player base to the war and changing economic patterns that made the mill communities mostly obsolete.

Still, for those 20 years, the Textile League was the biggest game in town, and people like Shores are making sure it’s still remembered today.

“A lot of people had a chance to see these great players before they went on somewhere else, and that meant a lot to them,” Shores said. “I just think it’s important for people to understand that we had this great version of baseball, this great league for baseball, that was here before the Atlanta Braves were ever really thought about. Baseball was a very important part of the culture and a very important part of the recreation and a very important part of the memory of people then and still of people now.”

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