Hall County boasts a rich sports heritage rooted in the dusty baseball fields that were once home to teams from the area’s industrial mills.
Teams from the Gainesville, Chicopee and New Holland mills, among others, were thriving in Northeast Georgia as early as the 1920s. From their fields rose players with reputations as some of the best amateur athletes in the country, including Dub Jones, J.D. Edwards, Lamar Murphy, Dean Evans, Walter Cooper, Jake Miller, Skinny Vaughn and Nolan Riley. In the mill-centered communities where they lived, worked and played, these players were regarded as celebrities.
"There were a lot of good baseball players in the Mill League over the years," said Edwards, an accomplished outfielder for Gainesville Mill from 1938-1940.
Long before the high school legends that we have come to know, players in the Mill Leagues represented a time when baseball was king among sports in the Piedmont of Northeast Georgia.
During this time, high school basketball and football didn’t carry the same prestige as the sluggers representing their communities on the baseball diamond.
Fourteen area high schools, including Airline, Riverbend, Lyman Hall, Flowery Branch, Lula and Clermont, played basketball at the time, but residents of the area mill communities knew they didn’t have to look any further than their own backyards to see great baseball competition. Crowds that numbered in the thousands sometimes filled the bleachers, hill sides and train tracks to watch big games.
"They said at the time that Industrial Mill Leagues were equivalent to Class A Minor League baseball," said Larry Pardue, a bat boy for Gainesville Mill in the 1940s. "I have so many fond memories of those days of watching the Mill Leagues."
Mill League baseball stood for a simpler time of life. Men worked in the large textile mills with towering smoke stacks and shopped in company-owned stores. Their co-workers were also their neighbors and their teammates as it was a requirement that they worked at the mill for which they played.
"People in the mill went to church together, socialized together — the whole nine yards," Mill League fan Buck Cooper said. "It was tremendous baseball."
Players in those days didn’t get rich playing for the mill. In fact, they didn’t earn any extra money playing baseball, and even had to cover extra expenses, like cleats, out of their own pocket.
"Nobody made any money, but nobody seemed to mind," Edwards said. "Everybody was in the same boat."
But playing for the local mill did come with its perks. New Holland outfielder Dub Jones says baseball players got the easier jobs at the mill, and were often allowed time off on Wednesday to prepare for the midweek games.
Jones was able to craft his third-shift work schedule at New Holland to make time to play baseball and take classes at the University of Georgia. He worked in the mill’s spinning room, and Miller, the star pitcher for New Holland, rolled cotton to the spinning room.
Jones says playing in the Mill League gave these players a sense of community and camaraderie during a time when most men were returning from service in World War II.
"The Mill League had a family atmosphere and it really kept morale high," said Jones, who went on to coach basketball for 20 years at Lula, Riverbend and East Hall High. "It was good, honest, hard-working people."
Even though the players from different mills were friends off the field, they competed fiercely on the field to claim bragging rights for their club. The league winner each season was treated by the mill to trips to go see the Major League teams play in cities such as New York, Cleveland and Chicago.
"I remember on one trip to New York we got to see Joe DiMaggio play," said Gene Riley, who played with New Holland from 1945-1947. "It was a big honor, and we always wanted to win."
The players that dominated the Mill Leagues added to its distinct character. Murphy, a 6-foot-5 outfielder from Harmony Grove, is considered the biggest slugger from the Mill League days. The stories of his massive home runs have grown into legends.
"I remember that we were playing at Harmony Grove one time and he hit a two-strike fastball that just flew out of the field," Jones said. "He hit that ball all the way toward Gillsville."
"I remember chasing down some of the home run balls that Murphy hit," Buck Cooper added.
Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, who lived in Habersham County, even played as a ringer in the Georgia-Carolina Mill League when he was a teenager. But local legend has it that Gainesville Mill’s Walter Cooper "showed up" the career .312 hitter in a batting practice exhibition.
Miller, a flame-throwing right hander, is regarded by most as the best pitcher in the Mill leagues. He recorded numerous no-hitters in his career with one coming against rival Chicopee Mill. He was also known for his gentlemanly demeanor on the field, and refused to ever intentionally hit another player.
Many also believe that "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who hailed from Greenville, S.C., played in the Georgia-Carolina leagues following his banishment from Major League Baseball in 1919. No local players can remember playing against him, but it’s believed that he played locally after he was banned from baseball for his involvement in the 1919 World Series "Black Sox" scandal.
The talent in the local mill clubs wasn’t lost on professional players. Many of the Mill League players had a chance to sign minor league contracts but eventually returned home for various reasons: some could make more money playing and working for the mill, some left and got homesick, and some had family obligations.
"Walter Cooper was a slugger and he went to spring training with Mize," Edwards said. "But he came home because he got home sick."
"They had no incentive to play in the minors for $50 a month," former Times sports editor Phil Jackson said in a 2004 interview. "Men were getting good money to work in the mill and they got to play baseball."
Stories of Major League teams on their way home from spring training in Florida stopping in Gainesville to play against the mill clubs still circulate. The most famous story is from 1934 when the Philadelphia A’s came to play an exhibition at New Holland Mill in front of an estimated crowd of 4,000 to 5,000. As the story goes, A’s owner and manager Connie Mack took to the field with a suit of clothes complemented with a tuxedo jacket and bow tie.
"I remember that my uncle took me to that game and we sat by the railroad tracks," Jones said. "I saw a ball get loose and went and retrieved it and it was autographed by Mack and some of the other players."
By the time the 1950s rolled around the leagues started to lose some steam. The main reason the Mill Leagues lost fan support was the widespread reach of television into more households, which meant people didn’t have to attend games in person anymore.
But government regulation also played a role.
In 1954, anti-trust regulations started to take their toll on the Mill Leagues with a ruling that the mills couldn’t force the workers to live in the company housing. That ruling allowed players to buy their own houses, but also opened up the mill housing quarters to non-mill workers.
Players eventually started to leave the mill and team owners were forced to try to bring in high school athletes to fill the teams, but mill fans were less inclined to come and support those they were less familiar with.
By the end of the decade, the mill league baseball days were essentially a thing of the past, and the industrial leagues struggled to field teams.
But the dwindling number of Mill League players still living will never forget their favorite memories playing with the local legends that took the field right here in our own backyard.
"Playing baseball in the Mill League you got to know everyone," Edwards said. "There was a good closeness between everyone."
"Closing the mills was the worst thing that could have happened," Jones said.