by William J. Bechaver
I’ve heard stories of men hired by mining companies just to play on their teams. One such story tells of a local man who was not a miner at all. He was hired to work for a mine and never worked a day in the mine. He just played baseball for the company.
Early in his career, my grandfather, John Bechaver, lived at Toltec with his family. He played baseball with the Pictou Broncos. He was a catcher of considerable talent but made his reputation as a slugger, known as the team’s home-run hitter. A reputation as a good hitter carried a lot of weight and provided unusual opportunities, even in the mining industry. Word spread, and mines would offer jobs and hire workers solely for their ability to perform on the field. At one point, my Grandpa was "drafted" by a company in Gallup, New Mexico to work in their mine, an opportunity offered him primarily for his ability to play baseball. Later, he played ball in a mining camp called Madrid.
On the team in Pictou, his brother, Mike, also played. Mike often told of the time a scout from a professional team was interested in drafting my grandfather to play for their team. The scout was presumably from the Pueblo Dodgers, the nearest professional team at the time. But pay on professional teams was nowhere near the scale it is today. Often, professional players with families had to hold a second job to make ends meet. A man working in a coal mine could make more money than he could playing baseball at that time, though the wage scale for miners was low.
My grandpa, being young, shy, and modest about his ability to play baseball, refused the offer made by the scout. Chances are he didn’t take the offer seriously, for one didn’t make a living playing a game. The truth was he simply wasn’t ready to leave home, and the family needed his support to survive. What opportunities might have been available to him had he accepted the offer can only be pure speculation. He may have made a name for himself in Big League Baseball, perhaps playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Even then, big league players often worked at other professions during the off-season. There was more to success then than simply making a name for one’s self. Whatever the case, had he accepted, I most likely wouldn’t be here.
As the age of the coal mines began to fade, so too did the era of the company baseball teams. They faded into history sometime in the 1930s when softball began to gain prominence on local and amateur levels. But in their heyday, they featured the best of the best. Every mine in the nation boasted a great team. A legend out of a West Virginia coal camp holds that their local team was once given a chance to play a big league team. When asked about who they were playing, one of the big league players responded that they were playing a "Miner League Team.” The term stuck and evolved into the Minor Leagues, and eventually the Big Leagues began to be referred to as the Major Leagues.