“Purcellville Forms Independent Nine,” read a 1925 headline in the Washington Post. “Local baseball players at a meeting [in Purcellville] perfected an organization to play independent ball with teams from the Valley of Virginia, Washington, and Loudoun County.”
1925, a time when “home talent” baseball teams were common in many American towns. Communities came together to watch a neighbor or the town barber play against teams from neighboring towns. Heated rivalries were created and each town’s pride and morale rose and fell with its baseball teams fortunes.
Sports teams have historically brought communities together, a very recent example is the way hundreds of thousands of fans from throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area gathered downtown to celebrate the Capitals and their historic Stanley Cup victory.
Baseball, with its laid-back pace and frequent breaks in the action, almost compels spectators to converse and bond with their friends and neighbors. That is one of the distinctive quality that has helped baseball reserve a place in the hearts of Americans – becoming our national pastime.
Fast-forward nearly 100 years, and these hometown teams seem to be a thing of the past. But in Northern Virginia, the Valley Baseball League carries on much of this legacy through summer teams such as the Purcellville Cannons. The Cannons rely on college athletes, looking to keep their skills sharp by playing a short, two-month season each summer before the players return to college. VBL teams gather athletes from around the country. While providing extra playing time, the organization has created a pipeline to the major leagues for many of its players.
Its slogan, in fact, “gateway to the majors,” describes why players come from all over the country to play summer baseball. The league’s alumni include major leaguers like Brett Gardner and Daniel Murphy.
The average season for a college baseball team lasts from late February to mid-May, but in the summer, many of these athletes turn to summer baseball for a taste of professional lifestyle.
Players in the Valley Baseball League are faced with the professional baseball grind. The schedule is shorter than most college teams, but more games are played back-to-back than in college.
The team is constantly traveling between towns, often playing five or six games per week and against a different opponent every night. Unlike college or professional teams, VBL teams seldom play the same team in a two- or three-game series.
“Every night you’re playing,” says James Beasley, a pitcher for the Purcellville Cannons. “It’s a lot different. It’s a lot more of a grind in and out.”
Another huge difference from college baseball, batters use wood bats instead of aluminum or composite bats. Organizations like the VBL have been nicknamed “wood bat leagues”.
“Playing with wood bats is obviously different,” Cannons player “Shaggy” Freeland said. “It’s a little bit more of a pure game. You have to hit the ball right on the ‘screws’ for it to be a hit. There’s no cinch hits of the end of the bat or off the handle that fall. It’s wood bats so it’s realistic. You have to be a good player to get a good hit.”
Summer baseball also provides these players with one more chance to impress major league scouts.
“We help the scouts identify the talent,” says Ridge Fuller, general manager of the Purcellville Cannons. He said there are usually five to 10 scouts at any given home game.
“We play good competition day-in and day-out,” Cannons infielder Christian Garabedian said. Scouts will come to good competition and watch people play.”
The Cannons are now entering their third season in Purcellville at historic Fireman’s Field. After only a few years, they’ve become a hometown sensation.
“Purcellville has been great,” Fuller said. “This is the best welcome that I’ve ever seen. We lead the league in attendance year in and year out.”
Like their counterparts from the previous century, the Cannons have created a strong sense of community and gained the support of the town.
“We’ve got a wonderful fan base that comes out and supports us on a regular basis,” President and Field Manager Brett Fuller said. “Going into our third year, one of the biggest keys to the success that we’ve had on the field has been the groundswell fan support this year in Purcellville.”
The team and its players thrive on this close relationship with Purcellville.
“That’s something that I take pride in with the Cannons, that we have that other teams do not,” Ridge said. “We have a community connection that’s tremendous.”
They may not be a “home-talent” team, but the Cannons have bonded with a community using the same game as those in the 1920s.
“Baseball is baseball,” says Ridge. “It’s just got the same feeling through generations.”
Publisher’s Note: Special thanks to Matt Gusmerotti for outstanding photos of the Cannons.