This ran in the Daily News-Record on June 20, 2014.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — They’re cloth, strap to your waist, and look like underwear. They are sliding pants from the 1940s and they are, Keith Spitzer said, the strangest artifact in the Rockingham County Baseball League museum.
“The most unusual item that people don’t know what it is, is the sliding pants that we wore,” said Spitzer, who played outfield and first base for the Bridgewater Reds from 1954-1969. “They were cloth and they strapped around your hips, and you tied them, and no one today knows what sliding pants look like.”
Spitzer is the museum’s unofficial curator.
“They rather look like underwear,” the 77-year-old Harrisonburg native and resident said. “They’re just an extra cloth that would go under your wool uniform so you wouldn’t have strawberries, as we used to call them.”
Sliding pants still exist, but they’re more sophisticated. They’re padded; they’re absorbent, and made from materials Arthur C. Clarke may have once dreamed about, alongside lunar trains and space elevators.
The County League museum, of course, has typical baseball stuff — uniforms, gloves and bats — and after four years, Spitzer said the museum is doing better than he expected. First and perhaps most shockingly, Spitzer said he got a $500 budget this year. He said it is the first time the museum’s had a budget.
The museum also has regular foot traffic thanks to its location at 205 S. Main St. in Bridgewater, the site of the Shenandoah Valley Baseball-Softball Academy. It has a collection of more than 100 items accumulated on the charity of about 60 donors.
The highlights of the collection, after those sliding pants, are a 1940s jersey from the now-defunct Mount Crawford team and a first basemen’s mitt that was used in both the RCBL and in the major leagues, where George Dinges played for the Philadelphia Phillies in the mid-1940s. There’s also a five-fingered glove from the 1950s, uniforms from every team that ever played in the RCBL, and a DVD made from movie footage of play from the 1940s that has voiceovers from the players of the era.
One of them goes something like this.
“‘We had a game today,'” said Mike Bocock, who owns the Shenandoah Valley Baseball-Softball Academy. “‘The umpire got drunk, and we had to get a new umpire.'”
This weekend, the museum — the idea of former RCBL commissioner, James Madison athletic director and current Valley Baseball League commissioner Don Lemish — will fill its walls a bit more.
On Saturday, the RCBL will induct its third Hall of Fame class during a 6 p.m. ceremony at the Weyers Cave Community Center. Tickets cost $25 and doors open at 5:30 p.m., following a Mike Burtner-helmed baseball card show that will feature 30 tables. It runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Burtner is the current RCBL commissioner.
Spitzer said he expects about 170-180 to people to attend this year’s ceremony and see the induction of 12 new members: Bob Blosser, Tim Bocock, Mike Estes, Buck Harrison, John Hensley, Ernie Knicely, Harold Knicely, Mel Morris, Gordon Shifflett, Merv Shull, Jim Shull and Lynn Wease.
The inductees are selected by an eight-person committee and current hall of famers after getting nominations (they can come from anyone). They pick 10, and a seniors committee picks two from the 1950s and before.
The eligibility requirements are that a player must play in the RCBL for five years and be retired for five years. After Saturday, the hall of fame will have 39 members, each with a wooden plaque featuring an engraved plate.
A lot of the relics and reliquaries are in the front window of the academy, run by Bocock (a County League veteran) and in a building owned by Larry French (another County League vet).
Spitzer said that, because of the window setting, some of the jerseys are starting to fade, but people still stop in. Most of them, though, have an RCBL connection.
“A lot of people go through the batting academy, and we do have a book, not but very many people sign,” Spitzer said. “You could be sitting there, talking to Bocock, and people come in and just look around, and I think it’s more than we thought it would be. Just to come in and look at the museum itself, I would assume you would have to be a County League fan or have a relative that’s in there. And then all those young kids that come through there to go to back to the batting cages. They’re aware, too. It’s a good place for [the museum] to be.”
Bocock said most of the museum’s visitors are kids going to the academy. He said they seem to appreciate the museum and that he gives a talk on area baseball history during the academy camps, explaining why the museum is important and why it exists. It catalogs area history, not just area baseball history.
“It’s not just about the person or the people; it’s about the stories and the people’s personalities around the game,” Bocock said. “It’s a [history] of what the county was. This is part of what the county was. … These guys all had jobs. They worked their jobs, and at five o’clock when they got off work, these guys went to play baseball. It’s pretty good stuff, man.”