In Paintsville, a town known for its basketball, a former hardwood king has become the unofficial historian of the mountain community’s curiously rich baseball history.
J.R. VanHoose, who led Paintsville High School to a 1996 state championship in basketball before capturing the Mr. Basketball award in 1998, was at an estate sale near his home when he found a worn baseball in a plastic display case.
“I assumed it was someone’s keepsake from their Little League team,” he said. “But then I turned the ball over and saw the name ‘Bill Mike Runyon’ scribbled on it.”
VanHoose purchased the ball that day, for not only was Runyon his high school basketball coach, he was a member of the first ever professional baseball team in Paintsville: The Hilanders.
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“I took the ball home and have been researching Paintsville’s baseball history ever since,” VanHoose said.
The 2018 season is just underway for minor league baseball teams in Lexington, Louisville and Bowling Green and begins soon in Florence.
In the 1980s, the sport had a different look in Kentucky.
‘A natural promoter’
Immediately after his graduation from Pikeville College (which would later become the University of Pikeville), Runyon, who is a Paintsville native and the current mayor of his hometown, was called into the office of Paul Fyffe, who owned and operated the WSIP radio station which is still in operation.
“He was a small man in stature, but he had a big personality,” Runyon recalled of Fyffe. “He called me into his office that day and asked what it would take for me to join his new minor league baseball team in Paintsville. I assumed he was thinking I was going to ask for some kind of signing bonus, but I just said, ‘Mr. Fyffe, I’ll take a new pair of cleats and a new glove,’ and he smiled and said, ‘You got it,’ and I was on the team. I was living here in Paintsville anyway, so whatever little bit of money they paid me each month was just spending money. I loved to play baseball anyway and just thought it was neat getting to play a season in the Appalachian League. That was a big deal for me.”
VanHoose helped shed some light on the decision to bring Runyon in:
“He (Fyffe) wanted to add a little local flavor,” he said with a chuckle.
No man was better suited for the task of bringing a professional baseball team to the small town of Paintsville than Paul Fyffe. Fyffe previously started the American Legion baseball team in town and was heavily involved in the local Little League. His son, Mike, who still lives in Paintsville and works at WSIP, said salesmanship came naturally to his now-deceased father.
“He was a natural promoter, he could sell ice to an Eskimo,” the younger Fyffe said. “Before he brought the team here, he was a longtime broadcaster. As far as radio went, he could do anything. He was an excellent writer and did play-by-play for years. He was talented enough to move way up in the business, but he was just a small-town guy and wanted to raise his family in a small town.”
It must have run in the family, for Paul Fyffe’s younger brother, Jim, spent more than two decades as the football and basketball play-by-play man for the Auburn Tigers. But by the mid-1970s, Paul decided he wanted to do more than call games, and convinced another local businessman to go in with him on purchasing the Montgomery Rebels, a minor league team in Alabama. They owned the team for two years before Fyffe decided that if he was going to own a team, it might as well be in the town he loved the most: Paintsville.
He attended the Baseball Winter Meetings and, as his son described it, “began meeting and rubbing elbows” with some of the decision makers in the sport. He struck up a friendship with Chauncey DeVault, who was the president of the Appalachian League, one the storied leagues in the minors. DeVault was looking to expand the league, but was having trouble convincing major league franchises to bring in teams. Fyffe seized the opportunity, and DeVault agreed to let him put together a co-op team (meaning it had no affiliation to one particular Major League Baseball organization) in tiny Paintsville, Ky., for the 1978 season.
The initial Paintsville Hilanders (Fyffe intentionally spelled it without the “gh,” yet the reason as to why isn’t clear to anyone) roster was made up of players from several MLB organizations, a few free agents, and several guys right out of college. Fyffe put his own stamp on the team by bringing in a hometown hero in Runyon. There was a buzz around the team from the beginning. The Appalachian League was a popular destination for major league teams to send their future superstars to improve in the interim. Cal Ripken Jr. came to town several times that first season as a member of the Bluefield Orioles.
“That stadium was always full, always had big crowds,” Mike Fyffe said.
“Every time we played at home, it was completely packed,” he said. “Paintsville, and Johnson County as a whole, is a sports-minded community still to this day, but back when Mr. Fyffe brought baseball to this town, it was extremely exciting for the fans.”
Runyon recalls walking to the plate for each at-bat and hearing public address announcer John Nelson boom: “Now at bat for Paintsville, Road Runner! Beep-beep!”
“I had the fastest time in the Appalachian League that year running from home plate to first base,” explained Runyon.
When asked about the nickname, Mike Fyffe chuckled.
“Road Runner was actually a fitting nickname for Bill Mike Runyon, but John Nelson used to come up with all sorts of funny stuff,” he said.
Yankees in Paintsville
The immense success the team experienced in its first season in Paintsville and the crowd-friendly atmosphere caught the attention of major league franchises. The Yankees scooped up the affiliation rights before the 1979 season and renamed the team the Paintsville Yankees, keeping Fyffe in place as the team president. Mike Fyffe remembers being sent by his father soon after to the Tri-State airport in Huntington, W.Va., in the middle of the night to pick up the first of the new batch of players: future major leaguer Otis Nixon.
“The people of Paintsville adopted these minor league baseball players just like they were their own,” Fyffe said. “It would take about a month before the locals could learn all their names and remember them. We had Hispanics and African-Americans come in to play, and this community is about 99 percent Caucasian, but there were never any problems. Everybody just took them all under their wings.”
With the Yankees now backing the team financially, Paul Fyffe had more time to devote to what he did best: marketing. Mike Fyffe remembers the first time rising superstar Darryl Strawberry came to town as a member of the league rival Kingsport Mets in 1980.
“Dad threw a strawberry festival here in town the day before the game to promote it,” he said. “He had someone fly over the stadium in a helicopter and throw strawberries onto the field!”
Paintsville continued to boast solid teams through 1982, winning three league titles and developing future major leaguers such as Jose Rijo and Eric Plunk, but after four years as the Yankees the club’s affiliation shifted from New York to the Milwaukee Brewers before the 1983 season. The name changed (they became the Paintsville Brewers), but the talent level never dipped, as players continued to come in from all over the world and, as both Runyon and Fyffe pointed out, experienced at least some level of culture shock.
“I know a lot of guys from other places, the ones who played with me and the ones after me, were a bit awestruck when they first got here,” Runyon said.
One such player was a pitcher from Texas by the name of Jim Morris, who came to town for the team’s first year as the Paintsville Brewers. Morris, whose story is the basis for Disney’s 2002 film “The Rookie,” lived in a trailer with three teammates during his one season in the eastern Kentucky mountains.
“It was close quarters for four big guys,” Morris said.
When asked what his first impression was upon arriving in Paintsville, Morris’ response was quick: there were lots of trees.
“I thought it was fantastic,” he continued. “It was up in the mountains. Jenny Wiley State Park was right there, which was awesome. Being from Texas, you get scrub oaks and pecan trees, but you guys had all the hills and valleys and lakes … it was incredible. We had a good time there.”
And then it was gone
The team played in the same park through all of its iterations. The facility, which backed up to Johnson Central High School, was ultimately renamed Paul G. Fyffe Field.
“Because of the number of home runs I gave up, I would say that that field was about 300 feet too short,” Morris joked. “It was small. It was a high school field, but it was perfect. The people from the town showed up to support us and we came together there on that field. That was my first real big learning experience as far as people wanting to be a part of something that they weren’t actually a part of. The fans were awesome. We just had a good time playing for the Paintsville Brewers.”
Fyffe ultimately stepped down from his post with the club when the team changed hands.
His son believes that after the Yankees pulled out and the Brewers moved in, it took most of the wind out of his sails.
It was the team’s first and only league title as the Paintsville Brewers, for a mediocre year in 1984 concluded the brief, yet colorful, run of professional baseball in Paintsville.