- Hillside Fields: A History of Sports in West Virginia by Bob Barnett
In Hillside Fields: A History of Sports in West Virginia, Bob Barnett presents fourteen chapters on different aspects of sporting life in the state. Barnett notes that for a small, impoverished state, “West Virginia has established an impressive record of success in sports” (p. xiii). But this book is not about simply glorifying athletics. Barnett does not shy from sports’ controversial and even lurid aspects, such as his frank depictions of racism and his willingness to humanize high-profile coaches by relating their successes and their failings. For instance, when the renowned Marshall University coach Cam Henderson’s behavior became erratic, local doctors claimed that they had prescribed him wine to counteract insulin shock. “Alcohol seemed a curious treatment for diabetes,” Barnett slyly remarks. The enabling backfired, as Henderson eventually resigned after punching two players (pp. 137–140).
Barnett begins his volume by stating it will be “more than an account of people playing games”; rather he will show how sports “reflect life in this small but complex state” (p. xiv). He argues that the rugged terrain, poverty, extraction economy, and poor political leadership shaped the state and the games that West Virginians watched and played. This is an intriguing thesis, but Hillside Fields does not adequately pause after recounting events to make these connections. More analysis of how the unique aspects of the state produced the sports triumphs and trials would have helped weave this argument through the narrative.
One theme that does run throughout much of the book is the tension over college athletics. In 1903, after eight straight football defeats at the hands of Washington & Jefferson College, West Virginia University (WVU) finally prevailed. Though the win came by forfeit, it set off wild celebrations across Morgantown, including students building a bonfire and dancing around it in their pajamas. The school president, faculty members, football coach, and townspeople all made exultant speeches. As Barnett notes, it was a turning point for WVU football, and the first of many campus celebrations involving fire, as students became notorious for starting anything they could find ablaze after big Mountaineer victories (p. 59). By the 1920s, college sports were big business, as even tiny West Virginia Wesleyan College’s football team was bringing in the checks to help the school make payroll. The victories came at a cost, though, as college teams became semi-professional operations with academics as an afterthought for athletes.
Despite the clear problems that athletics programs created on campuses, the die was cast. When WVU won basketball’s National Invitational Tournament in 1942, the governor called it “a million dollars’ worth of advertisement and two million dollars’ worth of reputation” (p. 127). West Virginians, insecure about their national stature, basked in the glow of the accomplishment. While critics argue that this is another example of the “circus” distracting residents from their troubles, Barnett concludes that these episodes helped West Virginians define “who we are and what we believe,” revealing what was really important to everyday people (p. 380). [End Page 153]
Barnett’s book is a must-have for people interested in West Virginia history. Hillside Fields is skillfully written for a broad audience and will probably be a common Father’s Day gift in the Mountain State.