BECKLEY, W.Va -- Carl Sellards grew up watching his father and other miners gather after church on Sundays for baseball games pitting coal camp against coal camp.
They'd gather on fields gouged out of hilltops and in lower-lying spots sandwiched between rivers, railroad tracks and mountains. Baseball thrived in West Virginia's southern coalfields from the early 1900s to the 1950s.
"I lived and breathed baseball," said Sellards, who began as the bat boy for his father's team in the Raleigh County community of Marfork in 1947. "I couldn't wait for baseball season to open. We were playing for blood. They were going to beat us and we were going to beat them."
More than 50 years later, an Appalachian history group hopes to collect the tales of former players like the 72-year-old Sellards and share the region's baseball memorabilia in Beckley on Saturday.
Coal camps were typically towns of several hundred homes built by the companies and included a company store and a doctor's office. Some had theaters, boarding houses and community buildings.
Baseball was a diversion from a dirty, noisy existence and six-day work weeks in dangerous mines.
"It was a pretty rugged life there, but we had some good times," said former miner and player Maynard Daniel, 77, of Pikeville, Ky. Baseball "gave the people that played and also the community a place to go. There was very little entertainment in the coal camps back then."
By the 1930s leagues were formed throughout the coalfields and included all-star games and playoffs.
The Cincinnati Reds were popular in southern West Virginia and players returning from spring training in Florida would arrive by train on barnstorming tours to pad their pockets.
Other touring teams stopped by for exhibitions, including future Hall of Famer Satchel Paige when he was with the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs.
Several coalfield players, including pitchers Bob Bowman, Max Butcher, Johnny Gorsica, and Harry Perkowski, moved on to major-league careers. Others passed on the opportunity in order to make money mining coal.
For Daniel, there also was the chance to earn some cash on the side.
A knuckleball pitcher, Daniel lived in the Raleigh County community of Marfork for 64 years and started working in the mines in 1950 right out of high school.
That year he went 17 miles north to Seth to talk about joining an industrial league team. A team official told Daniel he could pitch in that Sunday's game and if Daniel won, he would be paid $50.
Daniel did -- and the official made good on his promise.
"That was a week's worth of work for me at the mines," said Daniel, who pitched in Seth for two seasons and later was a teammate of Sellards' in Montcoal.
Because of tricky roads in and out of the mountains, teams often would travel several hours to games, but it wasn't a deterrent.
"We would go play anyone, anywhere, anytime," Sellards said.
Marfork's players piled into a truck driven by Sellards' father. With little other transportation available, team supporters, including families, were left behind.
That made for a definite home-field advantage both off and on the field, where the umpiring crew was summoned from the stands.
"We had a few squabbles about the umpires," Daniel said. "I know I went up to Eccles one game and the umpire behind the plate was about half drunk, and moonshine was in the stands.
"I threw a ball down the middle of the plate and he called it a ball."
After a few more miscalls, "I walked off the field and told the manager I'm not pitching anymore today, I'm not putting up at it. I think that umpire lasted about two innings. They threw him out."
Sellards was 12 when he became the bat boy on the Marfork team. He took his dad's advice not to work in the mines because of the danger and long hours.
"During the war years, they'd leave before we got out of bed and he would come home and we were already in bed," Sellards said. "The war years were tough on coal miners."
Sellards eventually joined the military. By the 1950s, coalfield baseball was on its way out. Improved machine techniques prompted mass layoffs in the industry.
"Where they once had 350-400 (workers), they could do the mining with 60 or 70. That happened to quite a few of those coal camps," said Daniel, who was laid off in 1952 but returned to the industry for a long career.
Saturday's conference at Tamarack, organized by the Coal Heritage Highway Authority, is scheduled to include panel discussions on the coalfields, authors of books on West Virginia baseball, exhibits and a registry for former players.
One goal is to pinpoint the number of teams, which were generally located in Boone, Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Raleigh and Wyoming counties.
"Not only did each coal camp have a baseball team, but each town had one," said Karen Vuranch, the authority's special projects director and an instructor of coal culture at Concord University. "The (United Mine Workers) sponsored them. A man said his father owned a lumber company that sponsored one. There were many leagues."
The conference also hopes to remember a time when the hardships of the mines were forgotten for a few innings.
"I don't think we paid much attention to the hardships because that was a way of life with us," said Sellards, who now lives in Beckley. "It was just a wonderful atmosphere of community coming together for a great time of fellowship and enjoyment at America's favorite pastime."