The Appalachian Voice

Baseball and rebellion: The treason trial of Bill Blizzard

Nothing matches it in the history of baseball, if the visting players’ lineup is any clue:
• Bill Blizzard. Right field. Treason, murder.
• Cecil Sullivan. First base. Murder.
• Okey Burgess. Second base. Murder.
• W. Lacey. Third base. Treason.
• Okey Johnson. Pitcher. Treason
• Joe Rhodes. Shortstop. Murder.
• A.C. McCormik. Left field. Murder.
• Dewey Bailey. Center field. Treason.
• Frank Stump. Catcher. Murder.
The team played in April and May of 1922, and the fans munching popcorn and watching the action in Charles Town, WV, knew that these were not minor leaguers, playing for small stakes.
In fact, the visiting players were union organizers, released on bail, who had been indicted for their roles in the Battle of Blair Mountain. An unknown number of men, sometimes estimated at 30, had been killed in the uprising when the coal companies fought the miners in 1921. Now 200 miners were in Charles Town for trial. No one from the coal companies had faced similar indictments.
The coal companies demanded the death penalty for their opponents and the state of West Virginia had been more than obliging. In fact, coal company lawyers had been allowed to prosecute the case on behalf of the state. Even the indictments had been written in the law offices of the coal companies.
The companies assumed they could convince a Jefferson County jury that the union men were desperate traitors. At a tim e of national hysteria about the Bolshevik threat, a treason and murder trial against admitted insurrectionists must have seemed like an easy dinger — and maybe even a grand slam. They would legally execute dozens, jail thousands, and crush organized labor once and for all.
But the companies had made a serious mistake. Between court sessions, they were entertaining themselves at a swank, out-of-town hotel. The accused union members, meanwhile, were playing baseball with the citizens of the town — the very people whose friends and neighbors were sitting on the jury. History hinges on moments like these.

Common interests
The trial had begun with a change of venue from Logan County, where the Battle of Blair Mountain was fought, to Jefferson County, near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Once the location was set, union organizers approached the businessmen’s associations, hotels and private citizens for help sheltering the 200 miners and their families headed for Charles Town. When they arrived at the train station, wearing pink lapel ribbons identifying them as UMWA defendants, a cheering crowd marched them to the fire station’s public hall.
In the lead role, Bill Blizzard, a handsome young man with a lovely spouse and two children along for the trial, maintained a cheerful attitude, as if he were not facing the gallows.
Blizzard’s son and biographer, William C. Blizzard, wrote in the recently published book When Miners March: “The miners were out to make friends and they passed up few opportunities… The citizens of Charles Town learned that these supposed revolutionists were, after all, not very different from themselves.” They organized a baseball team and they made a point of attending church with their families in the town.
The miners were good at baseball, Blizzard wrote, but they were careful not to win too many games against the Charles Town citizens. When they did win, the proceeds from the game were donated to a hospital fund.

Case falters against the miners
The first trial brought two dozen of the UMWA organizers into court, and Blizzard was named as the lead defendant. His union attorneys faced prejudice from the first, as the coal companies were allowed to keep secret their evidence and witness list. Blizzard’s attorneys also protested the fact that groups of well armed coal-company gunmen were present in the courtroom.
The first prosecution witness, state governor Ephriam Morgan, did little to help the coal companies. He admitted (as one newspaper wrote) that “a private government, whose army consists of the notorious ‘mine guards,’ exists in his state, and that though opposed to it, he is powerless to end it.”
Within a few days, people began to sense that the state of West Virginia, rather than the miners, was on trial. “It looks as if the entire machinery of government has been turned over to the coal operators,” another newspaper wrote.
While the coal companies tried to tie Blizzard and the organizers directly to the military action that took place on Blair Mountain, a principle witness was undermined when it turned out he was being paid by the coal companies.
At one point in the trial, the prosecutor brought out a set of Springfield rifles to demonstrate the firepower of the miners. To show what the miners were up against, union lawyers brought out a diabolically constructed bomb dropped on the miners from a biplane. To boost the drama, the uion asked experts to take it apart, there in the courtroom.
Day by day, Sunday by Sunday, and game by game, the jury and townsfolk began to see through the prosecution’s portrait of the men as traitors who deserved execution. How could it be treason if they fought a company, and not the state? Did the state belong to the coal companies?
As the trial went on, baseball and church continued to bring miners and residents together. And as the coal industry’s case fell apart, the people of Charles Town increasingly took the miners side. Near the end of the trial, Blizzard’s wife was seen entering the courtroom arm-in-arm with a jury member’s wife.
On May 27, 1922, Bill Blizzard and fellow defendants were acquitted. “Cheers resounded throughout the courtroom,” wrote William C. Blizzard. “Blizzard’s mother, wife and children clung to his neck, while the young defendant, all smiles, shook hands with friends until his hand was sore,”
In the end, no one was executed, but not all the other miners were acquitted. Some were sentenced to jail terms, but nearly all were paroled by 1925. And it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the UMWA afterwards. Union membership dropped drastically in the 1920s, to the point where some historians maintain that the coal companies won the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Wess Harris, publisher of When Miners March, disagrees. “That’s just a lot of hogwash,” Harris said. “If anything, Blair Mountain was a victory. The twin events of Blair Mountain and the trials (at Charles Town) were the furnaces that forged the miners steel that got them ready for the 1930s.” By then, labor laws began to protect labor organizers.
Unions “struggle and lose, then struggle and win,” William C. Blizzard wrote. What people needed to understand was that there had always been something wrong with an industry that “produced a mint of wealth and forced its employees to live in poverty.”

Posted: April 21, 2008

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