It was 41 years ago this summer that George Steinbrenner put some Yankee pride into eastern Kentucky.
The former Yankee owner, who passed away in 2010, made the Paintsville Highlanders the Paintsville Yankees.
Paintsville’s pinstripes lived up to what The Boss wanted from his franchise. Paintsville won the Appalachian League championship in 1979, 1980 and 1981 and finished second in 1982.
That first season the Paintsville Yankees went 52-13 — an .800 winning percentage — and ran away with the Appalachian League title by 15 1/2 games over the Bluefield Orioles.
Paintsville’s own Boss was the late Paul Fyffe, who was more Bill Veeck than George Steinbrenner.
In other words, Fyffe knew how to draw a crowd.
But one July night in 1980, he almost went too far.
The Kingsport Mets were visiting Paintsville and top draft choice, 18-year-old Darryl Strawberry, was in the house.
Fyffe didn’t want the moment to pass without some fans in the stands. He planted a strawberry patch in right field — where Darryl Strawberry would be playing — and sold nothing but strawberry drinks in the concession stand. Also, fans got free admission to the two-game series if they brought a strawberry with them. He dubbed it the “Strawberry Festival.”
(The story of strawberries being dropped from a helicopter was not true. Although, if Fyffe thought it might work within fan safety regulations, I wouldn’t have put it past him to try it).
Not only was Strawberry a rookie, but so was Ashland native Jody Hamilton, who went undrafted but earned a spot on the Yankees after a tryout. It was a mystery why Hamilton wasn’t drafted. He was taken in the 16th round by the Texas Rangers after his junior season at Morehead State University but chose to stay in school. He had knee surgery in the offseason and that may have been what scared them off.
Hamilton left MSU as the school’s all-time home run king, a Triple Crown champion and an Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. He still ranks as one of the Eagles’ greatest hitters.
He proved he could hit on the professional level, too, going 14-for-30 (.467) with eight walks, two home runs and 10 RBIs in his first 10 games with the Yankees. Hamilton ended up hitting .306 with six home runs in his 47-game professional career.
Hamilton also outhit Strawberry in that two-game series with the Kingsport Mets. In one game, he belted a 330-foot home run over the right-field fence to give the Yankees an 11-10 victory in the series opener.
Hamilton, of course, quit playing baseball to start coaching it in high school. It was a good move. Jody was one of the giants in Kentucky high school baseball history with more than 900 career victories and state championships at Boyd County High School in 2001 and West Jessamine High School a couple of years ago.
The 1980 “Strawberry Festival” was a sellout and a fun time in Paintsville, which, remember, was the property of the Yankees.
And there was the rub.
When The Sporting News ran an article about how a Yankee team in the Appalachian League’s Rookie League had promoted a New York Met, Steinbrenner blew a gasket and threatened to take away the franchise.
“It was like a scene from ‘Seinfeld’ where Steinbrenner is screaming at George over something that happened in Paintsville, Ky.,” said Jason Blanton, who began working for the Paintsville Yankees as a 14-year-old clubbie who folded uniforms and towels — and whatever else was asked of him. “That was our claim to fame with Steinbrenner. That was the only time he threatened the franchise.”
Blanton, who now works for Morehead State University’s media department, closely followed professional baseball in Paintsville to its end in 1984.
“It was a great time, as I look back on it,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The Yankees were good to Paintsville, including putting money into the high school field that they called home in the summer. It was a showplace.
“He (Steinbrenner) made sure they had anything they needed,” Blanton said. “I remember one of the first days at a Yankee practice they had a pamphlet called ‘The Yankee Way.’ It told you no facial hair, have the hair off the back of your collar, things like that. You did things their way. When I folded uniforms, it had to be a certain way.”
The sign on the Johnson County clubhouse door was the Yankee logo with “The pride starts here” written under it, Blanton said.
“That’s what it was all about,” he said. “They said it a thousand times a day: Do it the Yankee way. It started from the top and moved down.”
Steinbrenner, who had purchased the sagging New York Yankee franchise in 1973, was building from within (although he mostly built with a wide-open wallet). Of course, in 1979, the Yankees were coming off back-to-back World Series championships under Steinbrenner.
It wasn’t the same in Paintsville after the Brewers became the parent club in 1983 and 1984, Blanton said. The last game in Paintsville pro baseball history was a 4-0 loss to the Pikeville Cubs. The pitcher that night? None other than surefire Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux.
“Things were a lot different,” he said. “The best days were with the Yankees.”