EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Longtime league president Terry Helbig may only be able to venture a guess at how many players have competed in the PenMar-WV Baseball League in its 70 years.

He can name a ton of them, because he’s got a great memory and has been a fixture in the local semi-pro league since 1972, and without his leadership, interest in local players and passion for the game, it’s possible the league could have fallen by the wayside, several times, following the lead of many others in the region and country.

The PenMar-WV League, founded as the Pen-Mar League in 1949, has stood the test of time and Helbig, whose career spans five decades and includes time as a player, coach and manager of the Oakland Oaks, and as league secretary/treasurer and current president, is a chief reason. 

So when the National Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame urged the league to nominate players for its 2018 induction ceremony, Helbig was an easy choice. He began as a player at Keyser in 1972, helped bring Oakland into the league the next year, and was involved with the Oaks and as a league official from 1973 to 1999. He is in his fourth year as president.

The Semi-Pro Hall of Fame in Evansville, Indiana, will induct its fifth class on Saturday, Nov. 10. Helbig is one of 40 from the PenMar-WV League — the second-oldest semi-pro league in Maryland — to be inducted that evening. The local league plans to nominate additional players each year as it attempts to further recognize players and coaches from the past 70 years.

“We knew the Pen-Mar League existed, but we hadn’t tapped into it yet,” said Tim Turpin, director of the National Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame. “A lot of the semi-pro leagues don’t go out on the national trail, play around the country and in national tournaments, but it doesn’t mean they are not good leagues, that’s for sure.”

Turpin said the hall of fame has several classes for inductees: league administrators, managers, coaches, players, sponsors, umpires, even media and super fans.

“We look for natural skill, longevity in the league (usually 10 years or more), coaches that won lots of games, people who have made significant contributions over many years ... a lot of things. There are more than three million people since 1876 that have played, sponsored, or covered semi-pro baseball. We might have a large number of people (in a class), but it’s really a small fraction overall.”

Helbig believes the recognition will help the league, which this year had five teams. There were several divisions and more than 12 teams at one time.

“This gives the league recognition that it never had before,” he said. “We knew we had the longevity, but we pale in comparison to some of the leagues that started back in the early 1900s and are still going. One of the things we should be proud of is sustaining the league, even when we were down to three teams one year. We came back the next year with nine teams because a lot of people worked hard to get new teams in the league.

“There’s a lot of history in our league. Hopefully, this might increase interest, get more players and teams and fans in the league in the future.”

The PenMar-WV League’s history includes World Series champions Bob Robertson (Pirates), Sam Perlozzo (Reds) and Leo Mazzone (Braves), and John Kruk, a three-time all-star and lifetime .300 hitter in a 10-year career with the Padres, Phillies and White Sox.

Currently, Turpin said, the hall of fame includes 150 big leaguers, including 10 that are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Members include war heroes and politicians (President Dwight D. Eisenhower), professional sports team owners (Art Rooney), Pro Football Hall of Famers (Dan Marino), college football coaches (Ara Parseghian, Urban Meyer), recording artists (George Thorogood and James Brown) and a lot of celebrities.

And a lot of major leaguers — Henry Aaron, Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Ozzie Smith, Pie Traynor, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Roger Clemens, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, Thurman Munson — and managers Connie Mack, Whitey Herzog — to name a few.

A player who played in a semi-pro league who reaches the major leagues is an automatic inductee to the semi-pro hall. For the PenMar-WV League, that means Robertson, Perlozzo, Mazzone, Kruk and Tobi Stoner are part of this year’s class, which also includes Johnny Bench, Chipper Jones and Curt Flood.

“Johnny Bench coached the Louisville Stars this year in the Bluegrass World Series,” Turpin said. “The first five in the batting order were Johnny Damon, Jayson Werth, Chipper Jones, Nick Swisher and Rick Ankiel. They had 34 ex-big leaguers on their roster, and didn’t win it.”

The Semi-Pro Hall of Fame started as an online magazine called ‘The Semi-Pro Baseball Association’, according to Turpin, which included a lot of players he and his team, the Evansville Outlaws, played against nationally over an 18-year span.

“Then in 2014 we opened it up and went coast-to-coast,” he said. “In 2014 and 2015 we were heavily loaded (with inductees). The last three years, it’s not been quite as many.”

More than 400 people attended the first induction ceremony and banquet.

Last week, ground was broken to begin construction on a 10,000-square-foot facility that has close to a $2 million pricetag. A third of the facility will house the Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, a third will be banquet space, and a third will house the Greater Evansville Sports Hall of Fame.

“There’s not even a Minor League Baseball Hall of Fame, but there is a Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame. And the way we look at it, I-69 could be the Cooperstown of the Midwest,” Turpin said.

Brian Powell, former Allegany High and Allegany College standout, was inducted in 2016. He helped the PenMar-WV League’s Tri-State Titans to Maryland Semi-Pro state titles in 2002 and 2009, and also pitched for the Brunswick Orioles of the Blue Ridge League, helping them win the national championship in 2004.

PenMar-WV League inductees planning to attend this year’s ceremony should make reservations through Turpin at 812-430-2725, no later than Nov. 1, and/or contact Helbig at 301-616-0661. For more information on the Semi-Pro Hall of Fame, visit its website, www.eteamz.com/NSPBA. For more information on the PenMar-WV League, visit www.leaguelineup.com/penmarwv, or contact Helbig.

CUMBERLAND TIMES-NEWS, ctn@times-news.com

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