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Ghosts of the Minors: Petersburg Goobers

Petersburg team helped launch career of future Hall of Famer Rice
Future Hall of Famer Sam Rice played for the Petersburg Goobers in 1914-15. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)
September 13, 2021

Every week on The Show Before The Show, the official podcast of Minor League Baseball, MiLB.com’s Josh Jackson explores little known teams from the game’s colorful history in his segment “Ghosts of the Minors.” Periodically, we’ll explore these teams more in-depth here on MiLB.com. Be sure to subscribe, rate, review

Every week on The Show Before The Show, the official podcast of Minor League Baseball, MiLB.com’s Josh Jackson explores little known teams from the game’s colorful history in his segment “Ghosts of the Minors.” Periodically, we’ll explore these teams more in-depth here on MiLB.com. Be sure to subscribe, rate, review and tune into The Show Before The Show with Sam Dykstra, Tyler Maun, Benjamin Hill and Josh Jackson every week through your favorite podcasting platforms.

Already nearing its 300th birthday in the early part of the 20th century, the town of Petersburg, Virginia briefly boasted a Minor League Baseball team with a name that would’ve been right at home in the 21st century.

Just 20 miles outside of Richmond, Petersburg traces its roots back to the early 1600s. It saw history up close during the American Revolution and Civil War, and toward the close of the 1800s, it embraced baseball.

Like small hamlets across the United States, Petersburg fielded a team for its town and its people beginning in the 1880s. From 1885-1900, the community had entrants into the Virginia League under names like Champs and Farmers. But it was in 1910 when Petersburg had its moment in the sun. When the Portsmouth Truckers relocated during the 1910 season, the Petersburg Goobers were born.

Certainly the baseball world would feel different if the line was “buy me some goobers and Cracker Jack” instead of the one currently running through your head, and though it’s difficult to pin down the exact origins of Petersburg’s team name, peanuts seem to be the inspiration. Whatever the reason, the team did the moniker well. Just a year after settling in their new home, the Goobers (who were also called the Hustlers in 1911), won the Virginia League title, going 68-51. After finishing second while rolling to a 79-54 mark in 1912, the Goobers again captured the crown in ’13 with an 89-46 record.

The Goobers proudly boasted their moniker in Petersburg as Virginia League outposts shifted, but the club was at home among teams like the Lynchburg Shoemakers, Norfolk Tars and Newport News Shipbuilders.

A year after their second league championship, the Goobers crossed paths with the man who would become their most lasting legacy. Future Hall of Famer Sam Rice, on furlough from the Navy at the time, latched on with Petersburg during the summer of 1914 and quickly showed his promise as a ballplayer. According to SABR, the then-24-year-old pitched a complete game in just his second start with the Goobers and proceeded to rattle off wins in his next four outings, going the distance in all of them.

Rice’s showing was so eye-opening to team owner Dr. D.H. Leigh that Leigh petitioned Virginia Senators Thomas S. Martin and Claude A. Swanson for Rice’s early discharge from the Navy. It was granted, and the right-handed hurler quickly became a key cog in the Goobers’ plans for the end of 1914 and into the following season.

Rice’s stay didn't last long in 1915. That July, Leigh offered the budding young star’s contract to Clark Griffith, manager and part-owner of the Washington Senators of the American League, to make good on a loan Leigh had been unable to repay Griffith from earlier in the season. The big league club took on Rice from the Goobers, turned him into an outfielder, and watched him star for 20 years in the Majors, all but one in the nation’s capital. Rice batted .334/.382/.443 for the 1924 Senators team that captured the lone World Series title. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1963.

After serving as a launching pad for Rice’s legendary career, the Goobers ran into trouble. The team folded in 1915 before regrouping for 1916. A year later, the Virginia League disbanded just weeks into its season as the United States entered World War I. In 1918, a reanimated circuit lasted until late June before suspending operations again.

The Goobers’ final bite at the championship apple came in 1919 when Petersburg’s club went 62-47 and, due to “disagreeing owners,” claimed half of the Virginia League crown when no playoffs were staged.

With a few weeks left in the 1921 season, time was up for the Goobers, who moved to Tarboro, North Carolina. Though the Minors would stick around Petersburg in various iterations until the 1950s, only once more (1924) would the Goobers take the field under that unique nickname. Today, food-inspired monikers are all the rage as alternate identities for teams across the Minors. For Petersburg, life as Goobers was a worthwhile full-time affair.