West Virginia’s Famous Sports Figures
Everyone loves a story about a hometown kid making it big in sports. These figures can serve as inspiration and encourage others to dream big too. Check out these short biographies on some of West Virginia’s hometown athletes and sports figures that made it to the big leagues.
Del Gainer, born in Montrose, West Virginia in 1886, grew up in a farming family. He would go on to play baseball in the major leagues. His baseball career began in Class D ball as part of the Grafton team in the 1909 Pennsylvania-West Virginia League. Later that year he made his major league debut with the 1909 Detroit Tigers championship team. Between 1911-1922 he played for the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Throughout his career he suffered from various injuries and his time on the field was limited. He played for Boston when they won consecutive World Series in 1915-16. In Game 2 of the 1916 World Series, Gainer had the game winning hit and in 1917 had the second-highest batting average, second only to Babe Ruth. He enlisted in the US Navy during the 1918 season during World War I and worked in the Charleston Navy Yard in Boston. After his time playing in the major leagues, he spent some time as a player and manager in the minor leagues. After baseball, he served as a deputy US marshal in Wheeling, West Virginia and died in Elkins, West Virginia at the age of 60 from a heart attack.
Marshall “Biggie” Goldberg
Perhaps one of the most well-known sportsmen from West Virginia, Marshall “Biggie” Goldberg was a professional football player born in Elkins, West Virginia. He played eight seasons in the NFL from 1939-1948, with an absence for military service during World War Two. He had a successful athletic career from winning All-State honors in multiple sports to being a part of two National Championship teams as a Panther at the University of Pittsburgh. As a runner-up for the 1938 Heisman Trophy, he helped to lead his NFL team, the Chicago Cardinals, to their only NFL Championship. He is a member of multiple Halls of Fame and earned numerous accolades. He passed away in 2006.
Jerry West, from Cheylan, West Virginia, played for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1960-1974. During his time playing for the LA Lakers, he became the third player in league history to hit 25,000 points. He was an All-Star all 14 years playing as a professional player and helped lead the Lakers to the NBA Finals 9 times. However, West did not start out a sports star. He didn’t make his junior high sports teams and, while he did make the East Bank High School varsity basketball team his junior year of high school, he spent most of the season on the bench. As a 6-foot senior, West lead East Bank to the state title in 1956. After high school, West played for West Virginia University where he was a two-time All-American and played in the 1959 NCAA Championship. He was also co-captain of the 1960 Olympic team that won gold in Rome. After his time as a player in the NBA, he became coach and general manager of the Lakers and also served as president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Mary Lou Retton
Mary Lou Retton, the Olympic medal winner in gymnastics, is another West Virginia native from Fairmont, West Virginia. Inspired by Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian Olympic gymnast, Retton moved to Houston to train with Comaneci’s former coaches. Five weeks before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games, Retton injured her knee and had to undergo surgery. She recovered in time to compete and went on to win five medals, more than any other athlete during those games. She won two bronze medals in uneven bars and floor, two silver medals in vault and team competition, and became the first American in history to win gold in the Olympic individual all-round category. After her career in gymnastics, Retton went on to work in television and was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997. A park and street in Fairmont are named after her.
Nick Saban is a native of Monongah, West Virginia. He has been the head coach of the University of Alabama football team since 2007. During his current coaching career, he has won seven national championships, multiple bowl titles, nine SEC Championships, and has received multiple national coach of the year awards, among other accolades. Before coaching for Alabama, Saban was a coach for the University of Toledo Rockets, the Michigan State Spartans, and the Louisiana State University Tigers. After having success with the LSU program in both athletics and academics, Saban coached for the Miami Dolphins for two years before taking the position with Alabama.
The next blog will be featuring some of West Virginia’s most well-known musicians!