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Wehrle Park was also home to college football, pro baseball a century ago

By By Mike Whiteford
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail
Courtesy Photo
High school athletes compete in the 220-yard dash at the first state meet in 1914 at Wehrle Park.
Courtesy Photo
A shot of a football game at Wehrle Park in 1909.

The state’s inaugural high school track meet in 1914 was a treat to the Charleston High School track team.

It allowed the Mountain Lions the rare opportunity to compete at Wehrle Park, the city’s prestigious sports mecca, its home for professional baseball and Charleston High football and the occasional home for the West Virginia University football team.

Even West Virginia Wesleyan’s football team, the state’s best a century ago, made a few visits to Charleston for a game at Wehrle Park or Exhibition Park, which was bounded by Elizabeth, Virginia, Quarrier and Greenbrier streets.

Until then, the prestigious East End park had been off limits to the CHS track athletes, who instead used the vacant lot on Ruffner Avenue later occupied by Roosevelt Junior High School or the National Guard Armory, now home to the Scottish Rite Temple on Capitol Street.

West Virginia University played a football game at Wehrle Park almost annually, usually against Washington & Lee of Lexington, Va., and their appearance was always festive, giving rise to parades and social gatherings and prompting WVU fans to decorate the Kanawha Hotel lobby in blue and gold. The game also set off a lively business at local betting parlors.

When the Mountaineers arrived in town for their game with W&L on Nov. 14, 1914, they averaged a robust 175 pounds per man, led by John “Spig’’ Webster of Bethany, the heaviest man on the field at 200 pounds. The W&L roster averaged 174, bolstered by two 191-pound tackles.

The WVU quarterback that day was 150-pound Carl Leatherwood of Wheeling, considered one of the Mountaineers’ best-ever athletes, according to the Monticola, the school yearbook. One of the team’s ends was Jasper Colebank of Taylor County, who would spend much of his life as Fairmont State College coach and athletic director.

W&L prevailed 8-6 before 2,000 fans in what the Daily Mail called “an important game in the local theater of gridiron warfare.’’

Both teams attempted some forward passes, a novelty that had been legalized in 1906, but all fell incomplete, despite some “pretty tosses,’’ reported the newspaper.

When West Virginia met W&L on Oct. 23, 1915, at Wehrle Park, fans clad in blue and gold greeted the team’s arrival on the field with a roar “that could be heard for miles,’’ said the Charleston Post. The newspaper, however, did not offer an attendance figure for the day.

The Mountaineers built an 8-6 fourth-quarter lead, but WVU coach Sol Metzger, citing what he thought was poor officiating, removed his team from the field, resulting in a 1-0 forfeit victory for Washington & Lee.

“I took the team off the field,’’ Metzger told the Charleston Post, “because referee Schwartz persisted in giving us the short end of all the decisions.’’ The game ended with W&L on the WVU 1.

West Virginia Wesleyan, which defeated WVU in 1912, ’13 and ’14, also made use of the Charleston field. The Bobcats defeated Virginia Tech 13-0 there on Oct. 17, 1914, and drew a crowd of 800 on a rainy, windy day.

The Bobcat quarterback was Harry Stansbury, who as Wesleyan’s student athletic director had founded the West Virginia high school basketball tournament earlier that year. He later worked 21 years as West Virginia University’s athletic director.

Morris Harvey College of Barboursville, the forerunner of the University of Charleston, played at least one game at Wehrle Park, facing Greenbrier Military School of Lewisburg in 1913.

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The park was built in 1908 by East End real estate titan Joe Wehrle, known as Uncle Joe, along with Bernard Andre and Aubrey Orcutt.

It had a small grandstand and was surrounded by a 12-foot wooden fence festooned with advertisements that would look at home at today’s football and baseball venues. Less than a block down Elizabeth Street stood Kanawha Elementary School on the site now used as the Kanawha County Board of Education parking lot.

But in 1914, as the city was playing host to the state’s first state high school track meet, Wehrle Park’s reign was nearing its end. The 10-team state meet in 1915, won by Huntington, was the only other state meet at the East End location.

In 1916, the city moved the meet to the recently completed Kanawha Park, a 3,200-seat wooden structure designed primarily for the city’s professional and amateur baseball teams at MacCorkle Avenue and 35th Street in Kanawha City. It survived until falling victim to a fire in 1942. Watt Powell Park was built on the site in 1949.

School officials canceled the 1917 state track meet because of the United States’ involvement in what would be known as World War I, and in 1918 Stansbury moved the event to Morgantown, where it remained until 1942. It returned to Charleston in 1943 and also has taken place in Huntington.

Meanwhile, Wehrle Park was being engulfed by East End growth. At the time of the first track meet, the city’s population had reached 25,000, prompting construction of a new high school in 1916 at the corner of Morris and Quarrier streets, replacing the one on Quarrier between Broad and Brooks streets. Ten years later, yet another Charleston High School opened at Washington and Brooks streets.

In 1922, the Charleston Woman’s Club purchased part of the land occupied by Wehrle Park and in 1928 opened its current home at 1600 Virginia St. East. Houses began sprouting in the neighborhood. At about the same time, construction of the state capitol was taking place two blocks away.

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The state high school track meet was not the only noteworthy sports activity to debut at Wehrle Park.

On the afternoon of May 5, 1910, a crowd of 1,200, including Gov. William Ellsworth Glasscock, made its way to the park for the city’s first professional baseball game.

The Charleston team, mostly a collection of local and regional talent, called itself the Statesmen and competed with Montgomery, Huntington, Point Pleasant, Parkersburg and Ashland-Catlettsburg (Ky.) in the six-team Virginia Valley League. It was Class D baseball, the lowest on the professional ladder.

Joe Wehrle, who built the park, also worked as the Statesmen’s president.

In that landmark opener, much of the crowd arrived on the Virginia Street trolley, and Gov. Glasscock, a Monongalia County native and WVU graduate, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, an errant delivery that sailed 2 feet wide of the catcher. The governor, incidentally, would later encounter much more serious problems in trying to keep peace between coal miners and coal operators.

A year after the 1910 debut, Charleston changed its nickname to the Senators and joined the Mountain States League, another Class D outfit that included Huntington, Montgomery, Point Pleasant, Ironton (Ohio) and Ashland-Catlettsburg.

In 1912, the Senators played less than half the season as a Mountain States member. From 1913 through ’16, they competed in the Class D Ohio State League, but the city did not field a pro team again until 1931, the start of a 12-year stint in the Class C Middle Atlantic League.

By 1916, the Senators had moved out of Wehrle Park and into their new home in Kanawha City.

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Cecil “Dolly” Gray was a short, stocky right fielder for the 1913 Charleston Senators and, as a slugger extraordinaire, was a fan favorite and media darling in the city’s sports infancy.

On Sept. 20 of that year, Gray hit two big home runs at Wehrle Park — he “lifted the pill over the fence,’’ the Gazette reported — giving the Senators a 4-3 victory over Maysville, Ky.

To show their appreciation, fans took up a collection after the game and gave Gray, an Ohio resident, $64. He finished the season with 33 homers, easily the best in the league, and led the league with a .366 batting average. The Gazette called Gray’s HR total “a world’s record.’’

The two homers on Sept. 20 did more than just help win a game and enrich Gray’s wallet.

With the victory over Maysville, the Senators moved within a half-game of the first-place Chillicothe Babes with two games left in the season. And the next day, the Senators swept a season-ending doubleheader from Maysville, keeping alive their hope of winning an Ohio State League pennant.

Meanwhile, Chillicothe was ending the season with a doubleheader against Portsmouth on that same day and needed at least one victory to secure the flag.

After the Senators’ sweep, fans awaited word by telegraph of Chillicothe’s doubleheader, hoping for good news that would move the Senators into the championship. “The crowd could scarcely breathe for the excitement,’’ a Gazette reporter observed breathlessly.

And when word arrived that Chillicothe had lost both games, everyone thought the Senators had the pennant.

Senators fans began celebrating. “Amid the roaring and yelling of joy-stricken fans, hats flew up in the air, grave and sober men hugged each other,’’ the reporter added.

“Ohio State Flag Will Wave Over Exhibition Park,’’ the Gazette proclaimed in a front-page banner headline on Sept. 23. On Sept. 24, the paper ran a team photo on the front page.

To honor the champions, someone organized a banquet at the upscale Kanawha Hotel at Virginia and Summers streets, and everyone, it seemed, had a good time. “There was great applause and hearty laughter throughout the evening,’’ the Gazette reported.

A week later, alas, Ohio State League officials broke the Charlestonians’ hearts. They ruled that, because the Senators had played two seven-inning games instead of the regulation nine on the final day of the season, the league title belonged to Chillicothe and not Charleston. In a front-page story at the top of the page, the Gazette reported the bad news, saying the city had been deprived of a pennant on “a measly technicality.’’

The two home runs Gray hit at Wehrle Park on Sept. 20, 1913 no longer mattered as much.

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At age 19, Lawrence Henderson was the Senators’ youngest pitcher in 1915 and, if vintage Daily Mail reports are to be believed, liked to indulge in nocturnal misadventures.

On the afternoon of Aug. 25, 1915, at Wehrle Park, Henderson was feeling spry, apparently not having succumbed to the ravages of Charleston’s long, hot summer, despite his reputation for late nights.

In the opening game of a doubleheader, he pitched a no-hitter to defeat the Ironton Orphans 3-0 and, after getting the OK from player/manager Charles Beers, stayed on the mound and pitched a five-hit shutout in the nightcap, blanking the Orphans 2-0. Both games went nine innings. A crowd of about 300 attended.

The fans, in fact, did not realize that a no-hitter was in progress until the ninth inning with one out. They then began cheering. The final out was a pop to third.

The Gazette banner headline read: “Henderson Hurls No-Hit Game and Then Another Shutout.’’ The story called Henderson’s feat a “record that will go down in the history of the Ohio State League as the most notable pitching feat since its organization.’’

The Daily Mail added: “His performance is without duplicate in the eight years of the Ohio State League history.’’

It must have been quite a day. “Sensational fielding by both clubs all afternoon also kept the crowd in an uproar, giving the ballplayers what was coming to them in applause,’’ a Gazette reporter wrote. “The local infield cut down many hard drives.’’

The Gazette said Henderson had good control of his fastball and relied on it almost exclusively.

Alluding to his apparent off-the-field shortcomings, the Daily Mail surmised: “The fact that he went through 18 innings without tiring indicates that he is getting out of the habit of staying out late nights.’’

The Senators’ left fielder that day was Walter Beatty “Watt’’ Powell, the city’s most prominent baseball figure in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1930s, he worked as manager and owner of Senators of the Class C Middle Atlantic League and in the late 1940s helped lead efforts to build a new ballpark that would bear his name.

As a reward for his efforts, Henderson was given the next day off and sat in the stands watching his teammates.

It’s probably a bit surprising that, despite his youth and apparent talent, Henderson pitched professionally for only that 1915 season. It was enough, though, to earn a niche in the brief, rich annals of Charleston’s Wehrle Park.

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