Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1971, it was an incredibly exciting time for baseball fans in Charleston.
In April of 1971, our town was about to become a Class AAA baseball city as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ AAA affiliate had relocated from Columbus, Ohio to our town. Bob Levine bought the franchise and renamed it the Charleston Charlies after his father.
We were one step away from the major leagues. Our town was so excited and we felt like a major-league city, and why not? In those days we were a larger city. We hosted a couple of NBA regular-season games and hosted a successful small college basketball event that felt like the ACC tournament.
Opposing AAA teams coming to Watt Powell Park featured can’t-miss stars like Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Bobby Grich, Gary Carter, Cal Ripken Jr., Dale Murphy and Don Baylor.
I still remember the excitement of opening night. The Charlies opened against Syracuse, the AAA team of the New York Yankees. The Charlies’ starting lineup was George Kopacz at first base, Rennie Stennett at second, Pablo Cruz at shortstop and Rimp Lanier at third. Power-hitting prospect Richie Zisk was in left field, former major leaguer John Jeter was in center and (I think) Charlie Howard was in right . The catcher was Jim Campanis and the starting pitcher was Ed Acosta. The Charleston manager was Joe Morgan.
The Charlies’ No. 2 pitcher was Gene Garber and No. 3 was Bruce Kison. Both would go on to bigger fame. In August of 1978, Garber made national news as the pitcher who struck out Pete Rose in the ninth inning to end Rose’s 44-game hitting streak. In the fall of 1971 Kison was the winning pitcher in the first night game in World Series history, leading the Pirates past the Baltimore Orioles.
After every Charlies victory in 1971, the public-address system would play the Jerry Reed song “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.”
Alma Cole played the organ, Clarence and Jim Berner manned the ticket booths, legendary high school coach Clyde “Pud” Hutson worked the souvenir stand, John Dickensheets was the PA announcer, the press box regulars were A.L. “Shorty” Hardman of the Gazette, Bill Smith of the Daily Mail, Ernie Saunders of WCHS Radio, Bob Bowen of WSAZ-TV and Wade Utay of WCHS-TV.
In 1971, the Charlies were in the International League with cities such as Rochester, Syracuse, Winnipeg, Richmond, Toledo, Tidewater and Louisville. At that time, our city was aggressive and it seemed as if we belonged with those cities. I hope we get our sports mojo back.