Maybe the fans in attendance at Watt Powell Park on that muggy night in the early 1950s were there to savor the cool breezes that drifted down from Mission Hollow. Air-conditioning, after all, was not yet commonplace.
Or maybe they appreciated the quality of baseball — Class AAA, one step from the majors — and took pride in Charleston’s adopted moniker of “The Biggest Little City in Baseball.’’ Charleston, after all, was easily the smallest of America’s 24 Class AAA baseball cities.
But the Charleston Senators back then were an inept bunch and, indeed, were “the worst professional team ever organized,’’ according to Gazette columnist L.T. Anderson. And on that muggy night, the powerful Kansas City Blues were hammering the Senators 17-0. At least, that’s the score that Anderson, who attended the game, remembered in a column written many years later.
The Blues, a Yankees’ Class AAA farm club, offered such heavy-duty sluggers as Bill Skowron, Bob Cerv, Vic Power and Elston Howard. The Senators were a lowly White Sox affiliate.
Seeing such incompetence, the fans momentarily forgot the cool breezes and set aside their city’s biggest/little moniker and began conducting themselves in the manner of self-respecting sports fans. They became obnoxious.
“They began to shout toward the Charleston dugout various crude suggestions for improving the team,’’ Anderson wrote.
Anderson, who in later years enjoyed hearing idiotic comments on political talk radio, found the suggestions entertaining. “I was enjoying a cool one,’’ he added, “while listening happily to the insults that rained down upon management and players.’’
The Senators were clearly the American Association’s worst team and occupied a spot deep in the cellar for four straight seasons, 1952-55.
They were so bad in 1954, in fact, that Indianapolis Indians manager Kerby Farrell openly insulted them, thus straying from standard sports policy of never speaking ill of the opposition. When Gazette sportswriter Shorty Hardman visited the ballpark and asked Farrell if Indianapolis’ pitching prodigy, Herb Score, would be pitching against the Senators, the manager, in essence, said, “No, we’re not going to waste a great pitcher like Score on a horrible team like Charleston.’’
The 1955 Senators were even worse, suffering through a 12-game losing streak early in the season and an 18-gamer later in the year en route to the city’s worst baseball season ever.
But hope springs eternal. In 1956, the Senators nudged their way into sixth place in the eight-team league. They slipped back to seventh in 1957 and, defying all predictions and filling Watt Powell Park with overflow crowds, captured the 1958 pennant.
Eight-year-old Danny Jones, the city’s future four-term mayor, suddenly found himself lost in a sea of Watt Powell Park humanity. It was late in the 1958 season, the park was packed with pennant-hungry fans and it was Fireworks Night. The game had just ended, and the fireworks show was about to begin.
“I think it was my first baseball game,’’ Jones recalled 61 years later, “and I got lost. It was very crowded.’’
Jones found a policeman and explained his predicament. The policeman sent word to the press box, prompting the public-address announcer to inform the multitudes that a youngster was lost and needed to be reunited with his parents.
In the meantime, Jones was escorted to the Senators dugout and told to wait for his parents. It was there he met Wayne Terwilliger, Charleston’s baseball superstar du jour.
Terwilliger, a Michigan native, was the key player in the Senators’ 1958 championship and a kind soul. “He put me on his knee and let me watch the fireworks,’’ Jones remembered. “He gave me an autographed baseball and a bat. It was heaven.’’
In the colorful parlance of the era, Terwilliger was a slick-fielding second sacker — and he was more than just a good ballplayer and a kind soul. In World War II, the 20-year-old Terwilliger drove a tank as 110,000 marines stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima in a seminal battle immortalized in the John Wayne movie “The Sands of Iwo Jima.’’ When five marines raised the flag to signify victory, it produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.
By 1958, Terwilliger was a 33-year-old baseball journeyman hoping for another shot at the big leagues, already having played with the Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers, Washington Senators and New York Giants. In 1959 and ’60, he returned to the big leagues for brief stints with the Kansas City Athletics.
In leading the Senators to the 1958 pennant, he was the American Association’s most valuable player, led the league in runs and, by today’s standards, was a bit of an oddity.
He was a choke hitter, holding the bat four or five inches above the knob, sacrificing power to gain control — a concept virtually nonexistent in today’s homer-happy game. He also slid head-first into bases in an era when most of his counterparts went feet-first.
Terwilliger was not the only Senator whose play would set him apart in today’s game. Don Lee, a 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher from Arizona, was allowed to do things totally at odds with today’s approach. He pitched the Senators’ 1958 home opener and blanked the St. Paul Saints through nine innings and, in light of the scoreless tie, continued pitching shutout ball through the 15th.
In the bottom of the 15th, Terwilliger singled in the infield, took second on an infield out and came home with the winning run on Ozzie Virgil’s double over the right fielder’s head. In attendance was a Sunday afternoon crowd of 5,242, the largest on opening day since the Senators’ Class AAA debut in 1952.
Not that a 15-inning pitching performance was a big deal 61 years ago. “He said he wasn’t tired,’’ Senators manager Bill Norman said afterward. The manager nevertheless conceded that the 15th inning would have been his last, regardless. Incidentally, it was the first of 18 complete games Lee would pitch for the Senators that season. He finished 14-7 with a 2.95 ERA and would eventually spend nine years in the big leagues.
The previous day, in anticipation of their home opener, the Senators boarded convertibles and, led by the Charleston High School band, paraded down a bustling Capitol Street, lined with Saturday shoppers. The Senators would participate in a much bigger and far-reaching parade in September to commemorate their championship.
Not even the Gazette’s Hardman, a perennially optimistic baseball writer, expected big things from the 1958 Senators. A few days before the season opener, he ventured out on a limb and suggested the team might, with a little luck, finish among the league’s top four teams.
Choosing his words carefully, he wrote that “a fourth-place finish is not entirely out of the question.’’ The Daily Mail’s Dick Hudson wrote something similar, saying the first division was a reasonable goal. In a poll of American Association sportswriters, the Senators were picked for sixth place.
In addition to their history of ineptitude, the Senators in 1958 did not have a big-league star in the making. The Omaha Cardinals had Bob Gibson. The Indianapolis Indians had Harmon Killebrew, Norm Cash and Johnny Callison.
Among baseball trivia fans, the Senators’ biggest name was outfielder Jimmy Delsing. You remember Jimmy. In 1951, when 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel made his famous pinch-hit appearance for the St. Louis Browns and drew a walk, the speedy Delsing entered as a pinch-runner. As he left first base on his way back to the dugout, Gaedel patted Delsing on the butt and wished him good luck.
By 1958, the 32-year-old Delsing, a Wisconsin native, had played for the White Sox, Yankees, Browns and Tigers and, like Terwilliger, was hoping for one more big-league shot. He was one of the Senators’ top hitters, batting .287 with 74 RBIs, and earned one final MLB stint, playing 16 games for the Kansas City Athletics in 1960.
The Senators’ second manager in 1958, Bill Adair, already had achieved a different kind of baseball legacy. In 1952, as manager of the Eau Claire (Wis.) Bears of the Class C Northern League, he tutored 18-year-old Henry Aaron and earned the youngster’s respect.
Adair, who replaced Norman as Senators manager in June of 1958 when Norman was hired as Detroit’s manager, was an Alabama native and a progressive on civil rights, a rare combination in the 1950s. “He brought togetherness to the team,’’ Aaron recalled many years later. “He made everyone understand that you were going to have blacks and whites playing together. I learned an awful lot from him as a young kid.’’
Aaron, by the way, roughed up Northern League pitching for a .336 average that year.
The Senators, a Detroit farm club, played well throughout the 1958 season, and by Aug. 1 were tied for the lead with the Denver Bears, a Yankees club.
In a town unaccustomed to such baseball success, fans were making their way to Watt Powell Park in numbers not seen since 1952, the city’s first as a Class AAA club.
On Aug. 3, first-place Denver arrived in town leading the Senators by half a game and, because of some earlier rainouts, the two teams were scheduled to play three straight doubleheaders at Watt Powell Park. But a mammoth rainstorm dropped 4.17 inches in 24 hours, the most in Charleston since 1884, and forced postponement of the first twin bill. “We would have had at least 5,000 fans,’’ said general manager Hillman Lyons.
On Aug. 4, the field was restored to playability, and the Senators swept the Bears, drawing 5,204 fans, capturing the league lead and earning a front-page story in the next day’s Gazette.
On Aug. 5, in anticipation of an even bigger crowd, the city added temporary bleachers in front of the left-field fence and attracted a crowd of 7,369. “We could have sold 10,000 tickets,’’ said Lyons.
It was the third-largest crowd in Watt Powell history, trailing only the park’s inaugural game on April 28, 1949, when an estimated 8,700 attended, and an exhibition game with the Cincinnati Reds that attracted 8,674 later in the ’49 season.
After winning the opener of the Aug. 5 doubleheader, the Senators celebrated big time. Their No. 1 consideration, of course, was a promotion to the big leagues, but they nevertheless relished the thought of an American Association pennant.
As he passed through the Senators clubhouse en route to the press box between games, Daily Mail photographer Earl Benton heard the commotion. “Those guys are crazy,’’ he said, describing the scene to the press box occupants. “I’ve never heard such yelling in a dressing room.’’
The Senators then won the nightcap, giving them a three-and-a-half game lead and raising the two-day attendance total to 12,573.
A Minneapolis Star columnist noted the Senators’ impressive attendance figures and complimented the city. “Charleston actually doesn’t belong in Triple A company on a population basis,’’ the columnist wrote. “However, fans have outdone themselves trying to support their team.’’
On Aug. 17, the Minneapolis Millers, a Giants farm club managed by Gene Mauch, swept the Senators at Watt Powell in front of 4,280 fans. The Senators nevertheless still led by five games.
The next day, the Detroit Tigers visited Watt Powell Park for an exhibition game and won 5-2 in front of 4,725 fans. Two future Baseball Hall of Famers participated. Outfielder Al Kaline went hitless in three at bats, and Jim Bunning, who had pitched for the Senators two years earlier, pitched an inning.
The Senators clinched the pennant on Monday, Sept. 1 at Watt Powell, drawing another big crowd of 5,913. Fireworks followed the game. Afterward, Mayor John Copenhaver held a party for the players at his home along the Elk River.
On Wednesday, Sept. 3, the city honored the Senators with a parade — and undoubtedly sought to increase interest for the upcoming playoffs. Each player boarded a convertible with his name tag affixed to each side of the car and set off on a 35-mile trek that started in Charleston and moved through South Charleston, St. Albans and Dunbar, passing an estimated 50,000 onlookers.
In the postseason playoffs, alas, the Senators lost. Denver, the fourth-place team in the regular season, eliminated them in a best-of-seven opening round, four games to three. In three midweek games at Watt Powell, attendance totaled 9,865. Minneapolis then swept Denver in four straight for the league championship.
The Senators finished second in league attendance at 162,914, averaging about 2,600 per opening, despite 12 postponements and three canceled games. Denver, a city of nearly 490,000, led the league with 228,262.
The team’s 1958 attendance was Watt Powell’s highest since the 183,352 total of 1949, the ballpark’s inaugural season. And it would be the most until 1991 when the Charleston Wheelers, helped by a Niagara of freebies, discounts and promotions, attracted 185,389.
As Anderson, the Gazette columnist, watched the game on that muggy night in the early 1950s, he did more than just listen to the fans’ complaints. He hit upon an idea.
Why not invite the fans to send their suggestions to the newspaper as part of a “What’s Wrong With the Senators?’’ contest. It would allow every fan to act as manager and general manager and propose changes that might help the team.
He introduced the idea to the Gazette’s editors, and soon the fans’ suggestions began pouring in.
But the contest fell far short of Anderson’s expectations. Instead of creative thoughts on such matters as player personnel and managerial moves, the fans overwhelmingly believed that simply encouraging the team would do the trick. In essence, they said there’s nothing wrong with the Senators that the support of the fans can’t overcome.
“I should have known,’’ Anderson wrote. “Boost, don’t knock.’’