Not long after the 1951 season, Charleston’s baseball news began taking a darker and darker turn. The sportswriters even lapsed into sacrilege, offering the unthinkable notion that the city’s still-new Watt Powell Park would be without a professional team for the coming season.
In the three previous years, the Charleston Senators had led the Class A Central League in attendance, drawing an amazing 183,352 fans in 1949, Watt Powell’s inaugural season. But when the league collapsed in the fall of 1951, city officials were stunned and began seeking membership in another nearby league.
When that failed, they worked with five Ohio and Indiana cities on a proposed new league, the Class C Midwestern, and optimism quickly filled the air, prompting a league spokesman to say, “It looks good. We’ll have six teams, all right.’’ But three cities backed out, citing “too many uncertainties,’’ leaving only Charleston and two Ohio cities, Dayton and Newark.
Such disappointments were not surprising. In the early 1950s, minor-league baseball’s post-World War II renaissance was beginning to fade and attendance was slipping nationwide, the victim of television’s far-reaching impact. In addition, the arrival of air-conditioning was keeping people in their homes in the summer. And automobiles abounded like never before, hastening a move to the suburbs and away from inner-city ballparks.
By Feb. 13, 1952, Charleston had abandoned all hope of professional baseball for the ’52 season and had grudgingly turned its attention to semi-pro ball at Watt Powell Park. The Gazette speculated that perhaps such communities as Logan, Parkersburg, Williamson, Welch and Bluefield might want to get involved. Charleston’s hard-core fans apparently would have to settle for a team thrown together with local talent, possibly some former high school and college players who still had the itch.
But in the greatest about-face in the city’s baseball history, the gloom suddenly vanished and speculation moved in a dramatically different direction. On Feb. 15, 1952, two days after the Gazette’s talk of semi-pro ball, an astonishing headline blazed across the top of the newspaper’s front page: “Charleston Has Chance to Enter Triple A Baseball.’’
The Toledo Mud Hens of the Class AAA American Association, it seemed, were losing money, and their owner, Danny Menendez, thought Charleston might be a more profitable location for his investment.
In considering the move, Menendez contacted Gabe Paul, the Cincinnati Reds general manager and a man familiar with Charleston baseball, and asked for an evaluation. Paul assured him that Charleston, despite its modest population, could support Triple-A ball.
Paul, who had worked as a Reds assistant when Charleston was a Reds Class A affiliate in 1949-51, was saddened to learn that Charleston might be without baseball.
“There must be something wrong with the structure of the game when a city such as Charleston, with a fine attendance potential and a fine ballpark, is permitted to go without baseball,’’ he said. “It seems a shame to see such a good town go begging when so many others in the minor leagues are skating on thin ice.’’
If in fact the Mud Hens moved to Charleston, the city’s fans would soon be watching the highest level of minor-league ball and not the proposed Class C stuff — five levels below the majors — or the last-gasp option of semi-pro ball. And as an American Association member, Charleston would be competing against Milwaukee, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Louisville, Indianapolis, Columbus and St. Paul, whose populations ranged from Milwaukee’s 864,000 to St. Paul’s 311,000. Charleston’s residents numbered only 75,000.
As a Central League member for three years, Charleston had been in the same league with Dayton, Ohio, and four Michigan locations: Flint, Saginaw, Muskegon and Grand Rapids.
Things were happening fast. Word had leaked out that Menendez was unhappy with his team’s sluggish preseason ticket sales, was threatening to move and apparently meant business. All signs pointed toward the West Virginia capital.
The Columbus Citizen reported that the Toledo move to Charleston was “in the bag.’’ The Louisville Times said, “[The Toledo team] will undoubtedly be transferred.’’ Gazette sports editor Shorty Hardman wrote: “There’s a splendid chance that the move may be made.’’ A Feb. 16 Gazette headline proclaimed: “Baseball Tide Turns To City.’’
An avid promoter of the city’s baseball interests, Hardman added: “Charleston is regarded as one of the most phenomenal baseball strongholds in all minor league baseball.’’
The 34-year-old Menendez, a native of East St. Louis, Illinois, and a former minor-league infielder, had worked in 1951 as business manager of the Hollywood Stars of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League and, helped by several St. Louis investors, had recently purchased the ailing Toledo franchise from the Detroit Tigers. Detroit had operated the Mud Hens the two previous seasons and reportedly lost $200,000.
The Mud Hens had been a fixture in Toledo for 50 years and, in hopes of saving them, fans began a ticket-selling campaign and solicited help from the city’s factories.
Menendez then issued an ultimatum. “If the fans raise $45,000 [in ticket sales], I’ll stay in Toledo. How long, I don’t know.’’ And he said he wanted the money “in cash, not promises.’’
The Mud Hens in 1951 had drawn fewer than 100,000 fans, prompting the Associated Press to joke that Toledo crowds could sometimes “be comfortably seated in the dugout.’’ Menendez insisted he needed 175,000 to break even. He also set a Feb. 20 deadline, telling Toledo fans to meet his demands or he’d move to Charleston.
Meanwhile, Charleston folks were getting antsy.
“Ball Fans Here Nervous Wrecks,’’ said a Daily Mail headline.
“Charleston Fans Sweat Out Toledo Campaign,’’ read a Gazette headline.
The Gazette, reporting that Toledo’s ticket drive was not doing well, published a front-page story under the headline: “Toledo Reacts Slowly, City’s Chances Good.’’
Fans inundated the Daily Mail and Gazette sports departments with phone calls, asking for updates. Daily Mail sports editor Dick Hudson said his department received more calls than at any time in his 17 years at the newspaper.
Charleston fans flooded Western Union offices and sent telegrams to Menendez, urging him to move his team here.
Hardman traveled to Toledo and spent four days there assessing the scene and reported that Menendez “was not at all encouraged by the show of interest’’ among Mud Hen fans.
Menendez dropped a hint, accidental or otherwise, that he soon might be moving to Charleston. In a phone conversation with Harry Wallace, the city’s baseball spokesman, he said he needed a nice three-bedroom home in Charleston — “Do you know of any?’’ — and added that Toledo manager Rollie Hemsley would be looking for a place, too.
The 50-year-old Wallace, a former all-state football player at Charleston High and a Dartmouth College graduate, was president of the United Fuel Gas Company and handled the baseball negotiations. He, too, was optimistic, saying the odds were 99 to 1 in Charleston’s favor.
Wallace urged Menendez to visit Charleston, which would give him a chance to sit down with city officials and negotiate. The chamber of commerce even offered to pay his travel expenses.
Menendez accepted the city’s invitation and, accompanied by American Association vice president Al Banister, arrived by train Saturday Feb. 16, toured Watt Powell Park and spent the night at the Daniel Boone Hotel.
The next day, he was greeted by a Gazette plea. Picking up the paper that morning, he saw a huge 1949 photo, taken at Watt Powell Park during a Senators exhibition with the Cincinnati Reds. It showed a crowd of more than 10,000, many of whom were seated in temporary bleachers in front of the outfield walls, foul pole to foul pole.
Just above the photo was the headline: “You Be the Judge, Mr. Menendez; Is This a Triple-A Crowd?’’
Earlier, Hardman demonstrated his hometown boosterism by suggesting that, if Charleston acquired an American Association franchise, it would outdraw many of its league rivals.
Noting its 1949 attendance of 183,352, he predicted that Charleston as a Class AAA team would attract crowds like the ones in ’49 and thus would do better at the box office than five American Association teams had done the previous season. In 1951, St. Paul, Louisville, Minneapolis, Toledo and Columbus had drawn fewer than 173,000 fans.
“If Charleston does get the Toledo franchise,’’ Hardman wrote smugly, “we’ll show those [American] Association guys how to support a ballclub.’’
Mayor John Copenhaver pledged his support, saying, “It is my sincere belief that not only Charleston but all of southern West Virginia would be behind our club here.’’ He also promised that the city would add 2,000 temporary seats for the 1952 season and make those seats permanent beginning in 1953.
After saying he wanted $45,000 in ticket sales from Toledo, he told Charleston he wanted a $100,000 guarantee. The Charleston Chamber of Commerce responded by saying that $50,000 would be deposited immediately and that it would “earnestly try’’ to raise another $50,000 by April 16, the season’s opening day.
It’s now or never, Hardman wrote. If Charleston falls short, he said, “never again will big-time baseball be knocking on our door.’’
Meanwhile, Menendez extended Toledo’s deadline by one week — to Feb. 27.
Toledo fans picked up the pace and started a “Save the Hens’’ drive, headed by the city’s chamber of commerce. In late February, they netted $7,500 in one day, boosting the city’s hopes.
The tide seemed to be shifting away from Charleston. A front-page Gazette headline on Feb. 21 read: “City Spars With Toledo Owner on Pact Terms.’’
Two days later, another front-page headline in the Gazette said: “Copenhaver Calls Meeting to Draft Baseball Bid.’’ But the city would not guarantee the $100,000 that Menendez wanted.
On the morning of Feb. 27, the Toledo Blade reported that the city’s ticket drive had reached $40,000, just $5,000 short of Menendez’s demand. And at 4 p.m., that day, Menendez announced he was staying in Toledo.
“Toledo Retains Baseball Franchise,’’ the Gazette reported in a front-page headline the next day.
“This is blue Thursday,’’ wrote the Daily Mail’s Hudson.
Many angry Charleston fans, Hardman wrote, accused Menendez of using the city as a scare tactic to bleed additional money from the Toledo community. Hardman disagreed, saying Menendez was sincere and that, in light of Toledo’s track record as a bad baseball town, it made sense for him to look elsewhere.
In announcing his intentions to stay, however, Menendez added a few words that would prove prophetic. “This in no way precludes the possibility of moving to Charleston,’’ he said. “It will be my privilege to move out at any time during the coming season if I think I can better myself somewhere else.’’
On Saturday night, June 28, 1952, Watt Powell Park overflowed with 6,631 fans, not counting the youngsters who, as the national anthem played, sneaked in, knowing that police and ushers would be standing at attention and staring at the flag.
When Mayor Copenhaver threw out the ceremonial first pitch, the crowd stood and applauded, thanking him for bringing Class AAA baseball to the city. The evening’s only glitch was a non-functioning scoreboard. An apology by public-address announcer Ernie Saunders drew scattered catcalls.
Three weeks earlier, Menendez had called the mayor’s office and, citing financial losses in Toledo, suggested a belated move to Charleston. Did the city still want the Mud Hens?
And by the way, he made a couple of steep demands. First, he wanted Charleston to pay off his $40,000 Toledo debt and, second, wanted a guarantee that he would average 2,500 fans per game for the remainder of the 1952 season. Otherwise, he said he would stay in Toledo.
Copenhaver immediately went to work, calling a meeting of the region’s business executives and asking for contributions. They responded generously and quickly satisfied Menendez’s first demand. And an anonymous benefactor stepped forward and guaranteed a 2,500 per-game ticket sale.
On June 27, an off-day in the schedule, the Mud Hens boarded a train in Toledo and journeyed to Charleston’s C&O station, where they were greeted by thousands of fans, including the mayor.
After words of welcome, the players boarded convertibles bearing banners that read “Charleston Senators’’ and, led by the Stonewall Jackson High School band, paraded across the South Side Bridge and down a bustling Capitol Street, where pedestrians waved from crowded sidewalks.
In the next month, fans made their way to Watt Powell in numbers not seen in the city’s history, averaging 4,519 for the Senators’ first 15 home dates. And despite a late-season attendance drop and the league’s worst record, the team drew 123,175 fans in just 32 dates for a 3,849 average, best in the American Association. Hardman had been correct; Charleston fans had indeed shown “those Association guys how to support a ballclub.’’
In 1953, the Senators again finished in the cellar but drew well, finishing at 178,377, the third-highest total in Watt Powell’s 47-year history. The total ranked fourth in the American Association ahead of Louisville, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Columbus.
But the novelty of Class AAA baseball began to wear off, the Senators remained in the cellar and attendance fell, prompting Menendez to sell the team to the Detroit Tigers after the 1955 season.
And despite some tense moments, the city kept the Senators through the 1960 season, producing a golden era of Charleston baseball and giving rise to a fitting nickname, “The Biggest Little City in Baseball.’’