In early May of 1978, the Charleston Charlies began living up to preseason expectations that had run happily amok that year. The previous year, the Charlies had breezed through the postseason playoffs, winning seven of eight games to capture the Class AAA International League championship. The season’s attendance had nearly doubled the 1976 total.
The 1977 team had been known as the “New Look Charlies,’’ a first-year Houston Astros farm club, and the players wore jerseys adorned in thick blue-and-gold horizontal bands in keeping with the garish sartorial trends of the ’70s. Their manager had been the popular Jim Beauchamp who, after engaging umpires in fiery arguments, drew applause from the home fans.
When the 1978 Charlies arrived at Kanawha Airport in early April, they were greeted by the Herbert Hoover High School band and Charleston Mayor John Hutchinson, who had picked up a baseball education working in the Watt Powell Park press box as a kid. The Charlies were then taken downtown for a parade and feted at a “Welcome Home, Charlies’’ banquet, featuring the state’s most omnipresent politician, Secretary of State A. James Manchin, at the Daniel Boone Hotel.
Beauchamp was still the manager, and the roster offered many of the same players from the 1977 team, including outfielder J.J. Cannon and first baseman Craig Cacek, both of whom hit better than .300 that year. Catcher Luis Pujols, a defensive wizard, was still there, as was pitcher Rick Williams, who posted a 3.01 earned run average in 1977.
New third baseman Rob Sperring had spent parts of the four previous seasons in the big leagues. New outfielder Don Pisker was “a super prospect,’’ said the Astros director of player development.
The Astros organization also acquired first baseman Jim O’Bradovich, who had spent the four previous seasons languishing on the Minnesota Twins’ Class AA roster, and assigned him to Charleston. O’Bradovich immediately impressed Beauchamp. “I would have liked to have had him when he was 20 or 21,’’ said the Charlies manager in the spring of 1978. “I guarantee you he would be in the big leagues right now. It’s a shame.’’
In the first three weeks of May 1978, the Charlies won 15 of 19, including nine of 10 at Watt Powell, the quaint, historic 5,000-seat ballpark alongside the railroad tracks at 35th Street and MacCorkle Avenue. By late June, their record stood at 46-22. For much of the season, they led the league in team batting average and ERA.
“I really don’t remember us being that hot,’’ outfielder Dave Augustine, a St. Albans resident, recalled recently, “but the team was so good that we expected to win. And when you get that feeling in the clubhouse, everybody gets along and it makes for a really, really good year.’’
The hot month of May allowed them to take the International League lead and keep it every day for the remainder of the season, usually by comfortable margins. They finished at 85-55 and won the pennant by four games, despite an unusually high number of Charlies promoted to the big leagues.
In the season’s final week, Pawtucket manager Joe Morgan, a former Charleston manager, reflected on the Charlies’ successful season and theorized: “If the Astros had left the Charlies alone, they would have won the pennant by 15 games.’’
The Charlies had caught Morgan’s attention on opening night at Watt Powell when Cannon collected a home run, two triples and a single in a rout of Pawtucket. “What’s he doing in this league?’’ Morgan asked rhetorically after the game.
On June 4, the Charlies edged Pawtucket 8-7, giving them three straight victories in which they had rallied for the go-ahead run in the sixth inning or later. “Everyone is having fun and everyone is contributing,’’ Charlies outfielder Bob Coluccio said afterward. “It makes for a happy team.’’
Rochester manager Frank Robinson, who four years later would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, brought his Red Wings to Watt Powell in June. In a conversation in the visitors clubhouse, I said to him, “Our team is playing pretty well.’’ Robinson acknowledged the obvious, saying, “No s---.’’
If Beauchamp detected a bit of sluggishness and thought his players needed a spark, he might abruptly confront an umpire and deliver harsh words audible throughout the ballpark, his head jerking violently from side to side. After the game, he would concede the argument was mostly a ploy designed to stir things up.
Throughout the season, it was commonplace, especially during Charlies rallies and after good plays, to hear the sounds of a cowbell rung lustily by fans behind the Charlies’ dugout.
The ballpark was especially loud on Friday, May 19. It was Bat Night, sponsored by The Diamond department store, and a crowd of 4,512 attended. After six innings of dismal offense, the Charlies came alive in the seventh and began rallying, prompting fans to grab their newly gifted bats and pound them raucously against the wooden seats and concrete grandstand, helping the home team, it seemed, to a four-run rally and a 4-0 victory.
Amid the hot streak, WSAZ-TV news director Bob Brunner offered an on-air commentary, noting that some outstanding baseball was being played out at the ballpark and telling his viewers they might enjoy it.
The preseason’s high hopes, as it turns out, had been justified.
The fans got a little too involved on June 17, C&P Telephone Night with 3,529 in attendance. On an otherwise uneventful evening, the game ended on a disputed double play, which led to a lively argument that involved a cast of thousands, a drunken assault on the umpires’ dressing room and a broken nose and bruises for John Dickensheets, the Charlies’ nattily dressed play-by-play broadcaster and assistant general manager.
Entering the ninth, the Charlies trailed by a run against the Rochester Red Wings but posed a threat. With Cannon at second and one out, Augustine lofted a fly into shallow right-center that Rochester center fielder Mike Dimmel charged and caught, sliding feet-first and juggling the ball. Cannon, who thought the ball had fallen, was easily doubled off second on Dimmel’s throw to shortstop Wayne Krenchicki, a future Cincinnati Red.
Led by an animated Beauchamp, the Charlies descended on umpire Gerry Young, insisting the ball had hit the ground, and were joined by members of the Charlies bullpen, who had a good view from their right-field vantage point. After the game, Young explained his call: “The ball bounced out of his glove, and he caught it with his bare hand.’’
Meanwhile, fans congregated outside the umpires’ dressing room on the first-base side and began pounding on the door. Dickensheets quickly arrived and tried to disperse the rowdies but, amid the hullabaloo, took a punch to the nose and fell to the ground. His assailant then delivered kicks to the body.
Soon the police were hauling the culprit downtown and, along the way, listened as the man pleaded for mercy, saying an assault charge would look bad on his record. After all, he explained, he was studying to be a preacher. The aspiring preacher, a Huntington resident, was nevertheless charged with public intoxication and assault, and posted bond of $65. Dickensheets, despite the broken nose, black eye and body bruises, dutifully reported for work at the ballpark the next day.
The whole story, incidentally, appeared in the next issue of The Sporting News, a baseball publication that devoted considerable space to the minor leagues in those days.
When Richmond came to town in August, the fans in the left-field bleachers were delivering their customary barbs, and Braves manager Tommie Aaron, Hank’s kid brother, took offense. He said Charlies fans were “the worst in the league. They’re not baseball fans. All they want to do is yell and scream at the other team.’’ The fans, he said, were “the worst I’ve seen in 20 years in baseball.’’
Aaron’s assessment may have been skewed by his proximity to the rowdy left-field bunch, a dozen or so college-age patrons who regularly drank beer and insulted the opposition. On Union Carbide Night, for example, someone would likely target a visiting player and say, “You stink worse than Carbide!’’ Cal Ermer, the Toledo Mud Hens’ graying 54-year-old manager, would sometimes hear cornball references to Social Security.
Aaron, by the way, was a bit hot-tempered. In an earlier visit to Watt Powell, he threw a plate of spaghetti against the clubhouse door.
On May 18 against the Tidewater Tides, the Charlies sponsored another of their famous 10-cent beer nights, a promotion that offered fans unlimited beers at 10 cents a cup. What could go wrong? On such nights, the level of crowd noise rose noticeably in the late innings — regardless of what was happening on the field.
On this occasion, a sixth-inning power outage suddenly thrust the ballpark into darkness, increasing the likelihood that misadventures would ensue.
And sure enough, several adventurous fans, having fully capitalized on the beer discount, raced onto the field and began running the bases in a partial state of undress. Many fans in the stands, those who likewise had taken full advantage of the bargain beer, found the show downright hilarious and cheered them on.
The crowd of 1,837 cheered again in the eighth inning when the Charlies scored two runs to tie the game on hits by Cannon, Mike Fischlin and Keith Drumright. Tidewater nevertheless prevailed 6-5, handing the Charlies a rare defeat.
Shortly before spring training in 1978, Beauchamp received a letter from Coluccio, thanking him for his words of inspiration that helped him through a difficult season in 1977. After spending parts of four years in the big leagues, the 27-year-old Coluccio had been assigned to the Charlies midway through the 1977 season and arrived in Charleston down in the dumps — and understandably so.
But Beauchamp took him aside and, drawing from his own experiences as a marginal player who had bounced between the big leagues and the minors, found the right words to brighten Coluccio’s spirits. Beauchamp, after all, had been in Coluccio’s predicament and, along the way, acquired the psychological expertise essential to being a good Class AAA manager.
In his 17-year playing career, Beauchamp spent parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues but never appeared in more than 77 games in a big-league season. Six times he had felt the disappointment of being demoted to the minors.
In the letter, Coluccio explained that, despite the initial disappointment, he enjoyed playing for Beauchamp and the Charlies for the remainder of the 1977 season. It helped that the Charlies were competing for a league championship that year.
And when Coluccio, who batted .310 in 61 games for the 1978 Charlies, was traded to the Cardinals on June 8 of that year, he not only said goodbye to Beauchamp and his teammates but climbed Watt Powell’s many stairs to bid a nice farewell to the press box occupants.
One day during the 1978 spring training in Cocoa, Florida, Beauchamp called an impromptu meeting in the infield and told the Charlies he could relate to their frustrations as AAA players on the cusp of the big leagues. He had been there.
“[Beauchamp] knows how to handle his players better than any manager I ever played for,’’ pitcher Larry Elenes said at the time. Elenes had been a professional since 1969 and played for the 1977 Charlies but was released the following spring. “He gets his players’ respect.’’
“He can take an average team and win. I’m convinced,’’ added Gary Wilson, a Charlies pitcher from 1977 through ’79, who pitched briefly with the Astros in 1979.
In the spring of 1978, Beauchamp paid special attention to Cacek and Cannon, knowing they might be frustrated to still be in Charleston after hitting better than .300 with the Charlies in 1977. Beauchamp, of course, monitored all his players, knowing that any of them, relegated to baseball’s boondocks, might lapse into a bad mindset.
“I just have to sit back and see who’s affected,’’ he said. “The only two I’m halfway worried about are Cacek and Cannon, and I’m not too concerned. Once the season starts, they’ll be all right.’’
Beauchamp, an Oklahoma native, did not tolerate lackadaisical play. A halfhearted effort by his players would infuriate him and, upon entering the clubhouse after a game, he would sometimes slam the door, raising a frightful din. Or he might grab a bat and pound a table, perhaps breaking the bat in half. “You talk about getting everybody’s attention,’’ said Augustine, who played 15 professional seasons, including six in Charleston and parts of two with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Once he had everybody’s attention, the Charlies manager would then spell out the reasons for his discontent.
The 28-year-old Augustine, who was born in Follansbee, spent the first eight years of his professional career with the Pirates organization but was traded to the Astros during spring training of 1978. He was quite pleased to be leaving the Pirates. Upon arriving at the Astros camp in Cocoa, Florida, he said, “I haven’t felt this good in a long time.’’
Playing for the Pirates in September of 1973, Augustine had nearly hit a heroic home run but instead earned a niche in “Miracle Mets’’ lore. The first-place Pirates led the Mets by half a game and, playing in Shea Stadium, the Pirates and Mets were tied in the 13th inning.
Augustine, who had entered the game in the eighth inning as a defensive replacement, lined a Ray Sadecki pitch that hit the top edge of the left-field wall, an inch short of a home run. But the ball bounced directly to left fielder Cleon Jones, who turned and threw out slow-footed Richie Zisk at the plate. “If that ball goes over the fence,’’ Augustine said in the spring of 1978, “I’m still in the big leagues.’’
The Mets then won the game to take a half-game lead on the Pirates and went on the win the pennant and World Series.
“I had two really good managers in my life, Jim Beauchamp and [1973 Charleston manager] Joe Morgan,’’ Augustine said recently. “I liked [Pirates manager] Danny Murtaugh a lot, but I didn’t get to be around him that much. Beach was awesome. He was a player’s manager, didn’t take any crap, expected nothing but 100 percent all the time, wouldn’t accept anything else. And you knew he had your back.’’
On Friday afternoon, Sept. 1, 1978, Charlies pitcher Bo McLaughlin purchased a case of champagne in Rochester, New York. The 24-year-old McLaughlin, who had spent parts of three seasons with the Astros, was scheduled to pitch against the Red Wings that night, knowing that a victory would clinch the pennant for the Charlies, and wanted champagne to fuel the postgame celebration. McLaughlin and the Charlies did not lack for confidence.
Confidence notwithstanding, McLaughlin pitched poorly that night, surviving only two innings, but his teammates rallied for a 9-8 victory to set off the obligatory spraying and drinking of champagne in the clubhouse. And if McLaughlin’s case of champagne wasn’t enough, general manager Carl Steinfeldt bought four more.
“This club hated to lose more than any club I’ve ever had,’’ Beauchamp said amid the celebration. “Sometimes I almost felt sorry for them after a defeat.’’
The Charlies’ season, however, ended abruptly. In the best-of-five first round of the playoffs, the fourth-place Richmond Braves eliminated them three games to one. The finale was a 3-1 Braves victory on Friday night, Sept. 8, at Watt Powell. A crowd of only 1,066 attended.
“It’s been a super year,’’ Beauchamp said afterward, “and, regardless, this is a super bunch.’’