When the Woolworth Department Store on Capitol Street caught fire in the predawn hours of March 4, 1949, seven Charleston firemen entered the building and, as the first floor collapsed into the basement, fell to their deaths. The tragedy prompted an outpouring of generosity throughout the city.
Someone quickly started a Firemen’s Relief Fund to raise money for the victims’ families and set a goal of $100,000, a sizable sum in 1949.
In that same month, Rodney Hundley, a 6-foot eighth-grader at Thomas Jefferson Junior High at Quarrier and Morris streets, earned all-city junior high school basketball honors, averaging 11 points a game, second-highest in the city.
At Morris Harvey College in South Ruffner, George King had just completed his junior season as the nation’s top scorer in college basketball, averaging 29.1 points. The NBA-bound King, a Stonewall Jackson High graduate, did so in front of packed crowds at the school’s gleaming new gymnasium, later known as Eddie King Gym. (In 1950, he again led the nation with a 31.2 average.)
And at the corner of MacCorkle Avenue and 35th Street, construction of a new ballpark — to be named for Charleston baseball icon Watt Powell — was well underway.
Watt Powell Park was a $250,000 state-of-the-art, steel-and-concrete structure at a time when most minor-league parks were built of wood. It opened on a Thursday night, April 28, 1949, as home to the Charleston Senators of the Class A Central League. At game time, traffic was still backed up bumper-to-bumper on the Kanawha City Bridge leading to 35th Street.
An estimated crowd of 8,700 eventually squeezed into the ballpark, far exceeding the 5,200 seating capacity, but fans without seats were permitted to stand on the outfield warning track, which had been roped off.
Not all of the 8,700 were paying customers, however. General manager Jack Meyers estimated that about 3,000 apparently had been prepared to buy bleacher and standing-room tickets, but many grew impatient waiting in long lines at poorly manned ticket windows and simply entered without tickets.
A few intrepid souls gained entry by scaling the outfield walls, apparently having brought ladders. Some fans sat atop the outfield walls. Others watched from the railroad tracks above right field.
To fend off the chilly Mission Hollow spring breezes, several of the outfield patrons built fires — at least eight by one count.
The Charleston High and Stonewall Jackson High bands provided music. Gov. Okey Patteson, standing in the grandstand’s first row near the dugout, threw out the ceremonial first ball. Ernie Saunders of WCHS Radio worked as public-address announcer.
The Senators, a Cincinnati farm club, defeated the Saginaw Bears 11-5, helped by a five-run sixth inning that included a home run by 19-year-old catcher Hobie Landrith, a hot prospect recently signed off the Michigan State campus. Landrith, who would spend 14 seasons in the big leagues, also doubled and threw out a potential base-stealer.
Contributing the night’s defensive gem was right fielder Pete Riggan, who threw a laser to third base to nail a Saginaw runner trying to advance on a fly ball.
The next day, Meyers told reporters the paid attendance was about 6,898 but said an exact figure was unavailable, in light of all the freebies and the fact that the turnstiles were not yet operational.
On July 25, 1949, the Senators hosted the Cincinnati Reds in an exhibition game and, with the turnstiles fully operational, drew a crowd of 8,674, many of whom sat in temporary bleachers that lined the warning track, foul pole to foul pole. Senators starter Joe Nuxhall walked the bases loaded in the first inning and surrendered a grand slam to Virgil Stallcup in the Reds’ 15-7 victory.
Early in the 1949 season, Meyers estimated that a total attendance of 120,000 — about 1,800 per game — would allow the team to break even.
Attendance, in fact, far exceeded the general manager’s break-even number, finishing at 183,352 to easily lead the Central League, which included four Michigan cities, Saginaw, Flint, Grand Rapids and Muskegon, as well as Dayton, Ohio.
That attendance figure would be the city’s highest ever until the Charleston Wheelers, aided by giveaways and discounts, attracted 185,389 in 1991.
Incidentally, any Senator hitting a home run in 1949 received a free suit from Frankenberger’s, a men’s store at Capitol and Virginia streets — maximum two per player for the season.
Local boy makes good
Walter Beatty “Watt’’ Powell was born in 1884 in Hillboro, Virginia, not far from the West Virginia border, and came to Charleston with his parents at age 6. He grew up on Brown Street, which no longer exists, near the Elk River, and at 213 Court Street near what is now Charleston Town Center and Laidley Tower.
As a youngster, Powell worked part-time making deliveries around town in a horse-drawn wagon and played football at Charleston High School, which was part of Union School on Lee Street, located near today’s Transit Mall.
He was notably fleet afoot and a talented baseball player, good enough to spend 12 seasons in the minors, reaching as high as the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, one step below the majors. In 1911, he led the PCL in stolen bases and, according to legend, the Boston Braves of the National League purchased his contract and intended to give him a big-league job. But injuries intervened.
He played his final two seasons in 1915-16 as a Charleston Senator of the Class D Ohio State League. From there, he helped organize a Charleston semi-pro team consisting of local talent and for the next 15 years managed the team at Kanawha Park, a wooden structure that seated 3,200 located on the future site of Watt Powell Park.
He sometimes brought his dog, Rose, to the park and let her romp in the outfield. “I used to run like that,’’ he told a sportswriter.
When Charleston returned to pro baseball by joining the Class C Middle Atlantic League in 1931, Powell worked as club president until the league folded after the 1942 season.
By the late 1940s, amid minor-league baseball’s post-World War II resurgence, Charleston was eager to return to the pro game and build a new facility to replace Kanawha Park, which burned down in 1944.
Powell, who was elected to city council in May 1947, led the movement to build the new ballpark and obtain a Central League franchise. In the summer of 1947, he attended a Central League meeting in Saginaw, Michigan, and convinced officials to award Charleston a franchise, replacing Fort Wayne, Indiana, a city of 130,000 that drew only 32,988 in 1948. He then convinced the Cincinnati Reds to move their Class A team to Charleston.
At the time, he also worked as director of state parks and operated the billiards room at the Kanawha Hotel at Virginia and Summers streets. Another legend says he enjoyed playing cards into the wee hours.
He died Nov. 6, 1948, at age 64 after suffering a heart attack a month earlier. The Associated Press cited his countless baseball accomplishments and described him as “big and jovial.’’
Many of Powell’s friends and townspeople then suggested the ballpark, whose construction had begun in August of 1948, be named “Powell Field.’’ Indeed, city council members already had discussed such an honor long before his death and eventually settled on “Watt Powell Park.’’
‘Absolutely out of this world’
On a cold, drizzly day in February 1948, Charleston residents overwhelmingly passed a $350,000 bond issue, designating $250,000 for a new ballpark and $100,000 for construction of tennis courts and ball fields on adjacent property beyond the proposed ballpark’s left-field wall. The tennis courts and ball fields would be known as Watt Powell Annex.
To pay off the bonds, it was decided that a portion of Watt Powell Park gate receipts would be set aside in the coming years. Original plans for the new park called for an ambitious 13,000-seat capacity but, after learning of the cost, officials settled on a more reasonable 5,200.
Not long after the Senators arrived in town to begin the 1949 season, manager Joe Beggs, a former big-league pitcher, inspected the home clubhouse and said it was “better than at least one big-league clubhouse.’’ He did not specify the big-league clubhouse that fell short.
The 38-year-old Beggs, who spent nine seasons in the big leagues, grew up near Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, the son of a steelworker, graduated from Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and was fluent in several languages.
In 1947, pitching for the New York Giants, Beggs was victimized by Jackie Robinson’s steal of home. He also pitched for the world champion Cincinnati Reds in 1940 and, according to Total Baseball, ranked as the National League’s No. 1 reliever.
Gazette sports editor Shorty Hardman, who had covered baseball in Charleston since 1931, checked out the new press box and described it as “absolutely out of this world.’’ It sat atop the grandstand roof and accommodated a dozen or so sportswriters and included booths for radio broadcasts and public address.
Original plans had called for a much simpler and less expensive press row in the back of the grandstand, but the more elaborate design prevailed amid media backlash.
The Senators scheduled two preseason exhibition games at the new park, which the general manager estimated would have drawn 3,000 fans each, but both were canceled because of construction delays, including a 10-day worker strike.
The park’s first baseball activity happened on Sunday afternoon, April 24, 1949, as the Senators took batting practice in front of 1,500 fans. Hitting the park’s inaugural “home run’’ and prompting its first big cheer was first baseman Charley Wolf, a former Notre Dame basketball and baseball player. Wolf never reached the majors but later coached the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals and Detroit Pistons.
The 20-year-old Nuxhall, who would be the most famous of the 1949 Senators, missed the season’s early games because of an arm ailment but eventually pitched 186 innings and produced a respectable 3.34 ERA, despite extreme control trouble and a raging temper.
On one occasion at Watt Powell, Beggs arrived at the mound to remove an ineffective Nuxhall. Instead of handing the ball to the manager, the 20-year-old left-hander threw it over the grandstand roof onto MacCorkle Avenue.
Five years earlier, at age 15, Nuxhall had pitched for the Reds in the big leagues, the youngest player ever to do so, and walked five batters in two-thirds of an inning. He later spent 15 years as a Reds pitcher and 38 years as one of the team’s radio voices.
Hope and changes
The Senators had been scheduled to open the new ballpark the previous night, Wednesday April 27, but rain forced a postponement.
If they had played as scheduled, they would have competed with Bob Hope, who, along with Doris Day, the Les Brown orchestra and assorted other performers, entertained a full house at the Municipal Auditorium on that same night.
Hope’s arrival in Charleston, in fact, created as much excitement as the opening of the new ballpark. After landing at Kanawha Airport on Hope’s DC-6, Hope and his cohorts boarded a fleet of vehicles and made their way to the Daniel Boone Hotel downtown. Along the way, they waved to the thousands of fans who lined the route.
The Charleston Firemen’s Relief Fund, incidentally, exceeded its $100,000 goal, reaching a final total of $109,527.51 — or about $1.14 million in today’s dollars. The Charleston Chamber of Commerce submitted a check to Charleston Bank & Trust Co. on Sept. 20, 1949, setting off a payment plan to the firemen’s widows for the next 15 years and to their offspring through the age of 18.