Herd-UCF Meet In Marshall's C-USA Home Opener

Division I baseball returns to the capital city of West Virginia this weekend when the Marshall Thundering Herd opens its home Conference USA slate by hosting the Golden Knights of UCF for three games at Appalachian Power Park. The one-year old gem of a park is the home of the South Atlantic League's West Virginia Power, an "A" club of the Milwaukee Brewers and is one of the finest minor league facilities in the nation. Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at Noon in Charleston.

Charleston has had a persistent history of participating in professional baseball, with gaps of no baseball from time to time. The city has been the home of numerous teams that have competed at various levels for nearly a century. The city has also had some of the top small college baseball in the nation, in the form of Coach Cal Bailey's teams at West Virginia State University. The University of Charleston and West Virginia University Tech also play Division II baseball.

From time to time, both Marshall University and West Virginia University have played in the Capital City, occasionally against each other, bringing Division I baseball to town. West Virginia has also played Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky in recent years at the former home of professional baseball in the town, Watt Powell Park. Charleston and the Kanawha Valley also have some of the best high school baseball programs in the state. Teams like Winfield, Scott and Poca in Class AA; Buffalo and Charleston Catholic in Class A; and South Charleston, St. Albans, Nitro and Hurricane have been at or near the top of high school baseball in recent years. Charleston has also been the long-time home of the state high school baseball tournament, bringing in four teams from Class AAA, AA and A each year to compete for the state titles in each class. That tournament was held for the first time last year in the new home of the WV Power, a minor league affilate of the Milwaukee Brewers who play in the Class A South Atlantic League.

Appalachian Power Park, named for the large electric company as well as the expected excitement of the ball park nestled in the valley in the hills of Appalachia, is one of the crown jewels of minor league baseball. The 3,800 seat facility drew an all-time Charleston record for baseball in 2005, with a record 233,143 fans attending games in 2005 to make this season the best in West Virginia professional baseball history.

Appalachian Power Park, home of the West Virginia Power, is highlighted in the 2006 edition of Baseball America's Great Parks calendar. Appalachian Power Park is the featured park for the month of January in the newest edition of Baseball America's annual publication. "We are very excited to be featured in this year's calendar," said Andy Milovich, the General Manager of the West Virginia Power. "This allows us to show off Appalachian Power Park, which truly is one of America's great parks." Each month features a beautiful color photograph of a great professional baseball park, with an emphasis on new facilities. The beautiful shot of Appalachian Power Park was taken on a sold out opening night, April 14th, 2005 by local photographer Jeff Gentner, of the first game in West Virginia Power history.

The roots of baseball in Charleston go back to the beginning of the 20th Century, at least on the professional side. The city's inaugural professional team was named the Charleston Statesmen and competed in the Class D Virginia Valley League in 1910 and the Class D Mountain State League in 1911. The Statesmen played their home games at Wehrle Park. Wehrle Park was located on the East End of Charleston at the corner of Virginia and Ruffner Streets, the current site of the Charleston Woman's Club. Prior to the Statesmen, Charleston High School's football and track teams used Wehrle Park for their events. The city was without baseball in 1912, but it returned in 1913. The team changed its name to the Charleston Senators and joined the Class D Ohio State League where it competed for three seasons. The Senators continued to play their games at Wehrle Park.

Charleston was again without professional baseball from 1916 to 1930. In 1917, local baseball enthusiasts Charles A. Beers and Watt Powell combined to help construct Kanawha Park. This new park was a wooden framed stadium that seated 3,500 fans and was located at the corner of MacCorkle Avenue and 35th Street, the same property that Watt Powell Park occupied during its long-life as the home of Charleston baseball. That site has been cleared and the University of Charleston will build a new home for its athletic teams there. Baseball returned to Charleston in 1931 when the new Charleston Senators resumed play as a member of the Class C Mid-Atlantic League. The Senators competed in this league for 12 seasons as an affiliate of the nearest major league team to southern West Virginia, the Cincinnati Reds. The team even survived a fire that destroyed most of the grandstands at their home, Kanawha Park. The fire forced the team to play many of its games away from Charleston through 1942.

From 1943 through 1948, the city was without professional baseball. In August of 1948, construction of new ball yard, to be named Watt Powell Park in honor of the local baseball promoter, began with the his assistance and a $350,000 government bond issue. Watt Powell Park was constructed because Kanawha Park, the past home of professional baseball in Charleston, had finally completely burned to the ground in 1944. Watt Powell passed away two months prior to the opening of the park that bore his name, causing him not to have a chance to see a baseball game played in the stadium he largely was responsible for.

On April 28, 1949, the Charleston Senators returned as a member of the Class A Central League where they competed for the next three seasons as an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The Senators played their home games at Watt Powell Park. The Senators wore uniforms like the Reds, with sleeveless vests and red undershirts. Charleston was elevated to the Class AAA American Association in 1952. This change in classification happened a few days prior to the start of the season, as the Toledo Mud Hens, a farm team of the Chicago White Sox of the American League, moved their team to Charleston. The city had acquired an established team and continued to use the name Senators. The Senators remained in the American Association for nine years and were affiliated with the following teams: Chicago White Sox (1952-1955); Detroit Tigers (1956-1959); Washington Senators (1960). The Charleson Senators struggled to compete in the American Association as a Chicago White Sox affiliate. During the 1954 season the Senators were rarely given the chance to face the leagues most dominant pitcher, Indianapolis' Herb Score. Kerby Feller, the Indianapolis manager, told reporters that he didn't want to waste a pitcher of Score's talent on such a woeful team as Charleston. The 1958 Senators were affiliated with the Detroit Tigers and were the only Charleston team to finish an American Association season with a winning record. This team not only finished above .500 for the regular season, but they also won the American Association championship. One outstanding player for the Senators went on to a great career in major league baseball, then in the U.S. Senate. The Senator from Kentucky and from Charleston, Jim Bunning, was recently inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame.

Charleston was without professional baseball at the start of the 1961 season. However, baseball returned to the city a month into the season as the Marlins of the Class AAA International League relocated to Charleston, after a hurricane completely destroyed their stadium in Puerto Rico. The Marlins were affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. The town turned out for a huge parade down Kanawha Boulevard to welcome the blue-hued uniforms and players of the Marlins to Charleston, with 30-some 1961 Buick Convertibles provided for the parade by Gardner Buick of Charleston's East End. Players on that team included today's color voice of FOX TV's major league baseball coverage, Tim McCarver, a young catcher at the time who would eventually put up great years with the Cards.

In 1962, the team changed its name to the Charleston Indians and joined the Class A Eastern League. The 1963 and 1964 Indians, decked out in red and blue, were considered a Class AA team after the Eastern League elevated its classification. During the Indians' three seasons in the Eastern League, Elmira (N.Y.) manager Earl Weaver, who would lead the 1970 Baltimore Orioles to the World Series title, became infuriated by an umpire's call. Weaver, a hot-headed manager throughout his career, picked up third base and carried it off to the clubhouse. The umpires had to dispatch a policeman to retrieve the base. Following the 1964 season, however, the city was without professional baseball from 1965 through 1970.

Baseball finally returned to Charleston in 1971, after local businessman Bob Levine, who owned McJunkin, Inc., purchased a franchise in the Class AAA International League. He named the team the Charlies, in honor of his father, Charlie Levine, who made his fortune in the junk yard business that had become McJunkin. The Charlies spent 13 seasons in the International League and were affiliated with the following teams: Pittsburgh Pirates (1971-1976); Houston Astros (1977-1979); Texas Rangers (1980); Cleveland Indians (1981-1983). The Charlies won the International League Championship in 1973 as an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, decked out in Pittsburg black and gold, and in 1977 as a Houston Astros affiliate. Some of the best players in the history of Charleston baseball came through during these years. Dave Parker, Bruce Kison, Frank Taveras, Kent Tekulve, Omar Moreno and Rennie Stennett formed the heart of the Pittsburgh team that won the World Series in 1979 with Willie Stargell's "We Are Family" song giving them their idenity. Houston sent through players like Garth and Dane Iorg and Oakland manager Art Howe, and gave the Charlies the Houston ‘striped' uniform of the late 1970s (although it looked pretty good in shades of West Virginia's official state colors of blue and gold, compared to the Astros shades of orange).

Even Cleveland sent one of the more colorful players of the early 1980s through in "Super" Joe Charboneau, the 1980 AL Rookie of the Year, in 1983. The Charlies of 1980-83 wore Indian and Ranger red, white and blue uniforms. From 1984 through 1986, Charleston was without professional baseball. Baseball returned in 1987 when Illinois native Dennis Bastien purchased a Class A South Atlantic League franchise. Bastien named the team the West Virginia Wheelers, dressed in blue and green, in honor of the sternwheelers that once piloted the Kanawha River. In their first season, the Wheelers were a co-operative team consisting of a collection of players from the following teams: Los Angeles Dodgers; Detroit Tigers; Chicago White Sox; Chicago Cubs; Philadelphia Phillies; and Atlanta Braves. The Wheelers acquired an affiliation with the Chicago Cubs before the start of the 1988 season. Bastien even tried to grow Ivy on the outfield walls of Watt Powell, ala Wrigley Field in Chicago, but it sadly never took.

In 1990, the Wheelers changed their affiliation to the Cincinnati Reds and won the South Atlantic League championship under the management of former Winfield High School star Jim Lett. Lett would later coach the Reds under Pete Rose and is currently with the Pittsburgh Pirates after a long time as a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers. After the 1993 season, a local group of investors purchased the team from Bastien. The team changed its name to the Charleston Alley Cats in 1995. In 1999, the Alley Cats, one of minor league baseball's top sellers of merchandise with the cat, wearing sunglasses and clutching a ball in its teeth with a "C" shaped bat forming a semi-circle around him, changed its affiliation to two American League teams: first the Kansas City Royals and, then in 2001, to the Toronto Blue Jays.

Ownership changed hands twice more in the early part of this decade. In the summer of 2001, the ownership group of Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers of Michigan purchased the organization from the Alley Cats local investors. The team remained the Alley Cats and continued their affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays. Ownership changed hands again in 2005, but the current ownership includes representatives from both Huntington and Charleston, making this a more regional team for the first time. A new name for the team would represent that change, as the West Virginia Power would take the field in 2005, abeit a another change in farm systems, this time with Milwaukee of the National League. The Power also changed team colors, from the red and black of the Alley Cats, to a green, gold and black color scheme featuring a lightning bolt with a "P" in it, along with the Capital Dome of the West Virginia state capital building, just a few short blocks from their home park in Charleston's East End.

In 2005, Appalachian Power Park opened to sellout crowds and drew nearly a quarter-million fans, setting an all-time state record for attendance for professional baseball. Through all the changes, professional baseball, and good baseball in general, continues to survive and flourish in Charleston. Now in 2006, Marshall will bring some of the best collegiate baseball in the nation to Appalachian Power Park as a member of Conference USA. Rice is currently No.7 in the nation, and won the 2003 College World Series. Southern Miss is currently No. 20, and UCF has been to numerous NCAA Regionals, as have East Carolina, Houston, UAB and Tulane, currently No. 12 in the nation.

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