Central League (1949-1951)
American Association (1952-1960)
Born: 1948 – Charleston joins the Central League for the 1949 season
Folded: January 17, 1961
Stadium: Watt Powell Park
Owners: Community stockholders
The Charleston Senators of 1949-1960 (actually two different franchises) were the most recent in a spate of minor league baseball clubs to operate under the “Senators” nickname in the West Virginia city during the first half of the 20th century. Previous incarnations of the Sens played from 1910-1916 and again from 1931-1942.
Baseball returned to Charleston after World War II when the Senators joined the Class A Central League as a new Cincinnati Reds farm club for the 1949 season. The Sens lasted three years as a Reds affiliate until the Central League itself folded following the 1951 season.
The 1952 season started with no baseball at Watt Powell Park. But on June 23, 1952, the Chicago White Sox’ struggling Toledo Mud Hens farm club in the American Association moved to Charleston in mid-season. The club took back the Senators identity on arrival in West Virginia and finished the year with a ghastly 46-107 record.
The Senators continued to be dreadful for the next two years as a White Sox farm club and again in 1955 as a parent-less independent team. One highlight during the 1955 independent season was the arrival 39-year old former Negro League star Luke Easter, who bashed 30 home runs and drove in 102. But the team itself was terrible again and finished 55-99.
The Sens’ fortunes finally changed in 1956 when the Detroit Tigers became Charleston’s parent club and stocked the team with young prospects, including Jim Bunning, Charlie Lau, and Hal Woodeschick. In 1958, the Senators won their first and only American Association pennant with an 85-66 record.
The Tigers pulled out after the 1959 season and the Washington Senators as Charleston’s new parent club for 1960. (For the first and only time, Charleston’s long-standing Senators nickname – quite coincidentally – aligned with their Major League patron). Although the Senators were typically a laughingstock Major League franchise, they stocked Charleston with a host of top prospects in the summer of 1960, including Jim Kaat, Don Mincher and Zoilo Versalles.
Charleston lost $30,000 as a community run ball club during the 1960 season – enough that the team’s debts became a threat to the 1961 season. In addition, the Washington Senators were in the midst of moving to Minneapolis to become the Minnesota Twins and were embroiled in a financial dispute with the American Association over the rights fee that Senators owner Calvin Griffith would have to pay to displace the AA’s St. Paul Saints and Minneapolis Millers franchises. (The American Association asked for $1.6 million. The ever tight-fisted Griffith initially countered with $50,000.) Charleston was caught in the middle of the dispute, to an extent, as a member of the Association seeking compensation from Griffith and the Major League club declined to bail Charleston out of its red ink. After four months of trying to re-capitalize the ball club and find a way to field a team in 1961,Sam Lopinsky, the President of the community stockholders, threw in the towel on January 17, 1961.
Baseball did return to Charleston and Watt Powell Park midway through the summer of 1961 when the Class AAA San Juan Marlins relocated from Puerto Rico in midseason. That created the unusual scenario of a West Virginia team named after a salt water sporting fish, but that is a story for another day.
24-minute documentary “Rounding Third: Watt Powell Once More” from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, circa 2004. Great vintage footage of Luke Easter with the Sens.
Slugger Luke Easter, who starred for the 1955 Senators, was murdered in an armed robbery in Ohio on March 29, 1979. He was 63.
Marvin Milkes, who was the Senators last General Manager in 1960, later became GM of the Seattle Pilots and a prominent character in Jim Bouton’slandmark memoir Ball Four. Milkes died of a heart attack while working out at a gym on January 31st, 1982 at age 58.
Zollo Versalles hit .278 in a 139 games for Charleston as a 20-year old in the summer of 1960. Five years later, he was the American League MVP for the Twins. Versalles died at age 55 on June 9, 1995.