International League (1961)
Born: November 28, 1960 – The Miami Marlins relocate to San Juan, PR.
Moved: October 8, 1961 (Atlanta Crackers)
Owner: Bill MacDonald
So how, exactly, did the capital of West Virginia end up with a minor league baseball team named for a tropical saltwater sport fish for a few short months in the summer of 1961?
At the dawn of the 1960’s, a colorful, corpulent South Florida multi-millionaire named Bill MacDonald bought the forlorn Miami Marlins of the Class AAA International League. The Marlins were the top farm club of the Baltimore Orioles at the time. MacDonald was a sportsman – he owned a stud farm, a share of the Tropical Park race track and he would later promote the first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight in Miami. The Marlins were rather unloved in Miami. A particular sore point for MacDonald was the team’s lack of a profitable local radio deal.
After one summer at the helm in Miami, Bill MacDonald announce a scheme to move the Marlins to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where a lucrative radio contract beckoned. The International League approved the shift in late November 1960. It was a decision that MacDonald’s fellow I.L. owners would soon come to regret.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles transferred their Class AAA farm club to Rochester, New York and the Marlins became an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals stocked San Juan with several top prospects, including 19-year old catcher Tim McCarver, slick fielding shortstop Dal Maxvill and pitching ace Ray Washburn (16-9, 2.34). All three would go on to spend most of the next decade in St. Louis.
The San Juan Marlins opened on April 17, 1961 against the Toronto Maple Leafs before 6,627 fans at Sixto Escobar Stadium. Mark Tomasik at the St. Louis Cardinals blog Retrosimba notes that it was also opening night of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Not the most auspicious start to the I.L.’s latest Caribbean adventure.
Rival I.L. clubs immediately began complaining about high travel costs to San Juan. Barely two weeks into the season, the league reversed course and demanded that Bill MacDonald return his team to the mainland. The promoter balked at first, though Marlins attendance in San Juan plummeted following the promising opening night gate. After 15 home dates, Marlins attendance in San Juan totaled only 25,759 fans. MacDonald finally capitulated on May 17, 1961 after just one month in Puerto Rico. But rather than try to make peace with Miami, MacDonald took his ball club all the way to Charleston, West Virginia.
Charleston’s long-running Class AAA team, the Charleston Senators, went under five months earlier. The city was eager to get pro baseball back and offered MacDonald a $1.00 lease on Watt Powell Park. The Charleston Marlins debuted in West Virginia on May 18, 1961, beating the Jersey City Jerseys (yes, their real name) in front of 3,608 locals.
The Marlins were strong ball club under field manager Joe Schultz, finishing 88-66. But Charleston was still one of the smallest AAA cities in the country. MacDonald wasted little time leaving town following the season. On October 8, 1961, MacDonald moved his team to Atlanta, where the franchise became the Atlanta Crackers (1962-1965).
The International League has never returned to the Caribbean.
“The Many Faces of Mr. Mac“, Gilbert Rogin, Sports Illustrated, February 17, 1964
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