The city of Charleston, W.Va., is situated where two rivers, the Kanawha and Elk, meet, but it still is more than 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
So, as one might imagine, the tale of how the Cardinals fielded a Class AAA team called the Charleston Marlins makes for quite a fish story _ as well as a pretty good baseball yarn.
After the 1960 season, the Cardinals’ Class AAA Rochester, N.Y., team in the International League changed its affiliation to the Orioles. The Miami Marlins had been the Orioles’ Class AAA International League club in 1960.
The Marlins decided to leave Miami and move to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Cardinals reached an agreement to make the Puerto Rico Marlins their Class AAA International League affiliate in 1961.
Bill MacDonald, owner of the Marlins, said the team had lost $150,000 in 1960. It had no radio or TV deal in Miami and home attendance had totaled just 109,890 for the season. MacDonald told The Sporting News he expected to draw about 200,000 in Puerto Rico in 1961. He also said he had received a TV/radio rights fee of $127,000 in San Juan.
“We couldn’t even get a nickel for radio rights in Miami,” MacDonald told The Sporting News.
On Monday, April 17, 1961, the Puerto Rico Marlins made their regular-season debut before 6,627 at Sixto Escobar Park in San Juan.
It was a success in every way for manager Joe Schultz and his Cardinals prospects. With a lineup that included catcher Tim McCarver, first baseman Fred Whitfield, center fielder Jim Beauchamp and shortstop Julio Gotay (a native Puerto Rican), San Juan defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-2. San Juan starter Bob Grim, a former 20-game winner with the Yankees, pitched seven shutout innings against a Toronto lineup that included future big-league managers Sparky Anderson at second base and Chuck Tanner in right field.
The Sporting News reported: Puerto Rican fans have given a hearty endorsement to International League ball.
“We have a well-balanced team,” MacDonald said. “The Cardinals have sent us some fine boys. I’m confident the fans in Puerto Rico will support this team.”
But the excitement and enthusiasm faded fast.
April 17 also was the night a group of Cuban exiles, supported by the United States, invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to spark a rebellion against Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The invasion failed and more than 1,000 Cuban rebels were captured by Castro’s forces.
The impact of those events gripped nearby Puerto Rico. Minor-league baseball suddenly became an afterthought. Attendance for the Marlins’ second home game against Toronto dropped to 1,897. The three-game series that followed against Buffalo was hampered by tropical rain and drew even worse. After five games, the Marlins’ net paid total attendance was fewer than 12,000.
Meanwhile, owners of the other International League franchises became increasingly concerned about the travel costs to Puerto Rico. In an eight-team league that included Columbus, Ohio; Richmond, Va.; Jersey City, N.J.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Rochester, Buffalo and Toronto, San Juan was by far the most distant location.
On May 3, International League president Tommy Richardson said the Marlins must relocate from Puerto Rico. MacDonald was resistant, but the pressure applied from the other franchises became too great. On May 17, one month after the glorious debut in San Juan, MacDonald announced the franchise immediately would transfer to Charleston, W.Va.
Charleston city officials offered the Marlins the use of Watt Powell Park for a rental fee of $1 per year. A radio station offered to pay broadcast rights fees of $7,500.
On May 19, the Charleston Marlins debuted before a home crowd of 3,608. They saw the Jersey City Jerseys, led by second baseman Cookie Rojas, beat the Marlins, 5-4, in 10 innings.
The Marlins drew a total of 8,243 for the three-game series with Jersey City. Ray Washburn won the finale with a four-hitter for the Marlins. MacDonald said he was “overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and cooperation of the Charleston people.”
“Everybody pitched in to make our hasty transfer a rather easy thing,” MacDonald said to The Sporting News. “If we can average 2,500 fans per game in Charleston, I will consider the operation a huge success.”
The Marlins and their new home adapted well. The Marlins finished in second place with a regular-season record of 88-66. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to Buffalo. Charleston drew 81,175 in 39 home playing dates after moving from San Juan.
MacDonald showed his thanks by thumbing his nose at the West Virginia city.
On Oct. 8, 1961, MacDonald said he was shifting the franchise to Atlanta for the 1962 season. Atlanta had been a Dodgers affiliate in the Class AA Southern Association in 1961 and welcomed the upgrade.
The move meant the end for the name “Marlins” for the franchise. The Cardinals’ team in the International League in 1962 would be known as the Atlanta Crackers.
Previously: Clyde King mentored young Cardinals of 1960s