'Wheeler Bob' marks 40 years with Charleston baseball
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thursday night, Robert "Wheeler Bob" Friedman will celebrate 40 years of selling ball caps, shirts and souvenirs at professional baseball games in Charleston.
The West Virginia Power is honoring him with a "Wheeler Bob Mini Bat Giveaway." The bats will go to the first 1,000 fans entering Appalachian Power Park for Thursday evening's game against the Asheville Tourists. The gates open at 6 p.m. and the game begins at 7:05 p.m.
Friedman, 62, has worked at baseball games for the Charleston Charlies, Charleston Wheelers, Charleston Alley Cats and West Virginia Power.
"When I started, Dave Parker was on the Charlies team that won the International League Championship that year," he said this week. "Bob Levine, the team owner, gave me a championship ring."
Friedman, now 62, wore that ring at his home in Kanawha City earlier this week, as he reminisced about his years working at local baseball games.
Back in 1973, the Charleston Charlies were a minor league team for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Friedman remembers one oft-repeated story that he says is true:
"I was at Watt Powell Park when Dave Parker hit the longest home run in baseball history," he said. "He hit the ball over the right field wall at Watt Powell Park into a moving coal train which did not stop until it reached Cincinnati."
Over the years, Charleston minor league baseball teams have been affiliated with a variety of Major League clubs, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals, Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers.
"When I started here, the team was with the Pirates, who won the championship that year. Today, Charleston's team is also owned by the Pirates and is in contention to be the champion this year," he said.
Friedman moved into his home in Kanawha City five years ago, after marrying his wife, Dolores, during a trip to Las Vegas. Today, she works as a waitress in a Shrewsbury restaurant that specializes in serving home-cooked meals.
"Before that, I used to stay at the Knights Inn in Kanawha City when I came to games here. Before I got married, I usually spent seven months in New York every year," Friedman said.
"I grew up in New York, in Brooklyn, and came back to Charleston. But I have always felt that if I didn't work for the baseball teams in Charleston, I might have ended up in prison back in the 1970s and 1980s."
He said he sold pearls and umbrellas on the streets of New York. Because street sales were illegal then, he got arrested a few times.
"I also used to sell Charleston Charlie T-shirts on street corners," Wheeler Bob said.
But he also spent part of his childhood in Kanawha County, living in Dunbar and Kanawha City. His father was a manager at Barrack's Auto Parts on Kanawha Boulevard. As a boy, he had a delivery route for The Charleston Gazette, he said.
His parents -- Bill and Annette Friedman -- moved to Florida shortly before his bar mitzvah and he graduated from North Miami High School.
People that Friedman grew up with and knew over the years -- including Orthodox Jewish religious leaders and Italian business owners in New York -- sent letters congratulating him for his 40 years of work at Charleston baseball games.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also congratulated him.
An official West Virginia poster from Tomblin states: "Robert Friedman has been a staple of Charleston baseball for 40 years and continues to be a special part of 'America's Favorite Pastime' in both the Capital City and throughout the Mountain State."
Friedman said he plans to bring those letters with him to the ballpark tonight.
"And I will probably throw out the first pitch," he said.
He was sorry to see baseball end at the historic Watt Powell Park in Kanawha City, which closed after the 2004 baseball season.
"I was sad. But I knew is was the right thing to do to build a new stadium downtown to bring the business community back to the team."
For the past eight years, Friedman has also sold programs to fans at Marshall University football and basketball games in Huntington.
He said he still spends about 100 days in New York City every year. "A lot of times I go up there twice a month. But I never miss a Power game or a Marshall football or basketball game."
Thursday night's game, the Power's last regular season game at Appalachian Power Park in 2013, is offering half-price tickets to college students with their student ID cards. Thirsty Thursday also offers customers 12-ounce draft beers for $1 and 16-ounce cans for $2.
Reach Paul J, Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.