Wheeler Bob celebrates 40 years of baseball service
Folks, has he got a deal for you.
After 40 years of baseball service -- and no slowing down in sight -- Wheeler Bob will be honored tonight with a mini-bat giveaway to the first 1,000 fans at Appalachian Power Park.
Those are perfect for your mother-in-law, Wheeler Bob would say.
And he'll be set up at a table, autographing items for fans.
"I'm treating myself as long as I'm healthy and as long as I live here, I'll always be here for the fans," said Bob Friedman, better known as "Wheeler Bob."
"I don't want to be like Ric Flair or Brett Favre and overstay my place, but I'm here for now."
He began selling merchandise for the old Charleston Charlies baseball team in 1973. He originally wanted to buy a Charleston Charlie souvenir at the park, but they wanted "a fortune" for it.
"We could never come to terms," he said. "So I ended up going to work in 1973, and I've been here ever since. I figured if you can't buy 'em, might as well join 'em."
He earned the nickname "Wheeler Bob" during the 1980s after the team became the Charleston Wheelers.
For a few years in the mid-1990s, Friedman split from the team when it was under new management, but he came back in 2004 when the team became the West Virginia Power and Appalachian Power Park opened.
He shared time between Charleston, where he would stay in local motels, and New York, where he would peddle ties, but he now lives full-time in Charleston.
The Wheeler Bob Legacy
Dunbar-native Friedman, 62, started selling merchandise in the streets of New York City when he was just 18. He said when he was young, he felt like the baseball season, which is only six or seven months out of the year, would hinder him.
Those 20 to 30 years of service in New York -- he doesn't remember how long, exactly -- wouldn't let him hook up to something where he could make real money. But Charleston baseball kept him out of trouble.
"The legacy became important to me and you made your decision, you do it. Charleston was my decision. You can't go back, and the fat lady sung with me," he said.
His 40 years of service to the community are demonstrated through letters of congratulations from car dealers, jewelry stores, newspapers and others for his legacy as a known hawker of baseball goodies.
One letter read "a man of honor" at the top in Italian.
Others came from the governor and Congress.
A plaque from Hilary Clinton sits in his "archives," he said -- otherwise known as his home.
His association with the West Virginia Power has a far reach in the industry, too.
"When we go to our meetings where every Minor League team has representatives, you have to wear a nametag, and it'll say West Virginia Power," said Jeremy Taylor, assistant general manager of the West Virginia Power.
"When you're walking through the lobby, multiple times, people will stop you and say 'you have that Wheeler Bob guy, right?' and they'll want to know the story behind him."
"It's good to be recognized in the industry for a fan, or I would call him an entity. Most teams have a vendor, but they don't have an entity."
His love of slinging hats (the best-seller), mini-baseball bats, balls, shirts, batting helmets and seat cushions -- many of which are $5 -- has fueled his success.
Taylor said Friedman averages about $15,000 in merchandise business.
"I can tell you that's pretty good for vending," Taylor said.
"He does this for the people. Walking through the ballpark ... by the time we get to the end, he's already talked to 65 people. It's almost like walking through the ballpark with the governor," he said.
Looking toward the future
Friedman wears his 1973 ring from when Dave Parker, Pittsburgh Pirate and then-Cincinnati Reds slugger, hit "the longest homerun in Minor League Baseball history."
At the old stadium in Watt Powell Park, Parker hit the baseball, which landed in a train as it was going by, and legend has it the train went from Charleston to Cincinnati, making it the longest homerun, Friedman said.
Those memories are ones he hopes to continue to make in the future.
"I overheard when I sold someone that someone said 'another generation of Wheeler Bob fans,' and that was touching," Friedman said.
In addition to those heartwarming moments, he'll continue to tell jokes, of course.
"You would think your humor would burn out," he said. "These people come here every night, and you're able to joke. You can't continue to joke if people don't laugh. I can't continue to put fruit in front of you if you don't eat it."
The humor of the fans makes the game for him, Friedman said.
"I don't think you'd be selling the numbers if people didn't like you or your humor was offensive. You have to judge ... these people are putting money toward supporting baseball in Charleston. They're putting money where their heart is."
Taylor said next year would mark the 10th season at the ballpark, so they will continue to roll out events like this. He said this year they celebrated the anniversary of Toastman, fan and Charleston assistant mayor Rod Blackstone who cheers and burns toast when opposing players strike out.
The giveaway will begin at 6 p.m. when the gates open, and the first 1,000 fans will receive a mini-bat.
For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/yc4le78.