When Gary Bartley was a graduate assistant baseball coach at Penn State in the late 1970s, all he knew about UNC Charlotte was the recent success that its men’s basketball team had in post-season play.
But that didn’t stop Bartley from applying to be the head coach of the 49ers’ first baseball team, which launched in 1979.
On May 3, Bartley and members of his inaugural team were honored before the 49ers’ home game against Alabama-Birmingham, recognizing them for their historic season 35 years ago. The 1979 team was also honored with a reunion five years ago.
Bartley threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the game and during the seventh inning led about a dozen of his former players through a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” over the Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium public address system.
“Everyone was anxious because we knew it was going to be exciting,” said Bartley, speaking of that first season. “We just didn’t know where it was going to take us.”
With five NCAA tournament appearances in its history and the opening of Hayes Stadium in 2007, Charlotte’s baseball program has come a long way in three-and-a-half decades.
The university didn’t have an on-campus baseball field until 1984. Until that season, the 49ers played and practiced at Crockett Park, Charlotte’s South End minor league stadium inhabited by the Double-A Charlotte O’s. Forty-niner players either boarded a team bus or drove their own cars to get to the facility.
When Bartley arrived on the job in 1978 at the age 27, sporting a hip late-70s mustache that Tom Selleck would have envied, he was the youngest NCAA Division I coach in the country. He was only eight years older than some of his players. Current Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose was the women’s basketball coach at the time.
Four of his future players – Mark Vogler, Herb Hall, Steve Philpott, and Phil Adams – were already on campus, having enrolled as freshmen because they had heard the university might start a baseball team. Bartley added other recent high school graduates, many from Charlotte, and a couple of transfers.
Most of the program’s first players didn’t view themselves as ground-breakers, although 35 years later they have a different appreciation for their place in Charlotte sports history.
Eric Miller, a reserve catcher from Independence High, and Gary Tolbert of West Mecklenburg, who backed up the hard-hitting Vogler at first base, were among the players from Charlotte who were high school rivals and either AAU or American Legion teammates.
“I have more of an appreciation for what I had the chance to do, which was to play Division I baseball,” said Miller, who lives in Mint Hill and is CEO of a company that manufactures valves. “I enjoyed the friendships, the memories, and being able to do what I participated in.”
Vogler remembers hitting the program’s first home run, at a game at Georgia State, then hitting the team’s second and third homers later in the week against Davidson. Vogler is just one of a couple Charlotte alums whose sons have also played for the 49ers. Brandon Vogler is a current freshman pitcher/infielder.
More than a quarter century has mostly clouded memories of specific games and victories. But Bartley is most proud of the successes his former players have had in their careers and as family men, like the team’s top pitcher, Donnie Hoover, who missed last week’s reunion because he was presiding over a wedding ceremony in Atlanta.
At the end of the 1979 season, Bartley gave every player a brass money clip commemorating the historic first year. Some of the players still have theirs and Bartley’s, which has the tarnish of 35 years, has been in his pocket ever since.
After the first reunion in 2009, players and coaches have found it easier to stay connected, an opportunity they now cherish. Current head coach Loren Hibbs has strongly supported the reunions, which are coordinated by the university’s Athletic Foundation.
All former 49er players are invited to attend the baseball program’s annual alumni weekend. This year’s event will be Sept. 26-27.