Minor league baseball in Portsmouth, Va., is largely the care and responsibility of the portly, graying grandfather pictured on the left. His name is Frank Dudley Lawrence. He is a banker, the founder and president of Portsmouth's American National Bank, the largest and oldest surviving bank in the city. He is a businessman, with interests in several profitable concerns in Portsmouth. He is in the truest sense of the phrase a public-spirited citizen, with an abiding love for the city of Portsmouth. He was born there 64 years ago. His grandfather was mayor. He himself served for years on the city council. He married twice, fathered seven children, founded his bank at the age of 27 and fostered its growth to the point where it was largely responsible for the prevention of a bank panic in Portsmouth during the bank-failure years of the depression.
Yet, for all of this, for all the crowded detail of his years, the great passion of Frank Lawrence's life is baseball. He has been in it off and on since 1907, the year he graduated from high school, the year he began his banking career as a runner at $5 a week. That year he took over the program concession for the Portsmouth club in the old Virginia League and made himself $300. Now, almost 50 years later, he likes to say that this was the only money he ever made from baseball.
"We just don't make money in the minor leagues," said President Harold O. Totten of the storied Three-I League in Cedar Rapids, Ia. last week.
In the years that followed, Lawrence organized and managed a semipro team, became part owner and then sole owner of the Portsmouth Truckers, sold Pie Traynor and Hack Wilson to the major leagues, became the friend of John McGraw, Connie Mack, Kennesaw Mountain Landis and other high men in baseball and, in 1928, was the bitter and disillusioned owner of a defunct franchise in a defunct league, as the Virginia League folded and died in the advent of the great depression.
Lawrence at 37 withdrew from baseball, burned his books, his papers, his pictures, kept nothing that reminded him of his baseball past except two photographs—one of his old semipro team and the other of Judge Landis—and his memories, which he could not burn. Seven years later, with the revival of baseball after the depression, Lawrence almost inevitably found himself back in the game as owner of the newly organized Portsmouth Cubs in the Piedmont League.
AFTER THE BOOM WAS OVER
This is his 21st consecutive season in the Piedmont League. The makeup of the league bas changed, the name of his team has changed, the entire outlook of the minor leagues has changed. The constant growth of the late 30s and the boom years of the late 40s have given way to a steady, precipitous decline in attendance and gate receipts.
Two weeks ago the neighboring Norfolk Tars dropped out of the Piedmont League. Norfolk (the largest city in the league) had won four consecutive Piedmont pennants and just last year led in season's attendance with 130,000 (Portsmouth had 45,000). Nevertheless, Norfolk lost money; rumors said $100,000 in four years. Frank Lawrence obtained six players from Norfolk's roster, licked his wounds and carried on.
Here are the problems facing Frank Lawrence. His team, which has seldom finished out of the first division in its 20 years in the Piedmont League, has been a dull, dispirited seventh. His attendance is low (last year's 45,000 was the lowest ever). And though his gate receipts have dropped—even in the face of an inflated currency—to the dollar levels of the mid-30s, his operating expenses have not, despite their stark simplicity.
Where a big league club's management and service roster may run to 500 people—including directors, comptrollers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, groundkeepers, cleaners and ushers—Lawrence runs the Portsmouth Merrimacs with a crew of a dozen. Lawrence is president and treasurer, his wife is vice president, his sister is secretary. Ticket sales at the park are supervised by a personal friend, J. S. Pitchford, who is helped in the booths and at the gates by a handful of friends and acquaintances. The city-owned Portsmouth Stadium is supervised and maintained by Lewis Brown, a city employee, and two helpers. These three men mow, water and rake the grass, mark base lines and coaches' and batters' boxes, clean out the stands after games, take care of the press box, the dugouts, the clubhouses and the rest rooms. Occasionally, they are obliged to meet other problems. Two weeks ago an automobile careened down a street outside the stadium in the early hours of the morning, crashed through the poured-concrete wall in right field, skidded across the outfield grass and came to a gentle stop near second base. Nobody was hurt, but a temporary barrier had to be erected over the hole in the fence and the tire tracks had to be raked down and smoothed out.
Two other volunteers, Julius Berson, an employee of Lawrence's bank, and Willie (Butterbean) Goodman, who works for Lawrence's son at the City Supply Company, are Lawrence's principal aides. They meet him at the bank before a game, go with him into a vault in the bank's basement, remove from it the programs, tickets, small change and new baseballs required for the game. At the park Lawrence turns the tickets and change over to Pitchford, Goodman gives a dozen new baseballs to one of the two umpires scheduled to work the game, Berson hands the programs to the ticket men. Goodman persuades Lawrence to let Manager Kenny Guettler have a few extra used baseballs for fielding and batting practice. ("What does he need more baseballs for?" Lawrence grouches. "How many does he use anyway?")
Berson climbs to the press box on the roof, announces the lineups over the public-address system, flashes the balls, strikes and outs to the scoreboard in center field. Youngsters help out on the scoreboard by putting up the inning-by-inning score.
ONLY THE PLAYERS ARE PAID
No one is on the club payroll but the 17 players and the playing manager, though on occasion in the past, when a season wound up profitably, Lawrence has distributed largess.
The payroll ($4,600 a month, or an average of about $270 a player, plus the manager's salary) is Lawrence's biggest expense. Second is the cost of transporting, housing and feeding the players on road trips, which averages more than $500 a week over the season. Other major expenses include stadium rental of $40 a game or 5% of the gate receipts, whichever is the greater ("They're not going to be getting more than $40 any game this year," says Lawrence), rental of the stadium lights for night games ($5 an hour), repair and maintenance of equipment, league dues, laundry, baseballs and bats (close to $2,000 a year for balls and $400 for bats), supplies, including new uniforms each season, liability and workmen's compensation insurance, medical expenses, telegraph and telephone bills and the purchase of players.
The major part of Lawrence's baseball income are the gate receipts, though occasionally the sale of an outstanding player is a big help. A bit more comes in from Lawrence's cut (25%) on hot dogs and soft drinks. Exhibition games, advertisements and score-card sales also help.
But gate receipts are a team's life-blood and because they are, Lawrence, like all baseball men, has sought the reason for their decline. Some blame the slide in minor league attendance on a natural leveling off after the boom years, the intense competition for today's amusement dollar, the great increase in the number of automobiles in use and the ease with which people can travel to beaches and to other summertime diversions. They mention outdoor movies, horse racing, harness racing, golf, softball leagues, bowling leagues, Little Leagues, industrialsports activity, fishing and hunting and the tremendous attraction of television. Some hold that minor league baseball is obsolete, that where it once was a necessary part of the baseball picture 1) to provide baseball entertainment for the hinterlands and 2) to serve as a source of supply of major league players, nowadays television brings baseball to the small cities and towns, and the majors can turn to Little Leagues, high schools, colleges, industrial leagues, semipro teams and the like for their player supply. Some feel that in a very few years only the high minors will survive to serve as a last training and polishing ground for the player on his way up to the majors.
Lawrence blames radio and television. He feels this way: He wants the Portsmouth Merrimacs and the Piedmont League to survive. He wants to stay in baseball. He says flatly that he cannot survive in the face of the competition provided by unrestricted broadcasting and telecasting of major league games into Portsmouth via game-of-the-day broadcasts and game-of-the-week telecasts, not, at least, without adequate compensation. Lawrence calls unrestricted radio and television a violation of the major-minor agreement that provides for the protection of a baseball club's territorial rights. His point is: Such broadcasting and telecasting of big league games into the Portsmouth territory sates the local fan's appetite for baseball and makes him that much less likely to go out to see the Portsmouth team play. This, according to Lawrence, deprives his team of money the fan would otherwise have paid to see Portsmouth play.
Lawrence has brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the Commissioner of Baseball, both major leagues and each of the 16 major league clubs for breach of contract. He asked for $250,000 damages.
On June 22 a motion by the commissioner and the other defendants for dismissal of the suit was denied by Federal Judge Edward J. Dimock. The Sporting News commented: "The denial of a motion to dismiss the Portsmouth case means it will probably go to trial, or else the major leaguers will settle out of court with Lawrence."
A settlement out of court would most likely have as great an effect on the future of baseball as a decision either way in a trial.
Meanwhile Frank Lawrence continued to growl. "The majors are eating their young," he said. "We can't survive without help."
Some help came to the Portsmouth club two weeks ago in the form of the players obtained from Norfolk. They added skill and spirit to the Merrimacs and helped to wallop third-place Lancaster (Pa.) four games out of five, as Portsmouth set new attendance records for 1955 on four successive days: 1,102, 1,305, 1,366 and 1,512.
The 1,512 crowd, set at a Sunday double-header, broke down to 813 general admissions at 50 cents, 239 children's admissions at 30 cents and 460 season-ticket admissions (which were sold before the season began at $10 a ticket).
A $500 GATE
Total receipts for the day, not prorating the season-ticket sale, were $478.20. The home team keeps all gate receipts in the Piedmont League. Lawrence's share of concessions sales was about $80.
As Lawrence walked off across the infield after the game, a friend came up to him and said, "Pretty good crowd today, Cap'n Frank."
"It was better," Lawrence said, "but it still wasn't good, Slim. You can't break even on $500 a game."
From the grandstand a man shouted, "You got 'em on the run, Frank!"
Lawrence waved his arm in response. Then he said, "I don't know. I'm getting pretty tired. I got a good ball club now, but I'm beginning to wonder whether it's all worth while."
Minor League Baseball in Portsmouth, Va. poses for its picture. Owner Frank Lawrence beams in left foreground. His team, the Portsmouth Merrimacs, consists of one bat boy, 19 bats, playing-manager Kenny Guettler (glasses, holding lineup) and 17 players. Behind the team, left, are ticket supervisor J. S. Pitch-ford (white hat) and three aides. To their right are custodian Willie (Butterbean) Goodman, holding dozen new baseballs, and announcer Julius Berson, holding microphone. In the background are the two Piedmont League umpires assigned to the game. Beyond are Portsmouth stadium superintendent Lewis Brown (dark shirt) and his two assistants. Equipment includes tractor, chalk-line marker, wooden frames for marking batter's boxes and movable backstop used in batting practice.
THE RISE AND FALL IN MINOR LEAGUES
Number of Leagues
Number of Teams
*Most minor leagues suspended play during World War II. 1943 marked the lowest point.