The day the minor league meetings began in Columbus, Ohio, copies of that week's Sporting News, the baseball newspaper, found their way around the lobby of the Deshler-Hilton Hotel and into the horny fists of several hundred representatives of minor league clubs. Almost at once an angry muttering arose, an irritable hum of dissent that blended nicely with red necks and clenched teeth. Symptoms of apoplexy were reported but not verified.
The cause of this rage syndrome was soon isolated. There, across the five-column front page of The Sporting News ran a banner headline: MINORS MUST SUB SWEAT FOR TEARS—PAUL.
The story that followed was an interview with Gabriel Paul, vice-president and general manager of the Cincinnati Redlegs. The gist of it was that the minors should stop crying about their fate, that the perennial complaint of the minor leaguers—how the majors were strangling the minors to death economically—was a smoke screen to hide lazy and inefficient management.
"As he [Paul] sees it," the story went on, "if the minor leagues are in jeopardy, as some wail, the danger is neither radio nor television. It's the 'something for nothing' philosophy [which] many of the minor league club owners have adopted...."
December 19, 1955
"Minor league ball dying, huh?" Paul was quoted further. "I can remember back to 1936 when they called Frank Lane a miracle man because his Durham, N.C. club drew 50,000 in the Piedmont League. In 1932 Walter Hapgood and Barney Burch owned the Omaha club, which was then in the Western League. Things were so rough that Burch had to hock his diamond-studded cuff links to attend the minor league meetings in Columbus."
There was considerably more to the article, all in the same general vein. Needless to say, the boys from the bush leagues seethed. Who did Gabe Paul think he was?
That afternoon George Trautman, the president of the minor leagues (the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, to be precise), welcomed people to the first of several "promotional clinics," discussion groups at which various successful minor league executives would talk about the way they ran their ball clubs. The idea was that other executives, listening, might pick up hints and suggestions that would help them in their own operation in the coming season. Trautman prefaced his remarks with a mild rebuttal to Gabe Paul, saying that Paul was wrong in calling the minors lazy. But only about 40 people of the hundreds and hundreds of minor leaguers in the hotel were present at the clinic session, and attendance at later sessions never did top 100. Even Trautman (who could, of course, be excused because of the press of other duties) did not stay but left right after his own speech, leaving the details of running the clinic to his public relations man, Bob Finch.
SELLING THE PRODUCT
The speakers at the clinic were the past season's successful executives (or operators, as most minor league club presidents and general managers refer to themselves). Most of them were young men, some quite young, and they had the personality and appearance of very capable salesmen or public relations men. They used phrases like "pricing the product," "selling the product" and "fighting for the entertainment dollar." They spoke of promotional campaigns, business techniques, salesmanship, customers. They presented an appearance of successful young men who were going a long way. There were a few exceptions, a couple of speakers who were more along the accepted pattern of the baseball operator—the glib wisecracker, the hustling carnival concessionaire—but by and large those who talked at the clinic were an impressive credit to the business side of baseball. What they said was rather exciting, and you felt that it was a shame that more minor leaguers had not taken time to attend the clinics.
For instance, Bob Hamric, 27-year-old general manager and part owner of the Corpus Christi, Texas club, gave a nicely ordered talk on preseason ticket sales. Hamric and his partner, Billy J. (Red) McCombs, who is all of 28, saved baseball for Corpus Christi after the franchise, under its previous owners, had degenerated into what George Trautman called one of the worst situations he had ever seen in the minors. Hamric was a man of faith—to raise money to buy the club he even hocked his wife's diamond ring. (Ah there, Mr. Paul.) In just two seasons Hamric and McCombs raised Corpus Christi baseball out of debt into solvency, out of black despair into bright hope for the future. It is now one of the better franchises in the minor leagues.
In his talk Hamric described the preseason sale of tickets as the single most important reason for Corpus Christi's success. But he made eminently clear that the success of the preseason sale and the overall success of the club depended very greatly on other things, too: a favorable local press, good public relations, condition of the ball park, intelligent promotion, a hustling, winning team. These are tried-and-truisms of baseball success, but you'd be surprised how often they are overlooked and by no means only in the minor leagues. Hamric made their application to Corpus Christi seem fresh and new by describing in detail how each was achieved. Boiled down, it came to utilization of modern business techniques: hard, energetic work all day and all year round; knowledge of and attention to all facets of the operation; identification of the firm with the community's general business activity; good sources of distribution and supply (in Bob Hamric's case the Milwaukee Braves, with whom Corpus Christi has a working agreement).
Hamric's remarks were echoed and amplified by Dewey Soriano of Seattle; Duke Zilber of Reading, Pa.; Austin Brown of Boise; Al Unser of Decatur, Ill.; Dick Wagner of Lincoln, Neb.; Harold Cooper of Columbus, Ohio; Bill Bergesch of Omaha. They talked about painting stadiums, selling family tickets, keeping rest rooms clean, taking part in community activities, making the game of professional baseball a highly attractive source of entertainment for local citizens and then going out and selling hard to the prospective customers rather than waiting for them to come to the park.
All of this was cheering and encouraging. These were the men and this was the kind of thinking that could save the minor leagues.
But a nagging doubt persisted. After all, these were only a dozen or so of the hundreds of club executives in the minors. How many more were not painting their ball parks, were not keeping their rest rooms spotlessly clean, were failing to gather community support for their teams, were not running their clubs as lively, intelligent business operations?
Gabe Paul in his controversial interview mentioned that attendance in 11 leagues had gone up in 1955, but he failed to add that attendance in 22 others had gone down and that two leagues had folded up and quit baseball for good as the season ended. Obviously, more men of the high caliber of a Bill Bergesch, a Bob Hamric or a Dick Wagner are needed.
But how can such men be attracted to baseball as a career? Indeed, how can the ones the minor leagues have now be persuaded to remain indefinitely? In baseball one or two years of success does not guarantee continued success. The law of diminishing returns operates with terrifying speed in the nation's favorite game. Even pennant winners can have financially trying seasons. And it must be realized that the successes discussed at the promotional clinic in Columbus were achieved only after a tremendous effort by highly capable men. Such effort and success in other fields is usually the prelude to a long and prosperous career. In baseball do such men have such prospects for the future?
Dick Wagner of Lincoln was not too optimistic. "I'm only 28," he said, "but I've been in baseball for nine years. I'd like to stay in it. But the future—I don't know. You'd like a little security, and there isn't too much of it in this game."
THE NEEDS OF BASEBALL
It boils down to a set of reasonably simple theorems. Major league baseball needs minor league baseball. Minor league baseball needs sound businessmen; but it is the kind of wild gamble that sound businessmen avoid. Therefore, it would behoove major league baseball to take what steps it could to make minor league baseball more stable and less of a wild gamble. It can do this only by taking steps to guarantee the financial structure of the minor leagues, where baseball's inherent insecurities are aggravated by certain major league practices which could probably be corrected.
One week later, at the major league meetings, every proposal the minor leagues had sent on with an eye to improving their lot was turned down. Ah there, again, Mr. Paul!