The San Joaquin Valley around Visalia, Calif. yields heavy truckloads of walnuts, cotton, alfalfa, pomegranates, barley, kiwi fruit and cottage cheese. The result is that quite a few farmers, if they chose, could afford to order their overalls from Savile Row tailors. Much of the prosperity has rubbed off oh Visalia (pronounced Vye-SAIL-ya). It is a clean, friendly city full of legally protected oak trees of the same type—Quercus lobata—described in the diary of a wandering Spanish priest 172 years ago.
Visalia is also a conservative place. There are folks in town who do not like the fact that the population has edged to more than 40,000 or that the major north-south artery, Mooney Boulevard, has become a flickering neon monument to franchised malnutrition. But they are very pleased that the city has no bonded indebtedness.
So it was surprising last year when Visalia went into the baseball business by including funds for a team in the Class A California League in its $14 million city budget. Visalia teams were formerly nicknamed Mets, Reds, Cubs, White Sox, A's and Stars; the club is now known as the Oaks and is, as far as old-timers at minor league headquarters can recall, the first municipally owned team in the history of organized baseball.
Visalia had no team in 1976, the New York Mets having decided after eight seasons that it was too much of a headache to run just one farm team west of the Mississippi. Many Visalians missed seeing their town's name in eye-squint type in The Sporting News, and they started a drive to land another franchise. The campaign's success was largely the result of the enthusiasm of Deputy City Manager Dick Anthony and baseball nut Pauline Taylor, co-owner of a thriving hot dog stand at the intersection of Center and Encina.
Purchasing a minor league baseball franchise these days would seem to be about as smart as investing in a spats factory. The minors have shriveled, largely because major league games are regularly broadcast on radio and television to such out-of-the-way places as Visalia. Yet the city fathers were certain that the Oaks would show a profit—and it turned out that they were right. The team drew 44,747 spectators and cleared $621 in 1977. That was not enough of a profit to surpass pomegranates as a mainstay of the local economy, but it was a lot better than losing money.
This year should be even better, especially because the Oaks got off to a very fast start, winning their first 10 games. And they haven't let up much since, with Outfielder Mike Wilson hitting .350 and huge (6'5", 215-pound) Designated Hitter Steve McManaman slugging 14 homers. Last week the Oaks were 33-8 and were in first place by six games.
It also helps the team financially that Taylor spearheads preseason ticket drives and that the city does not compete against big league clubs in the scouting and signing of hot prospects, even though Tulare County, which is named for tules or cattails, has long been fertile ground for players as well as crops. Visalia is in the second year of a working agreement with the Minnesota Twins, who supply most of the players and arrange the loan of the rest from other major league organizations. Wilson, for example, is the property of the Dodgers, who thought he would not get enough playing time as a substitute on their California League team in Lodi. A 22-year-old from Oakland, Wilson is a righthanded spray hitter with exceptional speed. Although 45 of his 57 hits this season have been singles, on April 17 he had an inside-the-park grand slam in Visalia's 19-10 victory over Modesto.
Having red-hot hitters like Wilson and McManaman would be an asset at the gate for any team, but, says Anthony, "Attendance doesn't really tell the story. It's how much you've got in the cashbox from box-seat sales, program advertising, ads on the outfield fence and concession sales. You could put 100,000 people in our park and lose money; you could draw only 30,000 and still make money. Ticket sales are less than half the revenue. Promoted right, an average team can make money; promoted wrong, a champion can lose. But promote right with a champion, and you'll take money to the bank, baby."
The city keeps all the Oaks' income. Visalia already owned the little stadium, Recreation Park, but must pay to maintain it and for most of the players' equipment, hotel rooms and road meals. It must foot the entire bill for bus transportation, umpires, the P.A. announcer, the official scorer and the salary of General Manager Jerry Lambert, a former sportswriter who has spent 12 years in minor league front offices.
"Having the town own the team is quite an advantage," says Lambert. "We probably sell more season tickets and ads because of that, and a truck just dumped off 10 bags of gypsum that were tacked on the end of the city order. Volume rates save a lot of money.
"It's a friendly little town. The thing that impressed me from the beginning is that everybody likes it here. Right after I arrived a guy told me, 'You know, this town's not on the major freeway, so people have to want to come here.' "
Few outsiders do. There are no big tourist attractions in Visalia, except The End of the Trail, the James Earle Fraser statue of a sagging Indian on his weary horse, which stands in Mooney Grove Park. Tulare County once owned the decaying plaster original but traded it to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in return for a bronze replica cast in Italy. Visalia is also proud of being not only the county seat, but also the "Gateway to the Sequoias,"—Sequoia National Park being about 50 miles to the east.
The Oaks are a source of pleasure and civic pride, too. For 27 of the last 33 seasons Visalia has been a member of the California League, a circuit that dates back, in one incarnation or another, to the 19th century and which boasts such alumni as Ping Bodie, Harry Hooper, Duffy Lewis and, much more recently, Butch Wynegar, who at the age of 19 led the Reno Silver Sox to first place in both halves of the 1975 season and then leaped directly to the American League. Outfielder Vada Pinson, Visalia's most accomplished alumnus, went right from eating Pauline Taylor's chilidogs to ordering steaks in Cincinnati.
Visalia has had modest success on the field, its only pennant coming in 1971, but there have been some notable moments: Pitcher Ken Hunt, later with the Reds, losing 13 in a row in 1958; Bud Heslet, who stayed on to become a Visalia fireman, hitting 51 home runs during the 1956 season; White Sox farmhand Ken Lawrence dropping 15 straight pitching decisions in 1962; drawing 100,000 fans in 1947, which was 10 times the population then.
Baseball's return last year was applauded by the Times-Delta ("Oldest Newspaper in the San Joaquin Valley"), which said, "It's an understatement to say that people in this area missed the grand old game..." and pointed out that the Oaks would create jobs and increase revenues of apartment buildings, motels, restaurants and the sales tax. Still, some Visalians groused about the $40,000 in municipal funds spent to move the light towers and fences back.
One of the best moves the city made was to adopt a nickname with local flavor for its team. The California League used to have such colorful names as the Lodi Crushers (Lodi being in grape country), the Fresno Sun Sox and the San Jose Prune Pickers, but now most teams have handles like Dodgers and Angels that make it easier for parent clubs to provide hand-me-down uniforms.
Oaks was the winning entry in a pick-a-name contest, beating out Minnows, Pure Grits, Doves, Quails and, perhaps in tribute to or mockery of the baseball-boosting Taylor, Hot Dogs.
"This is a good baseball town," says Taylor. "It's always been a good baseball town. One thing's for sure: never again will the majors pack up and go home, leaving us without a franchise. It's ours now—here to stay as long as we want it."