Frances Crockett grew up in a big house that was a favorite haunt of ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump and do stepover toeholds in the night. Actually, these weird creatures were professional wrestlers, men with cauliflower ears who plied their trade disguised as Indian chiefs, English lords, masked marvels and storm troopers. They came to her home in a leafy, affluent section of Charlotte, N.C. to conduct business with her late father, a successful promoter of wrestling in several Southern states. Everybody knew him as Big Jim Crockett, and Frances was his little girl.
Her favorite wrestler was Gorgeous George, the legendary bobby-pin thrower himself. But she also has fond memories of dining with her family on Oriental cuisine prepared by Mr. Moto, the wickedest of all the postwar Japanese villains, and on seafood caught and cooked by the Dirty Duseks, Emil and Ernie, members of wrestling's most infamous family.
Young Frances was unaffected by the circus atmosphere that swirled around her. Well, not totally unaffected. When she walked into the living room one day and discovered Maurice Tillet, the French Angel, there, she almost jumped out of her bobby sox. Tillet had a face that would have frightened John Wayne.
While wrestling fans wondered if gentlemanly George Becker would ever unmask the Great Bolo, Frances lived an everyday life and dreamed everyday dreams. She was going to marry, have three sons and confine her work to high-minded civic projects. "I guess I was going to be just like Doris Day," she says. "I believed all those movies I saw."
She never suspected that she would become something of a curiosity herself. In 1976, at age 35, she was named general manager of the Charlotte O's baseball team, in the Class AA Southern League. A handful of other women have held similar positions. There are currently two other female G.M.s—in Walla Walla, Wash, and Rohnert Park, Calif.—but it's still an unusual job for a divorced mother of five children.
Crockett's baseball career—business career, really—began in 1975 when with her mother, Elizabeth, and her brothers, Jim Jr., David and Jack, she bought the team. Charlotte had been a bastion of the bushes since 1911, having been a way station for such hot prospects as Early Wynn, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva. But minor league baseball had died there in 1971 because of poor teams and poor management and was replaced for a while by pro softball. Clearly, the Crocketts had their work cut out for them when they paid off the Asheville, N.C. team's $20,000 indebtedness and moved the club to Charlotte.
The first year Frances kept the franchise's books. The second season the family agreed she should run the club herself, while her brothers concentrated on the wrestling and real estate portions of the family enterprise. Most observers considered that decision to be nothing more than hype. After all, the clan that had foisted the Fabulous Moolah and the Purple Flash on the world would also recognize the promotional value of having a woman general manager. As far as baseball executives go, Crockett remains the object of uncommon interest, but she's no longer viewed as just another Crockett promotional gimmick. The last vestiges of that notion disappeared in a sea of black ink in 1980 when she put 198,528 customers into the stands of 5,500-seat Crockett Park. Baseball had never drawn more than 146,000 in Charlotte before. This success, which coincided with the city's first league championship in eight years, helped make her The Sporting News Class AA Baseball Executive of the Year. Last year the O's drew even better—211,161—though they finished only second in their division. Last week they had 12,897 for their four-game season-opening home stand.
Crockett was the first woman to win The Sporting News award at any level. Faint praise, one might say, considering how few women have been in baseball ownership and management. But Crockett says, "That plaque is a statement that I have finally been accepted."
To fully appreciate what it meant for her to pack in record crowds, sell out the fence advertising and double the size of game programs to 48 ad-rich pages, one needs to know that the only surefire winners on the Charlotte sports scene have been automobile racing and, of course, professional wrestling. Indeed, after an early surge in fan interest when baseball returned to Charlotte, attendance fell so precipitously that the franchise almost expired again. The soft voice of Frances Crockett saved it.
Jim Jr., president of Jim Crockett Promotions, Inc., which includes all the family's business interests, was inclined to fold the O's after they drew only 64,163 in 1978. Frances urged him to keep the club going.
"O.K.," he told her, "you've got one more year."
"O.K.," she said, "but I do it alone."
During her first two years as general manager, Jim Jr. and David had hovered over her. After all, her previous business experience was limited to some office chores in 1974 and that bookkeeping stint in '75 when David was the O's general manager.
"We tended to fight a lot, like brothers and sisters do," Frances says. "I told them we were going to destroy each other the way we were going. They said, 'Fine, it's yours. Sink or swim.' Now when they show up at the park, it's just to enjoy a game."
Before he washed his hands of the baseball operation, Jim Jr. teamed with Frances to put a hammerlock on the parent Baltimore Orioles, threatening to find a working agreement with another organization if Baltimore didn't give Charlotte the talent to field a contender. When the Orioles obliged, Frances began to promote in a style that would've made Big Jim—not to mention Gorgeous George—proud. She almost doubled attendance in one season, raising it to 122,889 in 1979.
Big Jim never tried to teach his daughter the ropes of promotion, didn't think it was women's work, but Frances hasn't forgotten something she heard him say many times about dealing with the public: "Never lose touch with the people. Be on the same foot with them. Never drive a Cadillac because those people paid for it."
That's not the only reason Frances drives a Chevy station wagon. It's also handy for hauling her young ones around. The Doris Day thing didn't quite work out the way she expected. She married when she was 18, and after having five children in nine years, she wound up with a divorce and custody of what could have been a major babysitting problem.
She ultimately solved that by hiring the whole bunch to work at the ballpark. Debbie, 22, pops the popcorn and supervises vendors in the stands. Lisa, 19, is a Pepper Girl, sort of a uniformed hostess. Jimmy, 17, works on the grounds crew. Betsy, 15, runs the souvenir stand. Ron, 13, is a ball boy.
"It saves on allowances," says Crockett, "and it allows us time together to do something we enjoy. They seem to like the arrangement. During the off-season, I play mama for about a month, cooking them big meals and all that, but after a while, they want me to quit being such a good mother."
When it comes to being good in business, Crockett says, "I think being a woman is an advantage in dealing with people around the league and in the Baltimore organization. When I go to a meeting, who do you think they're going to listen to or remember? They may not pay a lot of attention to what I have to say but I'll catch their attention first."
When she introduced halter-top and jogging-shorts uniforms for the Pepper Girls, she said, "They won't offend women and men will like them." As for women who might disagree with Crockett, she says, "That's just being unrealistic."
Once the season starts, she sits behind her cluttered desk, kicks off her shoes—she keeps three to five pairs under the desk so she can be prepared for everything from an emergency dress-up situation to tired feet—smokes three packs of cigarettes a day and works 12-to-15-hour shifts running her ball club.
When the Crocketts bought the ballpark in Charlotte from the Minnesota Twins, they poured money into improvements. They tore out the splintery old seats and put in new ones, dressed up the concession stands and rest rooms, painted everything, added a club room, built a new press box and reworked some old office space into a room that groups could rent to party in during a game. Frances now has a staff of nine full-time employees and a horde of part-timers, but when she started out she did whatever was needed herself, including cleaning the ladies' room.
But mainly, she promoted. Crockett has staged 200 promotions, most of which she learned about at off-season seminars she attended with other general managers from around the country. Alone with the usual giveaways she has imported the San Diego Chicken and Baltimore's Wild Bill Hagy, held ostrich and go-cart races, given out kazoos for "the world's biggest kazoo band," passed "the world's largest ice cream sundae" around the stands for fans to help themselves, given a full admission to anyone bringing to the park a banana or a picture of a banana—one man made it with a picture of Richard Nixon's nose—and rewarded the pure of heart by discounting Sunday ticket prices for those who brought church bulletins.
Looking back, Crockett says it scares her to think how little she knew when she became general manager. Now she's not only running the O's but has also bought into teams in Greensboro, N.C., and Salem, Va., and is looking to invest in more. She has put together a radio network that broadcasts all O's games in four towns and expects to increase that number. Her attendance goal this year is 235,000.
Her groundskeeper at Crockett Park, by the way, is a beefy fellow who looks like some of those guys who used to parade through her home. Bill Soloweyko is his real name, but most folks call him Klondike Bill. He's a former wrestler.