I’m taking this one personally. Attention Rob Manfred: Take your grubby paws off the minor leagues. You hear me?
By now you may have heard of the proposal being pushed by Manfred, the baseball commissioner, to, ahem, “prune and reshuffle” the deck of minor league communities, which currently numbers 160 in 14 leagues, ranging from short-season circuits such as the New York-Penn and Appalachian Leagues to the Triple A Pacific Coast and International Leagues.
At risk in this proposal are 42 teams in 22 states, including the Lowell Spinners of the aforementioned New York-Penn League. I’m pleased to say that our own US Representative Lori Trahan joined West Virginia Representative David McKinley by co-authoring a scorching letter of protest to Manfred and his deputy, Dan Halem. The commissioner had better pay attention. The pols are even talking about reexamining baseball’s ludicrous 1922 antitrust exemption.
The stated reason is to improve conditions for the remaining ballplayers. Ha! The big league clubs could have addressed this matter decades ago. No, it’s about what it’s always about: saving money.
This one hits home, because while I have made a living as a writer involving myself with many sports, my two particular avocations are college basketball and minor league baseball. I am Bill Ryan’s kid, and in 1951, we spent the summer in Columbus, Ga., because he was in the employ of the Columbus Cardinals of the Sally League, and from 1951-53, I spent countless Friday and Saturday winter nights at either the Pennsylvania Palestra or Convention Hall while he was assistant athletic director at Villanova.
Thus, when I was offered the opportunity to write a book about the minor leagues, I couldn’t have been more excited. What resulted was “Wait Till I Make The Show,” a book resulting from travels extending from Trois Rivieres, Quebec, to Honolulu through every classification of minor league baseball.
So, yes, I learned all about the tough travel conditions and the lack of money — a $5-a-day meal allowance in Class A didn’t go far, even in 1972 — that were part of minor league reality. Even then, I chastised the Players Association for not fighting for its future constituents.
But there was a lot more to the story of minor league baseball.
What I learned from my travels was that minor league baseball was a charming slice of Americana. In some ways, in some places, it was more fun to experience than the big leagues. I honestly arrived at the conclusion that I would rather be a minor league season ticket-holder making a couple of trips to the nearest major league site than the other way around. And I meant it.
As far as the conditions were concerned, digest this from Jack Hutchinson, then the general manager of the Visalia club in the California League:
“It probably sounds funny, but a couple of the happiest years in my life were playing minor league baseball. With me, it was just the fact that you were on a team. It is something like being in service in combat . . . you are only young once, and here they are, traveling about, even if the conditions aren’t very good compared to a lot of higher ball, but they are having a good time and really doing something they enjoy. This is something which should be transmitted to the general public.”
Consider the thoughts of John Curtis. That would be, yup, the John Duffield Curtis II who later pitched for the Red Sox:
“It all boils down to the basic fact that you are playing baseball and this is what you want to do. I don’t see how the conditions can hurt you too much. There is always that real great desire to make it to the top, make it to the big leagues. Maybe you’re having a bad year and you’d like to blame it on the ballpark, or something. But the conditions never got so bad for me that I considered quitting, because for me there was nothing else but baseball.”
OK, both of these thoughts were expressed in 1972. We all know the world has changed in many ways. But have the fundamentals really changed? Has human nature been altered that much? Would not a overwhelming majority of current minor leaguers relate quite well to the thoughts and feelings of John Curtis?
Oh, and by the way, the ballpark conditions nationwide have, in fact, been improved in the past 4½ decades. Countless new parks have sprung up. I believe the dynamics of what happens between the lines are remarkably similar to those of 1972. But, please, the business model is drastically different. There weren’t any luxury boxes in any 1972 minor league parks; I can promise you that.
Here is what the minors were like, and what I’d like to believe they can still be like to some degree. I was in Appleton, Wis., for a Sunday afternoon game. A slugging first baseman named Lamar Jackson hit one out. In doing so, he earned a $5 cleaning job at One Hour Martinizing, a sports shirt from Klobusen’s Clothing Store, a pizza from Frank and Pat’s Pizza Palace, and a choice of ham, steak, or pork dinner from Dannon’s Restaurant.
The point is that minor league baseball is very often a huge community enterprise, especially in the small towns that are the very ones slated for elimination in the commissioner’s horrible plan.
He and his henchman owners are tampering with their sport’s history. The South Atlantic League dates from 1904 and has been in continuous existence since 1946. The Florida State League began in 1919. The Eastern League began in 1923. The New York-Penn League began in 1939. The Appalachian League began in 1911. The Carolina League began in 1945.
Are you starting to get the message? Wait. check this out: The Texas League traces itself back to 1888.
One of the commissioner’s issues is the development process, the idea being that players can be developed by sheer instruction in a complex. Hey, they have already tried this. The Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy came and went. You will always need the full experience.
Referring to the complex idea back in 1972, minor league manager Joe Frazier had this to say: “You need the crowd. Conditions have a lot to do with the development of a ballplayer . . . The crowds are important. A little more agony of defeat, you know. A little more glory when you win. It’s great to have the crowd cheering you on.”
This is the ultimate example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and that’s before addressing the sobering financial calamity for many people who have invested heavily in the activity known as minor league baseball.
I don’t ordinarily relish the idea of politicians getting involved in monitoring sports, but in this case, I hope there is a whole lot more piling on. They can’t let these people get away with this.
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Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.