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Original Issue


The minor leagues are dying out. The only thing that can save them is major league help. And at long last it seems to be forthcoming

The minor league convention that took place in Jacksonville, Fla., last week is not the same thing as the major league "winter meeting" that took place this week in Chicago. The minor league convention is bigger (28 leagues and 213 teams as compared to two leagues and 16 teams) and longer (almost a full week, when you measure from the first drink to the last one, whereas the major league sessions are over in three days or less).

And where the major league meetings create or undo legislation governing The Game—all good baseball men refer to baseball simply as The Game—the minor league convention is, from a cold, technical, legislative point of view, and ignoring for the moment its value as a place to meet old friends and tell old stories and trade old ballplayers, pointless.

This is perhaps a harsh judgment, but consider the facts. Votes taken at the minor league convention on amendments to the existing "major-minor league agreement," which is really the constitution of Organized Baseball, have all the strength of a U.N. vote censuring the Soviet Union. Less, in fact, since the U.N. vote at least can affect public opinion. No one ever really gets to hear how the minor league vote came out, because the principal news emanating from any minor league convention is usually that concerning trades between major league clubs or rumors thereof.

The highly publicized "draft" of minor league players—originally designed to prevent wealthy major league clubs from stockpiling good ballplayers in the minors and to give other good ballplayers held in semibondage by selfish minor league club owners the chance to rise to the majors—is, for all practical purposes, a farce. This year the 16 major league clubs looked over a 53-page listing of more than 5,000 minor league ballplayers and tapped just nine men. The 28 minor leagues drafted only 55 more.

All amendments that the minor leagues do pass affecting the major-minor agreement must be approved by the major leagues at their meeting before they become a part of baseball law. Maybe it isn't precisely veto power, but, if the majors don't choose to accept it, even a unanimous minor-league vote on a question is peremptorily tossed out the window.

The mortifying truth is that the minor leagues have no authority—except what the major leagues allow them. They have no existence—except what the major leagues endow them with. And it has come pretty much to pass that they have no real reason for existence—except as they can serve the major leagues.

This is not to say that this is a bad thing. It is merely inevitable, a product of the times. Ford C. Frick, Commissioner of Baseball, would be quick to deny it and point out the treasured place minor league ball holds in the sporting history and tradition of the nation, but that wouldn't change the facts. Minor league baseball as it is presented in most of its present locations is archaic. Where once it was a focal point of community life in the smaller towns and cities of the country, now it is just another sports item buried in the local sports pages.

Actually, Frick, in the minds of most minor leaguers, is a major league man whose prime loyalty is to the major league club owners, and what he says does not always impress them.

"He talks a lot about the minors," the president of one of the smaller minor leagues said in Jacksonville, "but he don't do a hell of a lot. I don't blame him. It's his job. I'd be the same way if I was in his shoes. Wish I was."

The minor leaguers' man is George M. Trautman, President of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Trautman is a big, homely man with intelligence, executive ability and a mounting frustration caused by growing recognition of the possibility that he's beating a dead horse in trying to get the minor leagues up on their feet again. Like the captain of a ship in a storm, he's outwardly optimistic and inwardly pessimistic. Occasionally the inward pessimism comes reluctantly forth.

The day before he arrived at the convention, Trautman appeared in Washington before a House subcommittee on tax relief and asked that the federal tax on admissions to minor league games be repealed. Such tax relief, he stated, "might be the difference between survival and liquidation."

He testified that over 80% of the minor league clubs responding to a questionnaire reported losses last season, that the number of minor leagues had dropped from 59 in 1949 to 28 in 1956, the number of clubs from 448 to 213, and the paid attendance from 41,872,762 to 17,031,069.

"How do the minors stay in business?" a wondering member of the subcommittee asked Trautman. "How do they meet expenses?"

"Well," Trautman replied, "some clubs have to just go up the street and rap on doors."

That was the inner side of the captain. To his charges at the convention a more cheerful Trautman told of his testimony before the subcommittee but insisted: "The prospect is bright.... Baseball has had problems since its inception. In some way they have always been solved."

The basic problem today—and Trautman knows it better than anyone—is the terrible financial condition of the minor leagues. At best it is a shoestring operation. Occasionally a team makes money, but it's usually because the general manager went up the street and rapped on doors. A successful minor league operation depends to an extraordinary degree on the executive and promotional ability of its general manager. A good one, like Harold Cooper, who was lower minor league "Executive of the Year" with Hutchinson, Kansas in 1950, can mean the success or failure of a ball club. Cooper, an intense, broad-shouldered man, looks and sounds like the district sales manager of a highly progressive firm manufacturing something along the line of dishwashers or deep-freeze units. He happens to be in baseball—which is good for baseball if not for Cooper. Baseball is a gamble for him, because it gives him none of the security, none of the long-range benefits that a man of his caliber would have dangled before him by a large industrial concern interested in keeping bright and rising young men in its employ.

This lack of basic economic promise is one of the reasons why baseball is attracting so few capable young men into its business operation. There are some, but since 1949 there have been fewer and fewer, and some of those that come in for a year or two are obliged, for the sake of their own future, to get out and get into a more rewarding business.

"Baseball is an antiquated operation," the successful operator of a good minor league club said last week. "It's like driving a '33 car in a '57 economy. No wonder the young fellows drop out."

The president of a minor league in the South was more emphatic: "If business was run the way baseball is, there wouldn't be any business."

A Harold Cooper, by hard work, hard selling, extraordinary effort and pure zeal, can make a minor league club a success in any given year. But a Harold Cooper can also be immensely frustrated. The well-run Hutchinson club had to suspend after he left it, because the league it was in folded up. His attempt to promote the Columbus Jets was hampered—perhaps unavoidably—by the Kansas City Athletics, who called up his best player in mid-season. Last season, Cooper claimed, the Cincinnati Redlegs, broadcasting and telecasting of Redleg games into Columbus destroyed a vital part of the Jets' income. These were all things beyond Cooper's direct control.

Perhaps that is why he insisted so loudly and clearly that Cincinnati's general manager, Gabe Paul, had flagrantly broken a Columbus-Cincinnati broadcasting agreement. Paul, a genial and well-liked man, saw Cooper in Jacksonville last week and protested, "Harold, you're a damned liar, saying those things about me."

Paul was smiling as he spoke. Perhaps Gabe remembered that in The Virginian you could call a man a name if you smiled, but Cooper had forgotten his Owen Wister. His temper (perhaps because of the years of frustration) exploded, and he swung. Fortunately, Frank Shaughnessy, President of the International League, was on hand; he and others quieted Cooper. After a while the two got together, and later, quite naturally, it was announced that the dispute had been the result of a misunderstanding and that an amicable solution had been reached on the radio-TV problem.

The problem, of course, was greater than a radio-TV dispute, greater than a Cooper-Paul personality clash. It was the basic problem of the rich majors and the poor minors.

It was the problem the major leagues had belatedly recognized when they established their $500,000 fund for aid to the minor leagues. The amount of the fund didn't seem to impress the minor leaguers, who felt at first it was just a sop to keep them from asking for a share of television revenue, but the fact that Bill DeWitt, onetime head of the now-defunct St. Louis Browns and more recently top-level aide to George Weiss of the New York Yankees, has now been appointed administrator of it gave the minor leaguers hope. Maybe the majors really meant it this time.

"Personally," said one minor league general manager, "I don't like DeWitt. I never have. But people who know him better than I do say he has one of the best baseball brains in the business. So maybe this fund will turn out to be a good thing. Not because of the money. What's $500,000 spread over 200 ball clubs? What is it, $2,500 a club? That's just spitting off the roof, just a starter. But DeWitt can make it pay off. He can give clubs advice. He's been through the mill. He knows what it's like. You can't imagine how stupid some of the operations are in the minors, the things they do. They're starving for some common-sense advice. If DeWitt can use some of that money to set up a group that could go around and look at a minor league club and make suggestions...."

The minor leaguer shook his head in wonder.

"He could be the greatest thing to happen to baseball since Branch Rickey," he concluded.