Colorado Springs is hardly the setting for a wake. Snow-flecked mountains rise abruptly a few miles to the west and the fresh alpine air, sweeping down off the peaks and out across the high plains toward the Mississippi a thousand miles away, constantly freshens the broad, clean streets of the city nestled below. The big resort hotels, with their swimming pools and riding stables and golf courses, bubble with life.
So it was that the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which staggered into town for its annual convention almost half-prepared to die, departed a week later somewhat less somber of mien and still kicking. Behind the rose-colored glasses, however, and the pursed lips which went whistling courageously off into the dark toward another minor league baseball season, the old boy didn't look so good at all.
The minors ("I don't like that word," says Leslie O'Connor, once assistant to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and now president of the Pacific Coast League, "but I guess that's what we really are") have seldom been in so much trouble. With fans staying away by the millions, teams and even leagues are collapsing like flies (sec charts on opposite page). Men and cities once considered bulwarks of the game have left, vowing never to return, and dissension splits the ranks of those who remain. Usually, when minor leaguers gather, they find that in numbers there is strength, and the collective boost to morale is enough to sustain hope at least for a while. At Colorado Springs in 1957, however, there wasn't even much hope.
A veteran minor league club owner observed, "I've never seen so much pessimism in one place in all my life." He looked around at the chins suspended a few inches above the lobby carpets in convention headquarters at the Antlers Hotel. "I've been around so long that I usually stay pretty relaxed. Figure things always turn out all right in the end. This year I'm not even trying to kid myself."
A lifetime of pain
It is not to be assumed that this is the first time the minor leagues have experienced pain. They have seldom experienced anything else. The Depression almost killed them off, and even into the late '30s there were sometimes as few as 26 minor leagues in operation throughout the entire country. But the present situation is more marked, by contrast if nothing else, since it stems from the one great boom minor league baseball has experienced, the joyous postwar years of 1947-50.
In 1949 there were 59 minor leagues with 442 teams, and they played before almost 40 million fans, a figure which does not even include the financially rewarding postseason playoffs. By 1956 only 28 leagues and 212 teams were able to finish the season, and attendance had fallen off to just a little over 16 million. Even worse, most of the disintegration has hit the little fellows long considered the very foundation of minor league baseball. There are still as many Triple-A, Double-A and Class A leagues as ever (nine), but Class B had dropped from a high of 11 leagues to five, Class C from 16 to six and Class D from 25 to eight.
Baseball men talk constantly of realignment to save the minors, but realignment, brought on by attrition as much as anything else, goes on continuously and it has not saved anything yet. An example is the present effort aimed at reorganization of the Class B Big State League. President Hal Sayles has a list of some dozen cities and towns which have pledged themselves ready, willing and able to play ball in 1958, and from this group a league will be formed. The list includes Waco, Wichita Falls, Abilene, Victoria, Midland, Ballinger, Beaumont and Odessa in Texas, Lake Charles and possibly Alexandria and Crowley in Louisiana and Hobbs and Carlsbad in New Mexico. Derrest Williams, the Victoria president, says, "We will begin the season with eight teams and we're going to finish with eight teams." Perhaps they will, since for one reason or another these are the strong (more or less), and they have somehow survived. Yet this group is the residue of more than 50 cities which at one time or another during the late '40s and early '50s made up the Big State, Longhorn, Rio Grande Valley, Gulf Coast, Evangeline, West Texas-New Mexico, Arizona-Texas and Southwestern leagues. A few of the other teams have managed to move up to a higher classification, but the great majority have disappeared from baseball altogether. It is unlikely they will ever return.
The problem itself is simple enough: the minor leagues are dying because their two main sources of revenue, admission money and player sales, are drying up fast. Television, the superhighway, Little Leagues and big leagues, outboard motors and hi-fi sets, poor promotion, too many mosquitoes, rainy weather and the increased cost of living have all combined to keep the fans out of the parks. And the ballplayers which the minors once developed and sold for profit into big time don't even belong to them any more. About 80% of all the players in organized baseball, according to Atlanta President Earl Mann, are already owned by major league teams.
It is possible to do something about poor promotion, of course. The beer can be kept cold and splinters removed from the seats. Teams which have managed to exist have done so, in fact, through good businesslike methods. This facet of the operation is considered so important that one long meeting during the convention was devoted exclusively to promotional gimmicks ranging from extracurricular entertainment to giving away groceries or a bus.
Losing fight all the way
Most minor leaguers do not delude themselves, of course, that a chicken in a fan's hand is going to save the game. But they cannot do much about the weather or the price index, and in the fight for the entertainment dollar they realize themselves to be hopelessly overmatched against Perry Como and Lassie. So they start out by fighting for better promotion and usually wind up fighting with the major leagues. They are overmatched here, too.
Today the minors and the majors are one big unhappy family. "We live in the same house," says NAPBL President George Trautman, looking a bit like a worried turtle over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses and bulbous nose, "but there is an unfortunate cleavage between us." Perhaps most unfortunate of all, while the minor leagues are fighting mad, the majors couldn't care less. The deck is stacked heavily in their favor. They are making money and getting the players they want, and that is all that they ask.
The minors kick hardest about three things: major league franchise shifts which take over lucrative minor league territory (Milwaukee, Kansas City, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco); radio and television transmission of major league games into minor league cities; and major league control of the player supply. The first is not so bad, since the minors hardly dare oppose progress and because they are able to relocate quite comfortably with the indemnities the big league clubs have to pay to the invaded cities and leagues. But the very thought of the other two makes the minors sizzle.
The biggest hassle to come out of the joint meetings at Colorado Springs (the majors were there, too, living at the plusher Broadmoor Hotel some five miles away) occurred when several big league teams announced that they were going to televise Sunday games in addition to the double-barreled Saturday "games of the week" already flowing out across the country over two major networks. "Sunday," snarled Shag Shaughnessy, who has directed the fortunes of the International League for 21 years, "is the only day we have left to draw any crowds. Back off or we sue." And next day the minors not only reaffirmed their intention of taking legal action but dispatched a resolution to a congressional committee asking that this entire business of major league television be subjected to a thorough scrutiny. The minors, although enraged, did not necessarily feel that blocking this move would solve all their problems. It was simply that the very idea of major league television on Sunday was the last straw the long-suffering old camel could bear.
Neither usurpation of prized franchises nor satiation of prospective customers by major league television hurts the minors so badly, however, as the almost complete loss of the player market over the past 25 years. In the original structure of the game, the majors and minors were separate entities, functioning virtually independent of each other. Those players who could not step right out of high school or off the sandlots into the major leagues—and almost none of them could—were signed to contracts by independently owned minor league teams. There they were developed and eventually, if good enough, sold to the major leagues. The minors assumed the responsibility, did the work and collected.
Landis opposed farm system
But in the Depression years, the minors were hit so hard that some major league owners felt it absolutely necessary to take over in order to keep the young players coming up the ladder. "Judge Landis was never in favor of the farm system," says O'Connor, who is generally considered the smartest baseball man west of Branch Rickey, "and neither was I. But Frank Navin and Barney Dreyfuss convinced him it was the only solution and that there would be no ill effects afterwards."
As far as the major leagues are concerned, there are still no ill effects. They find the players, sign them, farm them out to teams which they control either by outright ownership or through working agreements and eventually still reap the finished product. But what it has meant to the independently operated minor league teams is slow death. Unable to compete in the player market against the big league clubs, they are unable to compete on the field against minor league opponents who, by virtue of major league affiliations, possess all the good young players.
Unable to beat the system, the minor league team has been forced either to quit or join 'em. Hundreds have quit; most of the remainder have joined them. There were 158 independent minor league teams in 1947; a decade later the number was down to 48. The biggest drop came in poor little old struggling Class D, from 69 independents to a total of three. And most of the teams which gave up the ghost during the convention last week did so for one primary reason; they were unable to obtain a working agreement with a major league team.
It has frequently been pointed out by minor league executives that they could still, if given the chance, develop a young player and sell him to the majors at just about half ("I'd say a third," says O'Connor) of what it costs a big league team to do the job for itself. When one considers the financial drain of vast scouting staffs and sprawling farm systems, this undoubtedly is true. But the big league teams, particularly those with highly successful farm operations, are not about to return to the point where they must bid on the open market for seasoned minor league players. For one thing, it would leave too much to chance, and good businessmen like Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers, Lou Perini of the Braves and Del Webb of the Yankees are not going to buy very much of that. For another, a major league club does not mind spending a little more money if the result is a player who has been brought up in the system and indoctrinated thoroughly all his baseball life in the particular style of play and winning psychology of the parent organization.
The three ways in which the minors could conceivably break this stranglehold are by congressional action against the majors as a result of antitrust violations and restraint of trade; by some future concerted and dynamic uprising of their own; or through the good graces of the big leagues themselves. Although the majors shake in their boots whenever the first subject is mentioned, there is little or no indication to date that the government will act; baseball may be a business, but it is still a sport, and the laws of the land look upon it as such.
As for a revolution from below, the major leagues have even less to fear here. Minor league history is one long page of dissension and distrust. "The trouble with the minors," says Dick Butler, president of the Texas League, "always has been that there are too many divergent opinions instead of a united front." And Trautman, charged for years in some quarters with namby-pamby leadership, asks simply, "How can you give leadership when you have no followers?"
As for the big leagues suddenly getting bighearted and giving players away, Leslie O'Connor admits, "I can hardly visualize this happening." Neither can anyone else.
One may wonder why the majors, big brother as they are in this rather raucous family and definitely dependent upon little brother for the development of players under one system or another, do not extend the aid that is so evidently needed. The answer is that the majors will step in and help out—but not until it is absolutely necessary. In a cold-blooded business way, they will continue to take over minor league franchises, send television and radio into minor league territory and allow the independents to die until the critical point is reached. Quite frankly, they cannot afford to subsidize all of minor league baseball, nor do they intend to try. All that they need is just enough farm teams to handle the players they have under contract. Once this point is reached, the minor leagues will level off and survive.
The critical point is not too far away. Once it was believed that a booming farm system required as many as 20 teams to handle all the young talent. Now even heavily loaded farm systems like those of the Pirates, Braves, Dodgers and Yankees seem to operate most effectively with something like 10 minor league teams. "We think that eight or nine is about right," says Fresco Thompson of the Dodgers, " and there are certainly quite a few big league clubs, Washington, for example, that can get along with less." If one is to assume then that an alignment of 20 minor leagues with 160 teams would do the job, it may be seen that the present figure is fast approaching what the majors would consider an ideal state.
Down on the farm
If the major leagues sometimes appear to be the villain of the minor league story, it can also be argued that they are only realistic. No one would be happier than major league club owners if the minor league teams under their direction would produce not only players but dollar bills as well. But the time has long since passed when the function of the lower minors, at least, is entertainment. They exist only as a training ground for prospective major league ballplayers. And public apathy has become so strong that even should the majors stop televising into their territory, even should mosquitoes stop biting, even—heaven forbid—should Lassie die, it is doubtful that the fans would come back into the parks.
It is a difficult thing for the old minor leaguers to realize and accept, for they were raised on the game and they love it. Like a man who puts catsup on his beans, they are unable to figure out why everyone else doesn't like it, too.
But the minor leagues, at least in the form in which they have struggled along for years, are doomed. Maybe it won't be as much fun as it once was Maybe a lot of people who could have helped but didn't will be sorry when the day arrives. But it is coming. And the minor leaguers, despite their rose-colored glasses and whistling in the dark, know it, too.
MAJOR LEAGUE DOMINATION: Cal Griffith, president of Washington Senators, tells Commissioner Frick he is about to draft a second baseman from Wichita.
WORRIED TURTLE, Minor League Boss Trautman lives in one big unhappy family.
"Now here's a beautiful game. White is attacking black's queen and rook with his knight."