Minor league baseball has retreated to its roots, back to small cities and towns and old wooden ball parks whose outfield fences bear advertisements for bail bondsmen and front-end aligners. In 1949 there were 58 minor leagues, some of them with teams in what have become major league cities; now TV, expansion, air conditioning, backyard barbecues and competition from other sports have reduced the number to 18.
Ah, but there's life in them bones yet. Some franchises, such as those in Rochester, N.Y. and Tacoma, Wash., are thriving, and most of the others are subsidized by their parent clubs. There is even a redemptive quality about the minors, as two former big-leaguers can attest. Denny McLain, who suffered one of baseball's most celebrated collapses after winning 31 games in 1968 and 24 in 1969 for Detroit, is making a comeback as general manager of the Memphis Blues, a Triple A affiliate of the Astros. Another former American Leaguer, ex-Umpire Bill Valentine, is back in action as the popular promotin' GM of the Cardinals' Double A Arkansas Travelers. Valentine and his colleague Al Salerno were fired in 1968—for incompetence, said League President Joe Cronin; for organizing an umps union, contended Valentine and Salerno.
McLain's troubles began when he was suspended for half the 1970 season by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for book-making. He never got his fastball back, and retired in 1972, having lost two of every three decisions following the suspension. Subsequently, his wife left him, he declared bankruptcy and he failed in a multitude of businesses ranging from a shopping mall to rock concerts.
While doing part-time radio work for a minor league team in Des Moines last year McLain began discussing a full-time return to baseball with high school buddy Jerry Bilton, an energetic, sloganeering ("Do me a favor—smile and have a nice day") mogul with interests in autos, banking and chemicals. Last September McLain was appointed GM of the Blues; two months later Bilton paid $200,000 for controlling interest in the club.
McLain hired a staff of eight and moved the team headquarters from a trailer into a suite he had persuaded a local corporation to donate rent-free. By the season opener five weeks ago he had sold a club-record 425 season tickets and grossed $225,000, or $24,000 more than the previous Memphis franchise's revenues for all of 1975. Because a $300,000 season is considered the break-even point in Triple A ball, the Blues may not only make a profit but also repay the $225,000 debt incurred by their predecessors.
McLain has found a calling as a promoter, scheduling special events for 53 of Memphis' 70 home dates. Prominent among them will be the June 5 attempt of Gary Davis, stunt man for the movie Evel Knievel, to jump 16 cars on a motorcycle. "The whole league was after him," says McLain. "We got him first—just in case."
With help from his team, which has a 14-11 record and stands first in the International League, McLain has managed to attract new, wealthier patrons by building a stadium club and improving the concessions. "This is a social town," says a Memphis business leader. "Denny's hit on something to get people out." Early in the season the weather was cold and rainy, and attendance averaged just over 1,000 for the first 10 home games. McLain passed out free coffee, kept promoting and attracted crowds of 1,800 and 1,600 during a six-game home stand last week. Should he draw 150,000-200,000 during the season, McLain could wind up as Triple A Executive of the Year.
"The third season will determine if we succeed," he says.' This year we are new, and next year we'll have a carry-over." Obviously he is planning to stay around for awhile. Reconciled with his wife and four children, McLain lives with his family in a suburban home. "We've moved 60 times," he says. "No more." A bulbous 240 pounds, McLain also claims to have sworn off pitching, except when it helps his promoting. Recently he cranked 10 pitches past a local disc jockey named McLain in a pregame contest.
Longtime McLain watchers no doubt are reserving judgment about his general managing and his new life-style. They remember past financial follies, temper tantrums and the eight-second attention span McLain admitted to in his autobiography Nobody's Perfect. However, his only embarrassment so far has been the shoddy condition of the Memphis infield. Visibly matured at 32, McLain even has made a believer of International League President George Sisler Jr., who opposed his hiring.
Valentine's success was more predictable. His intelligence and creativity, as well as the outspokenness that made him a controversial ump, have been assets in other professions. Since losing his umpiring job he has worked as a disc jockey and sportscaster and was editor of the Arkansas Republican Party's newspaper.
After joining the Travelers in February, the 43-year-old Valentine, who still wears a half-inch crewcut, arranged promotions for all 60 of the team's home dates in Little Rock, with emphasis on freebies for kids. "We have to build with youth, just like a team," he says.
Working 14-hour days with his staff of two, Valentine answers all the team's mail himself, and is so busy during games that he misses most of the action. He has added diet soft drinks, light beer and Polish sausages to concession fare and has doubled attendance to 1,300 a game, despite Arkansas' 11-15 record. The Travelers, who get a subsidy from the Cardinals, should make a profit for their 1,300 public owners.
"Getting fired by Joe Cronin was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Valentine. "You can't pay umpires enough to be away from home from February to October. I'm living at home and I'm back in baseball. And thanks to Mr. Cronin, whenever I'm introduced, people say, 'Aren't you the guy who...?' I'm better known in the minors than I ever was in the majors."