In 1949 America was nicely landscaped, if not exactly greened, by the bushes. There were 59 minor leagues then, comprising 448 teams. Devoted townspeople met regularly in bandbox parks to cheer another great catch by the one-armed outfielder or a home run over the railroad tracks by the longtime local slugger who could hit anything but a pre-expansion big-league curveball. The club owners included famed independent showmen like Joe Engel, who traded one of his Chattanooga Lookout players for a turkey and was going to fight Dizzy Dean at home plate for $10,000 until Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis forbade it.
These days there are only 19 minor leagues and 148 teams, some averaging 300 paid admissions a game and very few drawing more than 1,000. Whenever a player gets to be outstanding he is likely to be grabbed by the parent club in Detroit or somewhere, so about the most exciting thing that has happened to a minor league crowd in recent years was in 1967, in Gastonia, N.C., when the several hundred people in attendance had to hide under the grandstand while a tornado blew the left-field fence away.
Still, that was pretty exciting. And the numbers of leagues and teams have actually increased by one and eight, respectively, since 1963, when the majors first agreed to underwrite their farm teams' expenses sufficiently to keep most of them afloat. This is the 10th season under that agreement, and the minors are still down there, full of green young kids, crooked-fingered old vets and Baltimore Oriole prospects batting .365.
With a couple of exceptions, such as Hawaii, none of the franchises could survive without big-league backing, but now most of them make modest profits. In return, they provide the major league owners with their prime justification for retaining the reserve clause, which binds each professional player to the team that signed him. The owners argue that since they bear most of the expense of training a player in the boondocks and receive no immediate monetary return while he is playing before 586 fans a night, they deserve to trade with one another, instead of with the player, for the rights to his revenue-producing years. In effect, the owner provides the player with an education in baseball in return for control, throughout the player's career, over where and whether he can use it. Understandably, this status chafes the modern athlete.
But when the modern athlete is in the minor leagues, scrambling to make the big time if he is young or to stay in baseball if he is old, he is in no position to protest. The spirit of the minors is a little bit like that of the Depression, when people strove mightily for little money because they had no choice. It is later, when a player becomes firmly established in the majors, that he begins to wonder what all the striving is for.
This may be one reason why hardcore fans of minor league ball find it so refreshing. A devotee of the Visalia Mets, after moving to New York and patronizing Shea Stadium for a while, wrote back to the California League office in a fit of nostalgia for a copy of his old team's schedule, just so he could keep in touch. "In the big leagues," he explained, "they don't hustle. You get more for your money in Visalia."
And the money is less, of course. There are Bay Area families of four who will pass up the chance to spend $25 for a Giant game to invest less than half that amount in an evening with the San Jose Bees. In a minor league park, because it is small, you can sit closer to the action. Your scorecard may bear a lucky number, in which case you win a free dinner at a local restaurant or a supply of dog food, in Oklahoma City, where General Manager Dick King of the Class AAA 89ers was named Minor League Executive of the Year in 1971 for drawing 300,000 people, your young son may be brought from the stands and given a chance to throw a baseball through a hole in a board. If he succeeds, he gets a free baseball signed by the 89ers. If he fails, he gets a giant-sized package of potato chips. Other local promoters have made names for themselves, and moved up to the majors, by such devices as hiding two-dollar bills in boxes of popcorn.
Obviously, even with the major leagues' help, players, management and fans are still all hustling together on a shoestring in the minors. But don't knock it. As the recent unpleasantness in the majors reminded us all, Mere Money Does Not Buy Happiness.