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Frances Crockett grew up in a big house that was a favorite haunt of ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump and do stepover toeholds in the night. Actually, these weird creatures were professional wrestlers, men with cauliflower ears who plied their trade disguised as Indian chiefs, English lords, masked marvels and storm troopers. They came to her home in a leafy, affluent section of Charlotte, N.C. to conduct business with her late father, a successful promoter of wrestling in several Southern states. Everybody knew him as Big Jim Crockett, and Frances was his little girl.
Her favorite wrestler was Gorgeous George, the legendary bobby-pin thrower himself. But she also has fond memories of dining with her family on Oriental cuisine prepared by Mr. Moto, the wickedest of all the postwar Japanese villains, and on seafood caught and cooked by the Dirty Duseks, Emil and Ernie, members of wrestling's most infamous family.
Young Frances was unaffected by the circus atmosphere that swirled around her. Well, not totally unaffected. When she walked into the living room one day and discovered Maurice Tillet, the French Angel, there, she almost jumped out of her bobby sox. Tillet had a face that would have frightened John Wayne.
While wrestling fans wondered if gentlemanly George Becker would ever unmask the Great Bolo, Frances lived an everyday life and dreamed everyday dreams. She was going to marry, have three sons and confine her work to high-minded civic projects. "I guess I was going to be just like Doris Day," she says. "I believed all those movies I saw."
She never suspected that she would become something of a curiosity herself. In 1976, at age 35, she was named general manager of the Charlotte O's baseball team, in the Class AA Southern League. A handful of other women have held similar positions. There are currently two other female G.M.s—in Walla Walla, Wash, and Rohnert Park, Calif.—but it's still an unusual job for a divorced mother of five children.
Crockett's baseball career—business career, really—began in 1975 when with her mother, Elizabeth, and her brothers, Jim Jr., David and Jack, she bought the team. Charlotte had been a bastion of the bushes since 1911, having been a way station for such hot prospects as Early Wynn, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva. But minor league baseball had died there in 1971 because of poor teams and poor management and was replaced for a while by pro softball. Clearly, the Crocketts had their work cut out for them when they paid off the Asheville, N.C. team's $20,000 indebtedness and moved the club to Charlotte.
The first year Frances kept the franchise's books. The second season the family agreed she should run the club herself, while her brothers concentrated on the wrestling and real estate portions of the family enterprise. Most observers considered that decision to be nothing more than hype. After all, the clan that had foisted the Fabulous Moolah and the Purple Flash on the world would also recognize the promotional value of having a woman general manager. As far as baseball executives go, Crockett remains the object of uncommon interest, but she's no longer viewed as just another Crockett promotional gimmick. The last vestiges of that notion disappeared in a sea of black ink in 1980 when she put 198,528 customers into the stands of 5,500-seat Crockett Park. Baseball had never drawn more than 146,000 in Charlotte before. This success, which coincided with the city's first league championship in eight years, helped make her The Sporting News Class AA Baseball Executive of the Year. Last year the O's drew even better—211,161—though they finished only second in their division. Last week they had 12,897 for their four-game season-opening home stand.
Crockett was the first woman to win The Sporting News award at any level. Faint praise, one might say, considering how few women have been in baseball ownership and management. But Crockett says, "That plaque is a statement that I have finally been accepted."
To fully appreciate what it meant for her to pack in record crowds, sell out the fence advertising and double the size of game programs to 48 ad-rich pages, one needs to know that the only surefire winners on the Charlotte sports scene have been automobile racing and, of course, professional wrestling. Indeed, after an early surge in fan interest when baseball returned to Charlotte, attendance fell so precipitously that the franchise almost expired again. The soft voice of Frances Crockett saved it.
Jim Jr., president of Jim Crockett Promotions, Inc., which includes all the family's business interests, was inclined to fold the O's after they drew only 64,163 in 1978. Frances urged him to keep the club going.