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The minor leagues, as you can see, are major business nowadays. Although very few franchises offer substantial annual profits, almost all of them have experienced a geometric rise in their market value. In 1981, for instance, a group headed by University of Massachusetts professor Jerry Mileur bought the Double A Holyoke Millers for $85,000. The franchise was moved to Nashua, N.H., in 1983, then to Harrisburg, Pa., in 1987; now it is worth an estimated $4 million.
So much has happened in 10 years. The 1989 National Association attendance, was 52% higher than it was in 1979, and 110% higher than it was in 1976. There are a number of reasons for the boom. Jimmy Bragan, the president of the Double A Southern League, says the lure of TV began to wear off "and people wanted to go be entertained, to participate."
General managers also are more energetic and professional than they once were, and they actually have marketing strategies and promotional expertise. Says Bob Rich Jr., the owner of the Buffalo Bisons, "In the old days, somebody would plunk down $10,000 for a club, then hang out a sign that said BASEBALL TODAY and expect people to come."
The minor leagues are also riding the coattails of the majors, which are still in the midst of an unprecedented period of growth. The movies Bull Durham and Field of Dreams have also promoted fan interest in baseball at its hometown level. Says Jerry Leider, a Hollywood producer with interests in three clubs ( Reno, South Bend and Welland, Ont.), "The minor leagues are thriving in part because of a tremendous renaissance all across America—people trying to find their roots, to get a little closer to home. As major league baseball becomes more and more packaged, and more and more players make $3 million a year, it gets harder for the average fan to relate to the majors. And it gets easier to relate to the minors. They're cheaper, more fun for the family, and people are enjoying themselves."
As for the outrageous increase in the price of a franchise, that has been fueled by nouveau riche owners who are either out for a quick buck on the turnover of a team or out for an ego trip at a considerably lower cost than, say, the San Diego Padres. Celebrity minor league owners now include Bill Murray, Mark Harmon, Robert Wagner, Morganna, Billy Crystal, Sidney Sheldon and George Brett. Clearly, getting down on the farm is in right now.
Neither social ascendancy nor financial windfall was among Wolff's motivations when he decided to bring the Bulls back to Durham in 1979. In those days he thought of himself as a novelist who happened to roam from minor league town to minor league town to support himself. Over the years he had been a general manager in Jacksonville, a radio announcer in Richmond, a public-address announcer in Savannah. "I wanted to get into the game full-time, and I saw Durham as a way of establishing my credentials, which were running out," he says. After getting $25,000 from the city of Durham to renovate its dilapidated ballpark and paying the $2,417 franchise fee, Wolff raised another $30,000 in operating expenses, which wasn't really enough. "The season opened in April, but we ran out of money in March. The check was in the mail that month."
Durham, however, was hungry for baseball after an eight-year drought, and on opening night in 1980, the Bulls drew 4,000. The next night they drew the expected 600, but for some reason, 2,300 showed up two nights later, on a Friday. On Saturday, Wolff was promoting Jacket Night, and he ran out of the 1,000 jackets an hour before the game. "So there I was, out in the parking lot, begging people not to come to the game. But they didn't care about the jackets. They came anyway."
The rest is minor league history. One of the Bulls' investors was Thorn Mount, a Hollywood producer, and in 1987 he and director Ron Shelton began filming a little baseball movie in Durham. "I actually didn't think anything would come of it," says Wolff. "For one thing, nobody liked the working title, Bull Durham." The Durham Bulls didn't need Bull Durham to fill the seats, because they were already filled. The movie did, however, create an intense demand for Durham Bulls souvenirs—so intense, in fact, that the club has an 800 number. Ballpark Corner, the souvenir shop across the street from the park in a building that once housed a soul-food restaurant, is a gold mine. Wolff often will come in after games to work the register.
Durham's record attendance for a game is 6,237, set back in 1946. The modern Bulls have exceeded that figure countless times, but local reporters claim that Wolff, out of respect for the past, refuses to announce a new record. Even with that self-imposed restriction, the Bulls drew 272,202 fans last year, the highest Class A total since Denver's 322,128 way back in 1953 and a higher attendance figure than that for 11 Triple A clubs in the U.S. and Canada.
The Bulls' good fortune has been matched by that of another Wolff purchase, Baseball America, a semimonthly newspaper he imported from Canada in 1982 along with its editor, Allan Simpson. Devoted mostly to the minors and amateur baseball, BA has, in eight years, gone from a circulation of 6,000 and the back room of Ballpark Corner, to 62,000 and an entire two-story office building in downtown Durham. Its growth is another indication of the boom in the minors.