19th of Mar | Story

What do the minors mean today?


What does minor league baseball mean today?

There are hundreds of minor league teams stretched from one coast to the other, and thousands of players, the bulk of whom live on paychecks smaller than you might think. They scrimp and save. They have host families or roommates. They eat peanut butter sandwiches on white bread. They ride the bus. Not many know real money — major league money like what you read about in the headlines. So maybe the minors mean something about class differences.

But the minor leagues have more than a century of tradition, too, season after season of games in small cities where there used to be little more than a general store and a bank and five months of packed bleachers. Everyone is equal in general admission. Cities like Indianapolis and Rochester and San Antonio had the minor leagues before anything else. Cities like Atlanta and Kansas City and San Francisco were cornerstones for the minors before they moved up the ladder. So maybe the minors mean something about the history that we learn in school, the names and dates we should know forever — our roots.

But the minor leagues are all about looking forward now. We hear about the top prospects and how they might help our team next season, how they might help our fantasy team next week, how we need to know their names and faces, how we need to know everything about them right now because we will cheer for them for the next decade. Magazines like Baseball America and the advanced statistics movement helped spur everything forward, and now we read about young men when they’re still boys, popping mitts with fastballs and hitting home runs over high school fences. So maybe the minors are about the future, about looking forward — about not production, but potential.

And all of that makes sense. In some ways, the minors do mean something about class differences and something about history and something about potential. They mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

But to figure out the one underlying truth of the minors, to figure out what they mean today and what they have always meant, we have to go back almost six decades, to a man in a room in a hotel in New York. This will all make sense. 


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George Trautman has problems. He is 64 years, and he works too many hours, and the people all around him refuse to listen. His business disappears a little more every year, every month, every day. Soon, it might disappear for good, and then what will he do?

Also, his doctors tell him, he has insomnia.

George Trautman is a baseball man. He works in the game, and he loves the game. On this day, in December 1954, he has worked three years as the president of the old Columbus Red Birds, nine years as the president of the old American Association and seven years -- and counting -- as the president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. He runs the minor leagues. All of them.

In 1949, minor league baseball was about to experience a bubble before we all knew what bubbles were.

The big problem for George Trautman is that all of those leagues and all of those teams are disappearing. In 1947, when baseball executives voted him the fourth president in the history of the minors, a record 396 teams played in 52 leagues. The next year, the numbers swelled to 438 teams in a record 58 leagues, then, in 1949, an incredible 448 teams in 59 leagues. Baseball people called it a plateau. But a perfect equation had lined up -- the end of the war coupled with lots of young men back in the country, a bump in expendable income and time and not many ways to spend any of it other than a ticket through the turnstiles -- and attendance increased right along with all the other gaudy numbers. Nearly 43 million people had watched a minor league game during that record ’49 season. Why not expand? Why not give a league to any eight cities with a dream and a pocket of money?

Why not? Because in ’49, minor league baseball was about to experience a bubble before we all knew what bubbles were. During the five seasons between its plateau and this December morning in New York, the number of minor leagues has dropped every season, from 59 to 36. The number of teams has dropped every season, too, from 448 to to 271. Trautman has no idea how bad the numbers will be, how close the minors will come to the brink, but they will get worse. 

He stands at the window in his hotel room, 11 floors above where baseball’s major league owners are talking about players and trades and what to change next season. They are not talking about the minors. He has a bottle of pills on his dresser to help him sleep. “We didn’t consider financial stability,” he says to the baseball writer Roger Kahn for a story in Sports Illustrated. “That’s one thing we’re paying for now.” Later, he says, the minors just have to make their product more attractive. It sounds like a simple plan. It sounds like it will work.


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George Trautman never had much help. He did have some talent, some skill, some luck, some timing. When he was in high school, in central Ohio back in the early 1900s, he played football, basketball, baseball and ran track, and he captained every team. He played three sports at Ohio State, back when college students still had time to play three sports. As a young man, he coached a couple of undefeated high school football teams. A few years later, he served during World War I and rose to captain. He worked in golf and wrestling, went back to work in the athletics department at Ohio State, spent some time with the local Chamber of Commerce. He served during World War II, well after his 50th birthday, and became a colonel in the Army Specialist Corps.

He lived a full and remarkable and tremendous life not of celebrity, but of celebration.

Three years after Trautman joined the rest of the country in euphoria of the World War II win, a table of baseball men voted him president of the minors. He had spent a couple years with the Detroit Tigers, but the minors were his home. He had loved his years with the Red Birds and the American Association. He landed exactly where he wanted to be. But a handful of factors seeped in around 1950 and threatened to spoil -- maybe even end -- the fun.

George Trautman lived a full and remarkable and tremendous life not of celebrity, but of celebration.

First, there was radio, which, in major league cities, encouraged fans to listen at home, rather than go to the game they could watch a few miles away. In minor league cities, it encouraged the same thing, and the local teams received no share of the radio profits. Trautman and many of the minor league owners were convinced that radio broadcasts in their markets had hurt attendance, and they were probably right: In 1956, more than 80 percent of the 211 minor league teams still around reported they had lost money the previous season. “Some clubs,” Trautman told a House committee on tax relief, “have to just go up the street and rap on doors.” 

Then, there was relocation and expansion. Around the same time, major league teams also threatened to move west into traditionally strong minor league cities. If radio hurt attendance, a new major league team would hurt the very survival of the local teams. Sure enough, when the A’s moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City in 1955, the Blues were pushed out to Denver. Two years later, when the Dodgers and the Giants moved west, the old Los Angeles Angels and San Francisco Seals, two of the great minor league franchises of the first half of the century, relocated to Spokane and Phoenix, respectively.

Finally, there was an unreciprocated financial hostility between the majors and the minors -- the haves and the have-nots -- and the old minor leagues that had managed to survive the first years after the bubble popped were withering on the vine. The majors didn’t have player development contracts with minor league clubs, and the idea of any sort of affiliation was novel to most folks other than Branch Rickey, who pioneered the idea of the farm system. Whenever a major league team needed a player, they bought his contract from the minor league team that developed him, often for less than he was worth. One year, the major league teams actually pooled about a half million dollars to help fund the minors. That total worked out to about $2,500 a club.

Trautman watched the number of leagues and teams continue to drop almost every year after that December morning in New York. Between 1954 and the numerical nadir in 1963, half of all leagues disappeared, from 34 to 17. The number of teams followed suit, plummeting from 271 to 130. The only year the number of teams didn’t drop, 1960, it held at exactly the same figure as the previous season. There was no growth.

Trautman encouraged his owners to clean up their stadiums, promote the team everywhere and hope for the best. He was ever optimistic. But nothing worked.


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The great irony of the fall of the minor leagues is that the rest of baseball has enjoyed few better stretches than the late 1940s to the early ’60s. Player contracts are exorbitant today, in part thanks to local television contracts that have swelled the revenues, profits and payrolls for a couple handfuls of major league teams, but those post-war years are still referred to as the golden era for a reason. And for as dull and dark as some of those years were in cities like Albuquerque and Buffalo and Columbus, minor league baseball never did reach the hideous end that was forecast for it during that same time.

Trautman played as big a part in all that as anybody.

Before the 1963 season, with more than a decade of decline behind him and less than a decade left in front of him -- well less, in fact -- Trautman helped spur major changes to the minors. Others were involved, including major league commissioner Ford Frick and the visionary Rickey, but Trautman was at the core. Baseball brushed away its old A-B-C-D classification system in favor of the more uniform ladder of levels used today. A couple of leagues shifted to Triple-A, some moved up to Double-A, others over to A, one into the first Rookie league. At that same time, major league teams committed themselves financially to at least a few minor league teams each, realizing that they needed to groom players, rather than just pluck them for a price from the farm.

For as dark as some of those years were, the minors never reached the hideous end forecast for them.

Two years later, baseball introduced the draft, the single largest shift in player development over the last century, further cementing the new farm system into the hierarchy of the game. Across the last 50 seasons, the number of leagues has held steady between 18 and 21, and the number of teams has increased almost every year, from that low of 130 in 1963 to a high of 246 four seasons ago.

Trautman never lived to see any of that. He died right around the midseason break in 1963, just a few months after the reorganization that changed the game he helped grow, then watched shrivel. He had problems, struggled for years, but anybody would have struggled during those years. He was born in a world without steel stadiums, much less lights glowing over diamonds, and he worked in a world where no one carried a computer or filed reports on cell phones. His years were different, but remarkably similar. 

He watched a bubble burst, then needed to clean it up and move forward. He worked and worked and worked, finding only some modicum of success during his later years. He never stopped. He always dreamed.

A few years before his death, when he was still trying to build the minors back up to some semblance of what they had been, Trautman talked with reporters about his time in the game. “Baseball in the minors has come up the hard way, and we have a few difficulties,” he said. “But whatever you do, don’t paint a dark picture for minor league baseball.

“We are going to be all right.”


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What does minor league baseball mean today?

Does it mean something about class differences and something about history and something about potential? Of course. But does it also mean something about coming together as a family and a city? About civic pride? About wild promotions? About beautiful new stadiums, and fresh revenue streams, and local ads on outfield walls, and kids running together on summer nights, and bugs flying up into our nostrils until we have to snort them out in fits of laughter?

Of course.

Minor league baseball means all that and more. Nothing reflects us, all of us, as a people and as a family and as a country, better than the minors. We all work and work and work to climb some professional ladder. Maybe we make it, maybe we stall a few rungs short of the top. Maybe we live with regret. Maybe, like George Trautman did until the very end, we still have dreams.

That is what minor league baseball means today, what it has meant since before that old president of the minors was even born -- the dreams that we all have, the optimism that we can carry with us through the darkest days. These dreams are not all sunshine and glitter, but the grit inside of us. Don’t paint a dark picture.

We are going to be all right.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com  ♦  @MattLaWell  ♦  @AMinorLgSeason

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