Minor League Thinking

Hi everybody and happy Thanksgiving! Welcome to our weekly newsletter.

I’ve got a long rant about the minor leagues in this week’s newsletter so let me get to the news upfront.

What I’m Doing

At The Athletic, I wrote a piece about the Browns beating the Dolphins in what I believe might have been their most dominant performance since coming back to Cleveland (not that that is saying much).

That is the only piece I wrote for The Athletic this week because — I think this is pretty exciting — we’re closing in on my most ambitious project ever: I’m counting down the 100 greatest baseball players in 100 days! Let’s just say: I’m writing as fast as I can. We are not sure yet the exact day the countdown will begin — there’s a little inner debate going on about it. But it begins in December.

Of course, I’ll still find a way to write some other Hall of Fame stuff over the next couple of weeks as well.

Stuff!

— So proud to have The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini chose as one of Bookpage’s best lighthearted non-fiction books of 2019. To have the book called “somehow both befuddling and electrifying,” well, I feel seen.

— By popular demand, we have — for a limited time — brought back the “Fruit Pie is Delicious” and “Hot Fruit is Disgusting” T-shirts. Proceeds go to our charities — last year Mike Schur and I were able to donate almost $7,000 to our favorite charities. But that’s not the main reason to buy one. The main reason is that fruit pie is delicious.

You can also buy your own “Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini” shirt at the link.

— Mike and I just recorded a new PosCast, which should be up Wednesday morning.

— I’m going to be at the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee on December 12 to talk some Harry Houdini. And then on December 14, I will be in Atlanta at the Mercer University Authors Luncheon. Fun for the whole family.

— If you have not had a chance to see Seth Meyers’ “Lobby Baby,” on Netflix, it really is wonderful and joyful.

A Long Minor Leagues Rant

Philip K. Wrigley, president and owner of the Chicago Cubs for more than 40 years, was an odd and fascinating man. He used to say that his greatest ambition was to find a comfortable cave with no telephone in it, move in, and roll a giant rock in front of the opening so that no one could ever find him. It was a bizarre dream for one of America’s richest men, but he never did get over his desire to hide from the world.*

*One year, Cubs utility-player Pete LaCock asked for a rare face-to-face meeting with Wrigley. And at that meeting, when Wrigley asked what he wanted, LaCock said, “Oh, nothing, I just wanted to make sure that you were a real person.” 

Wrigley’s philosophy of baseball and life was pretty inscrutable -- it contained this strange blend of principles and greed, ideals and quirks. He was a baseball owner who, for much of his life, did not try all that hard to win. “Our idea in advertising the game and the fun and the healthfulness of it, the sunshine and relaxation,” he once said, “is to get the public to see ball games, win or lose.”*

*In many ways, Derek Jeter echoed this theme earlier this year when he talked about how he was more focused on giving fans a good experience, less on the winning and losing part.

He was conservative by nature and often was bizarrely opposed to change — he refused all his life to put lights in Wrigley Field — but at the same time he founded the most successful professional women’s baseball league in American history (and, yes, also abandoned the league when it became clear that World War II was about to end -- Penny Marshall got him mostly right in, “A League of their Own.”)

He believed in analytics; he hired the director of the Bureau of Institutional Research at the University of Illinois to help his scouting department. But he also believed in voodoo and once hired a hypnotist to put a spell on other teams. 

He came up with the wacky college of coaches, where the Cubs infamously alternated managers throughout the season.

*The most glorious year of the college of coaches was 1961 when all four of the team’s managers had losing records For trivia fun, can you name the four men who managed the Cubs in ‘61? These are the real names:

-- El Tappe (42-54)

-- Vedie Himsl (10-21 record)

-- Harry Craft (7-9)

-- Lou Klein (5-6)

That team lost 90 games despite having three future Hall of Famers in the everyday lineup.

How do you sum up such a person? You really can’t except to say this: Wrigley believed, deeply and forcefully, that the only way to win over baseball fans and keep them for life was to get them to come out to the ballpark, where they could experience the richness and joy of baseball.

And that’s what motivated him. As the owner of the Cubs, he had more ticket giveaways -- particularly for women and children -- than any other owner in baseball. As you know, during World War II, when he worried that fans would not get to see enough baseball and lose their connection to it, he founded the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

He also believed in the power of local television to spread the word. He became the first owner to allow a television station, WGN, to broadcast all his team’s home games.* Other owners thought he was a kook: Who would come to the games if they were already on TV? Wrigley understood that if people saw the game on television they would want to come and see baseball for themselves. And he was right.

*I don’t know that enough was made about 2019 being the last year of Cubs baseball on WGN. Times change, of course. But WGN and the Cubs, as James Earl Jones might say, they’re a part of our past.

But, and here is where we get to the heart of things: Yes, Wrigley believed strongly in local television. But he was vehemently opposed to baseball on NATIONAL television. Sure, the World Series was fine. But when the league started putting more and more regular-season games on national television, he was so angry about it that he ranted to the commissioner: “I don’t want the money.”

Why?

He believed that baseball on national television would wreck the minor leagues.

The minors were Wrigley’s most passionate cause. He was enraged at how Major League Baseball owners had turned the minor leagues into their own personal playthings. He thought it would wreck baseball.

He was so serious about this that he actually suggested that Congress take away baseball’s antitrust exemption so that minor league teams could be free. He was so serious about this that for a long time he refused to build a farm system like every other team in baseball. That — not some Billy Goat Curse — was why the Cubs went into the tank after World War II. For years, believe it or not, Cubs minor league teams were welcome, even encouraged, to sell their best players to OTHER TEAMS if they offered more money than the Cubs.

I’m not saying this was all benevolent thinking — Wrigley was a minor-league owner himself, and he fought hard to make the Pacific League into a Major League because he owned the Los Angeles Angels.

But Wrigley’s belief was heartfelt that if fans in non-Major League cities across America didn’t have their own independent baseball teams to root for, they would not root for baseball at all. And the game would lose countless fans.

All these years later — I think he was largely right. No, this is not one of those “baseball is dying” bits of nonsense. The game is hardly dying. David Glass just sold the Kansas City Royals -- repeat, the KANSAS CITY ROYALS -- for a billion dollars. Local television ratings remain strong. Millions of fans remain passionate about the game -- attendance has dropped for eight consecutive seasons, yes, but it’s still way higher than it was in Wrigley’s time. 

But it’s inarguable that baseball has lost its place as the National Pastime. 

And it loses more of that place every single year.

And now the owners are talking about just killing 42 minor league baseball teams to save some money.

It’s all wildly self-destructive.

* * *

Let’s start with a stat you intuitively know but probably have not thought much about: Thirty-four states do not have a Major League Baseball team.

Also true: Twenty-six of the 50 biggest cities in America do not have Major League Baseball. A sampling would include:

No. 7: San Antonio (200 miles from closest MLB team)

No. 12: Jacksonville (140 miles)

No. 14: Columbus (105 miles)

No. 16: Charlotte (245 miles)

No. 22: El Paso (440 miles) 

No. 25: Portland (175 miles)

There’s also Louisville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Alburquerque, Raleigh, Birmingham, Omaha, New Orleans and so on and so on and so on. 

Now, think about what kind of baseball exists in those towns. I live in Charlotte, so I can speak directly to the question: The Chicago White Sox’s Class AAA team, the Charlotte Knights, are here. Here are the plusses: There’s a glorious ballpark downtown, a near-perfect place to watch baseball. The team has any number of smart and ambitious people who come up with fun promotions to make the game’s more enjoyable. Interesting prospects come through town, if you are interested in catching a glimpse of the future. The nachos are excellent as are the chili dogs.

There is, best I can tell, only one minus: It’s NOT CHARLOTTE’S TEAM.

No, they’re run from Chicago. Charlotte people don’t get to make any real decisions about the team. The most interesting players are in and out in a blink. They have no rivalries, no continuity, no shared history. The players want out. Well, of course they do — they’re in Charlotte so they can get to the Major Leagues. That’s the whole point of the minor leagues. The Charlotte Knights are a development team for the White Sox, nothing more, nothing less. Charlotte fans are simply invited to watch.

And while, sure, people root, root, root for the home team, the games lack the passion of REAL baseball.

Compare that with the passion people in Charlotte feel for North Carolina basketball or Clemson football or any number of other local and regional colleges — obviously, there’s no comparison.

You can see this passion chasm in the list of the 42 minor league teams that MLB is looking to eliminate. Think about how much more invested football and basketball fans are in Charleston, WV., Chattanooga, Tenn., Lexington, Ky., and State College, Pa., to name just four of the cities that are reportedly on the cut list.

You can see it. Children are raised on football there, raised on basketball there, they get to root for teams in those sports where the games really matter, where there are true and heartfelt emotions on the line, where there’s a larger community of people who feel connected. Football and basketball are nationwide, there’s are always games near you that MATTER.

And minor league baseball? Eh. It’s fun. You want to go to game today? Who’s playing? Who knows? But it’s Rockin’ to the 80s night.

This isn’t by mistake — this is the system MLB beat. The people who have run MLB through the years, armed with their handy antitrust exemption, decided long ago that the ONLY baseball that matters is Major League Baseball. Everything else is not just inferior but unimportant. They created a different kind of monopoly. Imagine if the NFL did everything in its power to destroy college football. Imagine if the NBA did everything in its power to destroy college basketball.

Well, that’s the case in baseball — teams fight hard to get ALL the best high school players, leaving college baseball to subsist on players who insisted on getting educations and those who might bloom late.* Plus those aluminum bats.

*More than 20 Division 1 baseball programs have been eliminated in the last 25 years

MLB buys all the talented young players it can and sends those players to whatever city seems like the right fit for the player’s personal development — the minor league teams’ themselves are not consulted nor is their opinion considered or appreciated. The MLB team decides which manager is right for that city, which coaches are right, which programs are right.

And then the MLB team pays the players a less-than-living wage.

All of this is good for MLB … but I would argue that none of it is good or has been good for baseball, the sport. When Phillip Wrigley began to fight against MLB’s destruction of independent minor leagues, Gallup ran a poll asking Americans to name their favorite sport. Thirty-eight percent of Americans said it was baseball. That was the late 1940s.

In the last Gallup poll, NINE PERCENT of Americans called baseball their favorite sport, the lowest number in the poll’s history (and the first time that baseball finished third — behind football and basketball). And as if that isn’t daunting enough, the true picture is much worse. Among those from ages 18-54, the percentage drops below seven percent and baseball is solidly behind football, basketball AND soccer.

This isn’t to say that MLB’s hostile takeover of the minor leagues — and the effect that has had on would-be baseball fans in most of the country — is the main reason why the passion for baseball dwindles. But I think it’s a part of the picture.

And NOW, they’re talking about actually cutting 42 minor league teams. Why? Because they can. MLB (again, armed with the antitrust exemption) has already shut off pretty much any and all competitive professional baseball in this country. Now, they can — on a whim — say that there are too many players, that cities aren’t paying enough for their facilities, that team movement is making it too hard for MLB to use the minor leagues for the main purpose which is, as clearly stated, developing players for MLB.

Look, I don’t know if, in the end, MLB actually will cut those minor-league teams. Politicians, led by Bernie Sanders, are now getting interested in the subject, and that’s dangerous territory for MLB. They’re talking about tearing away teams in 21 different states, and that means 42 angry senators from both sides of the aisle, and I’m thinking that threat should be enough to give MLB pause. Let’s just say that MLB cherished antitrust exemption has not made sense in years, and I don’t think MLB would want to see Senators arguing about it.

But, whether it’s now or later, MLB will keep trying to squeeze the minor leagues and all those cities, large and small, that are not fortunate enough to have Major League Baseball.

And I think it’s impossibly, recklessly and self-destructive. MLB needs people to come back to baseball. They need to raise the next generation to love the game. They can make a quick buck here, and owners have always shown that they appreciate a quick buck, but I agree with Philip K. Wrigley. I truly believe the fact that the vast majority of Americans do not have their own free hometown baseball team to root for is an existential threat. And MLB should think long and hard about that.