Liberate The Minor-League Cities!

Leo Pinckney Field at Falcon Park in Auburn, New York

More than 60 years ago, my parents and other townspeople in the small factory city of Auburn, New York, went down to the local ballpark and removed rocks from the field so the town could have a baseball team in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League. Since then, major-league affiliations have come and gone — Yankees, Mets, Twins, Astros, Nationals — as have stars ranging from Ed Kranepool to Jerry Koosman to Rick Dempsey to Anthony Rendon. But unlike the factories, the team has stuck around for six decades.

In the ’60s, when Auburn was a great farm team for the then-terrible Mets, the famous New York sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, wrote a piece for the Saturday Evening Post called “A Town Where The Mets Are Champs”. Soon the city created a nonprofit entity to own the team — the only such ownership arrangement in all of professional sports, to my knowledge. Auburn was such a fixture in the short-season Class-A New York-Pennsylvania League that one of the divisions was named for Leo Pinckney, the league’s longtime president and my onetime boss as the sports editor of the local newspaper, the Auburn Citizen. The town rebuilt Falcon Park in the 1990s at a cost of $3 million, and the team was renamed the Doubledays because Abner, like me, grew up in Auburn. The team is a local institution.

Or at least it was. In a move that can only be described as a hostile takeover of the minor leagues by MLB, the powers that be in the baseball world eliminated about a quarter of all minor-league teams, including Auburn (population 28,000), along with the NY-P league as an entity. Auburn was offered a slot in a new “draft league” — a league made up of unpaid players eligible for the major-league draft — but declined, saying the $80,000 fee was too steep a price to pay.

There will be a team named the Doubledays playing at Falcon Park this summer . But it’ll be an amateur team in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League — a league affiliated with a national scouting service — and it won’t be owned by the community. It’ll be owned by private investors who also own other teams in the league.

In other words, the major leagues don’t need Auburn any more, so Auburn won’t have professional baseball any more. That’s the way baseball works in the United States: The owners of 30 major-league teams — each of which is worth at least $1 billion — control everything: the talent, the publicity, the fan interest, and the revenue. So the whole point of virtually all baseball in the United States is to develop players for those 30 teams.

And the major-league owners have decided our venerable minor-league system — the focal point of civic pride in cities of all sizes across the country — has become an inefficient way to develop players. Even MiLB’s offices have folded and been absorbed by the Commissioners’ Office as part of MLB’s “One Baseball” strategy. As one Houston Astros official told FiveThirtyEight after the team reduced the number of minor-league teams, “We were trying to support a bunch of players that had a less than one percent chance of making the major leagues.” (The FiveThirtyEight article was actually titled, “Do We Even Need Minor-League Baseball?”)

The key word here is “support”: Because virtually all money and talent flows into the major-leagues, the only way for the minor leagues to survive is through player-development subsidies from the 30 big-league teams. And as we learned this year, when the bigs pull the plug, the minor-league teams go down the drain.

Take, for example, the Lancaster JetHawks, a stellar franchise in the Class-A California League. You’d think the JetHawks have everything: A first-class stadium (known locally as “The Hanger” in honor of the region’s aerospace history), a slot in one of the strongest minor leagues (the Class-A California League), proximity to Los Angeles, and a huge local market of about a half-million folks.

“The Hanger,” home of the Lancaster JetHawks

But Lancaster lost its franchise, just like Auburn. Why? Because the Colorado Rockies decided that Lancaster — in Southern California’s high desert — was too windy for pitchers to learn how to pitch.

Forget about the fans and those half-million people in the Lancaster market. Forget about the $15 million in tax money that Lancaster put into the stadium. Forget even about the fact that the JetHawks had made the wind part of their brand, playing on Friday nights under the alternative name “El Viento de Lancaster” (“The Wind of Lancaster”). In the end, it was too windy to develop players for the major leagues. So now there’s no professional baseball in Lancaster.

But maybe there’s another reason, besides developing MLB talent, for players to play baseball and for cities to have baseball teams. Maybe good players who won’t make the big leagues want to play professional baseball. Maybe fans in cities across the country want to watch them play — and build a sense of civic pride in the process. And so maybe it’s time to change the system so the minor leagues can stand on their own financially.

The “One Baseball” concept would not even be legal were it not for baseball’s 99-year-old exemption from federal antitrust law. That exemption — which baseball has fought hard to retain all these years — gives MLB owners the ability to almost completely control professional baseball in the United States, including not only their own teams and leagues but other teams and leagues as well.

In fact, it wasn’t long after the antitrust exemption was put into place by the U.S. Supreme Court that baseball’s minor-league farm system emerged. The farm system was created by legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey prior to World War II. It was a brilliant move by a brilliant major-league mind, but it completely eliminated the independence of minor-league teams.

The cover of “Veeck As In Wreck”

Before the farm system, minor-league teams developed their own players. Most of the time, minor-league owners would help cover their team costs by selling the contracts of their best players to the major leagues or to minor-league teams above them in the food chain. (This world is hilariously recalled in Bill Veeck’s classic memoir of team ownership prior to the billionaire era, Veeck As In Wreck.)

In 1934, for example, the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals — long known as a talent factory for local Italian-American athletes — sold 20-year-old Joe DiMaggio’s contract to the New York Yankees for $50,000. (This was at a time when team owners had far more control over player contracts than they do now.)

At the same time, many fine players spent their entire careers in the minors — especially in the Coast League, which was considered one small step below the big leagues. A guy you probably never heard of named Jigger Statz — who actually played eight years in the majors — also played 18 years for the Los Angeles Angels and accumulated more than 3,000 hits in the process.

Jigger Statz, who racked up 3,000 hits in the Pacific Coast League

Ironically, the farm system was originally designed to equalize competition among major-league clubs. Rickey is best known for breaking the color line with Jackie Robinson as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But he developed the idea of a farm system in the 1930s when, as the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he found himself being consistently outbid for top minor-league prospects by rich teams such as the Yankees. His solution was to create exclusive agreements with minor-league clubs so he could control the talent those clubs developed and eliminate the possibility that he’d be outbid.

The brilliant Branch Rickey, inventor of baseball’s farm system

Before long, all major-league teams copied the idea. To this day, the minor leagues are organized hierarchically, with small towns hosting the “low” minors for players just starting out and big cities hosting “high” minors for players on the verge of making it to the major leagues. But virtually all teams have affiliation agreements with major-league teams. (A few leagues such as the Atlantic League are technically independent of the system — but even they have a cooperative agreement with MLB, so they are not really beyond its reach.)

In the same way that Mom-and-Pop stores have been replaced by WalMart, the hometown team has been replaced by a player development system designed primarily to benefit the corporate headquarters. The affiliation provides MiLB clubs with some measure of financial stability. But it gives complete control of players to the MLB club, which will move the players around according to their needs — undermining MiLB pennant races and dampening fan interest.

Over time, the farm system, along with other factors such as television, have concentrated revenue and asset value in MLB franchises. For example: The least valuable MLB team is the Tampa Bay Rays, an acknowledged problem franchise despite their World Series appearance last year. The Rays are worth about $1 billion. But according to Forbes magazine, the most valuable MiLB team is the Sacramento River Cats, a team that plays in a similarly sized market but only has a value of about $50 million.

In other words, the least valuable MLB franchise is worth 20 times more than the most valuable MiLB franchise. So it’s not surprising the MLB owners don’t want to relinquish control: The only way to get a really valuable professional baseball franchise in the United States is to beg and bribe them for a team in the bigs.

The current MiLB crisis comes from the precision of current baseball analytics.

Rickey’s original approach was to lock down as many players as possible. “Out of quantity comes quality,” he used to say. And at a time when every town in America had a long history of professional baseball, the easiest — and cheapest — way to do that was to create affiliation agreements with teams that already existed and played in ballparks that were already built. In the ’40s and ’50s, MLB clubs sometimes had as many as 40 farm teams. That’s why everybody from Mario Cuomo to Bert Convy played minor-league ball in the postwar era. (Fidel Castro tried out but didn’t land a contract.)

Today, the economics of player development are different. Baseball analytics make it easier to identify talent, so fewer players are signed in the first place. More prospects play college ball. Many hone their skills in Latin American winter leagues. MLB clubs now run the Florida and Arizona instructional leagues, where they can leverage their huge investment in training facilities to develop players.

So it’s understandable that MLB decided to take over and shrink the minor leagues. For them, MiLB is a waste of money.

But for MiLB cities and players, baseball is not a waste of time. It’s an important part of players’ lives — usually it’s what they have worked their whole lives for. And as I can tell you from growing up in Auburn, it’s an important part of civic life in every one of the 162 cities that have traditionally hosted MiLB teams. It’s also an important part of their economic development strategy, especially in smaller cities. In Auburn, the Doubledays were not just the local team; they were a regional draw, pulling in fans from all over Central New York.

Logos of teams in the venerable NY-P League, which was killed over the winter by MLB

So instead of shrinking the minors, maybe it’s time to cut MiLB cities loose and let them truly develop their own fan base and their own revenue streams.

Of course, the MLB owners will never blow the farm system up on their own. The current arrangement favors them too much. So most likely the only way to end the farm system would be for Congress to step in and amend or repeal baseball’s century-old antitrust exemption, as proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose hometown team, the Vermont Lake Monsters, was also eliminated. (The Lake Monsters, like the Doubledays, joined a collegiate amateur league.)

MiLB officials didn’t squawk when MLB took their whole organization over this winter. Indeed, quite the opposite: They said that, inevitably, the minors would contract in size because the teams would have to bear additional player development cost in the future. And some baseball apologists argue that the antitrust exemption actually benefits MiLB. But these arguments also look at the situation from the point of view of the current system, in which MLB owners control everything, including virtually all revenue. The point of changing the system would be to break MLB’s grip on all professional baseball in the United States.

An alternative system would distribute revenue more evenly between the majors and the minors. In particular, minor-league teams would have to have access to two important new revenue streams. The first would be a posting system, similar to the agreement between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, which would provide compensation to minor-league teams for losing promising players to the majors. The second would be revenue resulting from increased fan interest now that the minor leagues would have actual pennant races that mean something — an impossibility currently, since the MLB teams move the players around at will. Your hometown team would mean something more than just races between innings and family fun. It would mean having an emotional connection to the team, the players, and the pennant race — just as MLB fans do.

Such a system would be especially valuable to Class AAA teams in big markets, which could develop their own stars and perhaps even negotiate their own regional television contracts just as MLB teams do. (Currently, MiLB’s only television contract is with MLB Network, which is owned by the big leagues.) In addition to Sacramento, such Class AAA towns as Orlando, Charlotte, San Antonio, Portland, Las Vegas, and Austin all have larger metropolitan populations than current MLB markets.

Some current teams in smaller and more remote markets — such as the Auburn Doubledays — might struggle financially at first. But over time such teams will find their own level, determining for themselves where in the MiLB pecking order they belong and how much they can afford to pay their own players. Many of these smaller cities may also choose to go the community nonprofit route, as Auburn, lessening the revenue pressure on the team. Nonprofit status would also assure cities that their teams aren’t going anywhere so they can build stadiums — and an economic development strategy — around the baseball experience that won’t disappear.

Losing an important part of its civic life because of decisions made elsewhere is nothing new for a factory town like Auburn. The Doubledays were cut out of professional baseball by the MLB Commissioner’s Office in New York, just as, decades ago, the city’s factories were shut down, one by one, by out-of-town owners. But, on the manufacturing front, we have seen evidence of the city’s resilience in the last couple of decades. With a long history of making things and a group of local business owners determined to maintain the city’s manufacturing base, Auburn today exports almost $1 billion in manufactured goods — more than Jersey City or Miami.

In other words, towns like Auburn often surprise you with what they can accomplish.

It may indeed be true that an amateur team of college ballplayers is the best route for a city like Auburn (or Burlington or Lancaster) with a proud baseball history to maintain its connection to the sport. Or maybe, under a revamped system, such cities are capable of supporting professional baseball teams on their own. The point is that we’ll never know, because One Baseball cut them out altogether.

Decades ago, major-league baseball’s players were freed from feudal status by a legal revolution that gave them free agency. But minor-league teams — and the proud cities that support them — are still shackled to MLB in the same way players used to be. It’s time to set them free so they can show us what they are capable of doing.

Check out these other Medium.com essays by Bill Fulton:

Infrastructure Isn’t An Abstract Concept. It’s Very Personal.

Repairing The Urban Fabric Ruined By Highways

How My Hometown’s Failed Urban Renewal Strategy Shaped Me As An Urbanist

Do You Have The Place Gene?

My Favorite Street Is Closed To Cars. But Not To People.

Bill Fulton is Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and a former Mayor of Ventura, California. His latest book is Talk City: A Chronicle of Political Life in an All-American Town. To email him or be added to his email list: bfulton@rice.edu.

Author, urban planner & former politician. Hometown: Auburn, NY. Mayor: Ventura, CA. Planning Dir: San Diego. Now Dir of Kinder Inst at Rice U. in Houston.

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