Restructuring the Minor Leagues is Long Overdue

Baseball for me has always been about the stories, and one of the game’s best, archetypal story is the ballplayer out there in some dusty ballpark in some small American town, who gets discovered by some world-weary scout who takes a chance on the kid. The no-bonus baby pushes his way up the minor league ladder until finally, he bursts onto the major league scene in a blaze of glory. That story is so appealing in part because as a fan, I can give myself a little bit of credit for his success: I can say that I was one of the few people in that dusty ballpark, sweating in the heat of a July afternoon, sitting on a warped bleacher, cheering him on before you even heard of him.

Yes, I’m a baseball romantic—after all, I did write Fathers, Sons, & Holy Ghosts: Baseball as a Spiritual Experience, and I can promise you that there is no mention of oWAR on any single page nor even in a footnote. With all that said, I will also say that the proposed contraction of the minor leagues makes complete sense, and is probably long overdue, and for all the reasons already cited in the proposal first revealed in Baseball America.

Take our former hometown team, the Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League. Our first-born daughter’s first game was in Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, a game which she attended in a stroller. Eventually, she became part of the promotions crew while in high school and even threw out the first pitch one night when the Suns honored her for becoming Williamsport High School’s valedictorian. I love Municipal Stadium and cherish the memories it contains.

Even through rose-colored glasses, however, it is easy to see that Municipal Stadium is a dump.

Lovable, awful Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown. That’s Adley Rutschman at the plate for Delmarva, September, 2019.

The clubhouse is cramped and the field is rough. This past August, we went to a game there to see the Delmarva Shorebirds, and Orioles’ affiliate play the Suns, primarily because we wanted to see first-round draft pick, Adley Rutschman play. The Orioles invested $8 million in this young man only to have him play on a field that was not as good as most of the high school fields in Florida. And what good does it do Adley Rutschman or Casey Mize or Bobby Witt, Jr. to compete against teams that are comprised largely of suspects instead of prospects?

Adjustments to swings and arm slots are now being made—quite successfully—in laboratories. Independent hitting coaches armed with the latest technology certainly improved Justin Turner’s swing, and turned Cody Bellinger from a good player into a Most Valuable Player. Travis Sawchick raises this point in his September 9, 2019 piece for FiveThirtyEight in an article aptly titled, “Do We Even Need the Minor League Baseball?” Time in “the lab” is time away from meaningless games against inferior competition. Interestingly, however, by reducing the number of minor league players, more attention can be given to those players who will remain in a team’s system, resulting not only in more efficient development, and hopefully, an increase in major league-ready talent, but also higher quality of play throughout the remaining minor leagues.

As the original Baseball America story indicates, the money saved by paying fewer players would be used to increase the salaries of minor leaguers. Major league baseball should have addressed this years ago, but it seems MLB is finally realizing that it is being penny-wise and pound-foolish to invest millions in its most valuable commodity, i.e. the players, and then pay them poorly, feed them poorly, and have them play in decrepit ballparks.

The part of the new proposal that deserves far more attention than it has received is the effect it will have on college baseball, particularly the wooden bat summer leagues. I love college summer baseball, having served on the Board of Directors of the New Market Rebels of Virginia’s Valley Baseball League, and webcasted their games for four years. I wrote a book about that, too. (For the record, it is Safe at Home: A Season in the Valley.) There’s no place like Rebel Park to take in a game, unless it’s League Stadium in Huntingburg, Indiana, the home of the Dubois County Bombers. Such leagues abound with “dusty ballparks” in which some discovery may take place. Nevertheless, as much as I love the wooden bat leagues, college summer ball might be an idea whose time has passed. There are now over 60 leagues and the talent is so thin that the rosters on most teams in most leagues feature only the occasional Division I player, a few Division II players, and a great many local Division III and junior college players. The coaching is sometimes suspect and the facilities are often lacking, as is the umpiring. Teams often struggle to find host families to provide room and board for the players who come to play for their town.

Leagues keep proliferating because owners of college summer teams have one great advantage over the owners of minor league teams—their players command no salaries whatsoever, and they are not on the hook for workman’s compensation insurance. In fact, in the vast majority of leagues, the players have to pay to play. Maybe the best of these leagues, such as the Cape Cod League and the Northwoods League (where an expansion franchise will cost you a cool $1 million) will survive or become part of the Dream League, an idea which is also part of the MLB proposal. Rounding up undrafted college players and paying them, however modestly, to play in what would essentially amount to a showcase league makes eminent sense. The competition would be even and a certain coaching standard would be established. This ultimately benefits the players, which in turn, benefits their potential future employers. Critics may deride the Dream League as the Last Chance League, but that sure beats playing in the No Chance League.

And can we all agree that the current practice of holding the draft in June, before the College World Series has barely begun, is ridiculous on its face?

Today’s major league players go about their craft in vastly different ways than did the generations who proceeded them. Conditioning, strength training, diet, skill-drills, and video study have become a staple of the modern players’ training methods, and it only makes sense that Major League Baseball wants to bring such modern methods to its developing players as well. After all, hot dogs, beer, and Marlboros are no longer part of the post-game spread.

The purpose of the minor leagues is not to entertain the citizens of Hagerstown or any other minor league city. It is to develop players into major leaguers. Given the fact that the players represent a team’s greatest asset and, ultimately, its greatest expense, it is only natural that teams want this talent to develop in the most profitable manner possible, which is to say efficiently and quickly. The entertainment provided to us fans of the minor leagues is a by-product of this development. The only surprising thing about this new proposal is that it hasn’t been proposed sooner.

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Thanksgiving, 1945

I’ll Remember You All is now available from Amazon in paperback and for e-readers. I have ordered copies as well, so if you are local, feel free to get a copy directly from me, inscribed, of course! (Don’t forget Christmas is coming and a book inscribed to your loved one, certainly makes a very nice, personalized gift.)

The climax of I’ll Remember You All, and really of the entire The Secret of Their Midnight Tears series is V-J Day, August 14, 1945. That day was Christmas and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one, but as the summer turned into fall that year, celebration turned into reflection, and joy turned into gratitude; gratitude that was as quiet and deep, as the celebration had been loud and long.

It would do us all good to reflect on the sentiments expressed by President Harry Truman in his proclamation of November 12, 1945, declaring November 22nd as the official day of Thanksgiving. His words of reflection for the Greatest Generation should serve as inspiration for all generations.

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation

In this year of our victory, absolute and final, over German fascism and Japanese militarism; in this time of peace so long awaited, which we are determined wit all the United Nations to make permanent; on this day of our abundance, strength, and achievement; let us give thanks to Almighty Providence for these exceeding blessings.

We have won them with the courage and the blood of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen. We have won them by the sweat and ingenuity of our workers, farmers, engineers, and industrialists. We have won them with the devotion of our women and children. We have bought them with the treasure of our rich land. But above all we have won them because we cherish freedom beyond riches and even more than life itself.

We give thanks with the humility of free men, each knowing it was the might of no one arm but of all together by which we were saved. Liberty knows no race, creed, or class in our country or in the world. In unity we found our first weapon, for without it, both here and abroad, we were doomed. None have known this better than our very gallant dead, none better than their comrade, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Our thanksgiving has the humility of our deep mourning for them, our vast gratitude to them.

Triumph over the enemy has not dispelled every difficulty. Many vital and far-reaching decisions await us as we strive for a just and enduring peace. We will not fail if we preserve, in our own land and throughout the world, that same devotion to the essential freedoms and rights of mankind which sustained us throughout the war and brought us final victory.

Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, in consonance with the joint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, do hereby proclaim Thursday November 22, 1945, as a day of national thanksgiving. May we on that day, in our homes and in our places of worship, individually and as groups, express our humble thanks to Almighty God for the abundance of our blessings and may we on that occasion rededicate ourselves to those high principles of citizenship for which so many splendid Americans have recently given all.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States of America to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington this 12th day of November, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred forty-five and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and seventieth.

HARRY S. TRUMAN

(The above may be found at the Army War College’s website.)

circa 1945: A father, mother and their serviceman son stand around a dinner table with their heads bowed in prayer, preparing to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

Giving heartfelt thanks, November 22, 1945.

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What’s It Like Now for the Greatest Generation?

Our lives appear to be a procession of dates marching ever forward, but in reality, Life is a huge collection of moments, each one a little life-cycle unto itself. Each one has a beginning and an end; thus, the arrival of any given moment marks its passing as well. Viewed on this level it is easy to see why Time seems to fold in upon itself, especially as we get older and have collected a greater number of moments.

I was thinking about this recently while making the final edits in I’ll Remember You All, the third installment in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy. I wrote last month that we have no idea what those moments of uncertainty were like during World War II, but neither do we have any idea regarding the intense joy experienced in that moment when victory over Japan was announced on August 14, 1945. Perhaps, the intensity of that moment can be measured by how tightly, almost desperately, folks on the home front tried to stay in that moment. The celebration here in Winchester, VA began as soon as President Harry Truman concluded his announcement on the radio around 7:00 p.m. that Japan had accepted the surrender terms. There was literally dancing in the streets and people made noise, joyous noise with pots, pans, voices, and anything else that was handy. By midnight the most the police were trying to do was minimize the horn-honking. It was dawn before the final celebrants retired for the night, a time that is quite symbolic. Those desperate moments of uncertainty, pain, and sacrifice experienced during the war had contained the seeds of peace and joy; and now, the joyous moment contained the seeds of other moments. Most of them would be mundane moments, punctuated by marriage, babies, jobs, the first house, the second house, grandbabies. Soon, it was 1946, then 1947, then 1951, 1962, the Bicentennial, the new millennium, and now, here it is 2019. Somehow, that 18 year-old boy who fought in Europe or the Pacific, or that 18 year-old girl who waited at home and collected scrap iron and bought War Stamps and Bonds, looks in the mirror today and sees a 90-something year-old staring back. I imagine that this is a wondrous, but somewhat unsettling thing.

I began The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy because I wondered what that time of World War II was like, and how it affected the kids who saved the world. I concluded it wondering what it’s like right now for those same kids, that is, the few who are left. What they remember and how they remember it is as much a part of their tale as what they were doing on December 7, 1941 or August 14, 1945. Right now is still part of their war story. I’ll Remember You All takes the reader through the conclusion of the war, and then through certain post-war moments in the lives of the main characters, until finally there is one character left to reflect upon those moments of uncertainty, pain, and sacrifice, and that final, triumphant moment of joy.

I’ll Remember You All will be available from Amazon later this month.

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Here’s a Treat with a Boogie Beat

As with most holidays during World War II, Halloween was a subdued affair compared with what came before and after. Not only were the treats in short supply because of sugar rationing, but so were the tricks. Soaping windows had been a popular trick (one that I remember as a kid), but soap and other products such as gum, shampoo, and cosmetics that required glycerine (a component of both explosives and lubricants) were restricted in their use, or removed from civilian consumption altogether.

The Brian Sisters, the subject of last week’s blog, gave us a treat in 1942, however, with a song that should be considered a Halloween classic: “The Boogie Woogie Man.” Careful, though. This song will make you jump; 8 beats to the bar, that is.

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The Brian Sisters

One of the most famous musical acts of the WW II era, if not the most famous act, was the Andrews Sisters. There were, however, actually a multitude of sister acts in the late 30s, the premier one being the Boswell Sisters out of New Orleans. (A blog, dedicated to the group is entitled, “Get Bozzed.”) The Andrews Sisters began as imitators of the Boswell Sisters who disbanded in 1936, although Connie Boswell continued as a solo artist. (As a point of reference, “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” was the Andrews Sisters first hit, debuted in 1937.)

There was another sister group out there, mostly forgotten now, but very popular at the time, namely, the Brian Sisters. It was Connie Boswell who helped launch the careers of Betty, Doris, and Gwen Brian. They were aged 12, 9, and 7 respectively, when they appeared in their first movie, Our Gang Follies of 1936. Cute beyond words, they sang, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm.” The Brian Sisters appeared regularly in film and on radio until 1945 when Betty got married and the trio broke up. Perhaps one reason the sisters are largely unknown today is that they made only one record during their careers, “Swingin’ On A Star.” Recorded in 1944 with the Freddie Slack Orchestra, for whom Ella Mae Morse (one of my favorites) was the lead singer, the record made the Billboard Charts, but Bing Crosby was riding the same song all the way to #1 at just about the same time.

Nevertheless, that same year of 1944, saw the sisters appear in the B movie, Beautiful But Broke, in which they sang, “Blues By Any Other Name,” providing me with some of my favorite lyrics ever:

Then someone got the notion that I could revive.

He took away my sadness, and gave me jive.

He added boogie woogie, and when he got through,

He made my blues a blues that anyone could do.

To me, I’m just another blues.

 

I’d like to thank you, for the boogie, right?

Thanks for the eight to the bar.

Now I’m on the solid side,

Biggest attraction by far.

I’m just another blues, but now in ‘43

Everyone is sayin’ what a hit I’ll be

Who’d ever guess that this success could all take place?

Because somebody put some boogie in my bass.

He took away my sadness and gave me jive . . . somebody put some boogie in my bass.

Those are classic lines from the time, and the Brian Sisters should be remembered for “Blues By Any Other Name,” if for nothing else. Well, that song, and a Halloween tune that we’ll explore in next week’s post. It’s a song about a slasher, at least I think that’s what it’s about. There was some mention about cutting a rug. 🙂

For more on the Brian Sisters, visit their website, which was clearly created by someone who has deep affection for a long-ago, but not quite forgotten trio.

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Buck and Boots

It should come as no surprise to my long-time readers that the only historical figure to appear in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy is a baseball player. Cletus Elwood “Boots” Poffenberger was the most colorful character in professional baseball during his career which lasted from 1934—1948, excepting 1943-1945 when Boots played for the United States Marine Corps.

Readers will remember that Buck Marsh was a well-regarded baseball player himself in and around Marsh Point. He enlisted in the Marines and, after fighting on Guadalcanal and elsewhere, he was assigned to the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) in Hawaii. Boots was assigned to this same branch of the Marines, although Boots main (only) job was to play baseball, for the Parris Island team initially, and then for FMF. From the chapter, “May 7, 1945” of I’ll Remember You All:

Buck looked around Furlong Field and at the players playing catch. The Fleet Marine Force team was taking on the Aeia Barracks team and while this might officially be a 14th Naval District Baseball League game, the only way that Buck would ever see this much major league talent again was to go to a major league ballpark. Sure, Bob Feller was on a battleship—at his own insistence—but most big leaguers had been assigned to service teams. Their contribution to the war effort was to keep the fighting men entertained by playing ballgames. In fairness, it would be awfully bad for morale if Pee Wee Reese, who was playing for Aeia was killed in battle or half the St. Louis Cardinals were lost at sea.

All the details in the above paragraph are historically accurate. The only item that isn’t is the game itself, but I have a poetic license, and I used it! Boots starts for FMF and pitches a complete game victory. After the game, Buck meets Boots in a bar—no surprise to anyone who knows anything about Boots—and the two discuss Buck’s potential as a baseball player.

As you know, I wrote Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser, and, therefore, did not have to do any additional research when looking for details for a service baseball game in Hawaii, but there is another reason that I included Boots in the trilogy’s final installment: It was researching Boots’ life that inspired The Secret of Their Midnight Tears in the first place.

Boots was from Williamsport, MD, where we used to live, and the town was the first in the United States to publish and distribute a newsletter, the Dug-Out for its men and women in the armed services during World War II. The town museum houses a complete collection of the Dug-Out, and Jerry Knode, Boots’ step-son who was the museum’s caretaker, was only too happy to lend me the collection. I read about the Army Aircraft Warning Service, which had placed an observation post in Williamsport, on a hill overlooking the Potomac; I read about rationing, and who was stationed where, and what service men and women did on leave, and abuot news and gossip. I knew facts about the home front, but I had no idea up to that time how people (i.e. my parents among others) felt about events, what they laughed at, what they hoped for, and how they all coped.

An entire way of life sprang up on December 7, 1941 and essentially disappeared on August 14, 1945. Given the loss and the sacrifice that occurred during this time, it is no wonder that folks were far more interested in moving forward then they were in preserving the war-time way of life. Having that way of life revealed to me is really what The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy is all about, and if you have enjoyed the series, you can thank Boots Poffenberger.

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We Can’t Reenact the Uncertainty

Several members of my dance family and I will be attending a USO Dance in Edinburg, Virginia this coming Saturday (October 12). Most of us have a real affinity for the music of World War II, and we can enjoy it so much more than those for whom it was contemporary music, for we know how—and when—the war ended. Had this dance been held 75 years ago, on October 12, 1944 (a Thursday night, by the way) uncertainty would have hung over the dance floor like the cigarette smoke from a couple dozen soldiers and sailors.

Sure, the Nazis were retreating. Paris had been liberated some six weeks before at the end of August, and the Japanese were on the defensive. There was talk that the boys in Europe would be home by Christmas; but Christmas Day would find Allied troops fighting the Germans and the cold in the Ardennes Forest in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. In the Pacific, the 1st Marine Division, and later, the Army’s 81st Infantry Division were slugging it out with the Japanese on the island of Peleliu. Casualties were high, and the fighting was hard. Eight Marines would win the Medal of Honor during this fight; five posthumously. No one had yet heard of Iwo Jima or Okinawa.

Reenactments and USO Dances can give us the flavor of the times, but there is one key ingredient that will always be missing: the uncertainty. Would we win? Would my son/brother/father/husband come home? And, what then? Everyone knows the answer to the first question, and in I’ll Remember You All, the other two questions will be answered for Buck, Johnny, Jimmy, Elizabeth, Veronica, and the other characters in The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy. I hope that you will enjoy the conclusion to the story that began in 1941 and will end later than you might expect.

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