Academic journal article Nine

Rookie Ball, 1965

Academic journal article Nine

Rookie Ball, 1965

Article excerpt

It had been two weeks since I had signed a minor-league contract with the Detroit Tigers; now, finally, I was on my way to Minnesota to play for the Duluth Dukes of the Northern League. The Dukes were an oddity, a joint Detroit Tigers-Chicago Cubs farm club with each organization contributing half the team's players. The Northern League was also unusual in having just four teams (Duluth and St. Cloud in Minnesota and Aberdeen and Huron in South Dakota). And unlike the other Class-A leagues, it didn't start play until late June with a schedule of just sixty-eight games, about half the usual number.

As I boarded my United flight in San Francisco, I noticed an attractive flight attendant, half hoping she might take an interest in me. After all, I was now a professional ballplayer and she a pretty stewardess. But when I greeted her in the aisle, she merely responded, "Hello, sonny." I dropped into my seat and waved goodbye to my dad who was still visible through the window. When I landed in Minneapolis, I was faced with a four-hour layover, and because there were no security check delays--this being many years pre-TSA--I took a shuttle into the city and visited the State Capitol building and an arts and science center, barely making it back for my flight to Duluth.

Although I didn't realize it at that time, I was starting my career at the nadir of minor-league baseball's popularity. In 1965, minor-league baseball had reached an all-time low in the number of leagues (15) and the number of teams (118). Only fifteen years earlier, there had been 59 leagues with classifications from Class D to Triple A, and 438 franchises. With just as many American boys wanting to become professional baseball players as ever, the decreased number of leagues and teams intensified the competition for the limited number of roster spots in pro ball. The decline in minor-league baseball was attributed to the increasing number of Americans moving to the suburbs, away from inner city-based teams, and to the advent of window air conditioners which brought indoor relief in the summer and encouraged families to stay at home and watch major-league baseball on their new television sets rather than go out to a minor-league ballpark.

It sure didn't feel like mid-June when I stepped off the plane in Duluth. A cold wind was blowing off Lake Superior and the temperature was in the low 40s; I was sorry I had left my jacket at home. On the way to the YMCA, where the ball club recommended players stay until we could find our own accommodations, the shuttle blew a tire and it took forever to get back on the road. It was dark when I arrived, and the Y looked old and run down. The desk clerk gave me a key and directions to my room on the third floor. The dresser had four drawers but only two knobs; I made sure never to close them all the way. A bare bulb hung from the ceiling. There was no decoration unless you counted the large abstract cracks on the walls. I located the bathroom down the hall by smell. Wanting to get my baseball career off on the right foot, I had arrived a day early in order to get organized and be fresh for our first workouts. I had never lived away from home before, my teammates were not due until the next day, and I was lonely. Nevertheless, as I wrote in my journal that night, I could hardly believe that I was soon to be a "Duluth Duke." On a cross-country family car trip two summers before, I had stayed overnight in Duluth. I had seen the ballpark--which with its tall and massive brick walls looked more like a fortress than a stadium--and had quizzed our waitress at dinner about the team. It turned out to be the only team and minor-league park I would learn about on the whole trip from San Francisco to New York, and now I was going to be a Duke.

When I awoke midmorning, it was still gray, cold, and windy. From the bathroom window, I could see whitecaps on Lake Superior. Putting on several layers of clothing, I left the Y to find breakfast and afterwards bought a world map and thumbtacks to cheer up my room. …

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