Minor League Presidents
When Judge William Bramham took over as the third president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (Minor League Baseball) in 1933, he had the misfortune of staring squarely at the Great Depression that had a firm grip on all phases of U.S. life, including Minor League Baseball.
He treated it as an opportunity, instead of a misfortune, and provided the strong leadership that the industry needed to survive and eventually prosper, despite the turbulent financial times. After the infamous stock market crash of 1929, the game was in trouble. While 25 Minor Leagues were able to finish the 1929 season, that number dwindled to 21 in 1930 and 16 in 1932.
At the Winter Meetings in 1931, with Michael Sexton in his 24th year as president, there was a strong feeling that new blood was needed for the guidance and survival of the organization. Administrative duties were put in the hands of an executive committee for a period of one year, with orders to survey conditions and report back with recommendations. Bramham was named chairman of that committee.
The key ingredients were the formation of a promotional department to organize new leagues and aid the existing leagues and a press bureau to serve as a clearinghouse for information and to collect and file player records.
Not only were the committee’s recommendations adopted in their entirety, Sexton was retired as president and Bramham elected in his place. He was hired for one year and stayed for 14 of the most important years in the existence of Minor League Baseball.
The NA offices had been in Auburn, N.Y., since the organization was founded in 1901, but Bramham moved them to Durham, N.C., where he had a thriving law practice and was active in state-wide Republican politics. He soon found out that he had a full-time job and gave up his law business to devote all his energy to Minor League Baseball.
As organizer of the old Carolina and Piedmont Leagues, Bramham was well versed in league problems, particularly in the lower classifications. And there were plenty of problems. At that 1932 Winter Meeting, only five leagues committed to operate in 1933, but 14 actually opened and finished the season. That started an upward trend for the NA, which reached a peak of 43 leagues just prior to the start of World War II.
One of the most important reforms instituted by Bramham during these lean business years was designed to eliminate the so-called “shoestring operators,” who often didn’t have the backing to survive a full season. He insisted that new owners show moral integrity and back up their operations with guaranty deposits. He rigidly held all clubs to this standard. This led to improved stability and sounder policies, making it easier to bring in new investors.
As a league president, Bramham had been a strong backer of his umpires, and he now pressed all league presidents to do the same, protecting them from physical and verbal attacks from both uniformed and non-uniformed personnel. Among other ideas implemented by the mid-1930s were a school of instruction for club business managers, and displays of promotional ideas at the Winter Meetings.
Having “won” the battle of the Great Depression, Bramham faced an even bigger hurdle -- the start of World War II. This not only drained the game of manpower, as players marched off to serve their country, but also created severe restrictions on the game through gas rationing and electrical power, travel cutbacks and the elimination of night games in coastal areas on both sides of the country.
Despite the war threat, 41 leagues operated in 1941, but many soon suspended operations. The number was down to 31 in 1942 and just nine in 1943. Bramham had one more major battle to fight during his term of office. Late in 1943, as Bramham was up for re-election, there were rumors of a possible floor fight at the Winter Meetings. It would hinge on the issue of the existing NA treasury -- upwards of $250,000. Some leagues, with operations suspended, wanted to divide up the money and liquidate the fund. The key issue was whether or not the suspended leagues or only those still active had the right to vote.
Bramham not only won the battle, keeping the treasury intact for post-war operations, but was elected to a new five-year term as president. But time and responsibilities were to take their toll on his health. On the eve of the 1946 Winter Meetings, Bramham announced his retirement. He was retained as a consultant to the new president -- George Trautman -- but died a few months later.