Minor League Presidents
When Henry J. (Hank) Peters took over leadership of Minor League Baseball as the sixth president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, serving from 1972 through 1975, he had a background unlike any of his predecessors in the position. It was the first time in what was then the 70-year history of the organization that it would have a president whose baseball service had been almost exclusively in Major League Baseball, rather than in the Minor Leagues.
His election may have been a sign of the times. Perhaps the most important ingredient for Minor League success, during this period of fighting for survival, was to have a Player Development Contract with a Major League partner. In those days, not every Minor League team had such an affiliation to help pay the bills.
Peters already had 25 years in baseball at the time of his election, but except for one season as general manager of the Burlington (Iowa) team in the Three-I league in 1954, all of his paychecks had come from Major League teams. It was a narrow distinction, however, since nearly all of that service had been working with Minor League clubs from the “other side” of the desk. He began his baseball career in the Minor League department of the St. Louis Browns (1946-53) and later served as farm director for Kansas City, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
Hank was vice president/player personnel of the Cleveland Indians during the 1971 season, a time when Phil Piton had already announced his pending retirement as NAPBL president. The NAPBL executive committee sought candidates for the job of president, conducted interviews and put the finalists on a ballot for the leagues to decide.
“I wasn’t sure how the membership would react to my background,” says Peters. “I thought some might think that I would be too Major League-oriented. But it was definitely a time when affiliations were almost mandatory. The Minors had gone through some really trying times -- from glory days to big problems.
“I think it was obvious to the people voting that they needed more Major League support,” Hank continued, “and maybe there was some thinking that the NA was getting a little archaic and needed some different thinking. It was time to consider the Major Leagues as an associate and not the enemy. In any event, enough of them saw fit to elect me.”
Peters quickly found out that he would need every bit of influence that his background provided, at both the Minor League and Major League levels.
“The Winter Meetings [in 1971, just prior to the start of his presidency] were a real eye-opener for me, sitting in on so many meetings with our teams and leagues,” says Hank. “I found out that in many instances club management was sorely lacking in preparation for the next season. Too many teams would just close their offices at the end of season and not open until the next spring. There was no winter work, no planning, no selling. That just wouldn’t do.
“What we tried to do was instill in people the idea that they had to do more to help themselves before they were going to be able to get their Major League partners to help them. We came out of the meeting,” Peters said, “with a committee that had both Minor and Major League representatives to study the situation, and see if we could help both sides -- [with] additional benefits for the Minors, as well as setting some minimum standards for Minor League teams that had not existed before.”
The committee returned to the Winter Meetings a year later with a long list of proposals, including such things as setting minimum standards for ballparks, lighting, transportation and associated items. But it would have been expensive, and was voted down by the Major Leagues.
“If it had passed, it might have speeded up lot of things that the game needed and eventually got,” says Peters. “Instead, we had to settle for a piecemeal approach, and moved on. We had Bob Freitas and a few others going around the country to visit clubs and inspect ballparks. We wanted to share ideas and improve things as much as we could.”
Peters’ most consistent battle was to retain the leagues then in existence. It was a battle on two fronts. There was a movement among some Major League teams at that time to abandon the existing farm system structure with teams spread all over the country and have all or most of their teams play their games at Spring Training complexes, much like instructional leagues and Spring Training. It was seen as a major cost-cutting approach, with virtually no travel involved. But it would also have meant no fans in the stands, and no real feeling of competition.
“It was understandable in theory,” acknowledged Peters, “since it would have let the parent teams control things totally. But it would also have removed the human element from the development process, with no fans -- and I believe that would have been very detrimental.”
But that was only half of the battle. “We had so many leagues that were in danger of going out of business. Some were down to three teams -- and you can’t operate that way. I spent a lot of my time trying to convince Major League Baseball that they really needed these leagues. I’m proud that we were able to create clubs, getting two or three players from this team and a few from another team and so on, so that we could put together an unaffiliated team and each league could have at least four teams. Some of those leagues that were in trouble are now strong and prosperous.”
The Carolina, Western Carolinas (forerunner of the South Atlantic), Pioneer, Northwest and New York-Penn leagues had as few as four or six teams, nearly all including teams with no Major League partner.
Another lasting accomplishment of Peters’ tenure as the sixth president of Minor League Baseball was establishing the office in St. Petersburg, where it has remained for more than 30 years. Traditionally, the office had been located in a city with a Minor League team at the choosing of the president. The previous site, Columbus, Ohio, under presidents George Trautman and Phil Piton, was without a team when Peters took over, and he moved operations to central Florida.
Peters resigned his post after four years to return to Major League Baseball, serving as executive vice president/general manager of the Baltimore Orioles for 12 years, where he was twice named Major League Baseball Executive of the Year, and then as president of the Cleveland Indians from 1987 through 1991. Since his retirement, he has divided his time between Baltimore and Florida.