Even if it were open to the public, Minor League Baseball's St. Petersburg headquarters doesn't look like much of a tourist destination. It's a nondescript, one-story building sporting a beige façade and located amidst a sleepy office park north of the city proper. An armored-truck depot sits next door, and the back windows provide views of murky Florida swampland.
Cooperstown it certainly is not.
Yet there are treasures to be found within, both new and old, that would fascinate any baseball fan. I received a tour of the offices last week, shortly after arriving in Florida for my latest (and hopefully greatest) Minor League excursion. Steve Densa, Minor League Baseball's communications director, began the tour in a spacious, high-ceilinged white room that has been dubbed "the theater." Staff meetings are held here as well as what is called "MiLB University," a twice-yearly "Minor League Baseball 101" that all new general managers and owners are required to attend.
For the subset of baseball fan that is obsessed with logos and apparel, the theater provides a near-religious experience despite the overtly secular setting. Along the back wall, in eight rows of 20, is an alphabetized collection of every current on-field Minor League cap. It starts with Aberdeen on the top left and ends with Yakima on the bottom right, and in between are a staggering array of colors, fonts, cartoon animals and bug-eyed anthropomorphic food (yes you, Montgomery Biscuits).
That wall is a snapshot of Minor League Baseball's "now," including new-on-the-scene entities such as the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and Grand Junction Rockies (who have yet to play their first game after relocating from Casper).
But even more fascinating is Minor League Baseball's "then," which can be explored in the building's library. This modestly sized, windowless room is filled on three sides with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Contained therein are rulebooks, guidebooks, media guides, programs and binders filled with all manner of communication from the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (what is now commonly referred to as Minor League Baseball).
I thumbed through such relics as the 1900 edition of "Constitution and Playing Rules of the National League and American Association of Professional Ball Clubs," and the "1956 Little Red Book of Baseball," but my attention was particularly piqued when Densa said, "You've got to check out the code book."
The "code book" turned out to be the fascinating (and, if taken out of context, totally bizarre) 1933 edition of "Private Telegraphic Code of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues." It was a purely practical publication, with the stated purpose of "ensuring privacy" when clubs had reason to send confidential information over the telegraph wires. Virtually every word that might be needed in communication between baseball executives (cities, player positions, leagues, dates, common verbs and adjectives, etc.) had its own corresponding code word. As explained in the book's foreword:
Suppose you wanted to send the following message:
John Wilson accepted our terms three hundred dollars February thirteenth six o'clock. Contract was signed by player February 25th.
This message would be sent in code as follows:
John Wilson Pactolian Aggressed Acclimate Gelding Hardiest. Galbast Genevan.
Keep that coded missive in mind next time you read a speculative account of heavily guarded trade talks between two Major League organizations. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The library is a companion of sorts to what is arguably the most fascinating area of Minor League Baseball headquarters. Densa simply calls it "the fireproof room," a cinder-block enclave lined with battered blue filing cabinets. In these cabinets are so-called "player cards" from the early 20th century through the early 1990s, one for each of the tens of thousands of individuals who played for the National Association of Professional Ball Clubs during that time.
This includes everyone from Hall of Famers to long-forgotten journeyman to those who went on to fame in other endeavors (actor Kurt Russell, to name one such example). The cards contain a record of each player's baseball odyssey -- salaries, bonuses, promotions, demotions, trades, injuries and releases all neatly noted. (Minor League Baseball stopped keeping the cards in 1991, when Major League Baseball took over these responsibilities.)
Taken cumulatively, the cards are an unparalleled treasure trove of baseball history, but one little-known to the world at large. The word is spreading, however. Just last week, the husband-and-wife writing team of Matt and Carolyn LaWell (who are visiting every full-season Minor League team this season) stopped by the Minor League offices. They were fascinated by the cards, and Matt ended up writing a story about them for the Tampa Bay Times.
"I was expecting [the story] to be somewhere in the Metro section, maybe, but I opened up the paper on Sunday morning and there it was -- on the front page and above the fold," said Densa, the amazement still evident in his voice. "Because of that, I've been getting all kinds of requests this week."