The dawn of 2015 resulted in a changing of the guard for the Midwest League as longtime president George Spelius stepped down after 28 seasons. Richard "Dick" Nussbaum II, a South Bend-based attorney, who has served as the league's general counsel since 1993, replaced him.
When Spelius assumed the presidency of the Midwest League in 1987, the Class A circuit had 12 teams and a combined attendance of approximately 1.2 million. Twenty-eight seasons later, the league has expanded to 16 teams while its attendance has increased by a factor of three-and-a-half. Spelius presided over this period of unprecedented growth from his office in Beloit, Wisconsin, located directly across the street from a flower shop that has been in his wife's family for nearly a century. While ensconced within this unassuming locale, he oversaw the Midwest League's expansion and relocation efforts, devised the season schedules, levied out fines in response to on-the-field transgressions, and perhaps most meaningfully to him, helped develop the league's umpires as they too attempt to make their way to the Majors.
Now it's Nussbaum's turn to assume such responsibilities.
"I never imagined this would happen. I thought George would be president for life, like Fidel Castro," said Nussbaum, speaking from his office in South Bend as part of a conference call that also included Spelius. "But over the past couple of years, George mentioned that he'd like to slow down, and the league directors quite wisely provided for a smooth succession plan. So the past two years, I've been in training for this job. It's been on my mind a lot."
"I told [the Midwest League succession] committee, 'I think you've already got your next president, Dick Nussbaum,'" added Spelius. "And off we were. There was no war of any sort -- it was like having a nice banana split."
The ease with which Nussbaum was elected -- a decision that became official after a league meeting conducted at last month's Baseball Winter Meetings in San Diego -- is a testament to the reputation that he had already garnered throughout the circuit.
"I got involved [with the Midwest League] as a city attorney for the City of South Bend," said Nussbaum, a life-long baseball fan who was the starting center fielder for his alma mater of Notre Dame from 1971-74. "In 1988, South Bend was admitted into the league and the city owned the stadium, so that was my connection to the franchise. I was assigned by [South Bend] mayor Joe Kernan, a former baseball player who, many years later, became the owner of the team. So as any good lawyer would do, I tried to learn as much as I could. I went to a number of Winter Meetings and had the chance to meet George and a number of league directors. In 1993, the league told me they were looking for a lawyer, and I said that I'd love to do it."
Nussbaum will continue to serve as general counsel to the league, in addition to his new duties as president. He said the most "interesting as well as time-consuming" aspect of the league's legal matters involve the relocation of pre-existing franchises.
"We had to deal with serious litigation in regard to Dayton [which joined the league in 2000 after relocating from Rockford, Illinois]," said Nussbaum. "It was very complicated, and there were a lot of lawyers involved. But the nice thing about the process is that it ended up in the right fashion. Dayton has been a smashing success. But the way we do business was looked at as closely as it's ever going to be looked at. The people who thought we weren't doing things right lost and moved on. Dayton has gone to become the most viable franchise in the league and perhaps all of the Minor Leagues. But things got pretty intense for George and I."
While there are no Midwest League relocation efforts on the immediate horizon, this will likely be an issue that Nussbaum deals with at some point during his presidential tenure. A distinct "tale of two cities" dynamic exists within the circuit. Community-owned small market teams playing in old no-frills ballparks, such as the Burlington Bees and Spelius' hometown Beloit Snappers, must co-exist with attendance powerhouses possessing amenity-laden multi-use facilities such as the Fort Wayne TinCaps and the aforementioned Dayton Dragons. It is an interesting and often difficult-to-reconcile dynamic, and Nussbaum gave a carefully considered answer regarding how the league will proceed with such matters.
"I think community-owned teams are one of the strengths of our league," he said. "But as time goes by, it gets harder and harder for them to compete. The standards are higher in terms of the stadiums and the quality of the field. But those small communities are how we started out. It's still in our DNA. It's part of our responsibility as a league to support clubs that might have more challenges than others. … We do our best to represent the clubs we have in place but are realistic enough to know that the realities of the marketplace need to be addressed. As long as they're addressed, we'll do everything we can to help them succeed."
"Good answer, Dick," added Spelius.
But Nussbaum still has much to learn from Spelius, especially when it comes to the more commonplace aspects of the league presidency.
"Dealing with bench-clearing situations or when someone's ejected -- if he needs any info, then we can work together," said Spelius. "But he'll make the decisions regarding what to do. … All the fine money that we collect, in one way or another, goes to charity. At the end of the season we take that money and divide it up among the 16 teams. The clubs all have places where they want to see it go."
In addition to having been bestowed with a lofty "President Emeritus" title, Spelius will continue to work as the Midwest League's director of umpire development. He has always taken the time to mentor umpires during their time in the circuit, often inviting them to his home for dinner. Marty Foster, now working in the Major Leagues, was one such guest. He is now Spelius' son-in-law, having married his daughter, Mary.
"Umpires are human beings, too, so I was an umpires advocate," said Spelius. "And now I think, if I didn't support umpires, my son-in-law would shoot me. But I have tried to be like a father to them. You can tell when a kid is down, when he's not getting good reports. I like to jack him up a little bit, and tell him the things he can do to improve."
Nussbaum notes Spelius will remain involved in another, perhaps less noticeable way as well.
"We've already got [Midwest League] baseballs with my signature on them but have made it clear to our clubs that there are still a lot of 'Spelius' balls out there. So use them until they're out," he said. "But I don't know, somebody might start complaining about the George Spelius ball vs. the Dick Nussbaum ball, saying one of them goes farther than the other."
And as these Spelius balls become increasingly rare, might they become a collector's item?
"Oh, I don't know about that," laughed Spelius. "Maybe you could get a cup of coffee for it."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.