Bill Valentine, a larger-than-life figure in Minor League Baseball whose colorful career included 33 years at the helm of the Texas League's Arkansas Travelers, died Sunday morning. He was 82.
Long after making history as the youngest umpire in professional baseball, Valentine returned to his hometown of Little Rock in 1969 to broadcast Travelers games. Seven years later, he joined the club as general manager and almost immediately was named Executive of the Year by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, an honor he won five more times through 2007.
Valentine stepped down as general manager in 2007 but stayed on as the team's executive vice president before retiring in 2009.
"He was part of the fabric of Little Rock," Texas League president Tom Kayser said.
In 1951, at age 18, Valentine became the youngest umpire in professional baseball history. He made it up to the American League, where he became the first umpire to eject Mickey Mantle. In a December 2014 interview, Valentine also recalled working behind the plate when Hall of Famer Satchel Paige pitched his final game in September 1965 and when the Red Sox's Tony Conigliaro suffered a near-fatal beaning in August 1967.
Valentine also worked as a basketball referee and was "quite the personality even before he came to Texas League," Kayser said. But "that persona just grew," once he started working for the Travelers.
"I was promoting pretty good. I was bringing 'em in," Valentine said. "I did a couple of things: I quit playing on a Sunday ... so I'd play a doubleheader on a Saturday and I'd bring in an act to play in between the two games.
"My first big act, there was a team that traveled around the country called the Joie Chitwood Show, an automobile daredevil show. Two wheels, jump cars, all that kind of stuff. Whenever they came to town, they sold out. I had all kinds of acts, vaudeville jugglers and things like that. And that's when I named it 'The Greatest Show on Dirt.'"
Kayser, who met Valentine in 1978, called him a "showman" who had "a bigger-than-life personality."
"I think a lot of people didn't know all of the sides of Bill," he added. "I was lucky enough to see some of the non-baseball sides, the fun we had traveling, the good meals, the good wine we shared."
At last year's Baseball Winter Meetings, Valentine was named King of Baseball, an annual award given to a veteran executive in honor of his dedication and service to the industry.
Kayser said the honor was long overdue.
"Fortunately, timing is everything," Kayser said. "If it hadn't been done then, it would have been too late, and that would have been a shame."
"It was a very satisfying convention for a number of reasons, both that he was honored and that so many people were able to visit with him one more time."
Kayser also said he's suggested that all Texas League teams that play at home on Monday observe a moment of silence for Valentine. The Tulsa Drillers did that before Sunday's game against Northwest Arkansas.
The scoreboard at Tulsa's ONEOK Field paid tribute to Bill Valentine on Sunday afternoon. (Tulsa Drillers)
Valentine is enshrined in the Texas League Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. He is survived by his wife of 24 years, Nena Rose Hays Valentine.