SAN DIEGO -- 2014 marks the 37th season in which Bill Valentine has attended the Baseball Winter Meetings, but it's the first in which he's been king.
Valentine is the "King of Baseball," to be exact, an annual award given to a veteran executive in honor of his dedication and service to the industry. Valentine, beaming and bald-headed, was bestowed with his kingly crown and cape during Sunday evening's Baseball Winter Meetings Banquet. He then mounted the podium in order to thank his subjects with a joke-packed speech that channeled the spirit of Henny Youngman.
Valentine is best known in the Minor League Baseball world for the 33 seasons (1976-2008) he spent running the Arkansas Travelers, during which he promoted the ballpark experience with a carnival-esque zeal that inspired the long-running team slogan, "The Greatest Show on Dirt." (The tagline was later modified after lawyers for the Ringling Bros. Circus intervened.) But Valentine's professional baseball career stretches all the way back to 1951, when, at age 18, he became the youngest umpire in professional baseball history. Valentine went on to work as an umpire in the American League -- becoming the first umpire to eject Mickey Mantle, among other accomplishments -- but his attempt to unionize his fellow game callers led to an early job termination. He returned to his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas in 1969 to broadcast games for the Travelers, which ultimately led to his securing the general manager position that made him an Arkansas baseball institution.
On Monday, I caught up with Valentine, resplendent in a plaid blue shirt and baseball-themed suspenders, in the lobby of the Hilton Bayfront Hotel. I wanted to hear his thoughts on his new status as national pastime royalty, and perhaps more importantly, hear a story (or two dozen) from a baseball life that has been absolutely chock full of them. What follows are a few excerpts from our sprawling, anecdote-filled conversation. Stay tuned for additional insights and anecdotes from Valentine in the coming weeks, as there is plenty more where this came from.
MiLB.com: After more than six decades in baseball, you're now the King. How does that feel?
Bill Valentine: I've been chasing Ray Winder [Valentine's predecessor as Travelers general manager] for my whole career, because in Little Rock, he set the standard. He was the Sporting News Executive of the Year, then I got the Sporting News Executive of the Year. He won the George Troutman Award, I got the George Troutman Award. I had gotten all the awards he had gotten over the years. I just needed the King of Baseball. So when they told me I got the King of Baseball, I said to [Texas League president] Tom Kayser, "Well, now my career's over because I finally caught up with Mr. Winder!" [Laughs]
MiLB.com: At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to dedicate your life to baseball? Or did you always know?
Valentine: It's kind of an unusual story. I grew up about four or five blocks from Travelers Field. Nowadays you can't do it because of the labor laws, but they had kids who would sweep down the ballpark with brooms. They sold cushions, they sold soft drinks in bottles, they'd be sacking peanuts. … So from the age of about 9, I worked in Travelers Field.
By 14, I became the clubhouse boy for the visiting team, and doing that, you worked with the umpires. … After my first year doing that, they needed real umpires. I started umping men's baseball games, at age 14, 15, 16, 17, and my grandmother, who wouldn't know what a baseball is, I told her, "I'd like to go to umpire school in Daytona Beach, Florida. It's $500 and I don't have that kind of money." So she gave me $500 and I went to Daytona Beach, Florida to Bill McGowan's umpire school. 1951. I got a job in the Ohio-Indiana League. I was the youngest person to ever umpire professional baseball and I'm still the youngest person to ever do it. [Laughs] I don't think they'd hire someone like that today, just 18 years old.
MiLB.com: That must have been intimidating.
Valentine: I didn't shave until I was 25. You can imagine what I looked like. But you had to get tough. … In those days, it wasn't like they were developing [players] in the Minor Leagues. They had guys, 35 years old, playing in the Ohio-Indiana League, the Longhorn League. Listen, that's how they made their career. … They stayed in baseball. They'd been around, and they were fighting for their jobs.
And they argued. I don't like to say it, but today players don't even know what an argument is. It's about development, and usually when you see an argument, the manager is coming out to keep the player from getting thrown out. … In the old days, it was for real!
The fans and the facilities were awful. In Abilene, Texas, we had a dressing room with a shower and a dirt floor. [Laughs] That's the truth!
Bill Valentine started his long and storied career as the youngest umpire in professional baseball history.
MiLB.com: And then you went on to umpire in the American League. What sticks out in your mind about that experience?
Valentine: When I found out [about being the King of Baseball], I went back and looked at a few things. The things that I'd forgotten about. Being behind the plate for Tony Conigliaro [when he suffered a near-fatal beaning in 1967]. Satchel Paige, he pitched his last game for Kansas City [in 1965], and I worked the plate. [Kansas City A's owner] Charlie Finley had a rocking chair in front of the dugout for Paige to sit in between innings.
MiLB.com: When you worked as general manager at Ray Winder Field, the stadium had a reputation for being a real lively place.
Valentine: I was promoting pretty good. I was bringing 'em in. I did a couple of things. I quit playing on a Sunday, Sunday baseball was dead. 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."
MiLB.com: How has Minor League Baseball changed since those days?
Valentine: There's a lot of in-house promotions. In-between innings, they're sock-hopping, it's all choreographed. Where before there were guys running around, doing their own thing in the stands. That's changed. Well, the whole thing's changed because of big money. You used to be able to get a franchise just by taking on the debts. Hell, in the 1970s if you picked up the debts, you could have a franchise in the Texas League.
MiLB.com: Back in 1951, how do you think you would have responded knowing that you'd go on to have this kind of career? That you'd one day be the King of Baseball?
Valentine: First of all, I never really thought I was that old. I've been active. So I never considered myself old until a year ago Tom Kayser said to me, "You're an old dinosaur. They're liable to make you King of Baseball some day." I said, "Hell, you've got to be old to get that." He said, "Well, you've been around over 60 years. What do you think you are, some damn kid?"
But I'd never considered my age, because I enjoyed it. I really did. I actually enjoyed what I did. I wouldn't change anything. I got fired by the American League, I wouldn't change that. Because that turned me into something I enjoyed doing more. I really found something that I loved to do.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.