SABR

Bill Valentine

This article was written by Mark Armour.

Bill Valentine spent almost 60 years in the game of baseball, as an umpire, broadcaster, and executive, and loved almost all of it. His dismissal from his job in 1968 led to a few years of court cases and unwanted publicity, but he recovered from this hardship to forge a new baseball career in his hometown, becoming one of the most accomplished and beloved executives in the long history of the minor leagues.

William Terry Valentine Jr. was born on November 21, 1932, in Little Rock, Arkansas, to William Sr., a railroad worker, and Margaret Kremer Valentine. Young Bill was an only child, and grew up on West 11th Street, a short walk from Traveler Field, the home of the Arkansas Travelers minor league team. Like most boys, Valentine played a lot of baseball, but he also did odd jobs at the ballpark whenever he could. “I sorted soft drink bottles before games, and I retrieved seat cushions after games, and I was a shagger—shagging down foul balls and returning them during the games.”[1]

He began umpiring early in his teenage years, working amateur and semi-pro games wherever he could. Though his parents had moved outside the city to North Little Rock, Bill spent a few summers with his grandparents so that he could continue to work and umpire at the ballpark, officiating games for the Central Arkansas League and the Little Rock Associated Amateur League. He earned enough money to get his own car, a rare commodity for a teenager in Little Rock. Valentine graduated from North Little Rock High School in 1950.[2]

Valentine received a scholarship from the Arkansas State Teachers College (later the University of Central Arkansas) to study journalism. Though this might have been the prudent choice, he had not yet shaken the itch to umpire. In January 1951 he attended Bill McGowan’s umpiring school in West Palm Beach, Florida, finishing second in his class. He received an offer to officiate in the Class D Ohio-Indiana League, becoming the youngest professional umpire in baseball history.

Valentine spent three seasons in the lower minors, moving to the Longhorn League in 1952, the West Texas New Mexico League and Big State League in 1953. He got his first big break in mid-1954, when two Texas League umpires suddenly quit, citing the excessive heat and travel conditions. Valentine, still the youngest umpire in the minor leagues, was one of the two umpires promoted to the Double-A circuit (along with Jim Odom, another future major league umpire).[3] 

He hung on in the Texas League for seven seasons, and the 6-feet, 185 pound Valentine earned a reputation for firmness and toughness. In 1958 in Houston he ejected home team manager Harry Walker from a game for excessive baiting from the dugout. When Walker refused to leave, Valentine summoned police officers to escort the manager from the park.[4]   After the 1960 season he was promoted to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League for two seasons, before being hired to the American League staff in 1963. Just 30 years old, he looked to have a long career ahead of him—after all, he was twenty-five years from the league’s retirement age in a profession where men tended to stick around for a while.

“Charlie Finley [owner of the Kansas City Athletics] got me into the Major Leagues. He was head of the National Tuberculosis Association and one year he came to Little Rock for some promotional event. People in town hooked him me up with him, I suppose because of my background in baseball. Before he left town he told me to write him a complete resume of my career. Later that year I got a telegram saying my contract had been purchased by the American League.”[5]

After every baseball season Valentine returned to his hometown of Little Rock. He had married Mary Ellouise Pefferly on December 21, 1951, and the two made their lives there. In the winter months Valentine refereed basketball throughout the region, including big-time college games in the Southwest Conference and Big Eight Conference. Once he reached the major leagues he also began to work at the Al Somers umpiring school in Daytona Beach in late winter.

Valentine spent the next six years umpiring in the American League. His tenure was typical, filled with mainly uneventful evenings of work but punctuated with the occasional rousing argument or controversial play. He received a great honor in 1965 when he was chosen as one of the umpires for the All-Star Game in Minnesota. A few days later in the same ballpark, Twins manager Sam Mele got into a scuffle with Valentine in which the skipper appeared to throw a punch at the umpire. Both men denied any intention, but Mele drew a five-game suspension for his actions. Mele ended up winning the Manager of the Year award after leading his team to the 1965 pennant.

When asked years later to recall the most memorable games of his career, Valentine mentioned a sad one—the night of August 18, 1967, when Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro was hit by a pitched ball in a game at Boston’s Fenway Park. Valentine had a close view, right back of home plate. “His eye was swollen before he hit the ground. If you could have seen his face—Good grief. Everyone knew it was bad.”

On the morning of September 16, 1968, having concluded a routine series in Cleveland, Valentine and fellow umpire Al Salerno were awakened in their hotel rooms by phone calls from the league president Joe Cronin. Both men were fired, effective immediately. “They're just bad umpires, that's all,” Cronin told the press.[6]

As it happened, the two umpires had been leading an effort to organize the AL umpires, who were decidedly underpaid when compared with their unionized counterparts in the National League. When asked about this unusual coincidence, Joe Cronin expressed surprise—he had “no knowledge” of any desire by the umpires to organize, insisting that the two umps were “never first class at any one time.”[7] Few observers, then or later, believed Cronin’s story. In fact, several managers, including Dick Williams, Hank Bauer, Al Lopez, and Alvin Dark, publicly defended the umpires and later testified that they were in the upper half of league umpires.

Valentine spent much of the next three years fighting for his reinstatement. The remaining AL arbiters soon joined the NL union, forming the Major League Umpires Association. In January 1969, the new union filed an unfair-labor-practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In a separate action, in September 1969, Salerno and Valentine filed a $4-million suit in federal court against Major League Baseball, Joe Cronin, and the American League, alleging federal antitrust violations and defamation of character. The umpires ultimately lost both cases, mainly because they were unable to prove that Cronin knew they were organizing and that he fired them for that reason.

Before the NRLB hearing in June 1970, the AL offered several deals to the umpires to get them to drop the case. Valentine was eager to settle, but Salerno was not—his lawyer convinced him he could get a big settlement. In the end, neither umpire got anything, and their careers were over.

Valentine had spent 18 years umpiring professionally, though he was just 35 when he called his last game. He returned home to Little Rock. Along with continuing to officiate basketball games, he held a variety of jobs in the city, including chairing the local Republican Party and working as an announcer for the local Arkansas Travelers in the same ballpark he had worked in as a boy. Traveler Field had been renamed Ray Winder Field in 1966, and would continue to host minor league games through 2006.

In 1976 Valentine became general manager of the Travelers and helped resurrect the franchise. “I think I have to be the envy of a lot of people in baseball,” said the rejuvenated Valentine. “I know a lot of guys who would love to have baseball jobs in their home towns.”[8] In his first season, the club drew over 90,000 fans, a 34-percent increase. As the Travelers were losing money, his primary focus was on increasing flagging attendance. Valentine soon called his ballgames, “The Greatest Show on Dirt.”[9]

On his first opening night, channeling an earlier stunt by Bill Veeck, the Travelers used a leadoff hitter named Roscoe Stedman, who stood less than four feet tall. Valentine gave away tens of thousands of tickets to kids, banking on them bringing their parents to the ballpark with them. He held Clunker Car night, Baseball Bingo night, and Midget Wrestling night. A promotion with Captain Dynamite, who blew himself up while shut in a casket, was so popular that the performer returned twice a year for the next 22 years.[10]

By 1980 the Travelers’ attendance exceeded 223,000, nearly four times what it had been before Valentine arrived.   The club was successful on the field as well, winning league titles in 1977, 1979, 1980, 1989, and 2001 under Valentine’s watch. He was named Executive of the Year in the Texas League his first three seasons, and six times in all. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Officials Association Hall of Fame, the Texas League Hall of Fame, and the North Little Rock Boys Club Hall of Fame.

Though he never wanted to do anything but umpire, Valentine had successfully moved on. People began to ask him about his firing less and less. He had forgiven Cronin, though he admitted to an occasional reminder. “Every time I mess up around the house,” he recalled, “my wife will say, ‘Cronin was right. You are incompetent.’”[11] Bill and Ellouise were married for 37 years when she died in 1989. The couple had no children. Bill remarried in 1991, to Nena Duncan.

The Travelers were long affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League. By 2000 they were under increasing pressure from the Cardinals to build a new ball park, as the 70-year-old Ray Winder Field had become substandard. Valentine switched affiliations to the Los Angeles Angels in 2001, which only put off the problem. He argued for the renovation of the park for a few years before ultimately signing on to an effort for a new stadium. The resulting ball park, Dickey-Stephens Park, was built across the river in North Little Rock (financed by a one-cent sales tax) and opened in 2007.

Valentine stepped down as general manager in 2007 after 31 years in the post. He remained executive vice president for two additional seasons, before finally retiring in March 2009. He began his career as the youngest professional umpire in baseball history (a distinction he still holds), and ended it 58 years later as a legend in his home town. In a 2007 interview, he referred to his 1968 firing as “my lucky break.”[12]

In 1983 Valentine accepted the Lee McPhail Award for his successful promotion of the game. The award was given at the baseball winter meetings, and Joe Cronin was in attendance. “When I accepted the award, I thanked Mr. Cronin,” recalled Valentine. “I said that, because of him, I was in a position to get on the executive side of things at a very early age.”[13]






[1] John C. Skipper, Umpires (McFarland, 1997), pages 45-51.


[2] Jennifer Barnett Reed, “Bill Valentine, Jr.”, The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/.


[3] The Sporting News, July 7, 1954, page 33.


[4] The Sporting News, August 6, 1958, page 35.


[5] Skipper.


[6] The Sporting News Official Baseball Guide 1969, 195.


[7] New York Times. September 18, 1968.


[8] Sporting News, February 26, 1976, page 47.


[9] Reed.


[10] Terry Turner, Baseball in Little Rock (Arcadia, 2004), page 105.


[11] The Sporting News, February 28, 1976, page 47.


[12] Bill Valentine interview with author, June 2007.


[13] Skipper.
Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.