“Combining a career since 1947 in professional baseball with an interest in stamps since age ten has brought a lifetime of enjoyment. To be able to combine these two childhood interests into business and pleasure in adulthood has been my good fortune.”1 Those were Elten Schiller’s words penned in a 1982 book he authored about “baseball … stamps … autographs.”
By the time he retired from the San Diego Padres in 1988, Schiller’s professional career as a baseball executive spanned 42 years, 26 of them with the Dodgers organization and his last 16 with the Padres.
Along the way Schiller built a reputation as a shrewd baseball business executive. He was often referred to as an “innovator,” and sometimes with additional adjectives, such as “prolific innovator” or “productive innovator.” Other descriptions included being an “operational genius,” being an “astute baseball man,” and the best man if you wanted to learn “the business of baseball.” There was more to Schiller than the business side: He was also described as being a “modest man,” a “caring executive,” and someone who “lives, breathes, and sells baseball.”
In terms of miles, Schiller’s path to San Diego, was a long one. It started in Germany, where he was born. His parents, Wilhelm Schittek and Freda Bertsch Schwittay, were also born in Germany. They married on September 30, 1922. When Elten Frederick Schittek was born in Buer (Gelsenkirchen) on October 17, 1923, the family lived in a small village outside of the city of Essen in northwestern Germany.2 He was the second child for the Schitteks, with Helene having been born in 1921. In addition, Elten had an older half-brother, Erich Bertsch, living with the family. (He was born in 1915.)
Soon after Elten’s birth the Schittek family readied for a move across the Atlantic to the United States. Elten’s father, Wilhelm, had gone alone to the U.S. and stayed with an uncle living in the Willow Grove mining community, just outside of Neffs, Ohio, a small village along the Ohio-West Virginia border near Wheeling, West Virginia. He found Willow Grove to his liking, got himself a job at the nearby Willow Grove coal mine and that’s where the family decided to settle. On November 1, 1924, mother Freda and the three children arrived on the S.S. Veenden at Ellis Island and were soon on their way to Willow Grove.
Over the next 16 years the Schittek family gradually expanded with three sisters joining Elten, Helene, and Erich: Gertrude (born in 1926), Irene (1930), and Darlene (1940).
In April 1939 Elten’s father, Wilhelm, became a naturalized US citizen and at the same time the family changed their last name from Schittek to Schiller. Soon after, in March 1940, disaster struck the family, as Elten’s father was one of 72 men killed in the Willow Grove coal-mine explosion, one of the deadliest mine accidents in US history.
Elten lived in Willow Grove through his teen years, graduating from Bellaire (Ohio) High School in June 1941.
After graduation Schiller decided to join his sister Helene in Canton, Ohio, where he found work as a machinery operator. While there was not much that was notable about his job, he did have an experience that remained with him for the rest of his life: An industrial accident caused the loss of the first two digits of his left ring finger.
The accident didn’t prevent Schiller from joining the US Navy in February 1943. In 1944 Yeoman Second Class Schiller was assigned to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. However, before he could make the transfer, the ship Schiller was assigned to was sunk in combat off Bougainville. Instead, according to Elten’s daughter, Linda, his shorthand and typing skills learned in high school resulted in his being assigned to the Navy’s legal department in Guadalcanal and he never saw war action.3
The war over, Schiller in late 1945 was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas. There he met a 27-year-old WAVE,4 Valorie Anne Gorz. Shortly after being mustered out of the Navy Elten and Valorie were married in her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, on February 23, 1946.
The Schillers proceeded to establish roots in St. Paul and Elten was employed with the Veterans Administration helping vets get work, and also looking for a job for himself. One notice got his attention, a part-time position with the St. Paul Saints of the Triple-A American Association that was part of the Dodgers organization. This one notice he kept for himself, a decision that launched his career in professional baseball.5
Schiller remained with the Saints for 13 years, from his entry position in 1947 through 1960. He worked his way up to being the assistant to the president/general manager, Mel Jones.
During this period in St. Paul, Valorie and Elten had three children, Linda Susan (born in 1950), Jeffrey Alan (1954), and Carol Lynn (1955).
In November 1960 it was confirmed that the American League’s Washington Senators would be moving to Minneapolis-St. Paul. The team would be known as the Minnesota Twins and begin play in the 1961 season.
Major-league baseball’s decision to expand to the Twin Cities prompted the Dodgers to move their Triple-A franchise from St. Paul to Omaha, Nebraska. The Dodgers offered Jones and Schiller the opportunity to move with the team. Schiller accepted it. Jones declined, and the Dodgers made Schiller the new president and general manager.
Omaha had been a St. Louis Cardinals farm team since 1947. In early 1960 the Cardinals pulled up stakes and Omaha was left without a team in Organized Baseball for the year. Schiller was coming into a dormant baseball community and had only three months to launch and promote the new team, the Omaha Dodgers. A March article in The Sporting News noted Schiller’s challenge and reported that he “plunged into the assignment with enthusiasm” and 12-hour and longer workdays were common.6
The 1961 season was not a very good one. Omaha finished with a record of 62-87 and in last place, 23½ games out of first.
Yet, in December 1961 Schiller was surprised to learn that he was selected to receive an award from The Sporting News as Minor League Executive of the Year (for the higher classifications). Along with Roger Maris, Warren Spahn, and Ralph Houk, Schiller’s face was one of eight on the front page of the paper’s January 3, 1962, issue.7 The award touted Schiller’s ability to “rebuild interest” in Omaha after the city lost its team the year before, and doing so with “no chance to do early spade work.”8
The award was an early sign of what would become a trademark of Schiller: his ability to promote fan interest.
The 1962 season turned out to be a better one with the team finishing in second place at 79-68. Given the positive team performance and the Dodgers’ apparent interest in being in Omaha it seemed that the Omaha Dodgers would be around for more seasons to come. However, the American Association disbanded after the 1962 season and for 1963 four of its six teams were folded into the two remaining Triple-A leagues, the Pacific Coast League and the International League. Since the Dodgers already had a PCL team in Spokane, Omaha again ended up without a team in Organized Baseball.
Schiller fared better. In November 1962 Dodgers’ executive vice president Buzzie Bavasi confirmed that the Albuquerque Dukes of the Double-A Texas League would become a Dodgers farm team, and that Schiller would be the general manager.9 It was to be a second baseball move for the Schiller family after less than two years in Omaha. The 1963 season was the Dukes’ second in the Texas League. Schiller quickly got a season-ticket sales drive underway.
An April 1963 article in the Albuquerque Journal spotlighted Schiller’s promotional ability. It said, “Schiller is a shrewd one when it comes to tickling the fancy of the fan.” The article listed nine promotions, one of which was “Pony nights … the most popular thing to hit Albuquerque since the first wagon train.”10
The 1963 Dukes finished 67-73, in fifth place, 12 games out of first. In 1964 they improved to 75-65 and they finished in third place.
In November 1964 Peter Bavasi joined Schiller’s management team. Bavasi was barely out of college and hoping to get an apprentice job in baseball when his father, Buzzie, now the Dodgers’ general manager, called him and asked, “How fast can you get to Albuquerque? If you want to learn the business of baseball, the best man in all of baseball to teach you is Elten Schiller. He’ll be your boss at Albuquerque. Just keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, and you might learn something.”11
“From the first day, I started my real education,” Bavasi said recently. “They didn’t teach you how to sell scoreboard ads in college, nor how to stretch the mustard at the concessions stands (cut it with white vinegar), or how to talk the city public-works department out of gallons of green and yellow pavement striping paint so we could paint the old ballpark. … He was the best professor I’d ever had.”12
As January 1965 arrived, Schiller was busy introducing some new promotions. First, he decided to change the team’s nickname from Dukes to Dodgers. He said it would better relate its affiliation to the parent club and provide Albuquerque more publicity: “People don’t know if the Albuquerque Dukes are a band or a lumber company or what we are.”13
The other idea was the formation of an Albuquerque Dodgers Booster Club, called the Dukes. The Boosters, comprising 60 members who were prominent businessmen, had a preseason ticket drive with a goal of selling $60,000 worth. As an incentive, Schiller arranged for the group to be flown to a game at Dodger Stadium by the Dodgers’ team plane.14
During his time in Albuquerque, Schiller also tinkered with other ideas like speeding of play. He was an advocate of using a clock as early as 1962; he felt clocks would speed up the tempo of the game by putting players into a “speed-up” frame of mind.15 Slow play was being noted as one of the causes for poor baseball attendance in both the major and minor leagues. Schiller was still advocating a speedier game in 1966 when he offered several more ideas, among them reducing the number of balls for a walk to three and the number of strikes for a strikeout to two, and allowing the pitcher to wave a batter to first for an intentional walk instead of making the pitches.16 Not all of Schiller’s ideas caught on but by 2017 clocks had been introduced in major-league games, and the intentional-walk rule no longer requires pitches.
After four years in Albuquerque, the family moved again when Schiller became general manager of the Triple-A Spokane Indians (PCL). Schiller stayed in Spokane for five seasons, 1967-1971, and the team had a successful run with three first-place finishes.
In September 1971 the Dodgers decided to move the Spokane club to Albuquerque.17 Schiller agreed to move back to Albuquerque to take over the management of the Albuquerque team, which would move up from Double A to Triple A and once again be called the Dukes.
While getting resettled in Albuquerque, Schiller was offered a job with the San Diego Padres by his former boss, Buzzie Bavasi. Bavasi had left the Dodgers in 1968 to join the new National League franchise in San Diego as both a part-owner and top executive with the team. In its first three years the Padres had won only 36 percent of its games, averaging 59 wins and 103 losses. Attendance averaged slightly over 7,000, and had fallen in season three (1971) by 15 percent.
By 1971 Peter Bavasi had joined his father and was the Padres’ head of minor-league operations. In a 2018 email he wrote that the team was in real bad financial, artistic, and management shape and the prospects weren’t very bright for recovery anytime soon. “Buzzie was very fond of Elten, and he knew how talented Elten was in every business-side operational area,” Peter wrote.18
Within three weeks after the close of the season Buzzie had hired Schiller as the Padres’ director of business operations, with jurisdiction including ticket sales and distribution, day-of-game operations, and promotions.19
Schiller and his family had just moved from Spokane back to their former home in Albuquerque in September —a Schiller family baseball move number four — and now, at the end of 1971, would be on the move again. The move to San Diego would be the family’s fifth baseball move in a decade.
One idea Schiller implemented immediately after joining the Padres was to create a Padres Action Team, patterned after his Albuquerque booster club, the Dukes. In the San Diego version it was more a community-based group made up of Padres fans from all walks of life who volunteered to help “sell the Padres” — and, oh, by the way, sell season-ticket plans, too.
In the spring of 1973 the Padres’ majority owner, C. Arnholt Smith, initiated efforts to sell the team. In May Joseph Danzansky, who owned several grocery stores in the Washington, D.C., area, agreed to purchase the Padres for $12 million. It was also understood that Danzansky would move the team from San Diego to Washington for the 1974 season. The sale and relocation of the Padres was approved by the other 11 National League owners in December 1973. Things had progressed so far that Danzansky was touting Frank Robinson to manage of the team, and the team was scheduled to open the season at RFK Stadium against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 4, 1974.20
Jeff Schiller indicated that the family was ready for baseball move number six, from San Diego to Washington, and that his father’s office files were packed and Allied Van Lines had been scheduled for pickup.21 However, the City of San Diego threatened an $84 million lawsuit against Smith for breaking the lease on San Diego Stadium. In response, Smith canceled the deal and began seeking another suitor. By the end of January 1974, a sales agreement was finalized with Ray Kroc, head of the McDonald’s empire, and the team would stay in San Diego.
And the Schiller family would remain in San Diego.
In coming to San Diego, Schiller’s challenge with the Padres was daunting. When he came aboard in late 1971, his main task was to build fan interest in an expansion team that was off to a poor start during its first three years. San Diego was one of major-league baseball’s smallest population markets. Average game attendance those three years, at about 7,000, was less than half of major-league average game attendance.
By the end of the 1976 season average game attendance had increased to about 18,000, a 180 percent increase over 1971. That five-year attendance growth, coming despite the obstacles faced with continued sub-.500 seasons, represented a significant and positive turnaround in fan interest. Factors included adding some new exciting players, like future Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Dave Winfield and pitcher Randy Jones. Also, Kroc’s arrival on the scene in early 1974 with Schiller in charge of business operations was seemingly paying off.
Buzzie Bavasi resigned as Padres’ president in September 1977 and within three days owner Ray Kroc announced a new management team that included the promotion of Schiller to vice president and business manager.22
As 1978 rolled around Schiller was optimistic more gains were ahead. “The interest in the team is very encouraging,” he said. “… Once we become a contender we’ll have no problem drawing two million fans a season.”23
The 1978 All-Star Game was scheduled for San Diego. Schiller came up with an idea that would invite more San Diego fans to experience the thrills associated with the event. On his initiative, for the first time the All-Stars Monday batting-practice sessions would be opened to the public.24 Fan interest was beyond expectations: 15,000 were expected but the team stopped counting when the turnstiles reached 30,000.25 Since then the Monday All-Star batting practice sessions have become a popular and integral part of the two-day event.
In 1982 Schiller was promoted to the Padres’ senior vice president/business operations, which remained his title until he retired in 1988.
A colleague who got to know Elten well was Andy Strasberg, a former Padres executive who worked under Schiller’s direction for 13 years. Strasberg felt that Schiller instilled a professional culture to the office along with a deep understanding of the business of baseball resulting from his extensive minor-league experience. “He was especially great at giving responsibility and authority to his employees,” Strasberg said.26
Strasberg cited examples of practices begun by Schiller, among them computerized ticketing systems: One reduced “deadwood” ticket printing that saved the team money by reducing the number of tickets printed to be consistent with expected game attendance. In another, called Teleseat, the Padres partnered with local businesses to let fans purchase game tickets with identical seat selection as available at the ballpark ticket windows.27
There was another important side to Schiller’s interest in baseball, and it related to postage stamps and autographs.
From childhood on, Schiller had an interest in stamp collecting. This hobby, together with his career in baseball, spurred him to develop a specialty collection of stamps and envelope covers with baseball-themed art. In 1978 he expanded his collecting focus to include autographs from Hall of Famers and record-breaking stars. His focus was on two baseball-related stamps in particular, one issued on June 12, 1939, to commemorate the dedication of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and one issued on September 24, 1969, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of professional baseball in the United States.
As he continued to develop his hobby, Schiller found that there were more than 1,000 baseball-motif covers and cachets. His collection was considered to be the largest in the world of stamped baseball covers. Discovering that no record was kept of what had been produced, Schiller wrote a book on the subject, Baseball … Stamps … Autographs, published in 1982.
The book focused on a specialty, a hobby. The publisher, George Hentzell, characterized the book in his foreword as follows: “There are books that are published for profit, and there are those which are published because their contents insist on being preserved for prosperity. This is one of the latter.”28
When Schiller retired from the Padres in 1988, his baseball friends and colleagues saluted him with a couple of retirement parties, one of which was a surprise put on by Padres management and office personnel at Jack Murphy Stadium. While the party was a surprise, perhaps an even bigger one turned out to be a gift — a trip to Germany courtesy of the Action Team and Padres’ President Ballard Smith. The trip allowed Elten and Valorie to visit northwestern Germany, where he had been born 65 years before but to which he had never been back.
In August 1997, at age 80, Valorie died away in San Diego. The Schillers had been married 51 years.
Even during retirement, baseball was never too far from Schiller’s mind as evidenced in 2005-2006 when he was given a part-time assignment by his former assistant, Peter Bavasi. Peter and brother Bob owned a summer college-league team, the Yuba-Sutter Gold Sox, and Schiller was brought in as a senior adviser.29
Schiller died in his San Diego home on March 10, 2012, at the age of 88. The cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia. The ashes of both Elten and Valorie, both Navy veterans, were scattered at sea by the Navy. Surviving the Schillers were their three children, Linda Barclay of Nipomo, California, Jeffrey Schiller of San Diego, and Carol Lewis of Austin, Texas; and two grandsons.
Words of friends and baseball colleagues describe Schiller in various ways. “Elten Schiller was an innovator in the business of baseball and was sensitive to the common fan concerns and desires,” his obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote of him. “He loved baseball and it was his life’s passion. He was often quoted as saying, ‘I had the best job in the world for over 40 years.’”30
Peter Bavasi well-summarized Elten Schiller as a baseball man:
He taught me everything I know about the business side of the baseball business. Elten was among baseball’s most prolific innovators. He was such a modest man that you might not know it was Elten who invented bat day (via his broken bat day concept), pioneered computerized ticketing, created a series of All-Star Game promotions, launched the idea of sponsored giveaways, and organized the early mathematical principles of schedule-making.31
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, and Retrosheet.org.
2 Schiller’s birth name was Eitel. He never possessed a birth certificate; however, the name listed on the ship’s manifest for his voyage to the U.S. in 1924 lists his name as Eitel, and an affidavit from April 15, 1942, confirmed his name as Eitel Frederick, as obtained from a “German Family Book.” The 1940 US Census has his name listed as Alton.
20 Jake Russell, “San Diego Padres Were Once So Close to Moving to D.C. They Had Uniforms and Everything,” DC Sports Blog, Washington Post, June 16, 2016. washingtonpost.com/news/dc-sports-bog/wp/2016/06/16/the-time-the-san-diego-padres-were-this-close-to-moving-to-d-c/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.472e8dcfa119
This biography appears in San Diego Padres: The First Half Century (SABR, 2019), edited by Tom Larwin and Bill Nowlin. To order your free e-book or get 50% off the paperback edition, click here.
Elten Frederick Schiller (Schittek)
October 17, 1923 at Buer, Gelsenkirchen (GER)
March 10, 2012 at San Diego, CA (US)
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