The Little Corporation: Professional Baseball in San Francisco, 1953–1955

This article was written by Charles Johnson

This article was published in the Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal


Of the many minor leagues that existed in professional baseball at the end of World War II, the Pacific Coast League (PCL) was at the pinnacle, the one with the best players, several fine stadiums, and robust attendance. In 1946, total attendance for the league was 4,068,372, a PCL record, dwarfing that of any other minor league.1

Things were so good, in fact, that Paul I. Fagan, who owned the San Francisco Seals of the PCL, had for many years been leading the charge to get the PCL recognized as a third major league. The idea made a lot of sense. Spurred by the manufacturing boom created by the war, the West was already one of the fastestgrowing areas of the country, and every sign suggested that postwar growth would accelerate.2 Fagan won the support of his fellow owners in the PCL in his efforts to upgrade the league. But, as with other sensible ideas in baseball, this one was doomed, because it threatened the interests of the major-league owners.

At Organized Baseball’s 1945 winter meetings, PCL president Clarence H. “Pants” Rowland petitioned his fellow minor-league executives to approve the PCL request to become a major league. After winning their support, he went to the majors with a bold proposal to make the first radical change in the major-league organization since the turn of the century.

Complicating the PCL issue for the majors was Rowland’s demand that all eight teams of the PCL be elevated to the majors. To the major-league owners, the Los Angeles Angels and the San Francisco Seals were obvious possibilities for inclusion in the major leagues, but the other PCL clubs were less attractive. The San Diego Padres were surrounded by Mexico, the desert, the Pacific Ocean, and Los Angeles. The Hollywood Stars had transferred from San Francisco (where they’d been the Missions) only in 1938, and although they would win pennants in 1952 and 1953, they usually drew fewer fans than their crosstown rivals, the Angels. The Oakland Oaks were successful after the war under the management of Casey Stengel, but whether the Bay Area could adequately support two major-league franchises remains unclear even today. The Sacramento Solons, Portland Beavers, and Seattle Rainiers completed the eight-team league, and none of those communities appeared ripe for a major-league franchise.

At the 1945 meetings, the major-league owners rebuffed the PCL petition. The same request was reintroduced the following year, and though the request itself was denied, the PCL did make some gains. The majors agreed that if one of its teams were to relocate to a PCL city, the club would have to pay indemnities to the local team and to the rest of the PCL. In 1947, the PCL petition was turned down once again, with baseball commissioner Happy Chandler replying with a proposal that the major leagues expand to ten teams in each league, with the four additional teams located in Los Angeles and San Francisco.3

Chandler’s position was consistent with the history of the major leagues’ treatment of the minors. After cultivating the western market for fifty years, the PCL was to be brushed aside and its most lucrative cities grabbed by the reigning powers of the East and Midwest.4 In addition, Chandler’s proposal managed to split the PCL owners into factions. While it was obvious that Los Angeles and San Francisco might achieve major-league status, it was much less certain that the others would. Why should the PCL owners see their league gutted and their franchises’ values decreased, only to bring major-league baseball to the circuit’s two largest markets?

At the outset of the 1950 season, Paul Fagan suggested that the PCL might withdraw from Organized Baseball and operate independently if its concerns were not satisfactorily addressed by the major leagues.5 His warning led to meetings with the commissioner, who at the end of the 1950 season announced that the major leagues might confer “Four A” status on the PCL, elevating it to a unique position in the game’s structure.6

This ploy succeeded for a year. In August 1951, the PCL again called for a means for its becoming a major league, but added that if such action were not taken by the end of the year, the league would indeed withdraw from Organized Baseball.7 The threat assumed significant credibility because it came at the same time the Monopoly Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee was holding hearings on baseball’s exemption from antitrust law, focusing specifically on the PCL’s status. Subcommittee members were curious to know why, in spite of the tremendous demographic changes in the twentieth century, major-league ball continued to be limited to a few Northern and Midwestern cities.8 The major-league owners, under their new commissioner, Ford Frick, were ready to cut their losses rather than risk any legislative tampering with the antitrust exemption. During the 1951 winter meetings, Frick announced a scheme to upgrade minor leagues to major-league status. A new classification above Triple A was established for leagues or groups of at least eight teams whose aggregate markets included at least 10 million people, whose ballparks had an aggregate capacity of 120,000, and who had an average paid attendance of over 2.25 million for the preceding five years.9

The only Triple A league to qualify for this “open” classification was the PCL. Not surprisingly, PCL officials reacted enthusiastically. PCL President Rowland termed Frick’s proposal “encouraging,” and congratulated him on his “insight” into the Coast League’s “unusual and special problems.” Likewise, members of the Monopoly Subcommittee lauded the commissioner for his swift and decisive action.10

With the heat on the major-league owners thus turned down, Frick two weeks later announced the specific requirements for those “open” classification leagues seeking to make the final step up to major-league status: an aggregate market of 15 million, ballpark capacity of more than 25,000 for each franchise, and paid attendance in excess of 3.5 million for each of the previous three years. Two of the requirements showed that the majors were not intent on expanding their own ranks: no PCL franchise played in a park seating 25,000, and PCL attendance had declined by almost half since 1947.11

And the fans, by and large, understood what was going on. James Crusinberry reflected in Baseball Magazine in June 1951 that fans in Los Angeles and San Francisco were becoming indifferent to their teams because they had fallen under the spell of a “major league voodoo.”12 With every new hearing of the House Subcommittee on Monopoly, or every rumor of franchises moving or league executives meeting, fans in the principal PCL markets wanted to know when major-league baseball would arrive.

Crusinberry wrote that the press in California, like the fans, often ignored the local teams to report on major-league games thousands of miles away. Having achieved the peak of its success, the PCL was divided between cities that relished the game as it was and those that were distracted by the future.13

Frustrated in his aspirations to elevate the Pacific Coast League to major-league status, reeling from falling attendance and financial losses said by some to be as large as $200,000 in each of the past two years, distrusted by many of his fellow owners, and lambasted by most of the press for his “autocratic” ways and lack of the common touch, Paul Fagan offered in May 1953 to sell his troubled San Francisco Seals baseball club for $250,000. But under the terms of Fagan’s proposal, the $250,000 would buy only the Seals franchise and its players. Fagan would keep the real estate and Seals Stadium, leasing it to the new Seals owner for $30,000 per year, with the lessee maintaining the property and assuming the property tax obligations on the stadium.14

The press speculated that potential buyers included former Seals stars Joe DiMaggio and Lefty O’Doul in partnership with former Seals general manager Joseph Orengo; singer Bing Crosby; San Francisco real estate baron Louis Lurie; and the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League, who were intent on building up their farm system.15 But immediate reaction among baseball people was that Fagan’s “demands” were “preposterous.” Clarence “Brick” Laws, owner of the Oakland Oaks, when asked if he considered the sale price and the rental a fair investment for such a baseball operation, said bluntly, “I certainly wouldn’t do it.” In Sacramento, Charles Graham Jr., who had previously owned an interest in the Seals, said he had no desire to return, “especially at that price.”16

Laws and Graham proved to have assessed the situation accurately. Although there were some nibbles, no buyers were found in the next few months. Meanwhile, the Seals continued their mediocre on-field performance, and attendance was down, making the franchise even less desirable for an investor interested in the bottom line. The Seals would finish the 1953 season fifth in the eight-team PCL, with total attendance of 175,459, down 12 percent from that of the poor 1952 season, and a fraction of the 640,643 total attendance in 1947.17

Finally, in September 1953, under continuing pressure from his fellow owners, Fagan reached an agreement to sell the Seals franchise and players to the PCL itself for $100,000, much less than the $250,000 he had wanted in May. Retaining ownership of Seals Stadium, Fagan agreed to lease the park to the league for a period of five years. The lease provided that the league pay Fagan ten cents for each admission, guarantee the upkeep of the park (estimated to cost between $43,000 and $75,000 annually), and assume responsibility for property taxes on the real estate (estimated to be $36,000 annually). The sale contract also stipulated that all present employees of the Seals, including field manager Tommy Heath, be kept on the payroll. Office equipment, seat cushions, and the club’s baseball gear—baseballs, bats, uniforms—were relinquished free of charge by Fagan.

Fagan was able to protect his interests in more ways than just the advantageous lease provisions. In recognition for Fagan’s “sacrificing the club for such a small sum,” the sale agreement also provided that, if during the term of the stadium lease the major leagues desired to place a franchise of their own in the San Francisco market, Fagan could repurchase the Seals franchise for $100,000. He also had the right to buy back the franchise within thirty days after the close of any season, also for $100,000. Furthermore, the PCL could not resell the club without Fagan’s approval of the purchaser.18

Fagan, who had made his fortune in shipping and then branched out into Bay Area real estate and sugar plantations in Hawaii, had done well with this agreement. Knowing that the major leagues had agreed to compensate the owner of any PCL franchise in a city where they might move a team, Fagan was determined to preserve that potential windfall for himself. He also held onto Seals Stadium, keenly aware that the property at 16th and Bryant Streets was ultimately more valuable serving a purpose other than as a site for minor-league baseball games.

Despite the advantageous terms of the sale agreement, Fagan made it clear that he did not sell of his own volition. “The league wanted me to, so I complied with their desires,” he said, almost tearfully, at the press conference announcing the sale.19

Under its bylaws, the PCL could not operate the Seals itself, so the owners immediately appointed Damon Miller, who had served as Fagan’s general manager and secretary, as custodian, and authorized him to form a corporation that would operate the franchise. Miller had the option of looking for new owners to bankroll the club or to try and buy the club himself. In a surprise announcement, Miller said he had no intention of looking for new buyers. While he admitted he “[didn’t] know all the answers yet,” Miller did have a hazy plan of sorts.

“We shall form a little corporation, probably to be made up of old employees of the Seals, but I think I can handle this thing myself I may require a little help [in the form of loans from the PCL], but baseball doesn’t have to be a losing proposition here. It can be made to pay and show a profit.”20

Damon Miller was an unlikely baseball magnate. An accountant, he had joined the Seals’ staff in 1933 for the purpose of keeping track of soda and peanut sales. When Paul Fagan assumed sole ownership of the club in 1950, he elevated Miller to the position of club secretary, from which Miller oversaw the team’s travel and certain business matters. In 1952, Fagan made Miller general manager, nominally in charge of all baseball operations, but most sportswriters considered this a “glorification,” since Fagan was an owner who did his own general managing. San Francisco Examiner writer Prescott Sullivan, for one, had a pessimistic view of the Seals’ prospects under Miller.21

But Miller was determined. As he had promised, he approached the Seals’ few remaining employees about buying into the franchise. Eight employees, including Miller, paid a total of $20,000 for shares of voting stock. Miller bought $10,000 of the stock. Accountant Gladys Ferguson, office secretaries Ruth Merrill and Lila Wulff, box office manager John Craig, concession manager Bob Hirsch, radio announcer Don Klein, and field manager Tommy Heath together owned the rest. Miller, Hirsch, Heath, Craig, and Merrill were elected directors of the corporation, officially named San Francisco Seals, Inc., but known by sportswriters and fans simply as “the Little Corporation.”

At an all-day meeting at Los Angeles’s Biltmore Hotel on October 29, the PCL owners voted unanimously to accept the bid of the Little Corporation to take over the Seals franchise. The Little Corporation paid the PCL $10,000, and the PCL set no time limit under which the Little Corporation had to pay the remaining $90,000 the PCL had paid Fagan. Miller informed the press that this detail was to be decided in the future “by mutual consent.” The Little Corporation also made a $10,000 deposit on the stadium lease, and used the $15,000 advance paid for radio broadcast rights by Emil Sick’s Seattle Brewing Company to pay initial operating expenses.22

Shortly after their October league meeting, though, the PCL owners started to reconsider the award of the Seals franchise to the Little Corporation. Unsure that Miller yet had enough capital to operate a team, and fearing that the league would be liable for any debts incurred by the new group, on December 2 the PCL owners revoked the franchise. Speaking on behalf of the PCL, league president Clarence Rowland stated that the immediate reason for revoking the franchise was the Little Corporation’s failure to lease Seals Stadium directly from Paul Fagan so that the league would be released from all liability under the lease agreement it had with Fagan, as well as the Little Corporation’s failure to provide sufficient financing to justify the league’s assumption of any risk.23

Miller, who was not even aware that the league owners were meeting, was enraged both at the secrecy and at the action taken. “My first information was from a writer I met on the elevator,” he said. “I am just sick about the whole affair. I thought I was dealing with friends and found out they were back stabbers.”24 Miller immediately took action on two fronts. First, he contacted his attorney and publicly threatened the league owners with an injunction suit. Then he contacted San Francisco civic leaders and had them flood Rowland with telegrams of protest. With these weapons, Miller extracted Rowland’s promise that, if Miller did not file suit against the PCL, the league would take no action regarding sale of the franchise until the December 1 PCL owners’ meeting.

A statement Miller issued to the press pointed out that, contrary to what the PCL demanded, the Little Corporation could not lease Seals Stadium directly from Paul Fagan. Miller had already contacted Fagan about just such an arrangement and been rebuffed. Fagan told Miller that he already had a lease agreement with the PCL, and that that was the agreement he meant to be binding. Miller also explained that the PCL’s action was null and void, since as a unanimously elected league director, Miller was entitled to be notified of the owners’ meeting and to vote on any resolutions put before the owners at such a meeting.25

It is possible that reasons unrelated to the financial standing of the Little Corporation prompted the PCL owners to try to strip Miller’s group of the franchise. Bill Veeck, the former owner of the Cleveland Indians and then the St. Louis Browns of the American League, admitted that he had informed the PCL owners of his interest in bidding for the Seals franchise if Miller could not qualify for lack of money, and that the league had “invited [him] to put in a bid for the Seals.” An application on behalf of Rudie Schaffer, a former employee of Veeck’s, and a check for $25,000 had been submitted, with the promise that the franchise would be purchased outright with substantial backing. Schaffer also offered to provide Fagan with $50,000 if he would eliminate the clause under which Fagan could buy back the Seals franchise within thirty days of the end of any season. Veeck frankly admitted that he would “go in” with Schaffer if Schaffer’s bid were accepted by the PCL.26

Brick Laws was the PCL owner who said he wanted to see Miller make good on his efforts to control the Seals franchise. Laws, who had lost a small fortune backing the Oakland Oaks, blamed the collapse of support for the Seals during the Fagan regime in part for the attendance troubles his own franchise was having. He thought Miller’s group, especially in its adopted role of David against Goliath, could rekindle a fire amongst San Francisco’s baseball fans that would benefit all the teams of the league. But, he cautioned, “it can’t be done on $20,000. Damon needs to throw $100,000 into the kitty” before the December 1 owners’ meeting.27

On December 3, the Little Corporation opened its fight to regain the Seals franchise. An advertising campaign was launched to promote sales of discounted tickets (a book of ten $1.25 tickets for only $10.00). In a public statement, the Little Corporation asked that fans flood Seals offices with wires and letters of protest “against the action of PCL President Clarence Rowland and the league directors who are attempting to rob Miller of the franchise.”28

Meanwhile, San Francisco civic leaders and fans, strongly resenting the league’s action, rallied to support the Little Corporation. Members of the Chamber of Commerce asked to attend the December 1 owners’ meeting so they could place their pledges of support for the Miller group before the league directors. Walter Brown, president of the Chamber, said the organization would do whatever it could to “help Miller over this hurdle.” Thomas Brooks, chief administrative officer of the City of San Francisco, and Harry Ross, the city’s controller, fired off wires to Rowland and began organizing a campaign of support by city employees.29

Perhaps most important for the Little Corporation’s future, John Drenth, a San Francisco branch manager of a national insurance company, made out a personal check for $1,000, offering to buy stock in the Little Corporation. Drenth explained his plan to sports writer Art Rosenbaum. “There must be ninety San Francisco business executives ready, willing and able to invest $1,000 each in the Seals. If Miller had $100,000 cash to hand Rowland on December 11, I do not think the offer would be rejected, particularly when it was shown San Francisco businessmen were behind the Seals, financially.”30 Miller, with the prodding of the San Francisco press, took Drenth up on his offer. On December 7, the Seals president announced that the Little Corporation was amending its articles of incorporation and would place on the open market $100,000 of nonvoting preferred stock, available for $10 per share. There was to be no limit on the number of shares any one person could buy. “The Seals’ fate is now in the hands of the people,” Miller stated.31

By issuing non-voting preferred stock to any new stockholders, Miller and his original shareholders, who held voting common stock, would be able to retain control of the Little Corporation. The bylaws of the corporation were amended to provide for payment from any profit of a five-percent dividend to owners of preferred stock; thereafter, profit would be divided on a proportional basis among common and preferred stockholders if the board of directors decided to declare a dividend. In the event of the corporation’s dissolution, preferred stock would be redeemed at $10.50 a share, and then common stockholders’ stock would be redeemed in proportion to the amount of liquid funds the corporation had.32

In Los Angeles, President Rowland said that the $100,000 would help, but not necessarily win the battle. “As of now, Miller and his group are just like any other bidder for the franchise. If they can raise enough money, or get big money behind them, then they’re in.”33

The baseball fans of San Francisco responded enthusiastically. Chronicle sportswriter Will Connolly wrote that he could not remember when baseball was talked about more in San Francisco than during the three weeks preceding Christmas in 1953. By noon on December 9, $20,000 in checks and cash had arrived by mail or been personally delivered at Seals Stadium. Contributors included Victor Grecan, “representing my pals on the waterfront,” who walked in with $1,500, and Claire Smith, daughter of former Seals owner Charles Graham Sr., who appeared at Seals offices with a check for $1,000. Even Seals pitcher Al Lien, after obtaining permission from the minor-league president’s office, invested $1,000.34

Hundreds of investors had provided a total of $44,080 by the morning of December 1 , and Miller took those checks, along with thousands of wires and letters of support, with him to the PCL owners’ meeting that day at the Alexander Hamilton Hotel in San Francisco. He also had other inducements for the owners. On the basis of the strong public support shown over the previous three days, two corporations had stepped in to help Miller. The Golden Gate Broadcasting Company, whose KSAN-TV would be broadcasting Seals night home games, had agreed to back an indemnity bond to relieve the PCL directors of any liability under the stadium lease. (Sherwood and Norwood Patterson, the father-and-son owners of the Golden Gate Broadcasting Company, also obtained a first-refusal option to buy the Seals in the event the Little Corporation sold the franchise.)

In addition, the Pacific National Bank had loaned the Little Corporation $50,000, asking for no collateral. The cash was to be turned over to Paul Fagan in exchange for wiping out the controversial “recapture clause” that allowed Fagan to take back the Seals on thirty days’ notice. With this new backing, the Little Corporation won the unanimous approval of the PCL owners, and was re-awarded the Seals franchise.35

The Little Corporation had won, and Miller knew just who was responsible. He issued a statement to the press thanking “most of all the people of San Francisco for the wonderful support they have given us.”36

Over the following weeks, the Little Corporation sold more stock, until a total of $91,000 had been invested in the club by 1,800 fans throughout California. Miller also negotiated a deal by which KSAN-TV paid the Little Corporation $75,000 for the rights to broadcast Seals home night games, and hammered out an installment plan by which the Little Corporation would pay the PCL the balance of the $90,000 it still owed the league for the Seals franchise. Miller considered paying the common stockholders some of their back salaries (they hadn’t gotten a paycheck since October 1) but considered the fact that neither he nor his fellow investors had been paid in quite some time was a fine marketing tool with which to solicit more purchasers of preferred stock.

On opening day, April 6, 1954, the Seals played before 10,783 at Seals Stadium. (Predicted attendance had been as high as 20,000.) The Seals and their ace pitcher, Tony Ponce, were beaten by the Seattle Rainiers, 8–5. The Seals played poorly in subsequent games, losing 21 of their first 28 contests. Attendance reflected the team’s poor performance. The Seals drew 9,534 on April 1 , but on most days, attendance hovered between 1,200 and 3,000. By the end of the month, fans seemed to have disappeared. Only 737 attended the April 28 game against the Hollywood Stars, and only 942 came out for the game the next day. On the highly promoted “Family Night,” Friday, April 30, when a paying adult could bring his or her kids (and probably the neighbors’) for free, attendance was a disappointing 2,695.

Crowds had been particularly small at night, with San Francisco’s typically cool summer evenings being the main complaint. Two weeks into the season, the Little Corporation announced that henceforth all night games scheduled for Wednesdays and Thursdays would instead be played at 1:30 P.M. Night games would only be played on Tuesdays and Fridays. In addition, women would be admitted to the park on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for only seventy-five cents, fifty cents less than the regular admission price.37

The common stockholders of the Little Corporation saved money on salaries by doing two and three jobs. Ruth Merrill, the corporation’s secretary, routinely worked the ticket window at night games. Gladys Ferguson, accountant, did office work from 9 to 5, then worked as a cashier for night games, and when that work was well in hand, took charge of ushers during the games.38

As the season played itself out, the Seals proved more exciting than good. They won only ten of their first 35 games, and manager Tommy Heath decided that if veteran players were that poor, why not let the kids see what they could do? Heath cut some of the older players, and a core of younger talent, including catcher Nini Tornay, Jim Westlake at first base, Mike Baxes and Reno Cheso platooning at third, and Bob DiPietro in the outfield, rose to the occasion. The team played better ball, and at the end of May, the Seals started on a tear, winning 10 straight, and 24 of 31.

The rejuvenated Seals made up those early losses and finished at 84–84, in fourth place right behind the Oaks, thus qualifying for the PCL playoffs. The Little Corporation’s travails, exciting play, and an unusual number of native San Franciscans on the team all led to renewed fan interest. The Seals led the league in attendance with 298,908, and exceeded their breakeven goal when a single Governor’s Cup playoff game was included.39

For the year, the Little Corporation netted $464. While there was real pleasure at the Little Corporation’s success in its first season, more realistic observers were concerned. Total league attendance had only increased by a little over 13,000. Miller’s group had not been able to defray any of its major obligations, and even the salaries they had declared for themselves had not been paid in full.40

The Little Corporation made little changes to its marketing strategies in the off-season, and they no longer had the luxury of thousands of new investors sending in their small checks. Tommy Heath was signed to a two-year contract through the end of the 1956 season, and essentially it would be the same Seals taking the field in 1955.

The 1955 season proved to be a disappointment. The inability of Clarence Maddern to provide batting punch, the retirement of pitcher Bob Muncrief, and the fade-out of pitcher Adrian Zabala crippled the Seals. By mid-season, the club, paced by the brilliant hitting of DiPietro, began making noises, but then DiPietro broke his leg. After wasting a good start and then languishing in the depths of the second division for most of the 1955 season, the Seals claimed sixth place, 15 games out at 80–92. League attendance increased slightly, but Bay Area figures spelled impending doom. Seals attendance dropped more than 140,000 to 161,570, seventh in the league. Only Oakland’s 141,397 was worse. As the Seals limped to the finish line, the officials of the Little Corporation knew they had lost their battle. They were broke. The Chronicle’s headline for the last day of the season was “‘Little Corp’ Is Now the ‘Little Corpse.’”41

The PCL owners felt they had to find a more flush owner to take over the Seals franchise. Purchase of the Seals would entail an immediate outlay of considerable cash just to keep howling creditors away from bare and accessible heels. It would take $20,000 to buy 100 percent of the common stock then outstanding. A debt of $30,000 was still owed the PCL, and the $50,000 bank loan floated in the winter of 1953 was overdue. Recognizing these problems, the PCL owners gave Miller until the annual league meeting, scheduled in Seattle on September 12, 1955, to find a buyer. Otherwise, the PCL would reclaim the Seals franchise from the Little Corporation.42

Sherwood and Norwood Patterson, the owners of KSAN radio and television, stepped forward to discuss with Damon Miller the prospect of exercising their option to purchase the financially distressed club. Sherwood Patterson was a former evangelist from Denver who wore a cowboy hat, carried a bible, and wanted to “save our Seals as part of my fight for [sic] juvenile delinquency.” In a September 2, 1955, meeting with directors Miller, Heath, and Klein, the Pattersons asked the Little Corporation members to waive back salaries, amounting to $30,000. (Tommy Heath, for example, had not been paid for his services as manager since the end of June.)43

Despite the Little Corporation’s outstanding debt, the Pattersons came to an agreement with Miller and his group on September 3. The media tycoons agreed to pay $20,000 for the common stock of the Little Corporation, a small portion of back salaries, $50,000 on the bank loan, plus $30,000 owed to the PCL, approximately $30,000 in other outstanding debts, and to assume the obligations of approximately $97,000 in preferred stock sold to the public in 1953. Some observers estimated the total debt of the Seals to be as high as $284,000. The deal was contingent on the PCL owners accepting the Pattersons as new owners of the Seals.44

But no sooner had the Pattersons exercised their option than rumors circulated that they would not be approved by the PCL owners at their Seattle meeting. There was speculation that the league owners had already lined up a buyer of their own. Others wondered whether the Pattersons genuinely had the resources to pull off the deal. If the Pattersons backed off, Los Angeles furniture dealer Tony Longo, a friend of Tommy Heath, said he was ready to buy out the Little Corporation for cash.

Once Longo showed interest in the franchise, Damon Miller showed an interest in sabotaging the Pattersons’ chances with the PCL owners. Miller, who had a rocky relationship with the Pattersons dating from the Seals’ 1954 decision to play fewer night games after KSAN had planned its television schedule and advertising around those night games, told the press, “We think that Longo should have the franchise in the interest of the Seals and all concerned.”45

Miller claimed that his preference for Longo resulted from his desire to save the money of the non-voting, preferred stockholders by getting the PCL’s permission to allow the Little Corporation’s ownership to change hands while retaining its corporate identity. He feared the league’s directors would merely declare the Little Corporation bankrupt, take back the Seals franchise, and sell it to the highest bidder, thus voiding the non-voting stock.46

The main stumbling block to finding a buyer was not the back pay for the Little Corporation employees, nor the debts of the corporation. Paul Fagan, who spent most of his time in Hawaii and was no longer involved with baseball, was the shadow that scared off potential buyers. Fagan still owned Seals Stadium, and the Seals’ lease on the ballpark had only three more years to run. Fagan had made no secret of the fact that once the lease expired he wanted to tear down the stadium and use the land for some more profitable enterprise. In addition, should a major league locate a club in San Francisco, Fagan had a right to buy back the Seals for $100,000 and claim the windfall fee the majors were obligated to pay the owner of any PCL franchise in San Francisco.

At the much-anticipated meeting of the PCL owners in Seattle on September 12, the Pattersons suddenly decided they did not want the Herculean role of rescuing the Seals. The league owners then gave the poverty-stricken Little Corporation ten more days in which to come up with a qualified buyer. Miller promptly handed that role to Tony Longo, who was named temporary general manager of the Seals, a job he would forfeit unless he came up with the money necessary to purchase the club.47

Longo started negotiating with various majorleague teams for the sale of some Seals players. On September 21, the Kansas City Athletics bought shortstop Mike Baxes, outfielder Dave Melton, and pitcher Bill Bradford for cash, a player to be named later, and options on the services of any of the three sold players in case they did not make the big club’s roster. Longo claimed the deal realized the equivalent of $85,000 to the Seals in cash and services.48

But when it came time for the PCL owners’ meeting in San Diego on September 25, Longo was nowhere in sight. Longo had promised Miller he would be in San Diego with a certified check to purchase the team, and his absence “perturbed” Miller, who announced that Longo’s stint as general manager was at an end. The owners decided the sale of the players to the Athletics justified setting up a committee to help the Little Corporation find “a suitable purchaser or investor.” On the committee with Miller were the new league president, Claire Goodwin, and club presidents Bob Cobb of Hollywood, John Holland of Los Angeles, and Brick Laws of Oakland.49

October 1955 proved to be a month full of speculation, as the Little Corporation wooed any big-league club that showed an interest in investing in or buying outright the Seals franchise. Lou Perini, owner of the Milwaukee Braves, spoke of interest in moving his Toledo Sox of the minor-league American Association to San Francisco, and sent his vice president, Joseph Cairnes, to San Francisco for discussions with civic leaders and PCL president Goodwin. Hank Greenberg, general manager of the Cleveland Indians, came out to San Francisco for discussions with Miller about purchase of the franchise and with Paul Fagan about revisions to the lease at Seals Stadium. Fagan wasn’t much for changing the terms of the lease, but did offer to go in with Greenberg if Greenberg wanted to buy the Seals and move the franchise to a ball park they would construct on the peninsula, where, Fagan emphasized, “the population is going and the weather will always be better than in San Francisco.” Neither the Braves’ nor the Indians’ interest came to anything, though.50

In the midst of this uncertainty, Tommy Heath, on October 27, resigned as manager and as a director of the Seals. Heath split his stock and gave equal shares to Damon Miller and Bob Hirsch. He said he was still owed more than $8,000 in back pay. “It doesn’t look as though we [the Little Corporation] will be in business very long,” Heath told the press. “It is reasonable to assume that if the club is sold the new owners will probably want to bring their own manager with them.”51

Finally, in a November 10 owners’ meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia (where the struggling Oakland Oaks franchise would now move), the PCL voted to reclaim the San Francisco Seals franchise by forfeiture. The Little Corporation still owed the league $30,000 of the original $100,000 franchise price tag. The PCL owners put a price of $200,000 on the franchise, a figure the Milwaukee Braves, who were then still in the running to purchase the club, were unwilling to pay.52

Miller was, again, “very much perturbed” by what he considered the PCL’s “early” forfeiture of the franchise. “What did they have to do that for, at this time? After all, they didn’t have a buyer yet. We’re as anxious as anybody to sell to the proper person. Instead of giving me an opportunity to try for new capital, to operate legally, they have left me here in confusion.”53 Later in November, the annual major-minor-league meetings were held in Columbus, Ohio. PCL president Claire Goodwin was there, discussing purchase of the Seals by the vast Sheraton hotel chain, which was represented at the meeting by Bill Rosensohn. At the same time, California League president Jerry Donovan was busy in Columbus trying to broker a deal by which any prospective major-league team could buy the Seals. Donovan, a native San Franciscan, had for two weeks been carrying on discussions with another native San Franciscan, Joe Cronin, general manager of the Boston Red Sox. After nine hours of deliberation on the evening of November 28, the PCL owners voted, 6–1, to award the Seals franchise to the Red Sox.54

That evening, at a joint press conference in Columbus, Donovan and Cronin announced that the Red Sox had bought the Seals franchise from the PCL for $150,000. The money was to be paid in two installments, on December 15, 1955, and February 1, 1956. Fifty thousand dollars of the purchase price would go to the PCL, $6,750 would go to former Seals manager Tommy Heath as partial back pay, and the rest to the Little Corporation.

Damon Miller was in the same hotel in Columbus where the deal was made, but he hadn’t heard of it until the press phoned him. “I don’t know where that $50,000 figure owed the league comes from,” he said. “We owe the league $30,000 on a promissory note, we have a bank note for $50,000, and we owe $10,000 to Brick Laws for Billy Serena, whom we bought last summer. Tommy Heath has some back salary coming, but not $6,750. The rest of the money, about $60,000, I guess, goes to the preferred stock holders.” As to the investment of the common stockholders, “we just lose that money.”55

The Little Corporation was probably doomed to fail. A top minor-league franchise could not run on an initial $100,000 investment, especially with the extra obligations the Little Corporation was expected to carry. While it was not unusual for a ball team to rent the stadium in which it played, the terms of the lease with Fagan were particularly hard. The rental, upkeep of the stadium, and property taxes the Little Corporation was expected to pay amounted to a frightening $95,000 per year, more than the major-league Indians paid for their use of Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.56 Seals Stadium was getting old, and the Little Corporation quickly fell behind on necessary maintenance, making a day or night out at the stadium less attractive to a potential customer.

With inadequate capitalization, the Little Corporation could not overcome the economic and social forces moving against minor-league baseball in the late 1940s and the 1950s. In the economics of baseball before World War II, competition for the fans’ entertainment dollar came principally from the movies. The growth of television and the automobile changed that. The whole country was moving in those days, and San Francisco was no exception. Postwar prosperity and government policies such as the G.I. Bill of Rights and the interstate highway programs shifted populations out of the city. Installment-buying made cars more affordable, and cars in turn permitted independence and mobility. Families that for generations had crowded into the apartments and attached houses of San Francisco fled en masse to the suburbs. As fans were freed from the cities by their cars, they found new diversions, and baseball had to become more competitive.

Television changed things, too. By 1952, the major leagues broadcast on NBC to the West Coast a Saturday game of the week. (In addition, a major-league game was broadcast nightly on San Francisco’s KYA radio.) Fans could now, in their own home, watch or listen to a better product than minor-league ball, and fan loyalties began to change. The Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers now had loyal fans not just in New York City, but throughout the United States, and even in San Francisco.

Finally, the rampant speculation about major-league expansion or movement of established franchises to the West Coast obviously hurt attendance at Seals games. Three major-league teams had moved to new cities since March 1953, and major-league owners such as Phil Wrigley of the Chicago Cubs, Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators, and Bill Veeck of the St. Louis Browns had spoken about the inevitability of majorleague baseball moving to the West Coast.

Such speculation had become so vocal that baseball commissioner Ford Frick issued a directive forbidding such “major-league talk” around minor-league cities because it hurt the minor-league product. But Ford’s stricture was too little, too late. San Franciscans wanted the major-league product, not the Seals. A San Francisco Chronicle poll of baseball fans conducted at the end of the 1955 season found that almost 50 percent of respondents followed major-league baseball more closely than they did PCL baseball.57

December 1955 marked the end of the line for the bookkeeper, the broadcaster, the secretary, the concessionaire, the usherette, and the box office chief, the little people who took over a ball club a millionaire could not afford and that, ultimately, they could not maintain. Damon Miller and his Little Corporation strove gallantly against impossible odds, and though victory eluded them, they managed to keep professional baseball alive, if barely, in San Francisco. For that, they won the city’s admiration and gratitude.

 

Bibliographical Note

These bibliographical comments are intended to exhaust neither the available literature on the subjects nor the materials I have consulted. They do include, however, my sources of factual information and the writings that have directly influenced my interpretations. Four works on the history of the Pacific Coast League have been published. Ken Stadler, a Los Angeles newspaperman, wrote The Pacific Coast League: One Man’s Memories, 1938–57 (Los Angeles: Marbek Publications, 1985), which has information and stories about the teams (especially the Los Angeles Angels and Hollywood Stars) and players, but little on the business of the PCL. Bill O’Neil’s The Pacific Coast League, 1903–1988 (Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1989) and Dick Dobbins and Jon Twichell’s Nuggets on the Diamond: Professional Baseball in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present (San Francisco: Woodford Press, 1994) deal almost exclusively with the game on the field and not the workings of the front offices, although Dobbins and Twichell do devote a couple of pages to the colorful Paul Fagan and a couple to the Little Corporation. The lone scholarly work, Paul J. Zingg and Mark D. Medeiros’s Runs, Hits and an Era: The Pacific Coast League, 1903–1958 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994) is indispensable and does contain considerable material on the PCL as a business, although unfortunately it does not mention the Little Corporation or its travails at all.

Two books by Neil J. Sullivan, neither dealing specifically with the PCL, proved useful and influenced my conclusions about the reasons for declining fan interest in the PCL and the Seals. The Minors: The Struggles and Triumph of Baseball’s Poor Relations from 1876 to the Present (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991) provided a thoughtful discussion on the impact of television on the minors and the PCL, and also provided useful information on the PCL from articles in Baseball Magazine and Baseball Digest, two periodicals unavailable in library collections in the Bay Area. The Dodgers Move West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) is an excellent work, containing much information on the economics of professional baseball, including the impact of television, the automobile, and a changing society on the business of the game in the 1940s and 1950s, and on the majors’ exploitation of the PCL during that period.

For information about player performance, statistics, and attendance, I relied on Dennis Snelling, The Pacific Coast League: A Statistical History, 1903–1957 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1995), although its records are not nearly complete, and The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, N.C.: Baseball America, 1993), edited by Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff.

Most of the facts and quotations in my paper come from newspaper articles in three San Francisco dailies: the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Francisco Examiner. Of the three papers, the Call-Bulletin was the only defender of Fagan and his regime, and all three responded enthusiastically to Miller’s efforts to form a corporation and attract faninvestors, to the extent of providing what amounted to free publicity and uncritical articles in the early days of the Little Corporation. The columns of the Examiner’s Prescott Sullivan were a notable exception to this “rah-rah” coverage. Throughout the life of the Little Corporation, Bob Stevens of the Chronicle provided the most insightful, and readable, writing on the Seals, both those on the field and those in the front office.

 

Notes

  1. Paul Zingg and Mark D. Medeiros, Runs, Hits, and an Era: The Pacific Coast League, 1903–58 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 111–12.
  2. Indeed, between 1940 and 1950, California saw a 53 percent increase in population and became the second-largest state in the nation; Zingg and Medeiros, Runs, Hits, and an Era, 107–8.
  3. Neil Sullivan, The Minors: The Struggles and the Triumph of Baseball’s Poor Relations from 1876 to the Present (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 219.
  4. Chandler’s plan failed at that time because of two dissenting votes in the American League. The National League owners, including Walter O’Malley of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Horace Stoneham of the New York Giants, voted their unanimous approval.
  1. “Chandler Avoids Coast League Bolt,” New York Times, 4 April 1950, 47.
  2. “Higher Rank Seen for Coast League,” New York Times, 2 November 1950, 40.
  3. “Coast Loop in Revolt Over Baseball Draft,” New York Times, 30 August 1951, 27.
  4. The best recent discussion of the House Subcommittee’s hearings and the antitrust exemption is in “The Irrelevance of Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption: A Historical Review,” by Mitchell Nathanson, Rutgers Law Review 58, no. 1 (2005).
  1. “Major League Plan Would Assist PCL,” Los Angeles Times, 15 November 1951, C1.
  2. “Coast League Nabobs Laud Recommendations,” Los Angeles Times, 15 November 1951, C33.
  3. “New Proposal Dims PCL’s Major Hopes,” Los Angeles Times, 29 November 1951, C1.
  4. Quoted in The Minors, by Neil Sullivan, 224.
  5. Ibid. Typical of many writers who covered baseball in San Francisco, Examiner sports editor Curley Grieve wrote in one of his columns: “It could be that, in the long run, San Francisco would be better off to let the Seals and the Coast League collapse in order to hasten the arrival of the major-league clubs here and Los Angeles. The Coast League and a couple of ball parks are the only barriers to major-league entry right now. And it’s a cinch that neither city will be completely satisfied until it gets under the big tent where it belongs” (“League Pulls a Blunder,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 December 1953, 20).
  1. “Fagan Offers to Sell Seals,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin, 15 May 1953, 3G; “Details of Fagan Proposal,” San Francisco Examiner, 16 May 1953, 20.
  2. “Fagan Offers to Sell Seals,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin, 15 May 1953, 3G.
  3. “Seals Franchise for sale,” San Francisco Chronicle, 15 May 1953, 1H.
  4. Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, , The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, N.C.: Baseball America, 1993), 224, 270.
  5. “Fagan Sells Seals to Coast League,” San Francisco Examiner, 25 September 1953, 39; “PCL Awards Seal Franchise to Miller,” San Francisco Examiner, 25 September 1953, 3930 October 1953, 37.
  1. “Fagan Sells Seals to Coast League,” San Francisco Examiner, 25 September 1953, 39.
  2. Ibid.; “PCL Buys Seals—Miller, Heath in Charge,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 September 1953, 7.
  3. “Miller moves ahead,” , 26 September 1953, 1H; “The New Man in Charge,” San Francisco Examiner, 26 September 1953, 19.
  4. “PCL Awards Seal Franchise to Miller,” San Francisco Examiner, 30 October 1953, 37.
  5. “Veeck in F. to Bid for Seals,” San Francisco Examiner, 3 December 1953, 44.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.; “Bill Veeck Confers with Gov.,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4 December 1953, 1H; “‘Raise $100,000,’ Brick Laws Advises,” San Francisco Examiner, 4 December 1953, 42.
  9. “League Pulls a Blunder,” San Francisco Examiner, 5 December 1953, 20.
  10. “Seals Open Survival Fight,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4 December 1953, 1H.
  11. Ibid.
  12. “90 Men with Grand Might Save a Tiny Band,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 December, 1953, 4H.
  13. “‘Little People’ Seek $100,000 at $10 a Share,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8 December, 1953, 1H.
  14. “Seal Sale Near 25G,” San Francisco Examiner, 10 December 1953, 37.
  15. “‘Little People’ Seek $100,000 at $10 a Share,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8 December 1953, 1H.
  16. “Checks Still Flow to Seals,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 December 1953, 3H; “The Wonderful Fairy Tale of PCL Meeting,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 December 1953, 3H.
  17. “Miller Wins Fight to Keep the Seals,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 December 1953, 1; while Fagan was willing to give on the “recapture clause,” he was adamant in retaining his right to take back the franchise in the event the major leagues put a team in San Francisco.
  1. “Damon Miller Thanks Public,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 December 1953, 2H.
  2. “Seals to Play Only Two Nights,” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 April 1954, 1H.
  3. “‘Little Corpers’ Gave Up Pay,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 September 1955, 3H.
  4. “A Financial Flop This Year, PCL Decides to Junk Playoffs,” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 September 1954, 1H.
  5. “‘Little Corpers’ Gave up Pay,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 September 1955, 3H.
  6. Johnson and Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 281; “ ‘Little Corp’ Is Now ‘Little Corpse,’ ” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 September 1955, 2H.
  1. “Big Cash Outlay May Kill Option,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 September 1955, 1H.
  2. “Seals Face Hour of Decision,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 1955, 1.
  3. “Pattersons Agree to Purchase Seals,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4 September 1955, 1H.
  4. Ibid.; “Overheard,” San Francisco Examiner, 8 September 1955, 24; “Poll Those 466 and Learn Why,” San Francisco Chronicle, 9 September 1955, 1H; “Seals Face Hour of Decision,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 1955, 1.
  1. “Pattersons Out, Seals Win Stay,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 September 1955, 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Seals Sell Bradford, Baxes and Melton,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 September 1955, 3H.
  4. “The Seals Will Be Saved,F. Promised,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 September 1955, 1.
  5. “Perini to Explore Toledo–S.F. Tieup,” San Francisco Chronicle, 7 October 1955, 1H; “Here’s Some Good Baseball News,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8 October 1955, 3H; “Cleveland Manager Meets with Fagan on Sale of Seals,” San Francisco Chronicle, 19 October 1955, 1H; “Sale of Seals to Greenberg Stalled,” San Francisco Chronicle, 20 October 1955, 1H; “Cleveland Would Stock Seals’ Club,” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 October 1955, 1H; “Braves Will Make Bid for S.F. Franchise,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 October 1955, 1H; “Greenberg Cancels S.F. Deal,” San Francisco Chronicle, 23 October 1955, 1H; “Milwaukee Prexy, PCL Boss Confer,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8 November 1955, 1H; “Milwaukee Rejects $200,000 Sale Tag,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 November 1955, 1H.
  1. “Heath Planning to Quit Seals,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 October 1955, 1H; “Sacs Fire Freitas, Open Door to Tom,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 October 1955, 1H.
  2. “Milwaukee Rejects $200,000 Sale Tag,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 November 1955, 1H.
  3. “Classified Ad from Miller,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 November 1955, 2H.
  4. “One PCL Club Fought Sale,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin, 29 November 1955, 22.
  5. “Red Sox Purchase Seal Franchise,” San Francisco Chronicle, 29 November 1955, 1H.
  6. “Sale of Seals to Greenberg Stalled,” San Francisco Chronicle, 20 October 1955, 1H.
  7. “Greenberg Cancels F. Deal,” San Francisco Chronicle, 23 October 1955, 1H; “Chronicle Poll of Baseball Opinion,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 September 1955, 5H.

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