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How it all began

Allan Simpson
Allan Simpson
Photo: Larry Goren
As Baseball America celebrates its 20th anniversary, we thought it appropriate for founder and editor Allan Simpson to look back at the paper’s humble beginnings. The magazine was called All-America Baseball News then, and it nearly died before its first birthday.

The thing I remember most about that first issue of All-America Baseball News was the incredible naivete with which it was pieced together.

Here I was, a guy with no publishing background, limited financial resources, few active contacts in baseball and a couple of summers experience working for and covering a semipro team, trying to launch a national baseball publication out of the garage of my house. In Canada, no less.

Ambitious, I was. Slightly unrealistic, too. The mortality rate for tabloid newspapers was high anyway, and I went in blind.

But I honestly thought I could pull off a paper that covered every facet of baseball–the majors, minors, colleges, youth baseball, everything–every two weeks, and be circulation manager, advertising manager, production manager and writer all rolled into one. Oh yes, and be a husband and father of two small children, to boot.

It didn’t take long to realize that I was in over my head . . . and sinking fast. I had grossly miscalculated what I was getting into.

Filling the void

The idea for a new all-baseball publication came six months before the first issue went to press. I just decided, almost on the spur of the moment, that I wanted to do something different with my life–even if it meant taking a gamble.

At the time, I was working with a public accounting firm near my hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia, about 250 miles northeast of Vancouver. That’s baseball never-never land, a five-hour drive to the closest minor league city (Spokane).

Five years earlier, I had been the original general manager of the Lethbridge Expos in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. Before that, I had spent three summers with the semipro Alaska Goldpanners, during which time I doubled as sports editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. I had the good fortune to watch Dave Winfield break in as a full-time position player in Fairbanks in 1972 and Andre Dawson make his professional debut in Lethbridge three years later.

Though I had been a passionate Reds fan for years and followed all levels of the game, that was pretty much the extent of my baseball background. And my newspaper background. I had never even taken a journalism course in college.

But I wanted to get back into baseball in the worst way. The hold the game had on me never left.

Being a Canadian, my options were limited. In spite of my intentions to resurrect a career in baseball, I was stifled by immigration authorities who informed me that I couldn’t simply pack everything up, move to the United States and pursue a dream.

Starting a baseball publication, I decided, was one of the few viable options I had. I could operate it in Canada, and possibly move to the United States once it was up and on its feet. I’d worry about the immigration obstacles later.

The timing also was right to launch a new baseball publication. It was becoming increasingly obvious to me, as a longtime reader of The Sporting News, that their coverage no longer had the broad-based baseball appeal it once had. Their coverage of the minor leagues was shrinking. College baseball was a growing force, and yet they continued to ignore it. Their coverage of the baseball draft, an area of great interest for me, was inadequate. There was no winter league coverage; no summer league coverage.

And yet no one had stepped in to fill the void. So if no one else was going to do it, I thought I would.

How naive I was

I packed up my family in October 1980 and moved to White Rock, B.C., a border community south of Vancouver. Being there allowed me to set up shop, cross into the United States on a daily basis and conduct such business as the immigration laws permitted.

I established post-office boxes in Blaine and Bellingham, Wash. The Bellingham Herald agreed to print the paper. I secured order-fulfillment and mailing houses in Seattle. In short, I did anything and everything to give readers the impression this was a U.S.-based publication. Otherwise, it was akin to starting a hockey publication in the U.S.; it wouldn’t have worked if readers thought it was a Canadian product.

By February 1981, ads in The Sporting News and direct-mail solicitation generated 1,500 anxious subscribers. I remember taking that original batch of subscriber coupons to Seattle in a baby-food box, and getting suspicious glances from keypunchers primed to type in names and addresses.

I had none of today’s sophisticated word-processing and production capabilities. My garage in White Rock was equipped with a typesetter so primitive that it had no memory. You could see the line you were typing on the screen and nothing more. If the processor ate your copy, it was gone. We had to completely retype a few stories that first issue.

Having no concept of cover design, I wasn’t concerned that the cover was mostly black-and-white and the spot color we used wasn’t registered properly. All I cared about was that we had Kevin McReynolds, then of the University of Arkansas, on our inaugural cover and that he was going to be a star. And we were going to be the first national publication to let everyone know about it.

Tracy Ringolsby, then covering the Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, helped me set up a network of correspondents at the 1980 Winter Meetings in Dallas. They would provide some major league coverage, but from its beginning this was a niche publication about minor league and college baseball. And the draft. And summer amateur baseball.

It all seemed so easy. How naive I was.

Help!

Copy for the first issue began streaming in by telecopier–the preferred means to transmit news in those days–and mail five or six days before the targeted publication date. I soon discovered that my intention to typeset all the stories myself was wishful thinking. I sent out an SOS to a friend, an airline ticket agent, to come bail me out.

A day before the premier issue was to be at the printer, I had streams of copy hanging from the rafters in the garage. Not a single page had been pasted down. Again, not a big concern. I was going to take four or five hours that night to lay everything in place. I soon discovered that 32-page papers don’t get cut and pasted down in one evening.

Two sleepless nights later and already a day behind schedule, I decided the issue had to get to the printer, ready or not. It wasn’t ready. Some pages had no copy on them, stories needed headlines, photos needed to be scanned. A lot of the corrections–and there were a lot–were set in a different typeface at the Bellingham Herald, where half the production staff rallied to strip in the remaining copy in order to get it on the press without further delay. Some of the mistakes never were corrected. A classic it was not, but at least the first issue was finished.

I was so exhausted after it was done that I couldn’t make the 25-mile drive home from Bellingham. I fell asleep in an Interstate 5 rest area that would become a familiar pit stop over the next year.

The next day, I had to go back to Bellingham, load 4,000 copies (the extras were for promotional purposes) into my International Scout and drive them to Seattle for mailing.

In those days, the paper was sent out by bulk mail. Some issues reached subscribers; some didn’t. It wasn’t until the fifth issue of All-America Baseball News that we got second-class postage privileges. Postal officials kept insisting on a requirement that we have an office in the United States, where all records could be inspected. Somehow a garage in Canada didn’t cut it.

When that nightmarish first issue was done, I realized I had another one coming out in less than two weeks. So much effort had gone into getting the first issue out, I hadn’t even given the second one a thought. It was another monster.

I soon realized something had to give. From that point, we became a monthly. We extended the expiration date for our 2,000 readers and hired a second person to work part-time as a typesetter and circulation manager.

We wouldn’t give up

The next three or four issues were slightly less chaotic.

One rather significant problem developed, though. By June, I was out of money. The paper was at a crossroads. At a meeting in Seattle with two of my advisers, we reluctantly decided to cease publication. We would arrange for Baseball Bulletin, then a struggling rival publication, to assume AABN’s subscriber list and fulfill all remaining subscriptions–if they were paid $5,000. For three days I lived with that decision.

Then I changed my mind. The paper wasn’t going to die, at least not without a fight. We had a small core of loyal readers and a growing legion in the baseball industry that liked some of the things we were doing. We had proven to be accurate on some of our projections, particularly in our draft coverage. We correctly touted Mike Moore and Joe Carter as the first two picks in the 1981 draft. In our first issue, we pegged Arizona State to win the College World Series.

So it was a case of rolling up our sleeves, borrowing some money and keeping the paper afloat–and looking for a buyer to take it over and move it to a more natural home in the U.S.

The late Bob Freitas, a friend to many in baseball and someone I had the good fortune to meet when I was in Lethbridge, put me in touch with Miles Wolff, an entrepreneurial sort himself who was restoring life to the Durham Bulls long before the movie made the team famous.

In July 1982, Miles bought the paper, moved it to Durham six months later and with unexpected ease secured a temporary visa for its editor, who would remain with the publication. Shortly thereafter, the paper was renamed Baseball America.

The Canadian Dream

Those early days in White Rock now seem like a distant memory.

The daily treks across the border to make a mail run . . . The late nights in the garage reading upwards of 50 daily newspapers with gloves on to keep warm . . . The all-night sessions to get a paper out that culminated 120-hour work weeks . . . Suitcases, winter tires and golf clubs as much a part of the office decor as the home-built layout table.

When the paper moved to Durham in January 1983, we had 6,000 subscribers. That number approached 75,000 in the early ‘90s. We have a staff that numbers 20, with some 50 correspondents all over the globe. We have a book division, separate production and advertising departments, and in-house customer service that fulfills all Baseball America orders. We’ve grown to 26 issues annually, while also pumping out annuals such as the Almanac, Directory, Super Register and Prospect Handbook.

For 20 years, we’ve been the definitive source for hardcore baseball fans who seek information on the minor leagues, colleges, the draft and prospects that they can’t find elsewhere. Now you can’t find a player in the majors any longer who wasn’t covered by Baseball America in his formative years. In that sense, we’ve grown up with an entire generation of big leaguers.

Looking back, it all seems so easy now.

What made it work? Timing, perseverance and loyalty.

Timing in the sense that we recognized a void in the marketplace in 1981 and had the good fortune to capitalize on a period of growth in the game–at every level, but mostly in the minor leagues. Perseverance in that we wouldn’t let this thing die, no matter how much hard work and effort it took. And loyalty. We’ve had columnists and correspondents who have been with us for years. From our earliest days, we’ve also had a very loyal readership.

Sounds like the good old American dream, doesn’t it? Or should that be Canadian?

Twenty years later and still going strong, would I do it all over again? Never.

Then again . . .

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