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Minor League Franchise
Columbus Clippers

By Geoff Wilson

When considering which operation to honor as the best in the minor leagues during the Baseball America era, only one answer was really possible–and it wasn’t Buffalo.

We wrote back in 1998 that Buffalo "changed the way people thought about a minor league franchise and showed there were no limits on the scope of its success." But the Bisons wouldn’t be where they are if Louisville hadn’t come before them. And Louisville wouldn’t have been where it was unless Nashville had come first. And Nashville modeled its success after the franchise that provided the minors’ version of the Shot Heard ’Round the World: the Columbus Clippers.

In 1976, the minors were in disarray. Attendance was nearing all-time lows, leagues were in danger of folding and almost no one thought of a minor league team as a money-making business.

That’s when the folks in Columbus stepped in. Harold Cooper, a former Columbus general manager who was a Franklin County commissioner, led a group of boosters to bring International League baseball back to Ohio’s capital. The county bought the Charleston, W.Va., franchise for $25,000, put $6.5 million into renovating the local ballpark (now known as Cooper Stadium) and began the minor league boom that continues today.

In the 20 seasons before 1977, the 1970 Hawaii Islanders and 1959 Buffalo Bisons were the only minor league teams to draw more than 400,000 fans. The Clippers drew 457,251 in ’77 and led the IL in attendance for the next 16 seasons; they still haven’t dropped below the 400,000 mark.

The atmosphere in minor league baseball changed with that year. "You saw it throughout the minors," Cooper said in 1998. "Wherever there was a new ballpark, there was a new enthusiasm and a new interest in baseball."

The Clippers also helped bring a more businesslike approach to running a minor league franchise. Instead of simply presenting the game, they presented the whole experience of coming to a game.

"We’ve always worked hard to present the Clippers," Columbus general manager Ken Schnacke said after the franchise won BA’s inaugural Freitas Award in 1989. "You don’t just open the gates and expect people to come in. You have to work hard to earn that support, and we have a lot of people who just keep coming back."

It’s not just the fans who keep coming back. Schnacke, who took over as GM that season, is still with the team, as is assistant GM and park supervisor Dick Fitzpatrick, who began his association with Columbus baseball by hawking peanuts in the 1930s. IL president Randy Mobley also began his career in baseball as a Clippers intern in 1980.

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