Louisville first minor league team to draw a million
By Mike Sullivan
LOUISVILLE, Ky.What happened in Cardinal Stadium the night of Aug. 25, 1983 had elements of tent-survival evangelism, Gil Thorp romanticism and, as it turned out, a twist of Italian comic opera.
In the pause between the top and bottom half of the seventh inning, when Louisville Redbirds public address man Steve Bugg traditionally announces the attendance, an expectant hush fell over a crowd that soon would be revealed as numbering 31,258.
Bugg, with a nice sense of timing, kept silent and let the moment build. A member of the grounds crew carried a microphone stand to the third-base line.
Then the top blew off.
A spontaneous ovation began to roll and swell in the covered, horseshoe section of 20,228 seats that looms behind home plate and extends out both foul lines. Mounting in volume, it boomed across the artificial turf and collided with an answering roar from the metal bleachers (11,752 seats) that line the outfield fence from right field to straightaway center.
Everybody knew that the St. Louis Cardinals' franchise in the Triple-A American Association was about to become the in history below the major league level to draw one million fans in a season. Just when it seemed that the noise couldn't possibly increase, a fusillade of fireworks lit up the sky behind the left-field fence.
And somehow, everybody also knew that the bespectacled, middle-aged fellow in the Bermuda shortsthe one dancing an impromptu jig on the field and waving wildly to the fanshad to be the one-millionth fan, fingered at a turnstile by club employees using radar guns and walkie-talkies.
What they didn't know until he was introduced by Redbirds owner A. Ray Smith and made a brief, joyful speech in broken English, was that No. One Million in this Kentucky river town was a good ol' boy named Giovanni Setaccioli.
He was not a plant, Smith later insisted. In fact, he wasn't even a distant relative of manager Jim Fregosi, outfielder Jim Adduci or pitcher Ralph Citarella.
"It's amazing," Smith said. "The gentleman came to this country as a prisoner-of-war during World War II and was in Fort Still, Okla. He married a lady from Louisville, settled here and has been a barber all these years at a downtown hotel."
The way things have been going in Louisville ever since baseball returned after a nine-year absence in April of 1982, that's almost tame stuff.
The "Miracle Million" crown pushed Redbirds attendance for 1983 to 1,006,103an average of 15,970 for 63 home openings with two dates still remaining. Louisville had set the "old" record of 868,418 in 64 dates the previous summer, when it shattered a mark established by the San Francisco Seals in 1946.
Unavoidably, the phenomenon of this ongoing attendance party has overshadowed events on the field, but the fact is that Fregosi's players have strung together a million-fan performance.
Adduci's 24th home run and a four-hit complete game by Jerry Johnson helped beat Evansville 7-0 on the big night, meaning the celebration also included the clinching of the Eastern Division title. Louisville's 74-55 record was the best in the league.
If it can survive the two-tiered playoffs, Fregosi's club will earn an encore in Cardinal Stadium against representatives of the International and Pacific Coast Leagues in the inaugural Triple-A World Series Sept. 15-19.
However, a fairy-tale finish by the Redbirds will not be required to put the six-game, round-robin event on sound footing. A lucrative television-rights package with the new Anheuser-Busch cable network virtually guaranteed the solvency of the Triple-A World Series for at least three years.
Players on the winning team will earn $1,000 each and all three squads will divide 50 percent of the profits after expenses. With 15,000 all-session tickets already sold, that ought to be substantial. Smith speaks confidently of involving Mexico and Japan in the Series by 1985.
As for his Comstock Lode of a franchise, the 64-year-old Tulsa, Okla., millionaire will continue tinkering, refining and reinvesting. He envisions corporate boxes, a sky-view restaurant and additional outfield stands within a few years.
In 1984 every chairback general-admission seat (about 10,000) will be replaced. Season-ticket prices will go up five percent in line with an expanded American Association schedule that will result in 77 home games. But his concession pricestailored to what Smith calls "competitive, Dodgers-style pricing"will not increase, "unless the market goes crazy and the price of beef doubles."
Smith sunk upwards of $1 million in the state-owned, 28-year-old facility after the 1982 season, doubling women's rest-room facilities and creating an all-new concession area with ornately styled booths and a beer garden (capacity 500) complete with gazebo and jazz quartet.
If that was Smith gesture of faith that 1982 had not been a fluke, the boldest gamble had been taken much earlier, when Louisville banker Dan Ulmer set about raising $4.1 million to bring baseball back.
The prevailing wisdom held that Ulmer's baseball committee should think in terms of building "a nice little 6,000-seat park on the river." There was no shortage of negative connotations attached to Fairgrounds Stadium (since renamed).
It had already been remodeled oncein 1973to accommodate University of Louisville football, and the job was done in such a way as to evict the Red Sox' Triple-A affiliate, the Louisville Colonels, whose players from 1969-1972 had included Carlton Fisk, Ben Oglivie, Dwight Evans and Cecil Cooper, to name just a few.
But Ulmer pressed doggedly on, also insisting on an attempt to lure Smith away from Springfield (Ill.) rather than rejoining the International League. Louisville had played every season in the American Association from 1902 through 1962, when the league folded. The city went without a team for six years and then, when the AA resumed operations in 1969, Louisville joined the IL.
By the time Smith bought his way out of a legal hassle with Springfieldnow the home of a Class A St. Louis Cardinals affiliateUlmer was well on the way to raising the $4.1 million from contributors that ran the gamut from major corporations to penny-collecting schoolchildren.
Now, after two season of unprecedented minor league attendance, two questions stand out: At what point will Louisville become a formidable candidate for a major league franchise? And, what mix of factors put the Redbirds' drawing power at an extraordinary level and kept it there?
Smith flatly predicts that Louisville attendance will solidify at a million and a half annually. He only shrugs at the notion that entry into the National or American League will become a matter of serious speculation, at least.
It's just such a totally different picture, financially, with the major league salary structure," he said. "It certainly could happen, but I think it would have to involve a major corporate backer. The Twins and Dodgers are the only family-owned operations left. Look at the Cardinals: They lose money every year, but the brewery sells quite a bit of beer, doesn't it?"
Smith claims to be as flummoxed as anyone over precisely why a metropolitan area of about 1,000,000 would muster such overwhelming support. In the winter of '82, he and Ulmer would have settled happily for 400,000 fans.
"People come up to me and say 'Thank you,' but it's the fans of this area who should thank themselves," Smith said. "All I've done is take a reasonably priced, attractive product and market it. Certainly the baseball is very close to major league caliber. We have a genuine family atmosphere in the park. Beyond that, maybe you'd have to ask a psychologist to explain it."
"The baseball at this level is more entertainingnot better, but more exciting," Fregosi said. "It's the inexperience factor. I won a division title in the American League (managing California in 1979), but clinching this title has given me more satisfaction than anything I've done in baseball."
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