Max Schumacher Built Indianapolis Into Model Triple-A Franchise

When Max Schumacher started working for the Indianapolis Indians, there were 16 major league clubs, none farther west than Kansas City, Mo. Three of those teams still hadn’t integrated. Baseball’s top yearly salary was around $100,000. To supplement their income, big leaguers played winter ball in Cuba. Doubleheaders were a regular Sunday feature. Minor league teams struggled to make a buck.

Schumacher retired last November as president and chairman of the board of the Indians. During six decades in the game, he saw more change than a church collection plate, especially at the Triple-A level.

“Things have changed a lot. The business is different,” he said. “Probably the biggest change has been the way the players are handled. There was a time when they expected us to do a lot. It’s totally run from the top today. We handle the ticket sales and the marketing.”

Born 20 days after Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in the 1932 World Series, Schumacher inherited a passion for the game from his father, a musician with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. “He had a very, very strong interest in baseball,” Max said, “and he passed it on to me. There were stories about him taking a portable radio up on stage (to hear baseball broadcasts) when he was in the middle of one of his musical assignments.”

The elder Schumacher took Max to American Association games in Indianapolis, and occasionally to big league contests in Cincinnati and Chicago. He also coached several of his son’s youth teams. “When I was playing in high school and later on in college,” Max said, “he tried very hard to get to my games.”

Schumacher was a second baseman for Indianapolis’ Shortridge High and later at Butler University. His college coach was Tony Hinkle, who spent nearly half a century coaching Butler teams in baseball, basketball and football. After earning a journalism degree in 1954, Schumacher entered the Army. In 1956 he was stationed at Fort Sheridan, Ill., when he learned that the ticket manager of the Indianapolis Indians was leaving.

Through a friend, Max arranged an interview with Frank McKinney, a bank president who served as the Indians’ chairman of the board. Schumacher met with McKinney in early December 1956. “He interviewed me at his office,” Max said. “It wasn’t a long interview—15 or 20 minutes.”

Schumacher joined the Indianapolis front office in January 1957. Two years earlier, the team had survived its darkest hour. In the mid-1950s, the Cleveland Indians owned the Indianapolis franchise. Indianapolis had finished $150,000 in debt in 1955. Cleveland officials were talking about terminating Triple-A operations in Indianapolis. There were rumors the franchise would be moved to another city.

Local civic leaders devised a plan to keep baseball in Indianapolis. They made stock in the team available to the public. By the time the 1956 season got underway, the Indianapolis Indians had new owners: their fans, who had purchased 6,672 shares.

The 1957 campaign was Schumacher’s first with Indianapolis. By now the Indians’ parent club was the White Sox. The season was hardly an artistic triumph, with Indianapolis finishing seventh in the eight-team American Association.

Before Opening Day 1959, the Indians’ publicity director left. “I had been a journalism major,” Schumacher said, “and they asked me, ‘Can you do that, too?’ They were looking to save a buck. I had a lot of energy and I was ambitious, so I said, ‘Sure, I can do both jobs.’ ”

Ray Johnston stepped down as general manager before the 1961 season, so at age 28, Schumacher became GM of a Triple-A club. “That was a challenging time, because the Indians had financial problems,” Schumacher said. “I didn’t realize how bad they were. If I had, I probably would have made a run for the door, because the problems were severe. It was not a good period for minor league baseball.”

Indianapolis had a working agreement with the Reds by now, and in Schumacher’s first year as GM the Indians won the American Association pennant, thanks to “very good players.”

That ’61 pennant was the first of three in a row for Indianapolis, but the team’s money woes continued. “The board of directors didn’t know which way to turn,” Schumacher said. “Everything they tried, different promotions and all, had mostly failed, and they couldn’t make the team profitable.”

In his book “Minor Miracles: The Legend and Lore of Minor League Baseball,” David Pietrusza catalogued the predicaments of clubs like Indianapolis. In 1949, there were more than 60 minor leagues around the country, wrote Pietrusza. Soon, television was bringing major league baseball into the homes of fans in every minor league city. Just 21 minor leagues were still operating by 1959. Commissioner Ford Frick had to assemble a “Save the Minors Committee,” made up of major league owners.

One of the casualties was the American Association, which folded after the 1962 season. The Indians had a working agreement with the White Sox once again, and when Indianapolis won its third consecutive pennant in 1963, the Indians were part of the International League. And by 1964, Indianapolis was playing in the Pacific Coast League.

Schumacher now had the unique distinction of serving as a GM in all three of baseball’s Triple-A circuits. He worked alongside Indians president Donie Bush, a feisty former big league shortstop who had held the post since 1955. Known as “Mr. Baseball” in Indianapolis, Bush had been Ty Cobb’s Tigers teammate from 1908-21.

In April 1969, Schumacher succeeded Bush as team president. By now Indianapolis was back in the newly-revived American Association, and the Indians were a Cincinnati affiliate once more. The Reds were on the cusp of their Big Red Machine dynasty. With plenty of talent passing through Indianapolis en route to Cincinnati, the Indians finished first in 1971, ’74, ’78 and ’82.

“I had a very good relationship with (Reds farm director) Chief Bender,” Schumacher said. “He always saw to it we received a good replacement when they would recall a player. You knew you would have competitive teams, strong teams, interesting teams.”

The Indians’ success wasn’t just on the field. Indianapolis finished in the black in 1973, and has continued to do so every year since. “All I needed to do was go to work and do the best I could,” Schumacher explained. “Sell all the tickets we could, sell all the advertising we could, and keep the expenses down. I guess I was better at minimizing expenses than I was at maximizing income. Part of minimizing expenses was to keep the payroll down. So we didn’t have many employees—three, four full-time employees, and then put on enough seasonal employees to take care of things during the season.”

The Montreal Expos replaced the Reds as the Indians’ parent club in 1984. Indianapolis responded with pennants in 1984, ’86, ’88 and ’89, winning back-to-back Triple-A Classics in the last two of those seasons. In 1987, a year when Indianapolis finished third, they went on to beat Denver in the championship playoffs.

In 1986, the Indians named Schumacher chairman of the board, a position McKinney, Max’s old benefactor, had held from 1956-68. Minor league baseball had undergone a sea change by this time. In his book “The Minor Leagues: A Celebration of the Little Show,” Mike Blake wrote: “Minor League ball was once a nickel-and-dime operation in which anyone could own a team for little or no money down.”

Back in the day, teams could operate on gate receipts alone. Now, Blake noted, most Triple-A and Double-A franchises went for millions of dollars per franchise . . . and cost millions more to operate.

Indianapolis reunited with the Reds in 1993. The Indians kept right on winning, finishing first in 1994 and ’95. The team still played in Bush Stadium, its home since 1931. Originally called Perry Stadium, the ballpark’s name switched to Victory Field during World War II. It was renamed for Donie Bush in 1967.

By the 1980s the venerable facility was showing its age. During that decade, the city of Indianapolis enjoyed a renaissance. Sports facilities like the RCA Dome, the Indiana University Natatorium and Mike Carroll Track and Field Stadium had sprung up, hosting the NFL’s Colts, along with events like the National Sports Festival and the Pan American Games.

Under Schumacher’s leadership, the Indians began to push for a new ballpark in the heart of downtown. “We talked to several mayors of Indianapolis, and they weren’t interested,” Schumacher said. “We just had to bide our time and stay patient.” When Steve Goldsmith took over as mayor in 1992, Schumacher reached out to him. Goldsmith considered Schumacher’s plan for a downtown ballpark, and he liked what the Indians could do for the city’s commerce.

In December 1994, a block away from the RCA Dome, ground was broken for a new baseball stadium. The Indians played their first game there on July 11, 1996. Since then, the new Victory Field has been continually hailed as one of the best minor league ballpark in the country. “We have so much more going for us in downtown Indianapolis,” said Schumacher.

At the 1997 Winter Meetings in New Orleans, Schumacher was named “King of Baseball” for his years of service to the game. That same year, in order to serve as Indians’ president and chairman of the board, he turned over his general manager’s duties to Cal Burleson.

By 2000 the Reds were out and the Brewers were in, and Indianapolis was back in the International League. The Indians won another pennant that season, and triumphed in the Triple-A World Series. The Pirates replaced Milwaukee as the Indians’ big league affiliate in 2005. Indianapolis went on to finish first in 2006, 2012, 2013 and 2015.

Schumacher was inducted into Indiana’s baseball hall of fame in 2009. That same year, the Winter Meetings took place in Indianapolis. The last time the event had been held that far north was in 1966, in Columbus, Ohio. “We had to work for many years toward having the Winter Meetings here,” Schumacher said.

There’s no doubt the decision was influenced by Schumacher’s status as one of the game’s most respected figures. “I can’t think of anything more important than Max keeping (Indianapolis) on the radar,” minor league president Pat O’Connor told the Indianapolis Star. “Are we taking the meetings there for Max? Maybe a little. The city’s earned it, and Max is a great ambassador for the city.”

Schumacher stepped down as president and chairman of the board in November 2016. His duties are now handled by Bruce Schumacher, his son, and Randy Lewandowski, who started out with the Indians as an intern. Bruce is chairman and chief executive officer, while Randy serves as president and general manager.

“The decision had been made a long time ago that when I did retire, those responsibilities would be divided among two people,” Schumacher said. “Bruce emerged as the logical person to be the CEO and chairman of the board. Randy, because of his good work since he became general manager, deserved to be named president.”

Schumacher admitted that retiring wasn’t easy, but he’s still involved with the Indians. “They honored me by naming me chairman-emeritus of the board. So I have some limited responsibilities,” he said.

At Victory Field, the Schumacher presence is everywhere. Max and his wife Judy often host guests in the Indians Suite. Bruce, of course, is a team executive. His two younger brothers are also involved: Mark is the team’s merchandising director, while Brian works the scoreboard on game days.

Max is proud that Indianapolis led the minors in attendance last year. “You always have to be concerned with those parts of the business that are so important in the minor leagues: low-cost family entertainment, presented in a beautiful ballpark,” he said.

“We’re not the Colts, we’re not the (NBA’s) Pacers. We don’t have Reggie Miller or Paul George, or Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck.

“We don’t have those types of players who are with us year after year after year. So we rely on our facility to a large extent, and keeping the prices down, keeping the beer and the soft drinks cold, and the hot dogs hot.”

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