Miles Wolff, ‘Icon Of The Baseball Industry,’ Sells Burlington Royals

Image credit: Miles Wolff (Photo courtesy Bob Sutton/Burlington Times-News)

Miles Wolff seemed woefully out of place when he stepped into a Southern League meeting in 1971 as Savannah’s general manager.

Fresh out of the Navy and in his first civilian job, Wolff was 26 years old, excited and full of ideas. He was also in a room where every other GM seemed to be ready to collect Social Security.

Since he was 12 years old, Wolff had dreamed of running a minor league club. That might not seem like such an odd goal for a baseball fan today, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s it seemed as strange as a kid today telling their parents that they want to grow up to work for a newspaper.

At that time, Minor League Baseball was an aging relic barely holding on thanks to a significant subsidy from Major League Baseball. Almost without exception, teams played in old parks that had been built in the 1930s and 1940s. The idea of taking the family to the local minor league park on a summer night had disappeared with the arrival of air conditioning and television.

“There were no young people in minor league baseball,” Wolff said. “There were no bright spots. In the 1970s, it was all about survival.”

Everyone else in that first GM meeting Wolff attended was a survivor. They were the generation of minor league owners and operators that had stuck around when the boom times of the late 1940s and early 1950s turned into a bust. They traveled from town to town, eking out a living.

Now, 49 years after he first stepped into pro baseball, Wolff is bowing out. He’s sold Burlington Baseball Inc., the company which holds the lease and the operations contract for the Appalachian League’s Burlington Royals, to Daytona Tortugas general manager Ryan Keur. Wolff, 76, is one of the veterans of the minors, much like the owner-operators who were in his first Southern League meeting. Unlike his predecessors, he’s leaving the sport in a much better shape than what he inherited.

“My goal was to sort of drift off in the sunset with Burlington,” Wolff said. “But then the big leagues announced (the plan to) cut 40 teams. My GM and assistant GM found other jobs in February. I was left with a club with no staff.”

Wolff found himself as the lone employee in Burlington, where he was answering the phones. In the search for a new GM, he called Keur, who used to work for Wolff as a GM in Burlington. Keur quickly indicated he was interested in taking over the team, and a deal for a “modest amount” was wrapped up in just a couple of weeks.

“It’s bittersweet. He’s an icon of the baseball industry, but if he wants to step aside, he has the right to do that,” Appalachian League commissioner Dan Moushon said.

When the minor leagues were all about survival, Wolff wanted more than to just make ends meet. He wanted to show the world that minor league baseball could be a profitable, lasting enterprise.

In 1980, when Wolff acquired for less than $2,500 a franchise in the Carolina League to own the Durham Bulls (soon afterward he bought Baseball America from founder Allan Simpson), MiLB teams had no real value. By the mid-1980s, Wolff’s Bulls were regularly selling out the Durham Athletic Park, a rickety, bandbox of an old stadium that went from being obsolete and outdated to nostalgic and charming thanks to some new paint and clever marketing. Wolff required that Bulls employees refer to the park as “historic.” A new law that allowed beer sales at minor league games in Durham didn’t hurt.

By the time the movie “Bull Durham” came out in 1988, the Durham Bulls were already a massive success—they topped 200,000 in attendance in 1986 and 1987. The movie turned them into the most famous MiLB club in the world. They drew 300,000 fans in 1990—the entire Southern League drew roughly that much when Wolff arrived in 1971. By the time Wolff sold the Bulls in 1991 for around $4 million, the minors were becoming a thriving business. The building boom of the 1990s soon followed, and the Depression-era ballparks of the 1930s were replaced around the country by gleaming new stadiums.

Wolff also was the father of independent league baseball in the 1990s, founding the Northern League. He served as the commissioner of the Northern League, the American Association, the Northeast League and the Canadian-American League and owned other independent clubs. Through it all, he held onto Burlington. Now, after 35 years with the Burlington club, his last tie to affiliated ball and pro baseball overall, is gone.

But he leaves a legacy. When Wolff got into the game, he was the only young guy in a room of old men. The next generation saw an example of why a life in the minors could be wonderful.

“When I started out in the early 1980s. Miles Wolff was my idea of what I wanted to be,” International League president Randy Mobley said. “ I wanted to settle down in a small town and run a ballclub and raise a family and live happily ever.”

All of a sudden, it wasn’t crazy to want to work in minor league baseball. And that’s because of people like Wolff.

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