The Mahoning Valley Scrappers have been a symbol of the region’s comeback narrative. Now, Minor League Baseball may phase them out.
By Vince Guerrieri
In the early twentieth century, when it came to professional team sports, baseball was king. It was also exclusive. There were sixteen Major League teams concentrated in just eleven cities (New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston and Philadelphia each had two). As a result, minor leagues thrived—first as independent teams, then by operating as affiliates of major league teams. Minor league teams were plentiful and conferred a sense of status on a community. They existed not only in future major league cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Minneapolis, but also in smaller towns like Wichita, Kansas, Peoria, Illinois, and Youngstown, Ohio.
For most of the first half of the twentieth century, Youngstown was a boom town, home to its share of professional sports teams. It was represented in football’s Ohio League, in the 1910s, by the Youngstown Patricians, a team sponsored by a group from St. Patrick Church on the city’s south side. World War I and the ensuing flu pandemic put the team on hiatus, and plans to join the nascent NFL in 1922 fell apart. From 1945 to 1947, the city was home to the Youngstown Bears of the National Basketball League, which merged with a rival league in 1949 to form the NBA.
But the city’s lengthiest relationship with pro sports came as a home for minor league baseball, primarily with the Mid-Atlantic League. The Youngstown Mid-Atlantic teams, known variously as the Tubers (as in Youngstown Sheet and Tube), Browns, Gremlins, Colts, and Athletics, played at Idora Park, the city’s amusement park. There was a baseball field with bleachers, but it was better equipped for softball games at company picnics than for professional play—particularly when contrasted with the amateur baseball fields, which featured concrete grandstands and, in some cases, lights.
Ultimately, Youngstown’s minor league baseball affiliation ended in 1951, when the Athletics first left Youngstown for Oil City, and then folded. The Mid-Atlantic League gave up the ghost after that season as well. In 1949, there were fifty-nine minor leagues comprising 448 teams—the high-water mark for the minor leagues. Within fifteen years, that number had been reduced by more than half.
Baltimore, Minneapolis and Milwaukee, once minor league stalwarts, now had major league teams. The Pacific Coast League, which had been granted open classification as a possible prelude to becoming a third major league, was being chased from Los Angeles and San Francisco after the Dodgers and Giants moved west. And those cities that didn’t have a major league team come to town were just a click away from major league games on television, “giving local fans the choice between seeing the best baseball for nothing or paying good money for an inferior product,” Bill Veeck wrote in his baseball tell-all The Hustler’s Handbook.
The 1950s were a time of great change in the minor leagues—and a high point in the history of the Mahoning Valley. The mills and associated factories ran around the clock, and the hard-fought gains in the American labor movement allowed the men who worked in those mills an excellent standard of living. That all changed on Sept. 19, 1977, a day still known in the area as “Black Monday,” when Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced it would close one of its mills at the end of the week. Black Monday precipitated a sudden and devastating economic decline in the Mahoning Valley. People have been trying to write its comeback story since.
Recently, that story has taken a series of body blows. A year ago at this time, news came down that the General Motors plant in Lordstown would be unallocated—closed without officially being closed. Five months ago, just after the Vindicator celebrated its 150th anniversary, Youngstown’s sole daily newspaper announced it would be closing. And now comes the news that a restructuring of Minor League Baseball could blink the Mahoning Valley Scrappers—the short-season Class A minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians—out of existence.
The writing had been on the wall for Lordstown for more than a decade prior to its closing, as employment at the complex continued to decline. The Vindicator’s fortunes rose and fell with the area—along with a media landscape that was changing, and not for the better. But news of the Scrappers’ potential demise, though bad, is different because of what the team symbolized: The narrative of the Mahoning Valley’s comeback that has never been fully realized.
The economic value of a professional sports team is dubious at best. Its effects on morale are more significant. The city of New Orleans rallied around the Saints after Hurricane Katrina (and owner Tom Benson’s attempts to move the team as a result of damage to the Superdome). I’m no fan of George W. Bush, but even I was stirred as he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, the southern tip of Manhattan still strewn with rubble.
The powerful relationships between communities and their teams are nothing new. In the late 1970s, an era of deindustrialization just as rapid and depressing as the one in Youngstown, Pittsburgh was heralded as the City of Champions thanks to championships by the Steelers, Pirates and University of Pittsburgh football. Construction of the new Indians ballpark and arena in the 1990s was seen as an important step in Cleveland’s revitalization—which has been written about even more than the Mahoning Valley’s comeback.
By the 1980s, Youngstown had been without a team for thirty years. Interest in a minor league team was really renewed in 1988, when Mike Agganis, the owner of the Vermont Mariners, was looking to move his Class AA team out of Burlington (despite the entreaties of the city’s mayor, Bernie Sanders, who as a teen watched his hometown Dodgers leave Brooklyn). Youngstown was interested, but a stadium lured the team to Canton, where they became the Canton-Akron Indians.
What appeared to be the surest bet for a minor league team came in 1991, when two Youngstown businessmen, Mickey Monus and John Antonucci, were awarded an expansion Major League Baseball team in Denver. Monus was the driving force behind Phar-Mor, a discount drug chain that appeared to be an integral part of the Mahoning Valley comeback. The number of stores had tripled within three years (Sam Walton of Walmart said Monus was the only competitor he legitimately worried about), and the company put its corporate offices in a deserted department store in downtown Youngstown.
Monus had also started a professional basketball league, the World Basketball League. Surely, people thought, a minor league team would end up in Youngstown as well. There was even an optimal location for it, on the east side of downtown on the bank of the Mahoning River, a plot of land formerly occupied by a Republic Steel mill (the land ultimately became home to the Covelli Centre). But Monus had propped up the WBL with money embezzled from Phar-Mor, which was cooking its books a full decade before Enron employees were hailed ironically as the smartest guys in the room. The WBL folded. Eventually, so did Phar-Mor. Monus went to prison, but not before he had to sell his interest in the Rockies.
In 1998, the Mahoning Valley finally caught a break. The city of Erie, Pennsylvania, home to a team in the New York-Penn League, a short-season Class A league, was awarded a team in the Eastern League, the Class AA circuit that included the team then known as the Akron Aeros (the former Canton-Akron Indians, now the Akron RubberDucks). Their New York-Penn League team was going to be displaced. All they needed was a ballpark. Youngstown real estate magnate Bill Cafaro stepped up and funded the $8.3 million facility—not in Youngstown, but at the Eastwood Mall in Niles, a Cafaro property.
I was there for the groundbreaking in 1998, as summer help for the Tribune-Chronicle in Warren. The mayor of Niles, Ralph Infante, and the area’s Congressman, Jim Traficant, both made it a point to tell me the low regard in which they held my employer. (They both ended up going to prison; infer from that what you will.) The Mahoning Valley Scrappers took the field the following season, and they were a point of pride, particularly once you started seeing players from Niles not just making the Indians roster, but succeeding. The opening day starter for the Scrappers in 1999 was CC Sabathia. Victor Martinez and Jason Kipnis, among others, played in Niles. Three years after pitching for the Scrappers, Shane Bieber stood on the grass at Progressive Field and was named All-Star Game MVP.
In the early twentieth century, minor league teams were largely independent, making their money not just from gate receipts, but from the sale of player contracts to other teams. That started to change in the 1920s, when Branch Rickey—a decent catcher who made his mark as a baseball executive, notably with the Dodgers, where he hired Jackie Robinson—developed the idea of a farm system, in which minor league teams had working agreements with major league teams, creating a pipeline of talent. Soon, the concept was being imitated throughout the majors, in part because it worked (the Cardinals, where Rickey first developed the idea, won six World Series in a twenty-year span from 1926 to 1946), and in part because the Depression made it necessary for minor league teams to rely on the majors.
The structure we now know as the minor leagues – with classifications of Rookie, A, AA and AAA leagues—was agreed upon in 1963. Much like Major League Baseball—and really, most professional sports—Minor League Baseball continued to prosper; attendance rose as people again saw the value of going to the games. (They were and remain a significantly cheaper alternative to a major league game.) In 1991, a professional baseball agreement was signed between Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball. One of the provisions called for facility upgrades for any stadium hosting an affiliated minor league team, leading to a minor league stadium building boom that coincided with the MLB construction boom.
Now, another agreement is being negotiated, and one phrase that has come up frequently in coverage is penny wise and pound foolish. The plan, which would take effect following the 2020 season, would contract (read: eliminate) forty teams, many in short-season A, including the Scrappers and a lot of teams that play in the New York-Penn League, ostensibly to reduce travel time and improve “wellness” for minor league ballplayers. (It’s worth noting at this point that if MLB was really interested in improving player wellness, they wouldn’t be fighting tooth and nail against any kind of pay increase for minor leaguers, many of whom have incomes at or near the poverty line.)
The plan was developed by the management of the Houston Astros, who are quickly replacing the Yankees as baseball’s Evil Empire by dint of actually being evil. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who is already proving himself to be an unworthy successor to Bud Selig, is treating it as an inevitability, even if nobody else is. The Scrappers have already put out a statement saying they’re carrying on with 2020 plans as scheduled. And dozens of representatives in Congress—including Bernie Sanders and Tim Ryan, the Ohio Democrat whose district includes the Mahoning Valley—have voiced their opposition to the proposal. They have the wherewithal to do something about it, too. On several occasions, Congress has gotten Major League Baseball in line with threats to its antitrust exemption, put in place via a court hearing and unprecedented in any other sport.
In their twenty years, the Scrappers have ingrained themselves as part of summer nights in the Mahoning Valley. If the worst-case scenario comes to pass and the team is contracted, it won’t upend as many lives as the Lordstown closing. It won’t pose an existential threat as dire as the loss of a daily newspaper. But it’ll hurt just as bad. ■
Vince Guerrieri was born in Youngstown three weeks before Black Monday, and he’s left there without ever really escaping it. He’s an award-winning journalist and author now living in the Cleveland area.
Cover image of Eastwood Field, home of the Scrappers (Creative Commons).
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