The Love of the Game
How two men helped turn Denver from a minor-league outpost into a major-league city.
The emergence of television in the 1950s profoundly changed countless institutions, and one of the most deeply affected was minor-league baseball. Today, the minor leagues have four basic levels—AAA, AA, A, and rookie leagues—but until the early 1960s there were seven or eight levels, depending on the year. The influence of TV made it impossible for lower-level teams to draw people who would rather stay home and watch I Love Lucy, and by 1963 all B-, C-, and D-level teams were defunct. Suburbanization around cities, including Denver, also made it less likely for people to want to make the drive downtown to see a ballgame. Foster, who in his book devotes almost as much attention to the Bears' yo-yoing attendance levels as he does to their on-field performance, calls Howsam a "tireless promoter" who every year offered dozens of special events, made focused efforts to get minority supporters out to the ballpark, and shunned the opportunity to televise Bears games until 1959. The city's fickle fan base would become an even bigger issue for Jim Burris more than a decade later. As the Rockies' dwindling attendance figures illustrate, it's an issue that's still unresolved.
As Howsam cooked up ways to spur fan interest, the Bears were taking care of business on the field, winning league championships in 1952 and 1954. Yet they still were a single-A ballclub, their talent merely a mid-level attraction. But in 1955, Howsam pounced on an opportunity to improve his product. With the major-league Philadelphia Athletics supplanting the New York Yankees' farm team in Kansas City, the Yanks were looking for a new home for their AAA prospects, the ones who could get to the Show if they had a hot few months or someone on the parent club got hurt. This also was during the heart of a Yankee dynasty that reached 10 World Series in 12 years, so their entire minor-league system was loaded.
Sensing the chance to take Denver baseball up several notches, Howsam bought the Yankees' Kansas City franchise. In a flash, Denverites went from watching neophyte players with mixed professional prospects to ones—such as Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Ryne Duren, Ralph Terry, Marv Throneberry, and Don Larsen—who would go on to star for the seemingly endless Yankee championship teams of the era. (The gregarious Throneberry never did much in the majors but was a first-rate character who probably is best remembered for the Miller Lite commercials he did in the '80s.) The Bears' manager at the time was Ralph Houk, an intense taskmaster who would later lead the Yankees to three World Series appearances, winning two. "Once they came over from Kansas City," says Howsam, "we had a team that I think could beat most professional teams in baseball today."