Feature

The Love of the Game

How two men helped turn Denver from a minor-league outpost into a major-league city.

April 2007

Jim Burris shuffles around the bright Denver-area home that's stuffed with souvenirs of his past and necessities of his present. A table in his family room is blanketed with a dozen or more medicines that come with the territory when you're 84 years old. Another in the kitchen is covered with containers of food: pretzels, crackers, candy, the kind of snacks you'd want to have ready in case the grandkids or great-grandkids drop by. Another table holds several dictionary-size baseball tomes, including the Baseball Encyclopedia. A china cabinet has been converted to a bookshelf, housing rows of baseball

statistics guides, some dating back a century or more. Burris steers his guest into a small office that's papered with remnants of a career spent promoting, publicizing—loving—all sports, but especially baseball. Sprinkled among the dozens of photos are other one-of-a-kind relics: Satchel Paige's business card from his postretirement front-office days; a mock newspaper headline reading, "Billy Martin outguns Wyatt Earp" that Burris and his old friend Martin had made in Tombstone, Arizona; a copy of a handwritten letter from Ty Cobb to Burris when he was working for The Sporting News in the 1940s (the original lives in a bank vault).

And then there are those pictures. A Rockwellesque oil painting of Joe DiMaggio showing a young boy how to swing a bat, and a photo of Burris sitting on a dugout bench next to the great Yankee. In the kitchen, framed with a thank-you note from George H.W. Bush, is a shot of the former Yale first baseman and then U.S. vice president, wearing a Denver Bears uniform and grinning on the bench during an old-timers game in 1984. There are pictures of legends—and friends—such as football's Doak Walker and golf's Ben Hogan, among many others. Given a prime spot in the family room, near the DiMaggio painting, is a black-and-white shot from June 1948. Taken at a banquet, it shows the head table, just in front of Tommy Dorsey's bandstand, where young Burris is leaning over to speak with Babe Ruth a few months before the Sultan of Swat passed away.

His slight frame sporting an orange Broncos sweater, wire-rimmed glasses propped slightly askew on his head, Burris gestures with gently trembling hands toward each picture, pausing to give special attention to the ones that show his friend and mentor, Bob Howsam. Chuckling frequently, he recounts each story with the humility and delight of someone who still can't believe his good fortune. He's rubbed elbows or formed friendships with such greats as Lefty Gomez, Carl Hubbell, Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Buzzy Bavasi, and Ford Frick. But the onetime college dropout and lifetime minor-league executive did his most meaningful work here in Denver, helping Howsam build and sustain a little baseball team that could, keeping local interest in the game chugging along just enough to convince the powers that be that Denver was indeed a major-league city, and perhaps offering a lesson in perseverance to its currently struggling franchise.

Frontier Baseball

As the Civil War dawned and chaos reigned on its battlefields, baseball already was becoming popular on the East Coast. Gold-rushing prospectors took breaks from their westward treks to play crude variations of the game at mining camps across the Kansas and Nebraska plains. In March 1862, the Rocky Mountain News announced a meeting "of all persons interested in creating an official baseball club," and in his book The Denver Bears: From Sandlots to Sellouts, author Mark S. Foster traces organized Denver teams back to 1881. Pictures from the era show groups of men—some strapping, some scrawny, about half with Snidely Whiplash moustaches or toting bats as big as wagon tongues—posed together in matching but motley woolen uniforms. One of Denver's earliest squads, the Browns, played at various parks around town before settling in 1882 on the spot that later became the site of Merchant's Park, on what is now the corner of South Broadway and Central Avenue. Denver teams were variously known as the Mountain Lions, Grizzlies, Cubs, and Teddy Bears (so dubbed because of Teddy Roosevelt's popularity). The 1911 Grizzlies finished 111-54, the best record in the history of the Western League, and they won two more league championships in 1912 and 1913. It would be the last baseball title Denver would see for almost 40 years, when Howsam oversaw a postwar baseball revival.

The local teams plugged along intermittently for the next several decades, but each successive one was forever fighting an uphill financial battle, not unlike the small-market Rockies today. Factors such as geographic isolation and, later, the Great Depression often forced the Denver nines to operate on shoestring budgets or disband entirely. By the time World War II rolled around, with most healthy young men shipping off to fight in Europe and Asia, baseball at all levels suffered a talent drain. (So much so that some major-league executives concocted the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, chronicled in A League of Their Own.) Here in Denver, which had a strong military presence, local baseball options consisted primarily of exhibition games featuring future and former pros who were stationed here.

Flush with the victories over Hitler and Hirohito, the postwar United States was booming again. The Depression was over, jobs were plentiful, reunited families were looking for ways to spend their time and money, and baseball underwent a nationwide revival. Thanks to the efforts of Colorado Senator Edwin Johnson and two others, including future Denver Mayor Bill Nicholson, the Bears were reborn into their old Western League. But playing at the renovated but still rickety Merchants Park was a liability. The combination of spectator discomfort and a so-so team clouded the Bears' future from the outset. Fortunately, help was on the way.

Rebirth of a Notion

In a picture taken in 1950, a grinning, apple-cheeked Bob Howsam works the phones, wheeling and dealing his team from near extinction to local prominence. Now 89 and living in Arizona, Howsam was a visionary who eventually compiled one of the most varied and impressive executive resumes in sports history, but perhaps his greatest inspiration was marrying Senator Johnson's daughter Janet. Howsam had been executive secretary of the Western League, and his connection to the Senator gave him the "in" he needed to reinvigorate the Denver baseball scene. He talked his own brother and father into buying the Bears after the 1947 season, and the family's first order of business was building a new stadium. "The attendance hadn't done well because they were playing in old Merchants Park, a wooden park that had a lot of splinters, to be honest," Howsam says. "We needed a stadium that we felt was a type that would be a pleasure to watch a ballgame in."

Johnson and the Howsams set out to create a park that would become the jewel of the Western League. They purchased a garbage dump near 20th and Federal and excavated the land to create a natural half-bowl. The park opened late in the 1948 season, seating about 18,500 and surrounded by an easily accessible parking lot, a model for future ballparks throughout the minor leagues. Thus began a golden era for baseball in Denver.

TV, Tickets, and Titles

Though the team still struggled at first, baseball was, apart from the occasional rodeo and the ubiquitous outdoor activities, the only game in town. Thanks largely to the allure of the new stadium, the Bears set an all-time minor-league attendance record by drawing more than 463,000 fans in 1949. "Baseball was popular everyplace [after the war]; they were forming leagues all over the place," Howsam says. "People during the war were working in factories, couldn't have the lights on at night, and couldn't get out. Once the war ended, people wanted to get out into the fresh air and do things, which is one of the things that made it so popular in Denver. And we gave them a new stadium where they could go and enjoy it. It was a lovely way to spend an evening during those days." Though the strong attendance prompted newspapers across the country to start calling Denver the minor-league baseball capital of America in the early 1950s, Howsam still had to scramble to put fans in the seats as the decade wore on. He still had a few tricks up his sleeve, first aligning his team with the most powerful and iconic franchise in sports and later hiring a hustling young successor who would help steer the Bears through the next several decades.

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."

The arrangement with the Yankees lasted only three seasons before the team decided to move its AAA players closer to New York, forcing Howsam to align with the Detroit Tigers. But by the close of the decade, Howsam had his sights set on two much bigger goals. He and some partners were trying to start a third professional baseball league, the Continental League, which they conceived as a way to get pro baseball into new cities. But Major League Baseball derailed this plan by poaching some of the towns the Continental League organizers had in mind and expanding by four new teams in 1962. By this time, Howsam's efforts were spread even thinner, because in 1959 he'd also joined forces with Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, and others to start the American Football League. In 1960, the Broncos set up shop in Bears Stadium, almost immediately relegating their more senior co-tenants to permanent second-class status and throwing a stranglehold around Denver's sports consciousness that still endures. Before embarking upon a stunning run of baseball success in St. Louis and Cincinnati, Howsam had the foresight to hire Jim Burris, who, after Howsam left town, joyfully toiled away, laying the groundwork for Denver's eventual ascent to the majors.

New Kid in Town

After helping revive minor-league baseball in Denver and introducing the city to its beloved Broncos, Howsam left for St. Louis in 1964. Over the next 13 years, he would be the general manager of a World Series-champion Cardinals team, and he later was one of the key architects of the famed Big Red Machine, the 1970s Cincinnati Reds dynasty that included such legends as Pete Rose and Johnny Bench.

Howsam had met Burris years earlier while traveling to Louisville, Kentucky, where Burris was working for the local minor-league front office. Burris had held numerous jobs in sports publicity, including a stint as the assistant to then Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick in New York. Howsam recruited Burris to Denver, and soon afterward Burris was elected president of the Texas League, a good news/bad news situation. Once a month, he commuted between Denver and San Antonio, 1,000 miles each way, in a 1959 Chevy with no air conditioning. "It gave me a lot of chances to listen to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and I became a great fan of Western swing music," Burris recalls with a laugh. Denver sportswriters sympathetic to his plight started campaigning publicly for him to get the Bears GM job, and on January 1, 1965, Burris took the reins full-time.

But while the Broncos still were a decade away from sniffing any kind of success, they already owned the town. "The Broncos went forever before they had a winning season and almost moved several times. To be honest, I wish they had," says Leo Hirsch, a former Boulder sportswriter. "I have no doubt that the fanatical football following kept [professional] baseball out of here as long as it did because people would look at Denver and say, 'Oh, it's a football town.'"

Just as it is today for the Rockies' management and publicists, fighting this perception became a full-time job for Burris, even when he joined the Broncos' front office for a year in the mid-1960s. Rocky Mountain Empire Sports owned both teams and Bears Stadium, but the Broncos were the pros and football was starting to take off across the country. The owners expanded the stadium several times to accommodate football, to 25,000 seats in 1963, to 50,000 in 1969, and to 76,000 in 1977. The greater capacity allowed the Bears to set occasional single-game records, usually during nights featuring postgame fireworks (a Burris inspiration), but the rows of empty football stands during more average attendance days considerably dampened the crowds' impact and enthusiasm, much as it would if the Rockies played their games at Invesco. The pecking order was never more evident than in 1971, when the Broncos' schedule forced the Bears out of their yard—which by then had been renamed Mile High Stadium—to play all seven games of the Junior World Series against Rochester on its home field in New York.

Burris did all he could to drum up interest with the variety and volume of his promotions, but gimmicks such as All-Kids Night and various giveaways only went so far; eventually the fans wanted to see results on the field. Realizing this, he would frequently change the working agreements the Bears had with major-league teams to ensure that he always was getting the best players possible; during Burris' 20-year tenure, the Bears were the AAA farm team for more than a half-dozen different major-league franchises. "We had some success on the field, but I was selfish in the way I went about it. The town really belonged to the Broncos even then," he says. "When I could see that [our parent club's] AAA player supply was running a little short—and they all do—I was a little, I hate to use the word, ruthless, about changing our working agreements to go with what I thought the best situation was. My motivation was to stay in business and pay our bills."

Man with a Plan

Burris tailored his teams to Denver's geographic advantages, realizing that to have any success and attract fans the Bears would need to score runs. "To be honest, nobody ever talked about the altitude; we just took it for a fact that there would be a lot of runs scored here," Hirsch says. "Burris was smart enough to know he had to go further than most people did to get an attraction people wanted to see. So they always had big first basemen who could hit 40 homers here even if they never did much in the majors."

Burris also provided the organization with a short-lived but memorable jolt of electricity in 1968. Most baseball fans can recall TV images of a furious Billy Martin lunging at Reggie Jackson in a Fenway Park dugout or screaming at countless umpires, but few of them realize Martin cut his managerial teeth right here in Denver. Martin was coaching in Minnesota when Burris approached Twins owner Calvin Griffith with the idea of hiring Martin to run the Bears. "Griffith said, 'This guy has trouble controlling himself and you want to put him in charge of 20 of our best young players?'" says Burris, who stuck to his guns and got Martin to accept the job a few days later, taking an underachieving team and engineering the first of his many trademark turnarounds. "When he took over we were in last place, but by the end of the season he had the guys thinking they were as invincible as the '27 Yankees," Burris says.

Going into the season's final day, the Bears had climbed out of the cellar and needed a win to finish above .500. The day before the game, Martin called Burris and asked if the team would put up the money for a beer party to reward the players for all their hard work. Burris gladly agreed, not realizing that Martin intended to have the party the night before the last game. The evening's revelry didn't stop the Bears from winning 11-2, prompting the opposing manager to tell Burris, 'That hung-over bunch of yours just beat the hell out of us.'"

The Twins hired Martin to run the big-league team the following season, but the Bears had lassoed some momentum that continued through the 1970s and into the '80s, a span that saw them win six division and four league titles, surpass the half-million mark in attendance several times, and feature numerous future major-league all-stars and successful managers. The best team during this run probably was the 1980 Bears, which were led by Tim Raines and Randy Bass (the latest in the erstwhile line of slugging first basemen). The team stampeded to a 92-44 record that included 21 straight home wins and a pitching staff that led the league in shutouts. The Sporting News named Burris its minor-league executive of the year, the highest honor of his tenure.

That year would prove to be the Bears' apotheosis and one of the last tastes of success Denver baseball fans have enjoyed. The Rockies arrived in 1993 and opened the beautiful Coors Field in 1995. But with the new-ballpark honeymoon long over—and a relentlessly mediocre team—local interest has dwindled.

Burris says the Rockies organization has been good to him, but the recent steroids scandal and the obsession with money leave him longing for the good old days. "The salaries bother me—not so much the players making it—it's that they talk about it so much," he says. "Ballplayers I knew in those days, their typical goal was to make enough to go back to some small town where they were raised and open a hardware store. That was as much as they were hoping for."

As Burris looks around his office, reflecting on all the good times, his eyes settle on a picture of him and Martin, arms thrown over each other's shoulders, celebrating a big win. "Our goal was to keep having good ball clubs, and fortunately we usually did. That was pretty much the story of my life," he says. "I know I wasn't the best executive there ever was, but no one loved the game more than I did."

Luc Hatlestad is a senior editor at 5280.