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In a room in St. Petersburg, 70,000 cards detail minor league baseball players' careers

Birth: 1920

Played: 1938-1963

Known for: "Stan the Man" topped the .300 mark 17 times and won seven National League batting titles

Status: In Hall of Fame

What the cards reveal: Musial's player record cards mention three brief suspensions during 1938 and 1939, possibly to permit him to play with his high school or other amateur teams.

Three years ago, Minor League Baseball moved its offices from a cramped clubhouse next to Al Lang Field in downtown St. Petersburg to a more spacious group of buildings tucked inside an industrial park about 9 miles north.

Inside the main building is a fireproof room, its walls stacked with cinder blocks and stuffed with fiberglass. And inside that room are 11 filing cabinets that stretch from the door to the back wall, propped on blocks of wood, some nearly a century old and weighing more than a metric ton.

And inside those cabinets are bits of baseball history small enough to hold in your hands.

"This," said Steve Densa, executive director of communications, "is where we keep all our player record cards."

Roughly 70,000 cream-colored cards about the size of a man's hand were filled out by Minor League Baseball employees from the late 1910s until the early 1990s. Every player who signed a professional contract during that time has one — from baseball icons like Yogi Berra to men like Chuck Connors (The Rifleman), who passed through the game's lower echelons only to earn fame on other stages.

They are records of careers started, bonuses received, service time earned, promotions enjoyed, trades endured, releases mourned, careers ended. Very simply, player record cards served as a way to keep track of players and roster sizes during a time when some minor league teams failed to keep accurate records of their own and information was far more difficult to find.

But outside the baseball world, almost no one knows about the cards. Baseball historians like Peter Golenbock don't know much about them. Neither do most reporters who cover the sport. Even the players whose professional lives used to be tracked in shorthand are puzzled when they see one.

"What is it?" asked Brian Harper, the manager of the Daytona Cubs and the starting catcher for the 1991 World Series champion Minnesota Twins.

What is it? It's a trove of arcane information about a sport that has always attracted fans with a special fondness for such minutiae.

Want to know what Lou Piniella earned every month when he played for the Selma Cloverleafs in 1962?

Or when the Boston Red Sox reinstated Ted Williams after his service during World War II?

The answers are somewhere on those cards — decades of handwritten baseball history stuffed into less than 100 square feet.

• • •

The oldest of the cards date to sometime around 1912. There were 49 minor leagues and 299 teams then, and none of them were affiliated with any major league teams. They were all independent, all handled their own player contracts, and these cards offered a way to standardize the information.

For more than two decades, the cards lived in Auburn, N.Y., the original home of the minor league offices. Every new minor league president chose where to keep the offices, and William Branham, who was elected in 1933, moved them — and the cards — to Durham, N.C.

Around that time, Branch Rickey was building the first farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Major League teams started to groom their own young players. Decades passed before the rest of baseball established affiliated minor league teams of their own. In the meantime the cards continued to pile up.

In 1947, George Trautman moved everything to Columbus, Ohio. Then in 1973, Henry Peters brought it all to St. Petersburg. The offices have been in the city ever since, but the cards have moved from what amounted to a glorified cubicle near Al Lang to a standard storage unit off U.S. 19 and finally to the new offices in north St. Petersburg.

"That was where they took the first hit — probably the only hit, to be honest with you — when we moved them from the storage unit back over here," Tim Brunswick said. "Before then, it was very organized."

Brunswick is the vice president of baseball and business operations at the minor league offices, but 22 years ago, he was an intern three days out of Florida Southern University whose first job was filling out the cards. Whenever a club called in a transaction, he was one of three young men responsible for marking it on the appropriate card, then logging it into a computer system that was introduced in the early 1990s.

One of the men Brunswick worked with is Bob Miller, now the assistant general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. The other is Brian Warnock, now out of baseball. Which means that Brunswick is the last of his kind.

No one else in the minors understands these artifacts the way he does.

• • •

Brunswick arrived at the minor league offices in May 1990, the perfect time to experience the anachronism of the cards and the possibility of the digital future.

"I can't remember the exact numbers, but to put somebody on the disabled list, I think it was $15," Brunswick said. "To take him off the disabled list, it was $15. To sign a new contract, it was $20. That was the main funding source. Four times a year, sometimes five times a year, we would compile all those transactions, and we would bill the clubs."

Those dollar amounts are nowhere on the cards, but there are some monetary notations — how much minor leaguers received each month, how much they received as bonuses to sign, whether they reached their incentive bonus plan, whether they earned service time to eventually qualify for a pension.

Each card tells an individual story, of course, but collectively the cards trace a growing fixation with players' compensation.

Take Bing Miller's card for example. His career in the majors from 1921 to 1936 is largely ignored. There is no salary history, just a chronological list of minor league stops in Atlanta, where he was suspended in 1919, and Little Rock, his last stop before he signed with the Washington Senators.

Then there's Johnny Mize, a Hall of Fame first baseman for Cardinals, Giants and Yankees whose career stretched from 1936 to 1953. Much of his card is typed, not handwritten — the switch occurred around 1948 for most cards — and there's only one indication of money, an unexplained penciled note for $450 on May 19, 1950.

And Al Kaline, who played from 1953 to 1974, another Hall of Famer and was never a minor leaguer. He started and ended his career in Detroit. Kaline played during the last days of the reserve clause — which tied players to organizations and prevented them from negotiating with other teams — so every one of the seasons on his card started with a new one-year contract and ended with the Tigers bringing him back for another season. The only note about money is a 1955 bonus, the amount of which is unrecorded on the card.

And there's Robin Yount, still another Hall of Famer who played in the majors from 1974 until 1993. He spent one season, 1973, in the minors, with the Newark Co-Pilots. According to his card, he played for $500 a month. He would have earned $700 a month the next season had he not won a spot with the Milwaukee Brewers that he held for the next 20 years. His is one of the first cards that included a notation for something called "free agency" — the system that ultimately replaced the reserve clause and led to the skyrocketing salaries of the last several decades.

Yount's was also one of the last cards ever marked.

• • •

Major League Baseball runs the player record system now. There are no more cards. That computer work that Brunswick started in 1990 is standard now. Teams make the transactions themselves, and MLB oversees it to make sure everything is in line with rules and procedures.

In St. Petersburg, Minor League Baseball replaced the lost funds by creating licensing and marketing departments to capitalize on the popularity of the game in the 1990s and take more control over its image and team logos.

There are no plans to organize the cards. Steve Densa would like to, but the job would take months, if not years, and he can almost always find the ones he needs. Nor are there plans to digitize the cards and upload them to a server or an internal database. Again, that would take too much time, too much money.

"Obviously, we're not going to get rid of history," Brunswick said. "We just don't look at them that much."

So what good are the cards? Why hold on to them?

Because they tell us that Lou Piniella signed his first contract on June 9, 1962, for $650 a month. That the Red Sox formally added Ted Williams to their roster again on Jan. 21, 1946, after he spent more than three seasons away from baseball helping his country win a war. That Stan Musial was, in fact, suspended three times during the 1938 and 1939 seasons, though it most likely was not for disciplinary reasons but rather so that the high schooler could play in amateur games.

• • •

Densa doesn't get too many occasions to thumb through the archive. Usually, it's a phone call or an email from folks looking for a little information about their dad's season on the Birmingham Barons or their grandpa's batting average from the Pacific Coast League.

That's when Densa unlocks the door to the fireproof room, pulls open a heavy drawer and begins to thumb through the cards, looking for just the right typewritten name in the upper left-hand corner. After he has compiled every bit of statistical information he can find, he makes a copy of the player record card and sends it off.

"These," he said, "are sort of the cherry on the top."

Look at what the cards reveal about a player's life in the minor leagues and beyond — we use Lou Piniella as an example — and see the cards of some baseball greats. 12-13A

About the writer

Matt LaWell asked his wife to drive around the country with him for five months to watch minor league baseball games and write about America. He's still surprised she said yes. He and Carolyn are 18 days into "A Minor League Season" — their 119-city, 26,000-mile road trip in search of answers about what the minors mean today. Their stories, photos, videos and blog are published at aminorleagueseason.com. LaWell is a newspaper and magazine writer by choice and a Midwesterner by birth. This is his first story for the Tampa Bay Times

In a room in St. Petersburg, 70,000 cards detail minor league baseball players' careers 04/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 21, 2012 8:16pm]
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