Miles Wolff

 

Wolff

 

Miles Wolff is one of the most interesting and influential figures in baseball, and his work with the minor and independent leagues helped to lay the groundwork for much of what we minor league geeks enjoy today. His name pops up so much here on the MLG site that I thought he deserves to have a page of his own. This is the Miles Wolff page.

Wolff’s career in baseball started in the late sixties/early seventies, when he served a variety of roles within the Atlanta Braves’ organization. He was a play-by-play man for the Richmond Braves, and served as General Manager of the Savannah Braves and Anderson Braves. He also had a stint as an executive within the Jacksonville Suns organization in the seventies.

His plied his early success in the minors (including an executive-of-the-year award from Sporting News in 1973) into a career in baseball, and in the eighties, he shifted his focus to team ownership. Reportedly, he bought a Carolina League franchise for $2,417 in 1980, and resurrected a defunct identity: the Durham Bulls. Wolff’s time with the Bulls couldn’t have gone better. As he worked through the decade to build a sustainable and unique franchise, Hollywood came calling. After the release of Bull Durham in 1988, interest in the minor leagues skyrocketed and set a tone that we take for granted today. Wolff leveraged his good fortune in Durham with aplomb. In 1993, he sold the franchise for several million dollars and set his sights higher. More on that in a bit.

Durham

Running the Bulls wasn’t the only thing that Wolff did in the eighties. Shortly after his purchase of the Durham franchise, he also became part owner of the New York-Penn League’s Utica Blue Sox, along with characters such as actor Bill Murray and author Roger Kahn. The Blue Sox had two qualities that would repeat again and again throughout franchises that Wolff had a hand in: a resurrected identity and an independent affiliation status. Another franchise that Wolff founded in the eighties was the Appalachian League’s Burlington Indians, a team that remains today (now the Burlington Royals) as Wolff’s lone connection to the world of the affiliated minors.

One of Wolff’s greatest career achievements happened behind the scenes, when he founded a publication called Baseball America in 1982. He nurtured and grew the publication, and that nurtured and grew baseball fans’ interest in the concept of minor league prospects. It could be argued that this is the biggest impact of Wolff’s career. Today, minor league headlines are a dominated by a barrage of updates about each major league team’s top prospects, and even casual fans know their favorite organization’s top prospects. Wolff published BA until 2000, and by that point, I’m sure he marveled at how prospect mania had taken on a life of its own.

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Speaking of publishing, in 1980, Wolff had a fiction novel published called Season of the Owl. It wasn’t his only book–he also published a non-fiction account of the 1960 Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins–but I mention Season of the Owl because it is a simple novel about minor league baseball. I think that the fact that Wolff was inspired to write a book of this kind says a lot about Wolff’s pure love for baseball, and particularly, amateur baseball. Season of the Owl was later mentioned and excepted in a Sports Illustrated cover story about the minors. I’ve owned the book for several years, and I intend to read it someday. For now, the cover looks cool from my memorabilia shelf.

I first learned about Miles Wolff in the mid-nineties, when I read the book Wild and Outside by Stefan Fatsis. That book was the story of a baseball league that Wolff founded outside of the realm of the affiliated minors. After cashing in with the sale of the Durham Bulls, Wolff set his sights northward and started the first of what we now call independent baseball leagues. The creation of the league was in response to a few different factors. One of these was Wolff’s frustration at MLB parent clubs’ manipulation of their affiliate rosters, often at the expense of the minor league team’s win-loss record. Another factor was minor league baseball’s territorial rights. Ironically, Wolff had benefited from the newly-created 35-mile rule in the eighties, when the Columbus Mudcats had to move to Zebulon, North Carolina rather than the proposed Raleigh, which would’ve hampered the profitability and value of the Durham Bulls. The territorial rules squeezed out several cities that wanted to jump on the minor league bandwagon, and this created a demand for more indy and summer collegiate leagues. Some of these cities got in touch with Wolff (via Baseball America) and the idea of indy ball took flight.

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Wolff’s Northern League occupied a geographic footprint that had been vacant since the folding of the affiliated version of the Northern League in 1971: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the border areas of central Canada. The new version of the Northern League touted itself as a spiritual successor of the old version, and its logo audaciously stated “Since 1902.” The Northern League had a good run of success in the nineties, expanding their footprint deeper into the breadbasket, before merging in with other indy leagues.

In addition to serving as Northern League commissioner, Wolff kept busy with other ventures in the nineties. Baseball America snowballed into a big-time publication, eventually transferring onto the nascent Information Superhighway. Wolff himself went full minor league geek, teaming up with Lloyd Johnson to create and publish the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. The 2nd edition of the tome, published in ’97, img_7268.jpghad its cover decorated with memorabilia from many Wolff-ish teams, including the Bulls, Blue Sox, and Asheville Tourists–the latter of whom was owned by Wolff for a spell. Another of Wolff’s ownership stints popped up in the mid-nineties, when he was part of the group that bought the Pioneer League’s Butte Copper Kings and operated them independently of affiliation, yet within the NAPBL ecosystem–one of the last teams of this nature.

Into the new millennium, Wolff backed away from the Northern League and focused his efforts farther afield with the Central Baseball League and the Northeast League–both indies. After some reshaping and shuffling, these leagues, along with the disbanded Northern League, would form two of the leading independent leagues today–AAthe American Association of Independent Professional Baseball and the Can-Am League. Wolff maintains ownership stakes in some of the clubs within these leagues to this day, as well as his continued ownership of the Appy League’s Burlington Royals.

You can’t have a conversation about Miles Wolff without bringing up some of the implicit opinions and theories he has about team and league identity. In interviews, he regularly emphasizes his goal of bringing affordable baseball to the people and allowing cities to host teams that they can call their own. He has an admirable, if cavalier, audacity toward identity continuity in sports, and this has manifested itself in many ways. In the affiliated ranks, he helped resurrect unique identities like the Durham Bulls, Utica Blue Sox, and pushed as long as he could for the right of minor league clubs to remain independent. As I’ve shown time and again on MLG (via the 3 of 4 Rule), I’m a proponent of identity continuity within the minors, wherein a new team takes on the identity of a previous affiliated team that played in the same city. Wolff takes it to a whole new level. The names of his leagues are meant to connect to the defunct leagues with similar names–whether it was the Northern League in the nineties or the American Association today. In each of his leagues, past and present, you see what I call vampire identities, including the St. Paul Saints, Winnipeg Goldeyes, Duluth-Superior Dukes, El Paso Diablos, Sioux Falls Canaries, and probably a few others that I’m forgetting. If we’re going to call them vampire identities, then I suppose Miles Wolff should be called Count Dracula.

To me, the 1997 edition of the Encyclopedia the purest distillation of Miles Wolff. It’s rigorously researched, professionally presented, and also a bit biased. Wolff took the liberty of including independent leagues, including his own, right alongside the affiliated teams. That’s some innocent homerism, but there is a also a subtle thread of revisionist history that runs through his pet projects. A prime example is the Burlington Indians. Today, if you look up the Wolff’s Appalachian League franchise (the Burlington Royals) on Wikipedia, you will see that the page draws historical continuity between the the current team and a Carolina League team that operated in the same North Carolina city from 1958-1964. This is also backed up by, you guessed it, the encyclopedia that was published by Burlington’s owner. However, if one does an archive search for information from the old Carolina League team, you find that the team was actually called the Alamance Indians, and that the connection with the current team isn’t really worth mentioning.

Though I sometimes find this type of thing annoying, my prevailing emotion is admiration for a man who has influenced the minors more than anyone else in recent memory. I believe that Wolff has an altruistic passion to make baseball thrive in many forms, and I hope that he continues to do so for many more years.

Hats off to Miles Wolff, the original minor league geek.

 

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