Bill Valentine: KING of BASEBALL
Bill Valentine is the King of Baseball. In Little Rock, Arkansas this has been a known fact for years, but Minor League Baseball actually awarded him with the King of Baseball title on December 8, 2014 at baseball’s annual Winter Meetings.
Bill Valentine’s rich baseball history slates him as one of the few qualified to remind us of the line from the baseball cult classic The Sandlot, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” For those of us who know him the legacy Valentine has left on the game and in our hearts will live forever. He is a legend in Arkansas baseball folklore that will never die.
Bill grew up on 11th street, just blocks from Arkansas Traveler’s Field. As a kid, he worked there sorting soda bottles, shagging foul balls, and collecting seat cushions after games.
Bill became baseball’s youngest Professional Umpire when he signed with the Ohio-Indiana League at age 18.
Bill promoted to the American League where he was known as a feisty, colorful ump that made the right calls.
In one of the first of many monumental 14th Amendment cases in baseball history, on September 16, 1968, Bill Valentine and Al Sereno were fired by American League President Joe Cronin when he learned they were organizing a union for extremely underpaid pro umpires. In defense of his violation of their constitutional right to organize labor, Cronin insisted, “They’re just bad umpires, that’s all”. He claimed no knowledge of the labor movement. American League Mangers defended Valentine and Sereno, insisting they were both in better half of umpires in the league. Ultimately, years later, the courts ruled in favor of Valentine and Sereno, but Valentine would never umpire again.
Bill returned to Arkansas where he worked as a radio broadcaster and announcer for the Arkansas Travelers.
Bill Valentine became the General Manager of the Arkansas Travelers. He would oversee the Travelers operation for the next 33 years. He increased yearly attendance from 67,000 in 1975 to 223,000 in 1980. Again his colorful management and personable nature contributed to his success.
This is where Bill Valentine’s story becomes personal for me because I was one of those one-quarter-million in attendance in 1980. All the kids in Little Rock knew Bill for his kindness. More often than we paid, Bill gave us free tickets. Kids came to Ray Winder field in droves. Bill’s theory, parents will come with their kids, buy tickets, a hot dog, maybe a beer, and the club could make a little money. Bill also considered the latch-key kids like myself, the ones who might have been out doing something ‘not so positive’ if they weren’t at the ball field. While I believe it was nothing more than his sincere kindness, it was also a wise business tactic. He fostered a love for the game in the next generation. Those of us who aren’t in prison (I suspect the vast majority) and maybe even some of us who are, have a special place for Bill Valentine in our hearts.
Bill was the Chief Executive Officer of the Arkansas Travelers before he retired.
He was a pioneer of the promotions and showmanship that we now see before, after, and between innings at Minor League Baseball games. His coined slogan, “The Greatest Show on Dirt” can still be seen on vintage Arkansas Travelers t-shirts all over Little Rock. Bill has been the recipient of many awards including his induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and the Texas League Hall of Fame.
About a month prior to the announcement, I wrote Bill Valentine a letter. I didn’t mention in the letter that I write baseball; the letter was personal. I recognized him for his kindness; told him that I didn’t understand it so much when I was a child, but I now see the sacrifices he and his family must have made to be what he was to baseball in Little Rock at a time when the atmosphere and money was a lot different than it is today. I told him that I now take my children to Travelers’ games and reminisce on the memories he helped create…and I thanked him.
Bill responded with his phone number and an invitation to visit him at his home.
At 18 or 81, after all the awards, the showmanship, and the free tickets, that’s still the man Bill Valentine is and that’s why, in Little Rock, we have known all along that he is the King of Baseball. We are thankful MiLB finally decided to award him with the crown.
Thank you again Mr. Valentine, you are a living legend, not only in baseball, but also for our community.