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OPINION | REX NELSON: At the ballpark

by Rex Nelson | May 11, 2022 at 3:58 a.m.

Ray Winder had a plan. After attracting fewer than 68,000 fans during a 77-game home schedule in 1958, the Travelers professional baseball club left Little Rock and moved to Shreveport for the 1959 season. In 1960, Winder formed the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club Inc. and led a public stock drive to buy the New Orleans Pelicans franchise.

Each share of stock was deemed to be worth $5 to shareholders. The stock price has never changed, and no dividends are paid. In essence, the stock purchases were a donation to get professional baseball back in Arkansas. The upside of such an arrangement is that there's not a single owner who can move the team. The downside is that there's no rich owner to underwrite capital improvements. The Travelers have traditionally been a break-even operation out of necessity.

The New Orleans franchise was purchased and moved for the 1960 season as the Travelers returned to the Southern Association. Even though the purchase was successful, the Southern Association was on its last legs, forcing Winder to scramble yet again. The Travelers affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies and were scheduled to play in the Class AAA American Association in 1963. That league folded prior to the beginning of the season.

Arkansas competed instead in the Class AAA International League. In 1964-65, Arkansas was in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League as a Phillies affiliate. Winder moved the Travelers to the Class AA Texas League in 1966. The long Pacific Coast League trips to places such as Salt Lake City and Portland had taken their toll. The Travelers now would have far shorter trips, and there was a new affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals. Arkansas had, after all, long been Cardinals country.

Major League Baseball had a half-century of stability from 1902-52 with the Cardinals (along with the less popular St. Louis Browns) being the westernmost and southernmost teams. Because of this, the Cardinals developed a huge following in the South and in states west of the Mississippi River.

The Cardinals won two pennants in the 1920s, three in the 1930s and four in the 1940s while developing the largest radio network in American sports. The Travelers were a Cardinals affiliate for 35 years, the second-longest active affiliation when it ended.

During the next 16 years as an Angels affiliate, the Travelers won Texas League championships in 2001 and 2008 while capturing five division championships. Mike Trout, Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, John Lackey, Bobby Jenks, Jered Weaver and Jean Segura all spent time in Arkansas uniforms.

Following the 2016 season, the Mariners signed a player development contract that made the Travelers their Class AA affiliate. Traveler officials had worked closely with Jerry Dipoto when he was the Angels' general manager, and Dipoto had made the move to Seattle. At the time the agreement was signed, Dipoto called the Travelers "a franchise with great fans, a great staff and a great ballpark, as well as a long and storied history in professional baseball."

Though the Travelers remain affiliated with the Mariners, minor league baseball as we knew it changed forever in February 2021 when MLB reorganized the minor leagues into a 120-team regional alignment. The folks in New York eliminated 42 teams and hundreds of players' jobs as part of the reset that gave each MLB franchise an affiliation of four minor league teams.

Both Arkansas clubs--the Travelers and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals at Springdale--survived the purge. But the demands from MLB are constant and expensive. This season, for example, teams were mandated to provide housing to minor-league players for the first time. On Feb. 15, North Little Rock's Dickey-Stephens Park was assessed by a third-party evaluator who works for what's now known as the MLB Professional Development Leagues.

In addition to solving a sinkhole problem that has plagued Dickey- Stephens through the years, the evaluator made clear that the playing field must be renovated; field lighting systems must be updated; better lockers must be installed in all clubhouses; the visiting clubhouse must be expanded; amenities must be added for potential female umpires and coaches; pitching and batting tunnels and the weight room must be expanded; padding, netting and a security post must be added; and the irrigation system must be improved.

The city of North Little Rock, which owns Dickey-Stephens, has entered into a contract with the engineering company Black & Veatch to solve the sinkhole issue once and for all. A recent front-page story in a Sunday edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which attracted statewide attention, outlined a breakdown in negotiations between the Travelers and the city. The story led to speculation that Conway or Benton might build a new home for the team.

Full disclosure: I've been a member of the Travelers board for many years. No one on the board receives a cent in pay or other benefits. I purchase my tickets like any other fan. I own no stock and have been involved in none of the negotiations with North Little Rock. I've found that the goal of board members is the same goal Ray Winder had all those years ago--keeping professional baseball in central Arkansas.

Because of the ownership structure Winder established, the Travelers budget doesn't contain the money needed for all the changes demanded by MLB. North Little Rock officials must find creative ways to finance enhancements. I remain confident they will do just that.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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