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Summer without baseball likely this year, but the Red Wings have faced greater challenges

A statue of Morrie Silver stands outside an empty Frontier Field.
James Brown
A statue of Morrie Silver stands outside an empty Frontier Field.

Professional baseball’s roots in Rochester go back to the 1800s. The precursors to the Red Wings began play in 1877, and the franchise started in 1899. They’re one of the longest-running pro baseball teams in the world.

Through two world wars, the Great Depression, baseball strikes and many more ups and downs, every Rochester summer has had professional baseball. 

Until now.

Scott Pitoniak is a sports journalist with more than 30 years experience writing about baseball. He’s also the co-author of "Silver Seasons: The Story of the Rochester Red Wings."

"The thing I enjoy most about minor league baseball, about the Red Wings, it's a gathering place,’ said Pitoniak. “It’s a place you can go and be with other people. And we’ve lost that, because of the pandemic and because of the greed of Major League Baseball." 

Major league players and owners are in a battle over how much players will be paid for a shortened season.

Naomi Silver, Rochester Community Baseball president and CEO, said those discussions, along with the pandemic, puts all of minor league baseball in a state of limbo.

“We are a lot of teams from across the country,” said Silver. “160 minor league teams across the country and every state, every county may have their own rules about what can happen and who you can have in the stadium.”

Among the proposals for big league games is playing in empty stadiums, but Silver said that’s a hard sell for the minor leagues.

“Playing in an empty stadium means we would have all the expenses and none of the revenue that we need to go on,” said Silver. 

Complicating things further: Major league clubs own minor league players' contracts. That means the minors can’t make decisions on their own.

Only once in the history of Red Wings baseball has a season faced this much jeopardy. Pitoniak said minor league baseball was in transition in 1957. 

“There was like some incredible high number of minor league teams, of farm clubs for major league franchises, and it wasn’t making business sense anymore for them to have that number of teams,” Pitoniak said.

So the St. Louis Cardinals, which owned the Red Wings for about 30 years, opted to shut the team down. Pitoniak said that's when the community stepped up.

“That prompted this community shareholder stock drive,” said Pitoniak. “And Morrie Silver was kind of the perfect person to lead this.”

Naomi Silver’s father, Morrie, was a popular merchant and spearheaded what became known as the "72-Day Miracle." 

At the end of the drive, 8,222 shareholders bought a half-million dollars in stock to buy the team from the Cardinals. 

The Red Wings later honored Morrie Silver with a jersey bearing that number of original shareholders -- and it's now one of only four numbers that the franchise has ever retired.

“I don’t think we would have a team if it weren’t for him because a lot of cities lost their teams in those days and very, very few got them back,” said Naomi Silver. 

Ed Blasko is one of those original shareholders, and he remains as one of thousands of shareholders today. Ed, a 90-year-old former Kodak employee, lives in Rochester with his daughter Mary. He attends nearly every Red Wings game.

Ed said he held onto eight of the 20 shares that he bought for 10 bucks apiece. And in the '80s, he bought Mary shares of her own. She said it was the best Christmas gift she ever received, and she's planning to keep them in the family.

‘“I have two grandnephews and a grandniece, and one of the nephews loves baseball,” Mary said. “So I’m guessing he may be the one that will want to have the shares as time goes on.”

Mary, who is also a Red Wings season ticket holder, said going to games is about community as much as baseball. 

And while Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfried said he’s not confident that there will be a season, she hopes the negotiations will lead people back to the ballpark. She misses the people she sees at the games -- the fellow fans she calls her "baseball family." 

“To not be able to be with them and socialize with them while watching a ball game, it hurts. It’s tough,” she said.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.
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