There’s s rich list of names and dates that are a part of Jacksonville’s baseball history: Henry Aaron 1953, Tom Seaver 1966, The Bragan’s 1984, Alex Rodriguez 1994 and even 2019 as current All-Stars Brad Hand, J.T. Realmuto, Christian Yelich and Clayton Kershaw all spent time In town during their ascent to the Majors.
But there’s an untold story about the 1973 season makes much of that list possible.
Since building the Baseball Grounds in 2003, fans have flocked downtown to see baseball games. But in 1972, baseball in Jacksonville was anything but a foregone conclusion.
“We had to borrow $75,000 from the parent club, the Kansas City Royals in ‘72 to stay in business,” former Suns General Manager Dick Kravitz recalled.
You might know Kravitz from his political career on the Jacksonville City Council and in the Florida House of Representatives. Before that, Kravitz was the GM of the baseball Suns, the football Express of the World Football League and the soccer Tea Men of the North American Soccer League. He also served the City of Jacksonville as the Executive Director of the Sports and Entertainment Commission during the Godbold administration.
After getting his undergrad at Temple, Kravitz went to Ohio University to get his masters in sports administration. He then went to work as the business manager in Oklahoma City for the Kansas City Royals’ AAA ball club. They asked him to come to Jacksonville the next year to run the Suns under new ownership.
“They told me we needed to pay back the $75,000 that year or we’d be out of business,” Kravitz said of his charge for the season. “We had four employees, including me, and we all did double duty.”
Ownership was two investors from Oklahoma City; Keith Price was in the oil business, and banker Carl Grant. They were anything but absent.
“Price liked to come to games and watch from upstairs,” Kravitz recalled. “It was wild. He got thrown out of a game from the press box for arguing with the umpire. The ump sent a policeman to he press box and he physically threw him out of the ballpark.”
The business plan was simple: Raise as much money as possible and spend as little as possible. They started selling sponsorships and season ticket packages in the fall of 1972.
And it wasn’t easy.
“We had to fight against what had happened before. Some people wouldn’t even talk to us,” Kravitz said of the business climate regarding minor league baseball in Jacksonville at the time.
They sold five sponsorship nights to Prudential. They had a cow-milking contest that included one of the players with some farm experience. “Rocky Gibraltar” was a regular promotion, throwing a ball into a replica of the famous Rock. Kravitz even arranged for one of his players to race a horse in the outfield.
“We were playing a day game and I knew we needed a promotion,” he explained. “So I tried to ask one of our players, Minnie Minoso’s son, if he’d race a horse. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish and I couldn’t find an interpreter. But I pulled out a $100 bill and he eventually figured out what I was asking. He said he would so I went to Bayard where they were running quarter horses at the time and we set up the race, foul line to foul line. A handicapper gave Minoso a head start. And he was winning but heard a thousand pound of horse coming and jumped out of the way!”
It was an uphill battle, even facing the weather. Because of a lack of staff to put the tarp on and off the field, the city provided eight workers out of the daily labor pool to do the job. They weren’t very skilled at handling the tarp and the team had 14 rainouts in 72 games. Once they pulled the tarp off the field but only had seven workers finish the job. The eighth had been rolled up in the tarp.
Minor league staples Max Patkin, Eddie Feigner and the barnstorming/retired Bob Feller were regulars.
“I knew we were in the entertainment business, not the baseball business,” said Kravitz.
Minimizing expenses was the mantra for that year. Every dollar counted. There was no money to send the play-by-play person on the road so he did re-creations of the game, a half inning delayed, from Jones College. Re-creations generally stopped in baseball during the 1930’s. Travel was done on a church bus until one night the team ended up in a ditch on the way to Chattanooga.
“The driver worked for the church and he was working all day and then driving all night,” Kravitz explained.
Local kids were paid 50 cents to retrieve foul balls and home runs so the balls could be reused. Scuffed baseballs were rubbed down with milk to give them a new white shine. The visiting clubhouse was a Spartan affair.
Even Kravitz now admits he cut too many corners.
“One night I forgot and left the baseballs in the milk,” he explained. “After the game the umpire asked me about the baseballs because they were like lead weights! Cal Ripken, Sr. was managing the Charlotte AA club and came into my office railing about the lack of towels in their locker room. That’s when I knew I had gone overboard trying to save money.”
The club’s books were being run out of a bank in Oklahoma City. Kravitz deposited the money and filed the receipts each night and went back to selling. He didn’t keep a ledger of whether they would make enough money to stay in business.
Around Labor Day when the season ended, the Royals sent word that the Suns had done enough to pay the parent club back their $75,000 and had made another $100,000 to boot. Kravitz was named AA General Manager of the Year by the league and the Sporting News.
So add 1973 as an important date in Jacksonville baseball history.