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Why the Travelers are still here

Earlier this summer, Forbes published an article on minor league baseball’s most valuable teams.

The article began this way: “On July 9, 2011, the Dayton Dragons drubbed the South Bend Silver Hawks, their Class A Midwest League rivals, by a score of 9-1. Though the game’s attendance number might not seem remarkable — at fewer than 9,000 fans it was a fraction of what even the MLB’s worst teams draw nightly — it marked the Dragons’ 815th consecutive sellout, a streak that stretched back to the team’s inaugural season in 2000 and, as of that July day, one that set a pro sports record.

“It’s a streak still going strong in 2013 at well over 900 games. That remarkable drawing power is just one example of the potential financial success that minor league baseball teams can generate even in smaller markets like Dayton.”

Forbes estimated that the Dragons are minor league baseball’s sixth-most valuable team at $31 million. Dayton is one of two teams on the list not in Class AAA, the highest level in the minor leagues. The other non-AAA team on the list is Frisco of the Class AA Texas League, which ranked No. 11 with an estimated value of $28 million.

Dayton and Frisco are owned by Mandalay Baseball Properties, a partnership of Mandalay Entertainment and a private equity fund known as Seaport Capital. Mandalay Entertainment founder Peter Guber has part ownership in the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Golden State Warriors.

Mandalay Baseball also owns Class AAA Oklahoma City, Class AA Erie and Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Minor league baseball teams have become a hot commodity in recent years. It’s not the big leagues, but it is big business with teams regularly being sold for millions of dollars and often moving to other cities.

The five Mandalay Baseball properties, which will generate an estimated $40 million in revenue this year, have been for sale since April.

Thanks to a key decision a man named Ray Winder made 53 years ago, fans of the Arkansas Travelers don’t have to worry about their club being sold and moved outside of central Arkansas.

Winder had worked as a ticket taker for the then-Little Rock Travelers in 1915, eventually rising to the position of general manager. During his more than five decades with the team, Winder had to use extreme tactics from time to time to keep professional baseball in Arkansas.

In 1960, for instance, Winder had to take full advantage of his relationships with major league teams just to have enough players to field a club. He had formed Arkansas Travelers Baseball Inc. that year and led a public stock drive to buy the New Orleans franchise and move it to Little Rock. Each share of stock in the Arkansas Travelers was worth $5.

Potential investors beware: The price of that stock has never changed, and all dividends go back to the club.

There are more than 2,000 stockholders, and the Travelers don’t accept public requests for stock ownership. In other words, it would be almost impossible for any outside entity to buy the team.

Ol’ Ray Winder knew exactly what he was doing.

There’s a reason that the main concourse of Dickey-Stephens Park has a museum, something rarely found at other minor league parks. The fact is there aren’t many franchises with a history as rich as that of the Travelers. The Dickey-Stephens museum contains artifacts ranging from the team’s 1901 charter into the Southern Association to all team photos from the years as an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals (1966-2000) and the Los Angeles Angels (2001-present).

Visitors to the Travelers museum can learn about team officials, players and fans such as Winder, Judge William Kavanaugh, Jim Elder, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning, Travis Jackson, R.C. Otey and even Walter “Hookslide” Bradshaw.

There are baseballs, game equipment, uniforms and photos of Kavanaugh Field and Ray Winder Field.

There are team photos from 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1905.

Through the years, people have donated items ranging from Western Union telegrams to player contracts, baseball cards and game tickets. Considering the instability that infects so many other professional sports teams, it’s amazing that for parts of three centuries this team has had just one nickname and played on only three fields.

When the team name was changed from the Little Rock Travelers to the Arkansas Travelers in 1957, the Travs became the first professional team to be named for a state.

The Travelers first played in the Southern League in 1895. Other league members were Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Evansville, Montgomery and New Orelans. The Travs posted a 25-47 record in their inaugural season.

After the Southern League folded, professional baseball was absent in Little Rock for five years. But the Travelers returned in 1901 with the formation of the Southern Association and finished second, just one game behind Nashville. They were second again in 1902.

Enter W.M. Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh, an Alabama native and the son of a minister, moved to Clarksville in Johnson County following his graduation in 1885 from the Kentucky Military Institute. He worked for a banker and merchant in Clarksville before moving to Little Rock in 1886 to work for the Arkansas Gazette.

Kavanaugh was the Gazette managing editor from 1890-96, the Pulaski County sheriff from 1896-1900 and the Pulaski County judge from 1900-04. In 1913, the Arkansas Legislature selected Kavanaugh to finish the term of deceased U.S. Sen. Jeff Davis. Kavanaugh was even a member of the Little Rock School Board for a dozen years.

In 1902, Kavanaugh was asked to become the Southern Association president. As a member of the National Association of Baseball Clubs, representing the Western and Southern leagues, Kavanaugh was called “the squarest man in baseball” by Capt. C.T. Crawford.

Poor attendance and financial difficulties caused the Travelers to drop out of the Southern Association as the 1910 season approached, but Kavanaugh continued to work as the league president. He never gave up hope that professional baseball would return to Arkansas’ capital city.

Kavanaugh announced the return of the Travelers on Feb. 20, 1915. He died the next day following an hourlong attack of acute indigestion. He was just 48.

West End Park, the Travelers’ home, immediately was renamed Kavanaugh Field. When the ballpark closed in 1931, the property was sold to Little Rock High School (now Little Rock Central). Quigley-Cox Stadium is now at that location.

In 1936, Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock was named in honor of the man some had called “Arkansas’ foremost citizen.”

Kavanaugh hadn’t lived to see the Travelers’ first championship, which came in 1920. They finished that season with an 88-59 record.

In their final season at Kavanaugh Field in 1931, the Travelers attracted 113,758 fans, the second-highest attendance since that 1920 title.

Land near the state hospital was given to the Travelers by the city in 1932, and Travelers Field became the team’s second home. The stadium was renamed for Ray Winder in 1966.

After attracting fewer than 68,000 fans during a 77-game home schedule in 1958, the Travelers were moved to Shreveport for the 1959 season. But just as had been the case with Kavanaugh decades earlier, Winder never lost the faith that baseball would return. Thanks to Winder, the team returned to the Southern Association in 1960 following the purchase of the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Southern Association was on its last legs, however, and Winder again had to scramble. As in 1959, there was no professional baseball in Little Rock in 1962.

The Travelers were scheduled to play in the Class AAA American Association in 1963, but that league folded prior to the beginning of the season. They played instead in the Class AAA International League in 1963.

In 1964-65, Arkansas was in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League as a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate, making trips to places such as Salt Lake City and Portland.

There has been remarkable stability since the Travelers joined the Class AA Texas League in 1966. They were a Cardinals affiliate until 2001, when the current affiliation with the Angels was signed. The move to Dickey-Stephens Park, only the third home of Travelers baseball in more than a century, came in 2007.

Because of Ray Winder’s foresight in 1960, it’s likely that the ballpark on the banks of the Arkansas River in North Little Rock will be the home of a professional baseball team called the Travelers for decades to come.

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