If there is such a thing as a storied franchise in minor league baseball, it’s the Rochester Red Wings. In operation since 1899 they are considered to be the oldest continuously operating sports franchise in the United States. While others have seen a steady churn in affiliate agreements, the Red Wings have been uniquely stable. They were a Cardinals affiliate for 32 years, followed by 42 years with the Orioles and 18 with the Twins. A member of the International League since 1912, they have appeared in the league championship series 21 times, winning 10.
The 1956 season concluded with the Red Wings winning their second straight title. They had finished second in the regular season with a record of 83-67. They beat the Miami Marlins four games to one in the playoff semifinals, then went on to best the Toronto Maple Leafs in a seven-game championship series.
Off the field the outlook was not as rosy. Despite their winning ways, Rochester posted the second lowest attendance in the league. In his column in the local Democrat and Chronicle on Oct. 8, sportswriter George Beahon warned of trouble on the horizon: “Top brass of St. Louis Cardinal organization pulled out of this baseball capital (dateline New York) yesterday. High level meetings with brewery owners are scheduled this week in St. Louis. Biggest decision on docks is whether to drop Rochester Red Wings (and real estate) from list of farm affiliates. As matters stand now, Rochester figues to be guillotined along with Fresno (Class C), Peoria (B) and Allentown (A). Cardinal chieftains hope to keep the verdict a secret until December winter meetings. Right now the odds are 10-1 St. Louis will quit on Rochester.”
Like many other major league teams in the 1950’s, the Cardinals owned their minor league affiliates. They owned both the Red Wings and their home ballpark, Red Wing Stadium. But the mid-50’s were troubled times for minor league baseball. The growth of television and the availability of major league baseball games on TV resulted in a precipitous drop in attendance at minor league parks. Many major league teams were divesting of their farm system properties. In mid-November Cardinals general manager Frank Lane, noting that “the Rochester club has operated at a great deficit for the past several years,” made the announcement Rochester fans had been dreading.
The Cardinals did not pack up their bags and disappear. To their credit they left some time for a potential buyer to emerge and promised to maintain the affiliation agreement if a buyer was found. Beahon wrote in the Nov. 20 Democrat and Chronicle: “The fact remains, however, that if no Rochester individuals step into the picture, the only remaining hope is a public stock sale, which in recent experiments in other communities has had varying degrees of success — and failure.”
It is at that point that a Rochester native named Morrie Silver stepped into the picture. Silver was the president of M.E. Silver Corp., a local appliance distributorship. Rochester Mayor Peter Barry named Silver the head of Rochester Community Baseball Inc. The Nov. 20 Democrat and Chronicle quoted Silver announcing his intent: “I think Rochester can make baseball history by not only coming up with the $200,000 originally announced as the goal, but can go all the way and raise all the money needed to go into this project without a mortgage.” The cost of going ‘all the way’ was half a million.
In February 1957, Rochester Community Baseball placed the following ad in the Democrat and Chronicle with the headline “Rochester Writes Baseball History.” It read: “On Wednesday Feb. 27, the Rochester Red Wings officially become a ‘home-owned’ baseball club. Your splendid support has written a new chapter in sports history. Our hats are off to each and every one of you stockholders in Rochester and all of the area towns and villages who have made this home-owned team a reality.”
In what has been dubbed the “72 day miracle,” 8,222 shareholders bought shares priced at $10 per. Red Wings fans bought both their team and their stadium. The Cardinals would maintain their affiliation with the Red Wings until 1960.
The Rochester franchise would continue to be publicly owned. There are currently 5,100 shareholders and the $10 shares are now worth $90. The Red Wings franchise that the Cardinals sold for $500,000 was valued in 2016 at $27.5 million (Forbes).
After the sale Morrie Silver became president of the Red Wings in 1957 and later became general manager. Red Wing Stadium was renamed Silver Stadium and the team retired Silver’s number…8,222.
The franchise faced another potential crisis just last month when the Minnesota Twins announced they were dropping Rochester as an affiliate. But that crisis was quickly averted when the Washington Nationals added the Red Wings as their AAA team.
More History of the Minors: