Friday, February 11, 2005

My Cup of Coffee in the Majors

With all of the hullabaloo about the inherent social Darwinism well-proved by the "Survivor" television show, first won by Richard Hatch because he formed the so-called "Alliance," we all might've learned a lesson about alliances in business and life in general. Is all networking the essence of success, that is, better than working independently?
My answer begins with a description of a lavish boardroom in Scottsdale, Arizona, as a bunch of publishing entrepreneurs are celebrating the accomplishment a hard-won affiliation with Major League Properties, Inc. We are all there, feeling like we had finally made the Bigs. The entire staff was sitting beside a long, magnificent table and I remember there was a big blowup on the wall of a famous black and white photo of Babe Ruth saying goodbye to fans at Yankee Stadium.
There I was, the managing editor of a new magazine, The Diamond, the official history magazine of Major League Baseball. The Boys, my bosses, who had given themselves all grand titles ---- VP this, executive of that, CEO of ad infinitum ---- spoke in solemn and reverent terms about what it meant to get the licensing for a product that would go out to every major league season ticket holder.
The guy who hired me at The Diamond was Ron Bianchi. When I first entered the finely adorned, wood-paneled offices of the controlled-circulation glossy mag-to-be, there was no one in there but the Boys. Bianchi had tons of baseball memorabilia on his desk and we talked about the greats of baseball literature. Ring Lardner, Roger Angell, Thomas Bosworth -- the poetry of Donald Hall. It was music to my ears.
Bianchi was an idea-a-minute guy. Nothing was too big or farfetched. A dreamer who made people believe in his dreams. His father was some kind of judge back East, and he once told us a story about he'd been a PR person for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the Three Mile Island incident.
For more than a year he worked to get an interview with Fidel Castro about his pitching career with the Washington Senators organization, and eventually made all the connections to travel to Cuba for the meeting. But it never took place. Bianchi's Cuban contact disappeared mysteriously while he was there, and he was left stranded as he waited for "the call" to meet Castro. But it was a great story when he got back. And as time wore on, Bianchi, who liked to put on a kind of mafiaso demeanor, looked more and more like some Jeffersonian relic with his blown-back, graying mane of hair.
Interestingly, he was the first guy to tell me about the Internet. I think it was 1992. He plopped a copy of Wired on my desk, a form to fill out from Compuserve, and said, "This is the future, Bubby. This is where it's all going to be at someday." I looked down at the stuff, placed on top of my pile of manuscripts and proofs, and thought, Shit, one more thing I'm going to have to take care of.
Anyway, if Bianchi had a nemesis in life in those days, it was Michael Bernstein of Major League Properties in New York. Bernstein was some red-headed piece of work, from the stories Bianchi told after trips to New York.
Bianchi described Bernstein as a demonic street-fighter, a cussing, cursing, cynical, unhappy human being who quite probably wished he'd been able to pull off The Diamond himself, rather than have us do it in the Netherlands of Arizona. One of the biggest points of contention was this: Major League Properties had right to review all of our content and advertising before we went to print.
This became a bigger and bigger problem. If the moguls of Major League Baseball are notorious for their stupidity, imagine what their publicity and licensing machine is like. Even though MLB allowed alcohol to be served at most, if not all, major league ballparks, Properties wouldn't let us sell advertising to any of the beer companies. A huge loss for a magazine in need of paying revenue. The restriction was so tight that if an advertiser didn't have a franchising license from Major League Properties, or at least their seal of approval, we couldn't get the ad. I'll never forget the day we landed a $300,000 contract for a long-term two-page spread from a company that made leather jackets with classic baseball images woven into them. We shuffled our pagination and planned out a whole six months worth of stuff and everybody was on a real high for this big time magazine startup. Our first big source of actual revenue.
But then, a few days later, Major League Properties told us we couldn't run the ad campaign because the company had no official license to offer such products.
They reviewed our stories, too. We would fax our working drafts to Bernstein's assistant (who I called "The Chimp.") She didn't seem to know much about baseball and had certainly never played the game. But she had to read a lot of our stuff because Bernstein, running his own baseball version of Pravda in New York, didn't have much time for reading about Ty Cobb, Josh Gibson or the Babe.
I called her "The Chimp" because of that Disney film about the guy who taught his chimpanzee to judge the quality of television shows. If the Chimp didn't clap, well, it didn't run.
I talked this dean of baseball literature, Mark Harris, who wrote "Bang the Drum Slowly," into writing an article for us. We sent it to Properties and they objected to it, a story about the only man ever killed in the majors by a beanball.
"Too depressing," the Chimp said.

I sent it back to Harris for a rewrite, very apologetically. After all, who were we to tell this literary dean of baseball that tragedy wasn't serviceable content at our magazine?
He re-wrote it, but later printed the original version, of course a much better version, in an anthology of his writings.
We had a story about Babe Ruth, in fact a lot of stories about the Sultan of Swing, and we could never get anything in about how he was a womanizer and drunk and the first ubermensch of American sports. We were supposed to be an authority on baseball history and we never once used the words "tobacco" or "spitting" and you can bet the Babe's regular visits to the whorehouses of New Orleans during spring training never made it into even one faxed document to Major League Properties. Ty Cobb, the personification of evil in terms of personality traits, was equally problematic. Never ran a story about old Ty, especially not his high-flying spikes.
No, we kept all of that that visceral stuff that history is made of, heck, stuff that good stories are made of, like tragedy and human frailty, out of The Diamond.
Bianchi had this story idea about an old Dodger pitcher who committed suicide because of some kind of love triangle involving Ernest Hemingway, but he never wrote the story because of our deal with MLBP. He just didn't want to hear Bernstein howl, with that brackish New Yorker accent, from his offices to us over the telephone speaker.
With advertising revenue limited due to our licensing deal, we were going, going, deep, deep into the red. So Ron and the Boys -- the VPs this, execs that -- had to find inventive ways to keep the magazine funded until we could figure out how this thing was supposed to pay for itself.
Didn't work, though.
They brought in some guy with ties to the Vatican, supposedly, to pull together his investors. I remember there was talk about some guy named Abu, who was going to rollover funding from Africa. Another guy had a heart attack right before he was to provide venture capital. Or so we underlings were told. We eventually found one main sugar daddy, Gordy Hormel, of the hot dog conglomerate, but he eventually stopped sending checks with the onset of the Major League Baseball Players Association strike of 1994.
The magazine closed after 9 issues, out of business with at least $5 million in debts, probably more. Bianchi and the rest of The Boys never really recovered. They were a considerable scandal in Scottsdale as the lawsuits started to pile up.
I guess the moral to the story is you have to be careful about the motivations of your partners. They may not have your best interests in mind.
Bianchi never learned that lesson. He tried for years to get The Diamond back up and running, and apparently he kept borrowing money from every stranger and more nefarious sources. I used to put him on my resume as a reference. Until last year, that is, when I found that he had been murdered, in a mob-style hail of bullets. They found him full of holes in a forest near Payson, Arizona. I imagine that just before he died, Bianchi was marveling at his life's story, how someone might find a source for literature in his end.
Who killed him? Some former affiliate had just had enough. That's my guess. Like I say, affiliates may not have your best interests at heart.


At 6:25 PM, Blogger Notculpable said...

wow. i found four issues of The Diamond in a recycling depot located up in Canada. i was curious so i checked out "the diamond" on the internet and haven't found a slight hint of its existence until this. any idea what those would be worth?

At 10:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you remember lou klimchock? a very very good guy!

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Douglas McDaniel said...

Sure, I remember Lou ... He was one of many great people who worked at the Diamond.

Also, I just found this nugget of info from that era ... Not what to do with it ...

At 5:33 AM, Blogger Douglas McDaniel said...

... At not culpable ... Those issues were worth a lot to begin with ... They usually printed only 250,000 or so as controlled circulation add-ons for season ticket holders, part of a messed deal with Major League Baseball Properties, Inc. ... which was MLB's version of capitalist Pravda ... Lots of poems on that from my era there in the book ... "The Road to Mythville," which remains in publication at ... Anyway, by now, those old copies should pretty much fit ," the term, "priceless," for anybody who is a baseball history buff.


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