Solid history: Tulsa has benefited from a long parade of ownership in minor league baseball
BY BARRY LEWIS World Sports Writer
Monday, June 25, 2012
6/25/12 at 11:17 AM
Tulsa pro baseball most influential owners
Key moments in Tulsa baseball history
More than a century ago, some luck was involved in determining the ownership of Tulsa's first pro baseball team.
The original owner, Billy Rupp, lost the team in a card game to C.M. Casey sometime between the 1905 and 1906 seasons. A year later, however, Rupp won the team back in another card game with Casey.
That somewhat symbolized the early days of pro baseball in Tulsa as teams and owners popped in and out of town until Spencer Abbott moved a Western League franchise to the city from Hutchinson, Kan., in 1919.
"There have been a few shaky times in the last 90 years, but since Spencer Abbott came to Tulsa, we have been blessed with solid ownership and that's why Tulsa has been one of the leading minor league baseball cities," said local sports historian Wayne McCombs.
Tulsa also is the home for one of the minors' newest ballparks, ONEOK Field, which opened in 2010. The Drillers will showcase ONEOK Field when the 76th annual Texas League All-Star Game is played there at 7:05 p.m. Thursday.
"We've got one of the best facilities in minor league baseball and this gives us a chance for people from outside of Tulsa to come and see it," said Dale Hubbard, who is the Drillers' co-chairman along with brother, Jeff.
Dale and Jeff Hubbard have operated the team since December 2010 for their father, Went, who is officially listed as the owner but has Alzheimer's disease. Went Hubbard, a TL Hall of Famer, was the majority owner from 1987-2006 before selling to Chuck Lamson, who held that position for five seasons before the Hubbards repurchased the team.
The Hubbards have a lot in common with many of Tulsa's previous baseball owners.
"Since Spencer Abbott, most of the owners have loved the game and they weren't in it just for a profit," McCombs said. "I've known all the owners since A. Ray Smith (1961-76) and yes, they want to turn a profit, they want to keep the lights on, but they're in it also for the fun of baseball. They all have been fan friendly.
"We haven't had a situation like other cities where the owner lives out of town and rarely visits, and that the team was just a tax writeoff or a line on their financial page. They have all been real fans of the game and have cared about baseball in Tulsa. That's a big reason why we've had baseball continuously in Tulsa for almost 100 years, except for the world wars and the first two years of the Great Depression in the '30s."
The Texas Rangers owned the Drillers from 1983-86, but attendance improved their last three seasons under the leadership of general manager Joe Preseren and Lamson, who was then the assistant GM.
Lamson, who first joined the Drillers as a pitcher in 1979 and was with the team for 32 years, has an appreciation for pro baseball's history in Tulsa.
"I saw myself as a steward of the game in Tulsa," Lamson said. "Went Hubbard was a great mentor. I was very fortunate to have him help me learn how to run a business."
Many of the Drillers' current top staff members were hired by Went Hubbard and have been with the organization for more than 15 years, including general manager Mike Melega.
That's a rarity in minor league baseball.
"It helps when you have a staff who has been here as long as our staff members have," Dale Hubbard said. "We have a great GM in Mike Melega. Jeff and I just kind of oversee things and try to keep things running smoothly."
Lamson is now the president of Southpaw Sports Consulting, which brings together those interested in buying or selling sports franchises, primarily in minor league baseball. For Lamson, baseball is more than dollars and cents.
"There are a lot of things you could get a better return on for your money, but you don't have the same type of emotional investment in a stock as you would a baseball team," Lamson said. "There's nothing like the excitement of rooting for your team to win, or seeing the smiles on people's faces when they come to the ballpark and make a day of it there."
Dale Hubbard agrees, "It's a great feeling to see people enjoying being at the ballpark."
He also is very interested in Tulsa's baseball history and enjoyed talking to former Drillers co-owner Roy Clark earlier this year when Clark made his first visit to ONEOK Field.
"I invited him to come back often," Dale Hubbard said. "It was good to get that history from him."
Three owners have played for Tulsa. Two did it before owning the team, Lamson (1979-81) and Jeff Hubbard (1987). Bill M. Martin, a co-owner in 1976, struck out as a pinch-hitter in that season's final game.
Lamson saw the building of ONEOK Field as securing Tulsa's baseball future for the next 30 years.
When Tulsa has been in danger of losing baseball during the past 90 years, the crisis has usually revolved around the lack of a ballpark or the ballpark's deteriorating condition.
For several months it appeared that Tulsa would not have a team for the 1977 season after A. Ray Smith moved the Triple-A Oilers to New Orleans. But local businessman Bill Rollings and Clark purchased the Double-A Texas League franchise in Lafayette, La., and moved it to Tulsa only three months before the season opener.
A fan contest was held to name the team (Drillers) as Smith had the legal rights to the Oilers name. Rollings and Clark kept the Drillers alive for four years in a dilipidated ballpark that dated back to 1934 before a new stadium was built in 1981.
"All the owners have been terrific, but Bill Rollings may have been the most underrated owner," McCombs said. "He put so much so of his money into keeping the old ballpark going and building the new ballpark. He really came to the rescue of baseball in Tulsa.
"All the owners in the last 90 years have been in the fans' corner, and that consistency has been one of Tulsa's biggest secrets to success."
Texas League All-Star Game
At ONEOK Field
7:05 p.m. Thursday
Radio: KTBZ am1430
Tickets: To order Texas League All-Star Game tickets, visit tulsaworld.com/drillers or call 918-744-5901.
Original Print Headline: Solid history
Barry Lewis 918-581-8393
ONEOK Field will host the Texas League All-Star Game Thursday night. TOM GILBERT / Tulsa World file