LAWRENCE – Major League Baseball teams aren't the only ones throwing out the first pitch of spring this week. Thursday marks opening day for minor league baseball, and with it comes a season of zany promotions. From animal acts to the appearance of B-list celebrities, minor league baseball teams have found success in using vaudeville-like tactics to drive ticket sales, a University of Kansas writer and film director says.
David Sutera, a doctoral student in film and media studies, traveled to minor league ballparks around the country for his book “Vaudeville on the Diamond: Minor League Baseball in Today’s Entertainment World.” From California’s Modesto Nuts to Maine’s Portland Sea Dogs, he encountered epic mascot races, "Star Wars" theme nights, Thirsty Thursdays and Mr. Belding, the principal from “Saved by the Bell.”
“These teams are just looking for a way to get people to come to the ballpark,” Sutera said. “And, this down home approach of going back to old style, live entertainment is still a viable model. And minor league baseball teams are able to remain solvent because of it. And, that’s amazing.”
The book is part travelogue and part study of the often overlooked, but always entertaining minor leagues.
A baseball fan who grew up attending Omaha Royals games, Sutera grew interested in the intersection of vaudeville and minor league baseball soon after he uncovered his father had once performed in the vaudeville act “Sammy Lane and the Skatin’ Aces.”
“I started doing a little digging on vaudeville and discovered there were animal acts, jugglers and comedians. And, I saw a connection between what they were doing in minor league baseball and what they did in vaudeville,” Sutera said.
The connection goes well beyond live novelty acts. Both minor league baseball and vaudeville rely on family-friendly entertainment, giveaways and b-list celebrities to draw a crowd. Each chapter of Sutera’s book focuses on how each of the ballparks he visited embodied the spirit of vaudeville.
At first grass-roots efforts, promotions in minor league baseball have become so successful that there is an annual conference each year for promoters to share ideas, Sutera said.
“It has now become standardized, so you have a lot of the same promotions all across the country,” Sutera said. “But they keep a local flair.”
Minor League Baseball even has annual awards for team promotions, which are named in honor of Bill Veeck, the former Chicago White Sox owner who in 1979 presided over perhaps baseball’s most notorious promotional stunt, Disco Demolition Night.
The wildest promotion Sutera saw on his trip was in Davenport, Iowa, with the Quad Cities River Bandits. That night the headliner was Team Ghost Rider, an act with monkeys dressed as cowboys riding border collies that were herding sheep.
“People went bananas over it,” Sutera said. “That was one that really brought it home to vaudeville. In vaudeville there were a lot of animal acts.”
Sutera is working on a documentary film scheduled to come out this fall that will complement “Vaudeville on The Diamond.” The book, distributed by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, can be purchased on Amazon.com.