Bill Valentine Jr. (1932–2015)
aka: William Terry Valentine Jr.
William Terry Valentine Jr. served as general manager of the Arkansas Travelers baseball team in Little Rock (Pulaski County) from 1976 until 2009. During his tenure, the organization underwent many changes that included leaving the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm organization for the Anaheim Angels’ and reaching an agreement to relocate the Travelers from historic Ray Winder Field, one of the oldest professional baseball parks in the country, to a new ballpark on the riverfront of downtown North Little Rock (Pulaski County). In his first five years as general manager, he instituted a new promotional program that dramatically increased attendance. Valentine was also a professional baseball umpire who was fired for trying to organize an American League umpires union.
Bill Valentine was born on November 21, 1932, in Little Rock, the only child of William Terry Valentine Sr., a railroad worker, and Margaret Kremer Valentine. As a boy, Valentine lived with his parents on West 11th Street in Little Rock, a few blocks from what then was called Traveler Field.
Valentine worked at the ballpark chasing foul balls, selling concessions, and doing other odd jobs. He also played baseball in the “midget” leagues and began umpiring games. The Travelers were Little Rock’s only professional baseball team, but there were several amateur and semi-professional leagues when Valentine was a child. Often there were not enough umpires to go around for these adult games, so when Valentine was about fourteen, a couple of older umpires asked him to help.
By this time, Valentine’s parents had moved to North Little Rock, but Valentine spent much of his summers staying with his grandparents in Little Rock so he could umpire. The job paid well enough that Valentine bought a car, something that was almost unheard of for a high school student then. He umpired in the Central Arkansas League and the Little Rock Associated Amateurs League.
After he graduated from North Little Rock High School in 1950, Valentine had an offer to attend Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway (Faulkner County) on a journalism scholarship. Instead, he left for Daytona Beach, Florida, in January 1951 to attend a six-week training school for aspiring professional baseball umpires. He finished second in his class and, at age eighteen, became the youngest umpire in professional baseball history—a distinction he still holds.
Valentine married Ellouise Pefferly on December 21, 1951. She died in 1989, and the couple had no children. He married Nena Duncan in 1991.
Valentine’s eighteen-year professional umpiring career began in the Ohio-Indiana League. He worked in several other minor leagues as well, including the Texas League from 1954 to 1960. From 1963 to 1968, he was an umpire in the American League and officiated the 1965 Major League All-Star Game in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On October 1, 1964, Valentine ejected Detroit Tigers pitcher Dave Wickersham, who was going for his twentieth win, after Wickersham violated a rule against players touching umpires when he grabbed Valentine on the shoulder to get his attention as Valentine argued with another player. He was also known as one of the few umpires who would call New York Yankee Mickey Mantle out on borderline pitches, and was one of only two who ever threw Mantle out of a ballgame. (Valentine described his feud with Mantle in the book A Yankee Century.)
During baseball’s off-season, and for more than a decade after he quit umpiring, Valentine refereed basketball, including college games in the Southwest Conference, the Missouri Valley Conference, and the Gulf Coast Conference.
In 1968, Valentine and fellow umpire Al Salerno were fired—officially for incompetence but in reality because of unionizing activities. (Umpires were dissatisfied with infrequent pay raises and arbitrary firings, and the National League umpires had successfully organized in 1963.)
Valentine then returned to Little Rock. Over the next seven years, he held a variety of jobs, including radio play-by-play announcer for Travelers games and director of the Arkansas Republican Party.
In late 1975, the Travelers’ then-general manager, Carl Sawatski, was offered a job as president of baseball’s Texas League. In February 1976, the team’s president, Max Moses, asked Valentine to replace Sawatski.
“He told me there were two rules: Break even, or make a profit,” Valentine said. His first priority was increasing flagging attendance. Baseball teams in the 1970s usually had a few promotions, such as a ladies’ night and family night. Valentine took the Travelers’ promotions program and ran with it, touting the Travelers as “The Greatest Show on Dirt.”
On opening night in 1976, in an homage to a famous stunt from earlier in Major League Baseball history, Valentine sent to the plate a leadoff hitter named Roscoe Stedman, who stood less than four feet tall. He added giveaway nights to entice children and their parents back to the ballpark, and he brought in a performer called Captain Dynamite, who locked himself in a casket with four sticks of dynamite and blew himself up. Captain Dynamite proved so popular that Valentine brought him back twice a year for the next twenty-two years. As a consequence of Valentine’s work, the Travelers’ attendance exploded, going from 67,000 in 1975 to 223,000 in 1980.
Valentine was named Texas League Executive of the Year each of his first three seasons with the Travelers. He received that award a total of five times (1976, 1977, 1978, 1988, and 1999) and was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame (2003), the Arkansas Officials Association Hall of Fame (1998), the Texas League Hall of Fame (2004), and the North Little Rock Boys Club Hall of Fame (1989).
In 2000, under pressure from the St. Louis Cardinals organization to build a new ballpark, Valentine instead made the controversial decision to end the team’s decades-long association. He signed an agreement with the Anaheim Angels, transforming the Travelers from a National League team affiliate to an American League team affiliate.
In 2004, after years of arguing that Ray Winder Field should be renovated, not replaced, Valentine joined an effort to build the Travelers a new home in downtown North Little Rock.
Dickey-Stephens Park was completed in time for the 2007 season. The park briefly featured an Italian restaurant named Bill Valentine’s Ballpark Restaurant. In March 2009, Valentine announced his retirement from the Travelers.
Valentine died in Little Rock on April 26, 2015.
For additional information:
Bouton, Jim. Ball Four. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Collier Books, 1990.
Frommer, Harvey. A Yankee Century: A Celebration of the First Hundred Years of Baseball’s Greatest Team. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2002.
Kayser, Tom, and David King. Baseball in the Lone Star State: The Texas League’s Greatest Hits. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2005.
Schulte, Troy. “Luster and Bluster.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 27, 2015, pp. 1C, 5C.
Skipper, John C. Umpires: Classic Baseball Stories from the Men Who Made the Calls. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1997.
Jennifer Barnett Reed
North Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated: 04/28/2015