BY DEB SEYMOUR
One Season in Rocket City, the new book by Dale Tafoya, tells the story of how the 1985 Huntsville Stars came into existence – and brought minor league baseball fever to the state of Alabama.
The foreward to the book was written by Sandy Alderson, former general manager of the Oakland A’s, MLB EVP for baseball operations, CEO of the San Diego Padres, and president of the New York Mets. Alderson was GM of the A’s during the initiation of the Huntsville Stars as an Oakland Double-A affiliate in Alabama.
The back cover of the book also features glowing reviews by well-known baseball personalities Billy Beane and John Hart, and baseball writer/analyst Tim Kurkjian.
In the first few chapters of the book, Tafoya provides the history of the evolution of the Stars, profiling the people and events that led to the team’s inception. Some of the ideators involved, such as Larry Schmittou, Nashville sports personality, former Vanderbilt coach, and team owner, come across as pretty colorful and certainly committed to baseball. Baseball history, as we all know, is replete with people with big personalities – and without whose dedication to the game it would never have become the part of American culture it’s been over the years.
Tafoya tells us about how the Stars came into existence, through the various evolutions along the way of Double-A and Triple-A affiliates of the Yankees and A’s, as well as several independent league baseball clubs, in multiple cities including Evansville, IN as well as Nashville, TN and Albany, NY.
The many details cited of the multiple decision makers involved, as well as the movements of the minor league ball clubs through which the Stars came into being, provides a deep perspective into the complications of the minor leagues, what’s necessary for their locations to be determined, how their owners interact with each other and Major League Baseball, and how transient some minor league-MLB club affiliations can be.
In the case of the Stars, however, what ultimately led to their coming to Huntsville was a dropped potential affiliation with the Yankees (who claimed to want their Double-A affiliate closer to home, in Albany, NY) and a forward-thinking Oakland A’s club executive in Walt Jocketty who was focused on player development at least as much as on winning.
One of the most important personalities leading to the Stars coming to Huntsville, however, was the mayor of Huntsville, Joe W. Davis, after whom the stadium ultimately built for the Stars was named. He fought many battles with the city council to try to win them over in favor of bringing baseball to Huntsville in 1985, and to build a stadium that could be used for the ball club as well as for other city activities.
Joe W. Davis Stadium - Huntsville, AL.
It took much persuasion, but the council ultimately voted in favor of the idea. There was a poll taken among the city’s residents as to how to name the club, and “Stars” was the leading vote getter. The stadium was built in all of 33 weeks.
Huntsville had been a pivotal home city for NASA and the Apollo project at its inception, and though the Apollo missions were no longer in operation by 1985, many other technology companies had made their home in Huntsville due to the number of engineers who lived there and the technology-friendly environs Huntsville provided.
The city had a history and reputation for visionaries and technology, and though names like “Satellites” and “Rockets” were proposed for the Stars during the poll, “Stars” was the winner and the name was just the harbinger of the many eventual MLB stars who would be on the roster for the Double-A club in its initial season(s).
One bit of context for the time and location we’re talking about for the Double-A Stars comes up in the book regarding the sale of beer during games – as to whether the city council would allow it or not. This was the American South in the 1980s. Sales of alcoholic beverages at sporting and other public events were not a given; in fact, in some pockets of the South they weren’t happening at all yet.
But Larry Schmittou refused to bring his ball club to Huntsville unless beer sales were going to be permitted during their home games. And initially, the city council refused to invest in a stadium for the team if beer was going to be sold during their home games.
A compromise was finally reached via the decision that a section of the stadium would be cordoned off as non-alcoholic; that is, no beer was to be sold in that section. And the stadium investment was thus approved and beer sales were approved, as well. Mayor Joe Davis was a driving force behind that compromise.
Meanwhile, the Oakland A’s were in the process of developing some of the players who would become the biggest MLB stars of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. And it just so happened, the first team fielded by Oakland’s Double-A Huntsville Stars featured prospects Jose Canseco, Joe Law, Eric Plunk, Tim Belcher, Charlie O’Brien, Luis Polonia, Stan Javier, Terry Steinbach, and several other players who later became household names during that baseball era.
Ironically, it wasn’t because Huntsville recognized these players would become critical in the majors later in their careers that they wanted the team to come to their city. But sometimes, you just make a decision that has other fortunate outcomes.
There were rumors throughout the Oakland organization the A’s stocked their Huntsville Double-A team that year with their best prospects in order to help establish the new team and location as a successful endeavor; but that was speculation that couldn’t be proven.
At that time, Bob Watson, later to become famous as a Yankees general manager, was a roving instructor for the A’s and he made some stops in Huntsville to coach some of the players. The team manager was Brad Fischer, one of the winningest managers in the Oakland system and throughout minor league baseball.
Jose Canseco as a member of the Huntsville Stars.
Much of the book is dedicated to description of how the Huntsville Stars brought together all the pieces to create a classy, successful operation – from ticket sellers to radio announcers to practice fields. The stadium wasn’t quite ready by opening day, and the team thus had to play elsewhere for the first couple of weeks of their first season (when they weren’t on the road). Both the players and the Huntsville residents, however, were thrilled when their team stadium was finally completed.
The Huntsville Stars, besides winning the Southern League championship in 1985, led the league in attendance in their first season of existence. In later years, Joe Davis Stadium was dubbed “the crown jewel” of the Southern League – though the Stars didn’t win another championship till 1994. The Stars remained in Huntsville, through various different MLB affiliations, till 2014, by which time they just weren’t drawing the same crowds anymore they had originally.
Tafoya paints the backdrop of the move of a baseball team from Albany, NY to Huntsville, AL with the detail craved by minor league baseball fans. An understanding of how much goes into the creation of these teams and their sustainability isn’t easy to obtain, but One Season in Rocket City provides a clear example in describing the rise and fall of the Huntsville Stars.
The book is a most decidedly worthwhile read for anyone interested in how the 1990s A’s became the team they were – and in how the minor leagues figure into the general landscape of American baseball.