Commissioner Bill Lee's Legacy Lives On In Frontier League After Retiring
When Bill Lee took over as Frontier League commissioner in 1994, he inherited a league that was limping toward dissolution.
The Northern League and the Frontier League had both tried to prove in 1993 that independent leagues not tied to affiliated baseball could succeed.
Thanks in large part to the success of the St. Paul Saints, the Northern League proved that an indy league could be viable. It was an instant success, one that birthed many other leagues.
The Frontier League’s first year seemed to offer the counter argument. Two of the league’s eight teams folded after just a couple of weeks. The other six limped to the finish of a 50-game schedule. Chillicothe Paints owner Dr. Chris Hanners played a large role in keeping the league alive, but heading into 1994, the league seemed to be on the precipice of folding.
“When I interviewed for the job, the first question was ‘why would you want this job? The league will be out of business at the end of the year anyway,’ ” Lee said. “My response was, ‘if I take this job, it better not be.’ ”
The Frontier League begins its 29th season on Thursday, May 27, and for the first time since 1994 Lee will not be the commissioner of the league. Lee retired on March 1. His new title is Commissioner Emeritus. The league he retired from is still here, some 28 years after it was supposed to fold.
In those early days, the Frontier League had teams playing at fields without locker rooms—one of the fields was next to a community swimming pool. That locker room mixed spikes and Speedos as players got dressed alongside swimmers.
“Survival was the number one priority,” Lee said. “The facilities were poor. Growing the league is what they really had to do.”
By the time the 21st century arrived, the Frontier League had found its footing, as it began to move into ballparks specifically built for the league’s teams. Facility standards (including ones that mandate that teams must have locker rooms) arrived as did the circuit’s first big league success stories.
The league that is on the verge of starting its 2021 season does so with 16 teams. And at this point, the Frontier League is an MLB partner league that’s part of the baseball firmament.
“I remember people said, ‘what is the ideal number of teams for the Frontier League,’ ” Lee said. “I said 16. I think I may have told them if we get to 16 I’ll retire. And here we are, we’re at 16.”
The Frontier League is now run by newly hired chief executive officer Jon Danos. The league seems on solid footing to be around for many years to come. There are a lot of owners, players and coaches who have gotten the league to this point. But the constant of the league has been Lee.
Brian Tollberg and Morgan Burkhart were the first players to jump from the Frontier League to the majors. There have been 38 other players to join them since, including current Rays reliever Nick Anderson. But it’s not just players.
Robert Ford is now the play-by-play broadcaster for the Houston Astros. He credits his time in the Frontier League as a young broadcaster for helping him get there.
“(Bill Lee) told me many times, ‘you should be in Double-A.’ He told me he had worked in Birmingham with Jim Kelch who went on to do some MLB games with the Reds,” Ford said. “He mentioned to me him as someone who made it from the minors to the majors and how I could follow a similar path. For someone who had been around and had the experience he did to tell me I was good enough to be in the big leagues was huge to me.
“There were a lot of people who helped me get to where I am. He is near the top of the list. I had an idea that I could do this, but it was nice to hear it from someone who didn’t know me . . . He told me, my first year, one of the first times we met, ‘You are going to win the broadcaster of the year award. You’re probably going to win it every year you are in this league.’ ”
Ford won the award in 2003 and 2004. The award was even renamed the Robert Ford Broadcaster of the Year award.
Ford is one of a number of players, coaches and staff who have reached the majors from the Frontier League. And those opportunities were available in part because Lee was crazy enough to take a job in 1994 that seemed doomed to fail.
“I want the best for the Frontier League,” Lee said. “It’s my baby. I love the league. I want it to do well. Hopefully whoever comes behind me can take it to greater heights.”