Pawtucket Red Sox: Minor league farm club, major league money-maker

Ben Mondor, 1925-2010

Ben Mondor, 1925-2010


Pawtucket Red Sox mascot

Pawtucket Red Sox mascot

By Robert Israel

A few years before his death in 2010, Ben Mondor, owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox, sat down with me in his office at McCoy Statium for an interview for an article I was writing for Boston magazine.

A portly, bespectacled gentleman from the Old School, he enjoyed spinning a good yarn.

He poured himself a three-finger splash from a bottle he kept in the side drawer of his desk. He lit the first of several cigars which he puffed on and wet-chewed with relish. And then, settling into his leather chair, he told me a story about the first day when he arrived at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to take over the ailing ball club.

“We signed a contract at the local Howard Johnson’s,” Mondor said. “It was a gray, overcast day. We had a ton of uniforms with us from Boston because there was no time to have new uniforms made. And we had one of these key rings the city gave us, you know, with 400 keys on them. And it was 4:30 in the afternoon, a gray, miserable day, and it’s getting dark, there’s no electricity in the joint. I look around and I’m thinking, ‘Good Lord! What a mess!’ I mean, there were frozen puddles of slop everywhere. The roof leaked, the floor leaked. We passed by the concession stand that had been leased to the local Kentucky Chicken. There was trash all over the goddamned place. There were chicken bones scattered here and there. So, I’m looking around and wouldn’t you know it? I fell flat on my ass. I look up and I says to Mike Tamburro, the kid I just hired to be my general manager: ‘Mike, every businessman in his life dreads one thing. He knows, no matter what, someplace, somewhere, someone’s gonna pull one, a boner. And this is mine.'”

Minor league basball came to Pawtucket in 1966. when Mondor took over ten years later for an undisclosed amount of cash, the team’s relationship with the Boston Red Sox organization, with the fans, and with the supplies was hostile. The PawSox were bankrupt.

“Nobody, I mean nobody wanted this thing at all,” Mondor told me, punctuating the air with his cigar. “We discovered when we finally came to town that it was worse than we thought. It’s like an old house. You really don’t know an old house until you live in it. After a month we realized, oooh, boy, this thing is worse than we could have even imagined. No one wanted to hear it from us. No one wanted to do business with us. Everyone we met turned away. To them, Pawtucket Red Sox baseball spelled trouble.”

Mike Tamburro was 24 years old when Mondor hired him in 1977. A Worcester, Mass. native and longtime Red Sox fan, he had worked as a general manager of the Red Sox single-A farm team in Elmira, New York. now the PawSox president, he looks back at his tenure with the ball club as a time of struggle and promise.

“Everyone associated with the PawSox had been screwed, royally,” he said. “They’d bough season tickets, two- and three-year plans, play-off tickets for a team that was never in the play-offs, advertising contracts that never materialized. All these people were lied to, their money was pocketed, and they were screwed. The physical plant was in ruins. We weren’t looking at just a negative reputation. We were looking at a minus-zero negative reputation.”

Mondor refreshed his glass and took a couple quick sips, finding the potent drink to be to his liking. He flicked the ash of his cigar and motioned with his arms. If he had a bowler hat he’d have easily passed as a barker in a traveling medicine show.

“Look, I told everyone, I don’t know squat about running a baseball team,” Mondor said. “I retired from owning textile mills for Chrissakes. I’m into business. That’s my bag. So, I decided we were gonna clean things up. Fix things, make ’em right, you know? And I knew, oh yeh, we were gonna lose a lot of money. And lose money we did. We’d go into local businesses and people would yell, ‘Take a hike, buddy!’ So, I decided we’re gonna set things straight. If someone who had been screwed royally presented a claim to us, we’d honor it. No questions asked. And we earned back our credibility. We got a lot of help, don’t get me wrong. The Boston Red Sox organization helped. When they gave us their vote of confidence, people saw that we were honest, and they did business with us.”

One of the first things to go, Mike Tamburro recalled, was the notion that triple-A baseball had to include promotional events to draw the crowds.

“They used to have every weird act at this ball park that you could think of,” he said. “They had Chinese wrestlers lying down on a bed of nails. They had fighting pigs. A big draw was donkey basketball night, with real donkeys wearing nets attached to their backs. It was all about freak shows! And it had nothing to do with baseball.”

The next thing Mondoor and Tamburro accomplished was to lower ticket prices.

“People laughed at us,” Tamburro said. “They told us we were doomed to fail. How could we survive within such a close proximity to Fenway Park? But we did it. We were promoting only the game itself. And we were determined to make it the friendliest, clearest, most honest game in town.”

Mondor said he continued to bleed money for the first three years. In 1977, even though the team won the International League title, it finished last at the gate in the eight-team league, drawing less than 70,000 people, the lowest attendance in the history of the International League.

“We had one of the greatest doubleheaders ever played,” Mondor said. “Two 1-0 games with Charleston, the first- and second-place teams in the standings, Don Aase pitching one of the games for us, and there were 100 people in the stands.”

But Mondor started recouping his losses that next year and the farm team has achieved profitable status every year since then. What was first seen as a drawback — the proximity to Fenway Park — has turned out to be an asset.

“There’s no uprooting of a ball player’s family,” Mondor said. “No 1,500-mile trip if he’s promoted or sent back to us temporarily. Red Sox officials can scout us and sleep in their own beds at night.”

And the fans love the place. A PawSox fan club was founded in the late 1970s and now boasts hundreds of members. Home and away games are broadcast on local radio stations. The physical plant has been cleaned up, thanks for a multi-million dollar investment by the City of Pawtucket. There are free clinics for the kids. And the cost of a ticket is far less expensive than Fenway Park, enabling local families to take their kids to games and not break the bank.

when the interview was wrapping up, Mondor, who had finished his beverage and lit yet another cigar, put his arm around me and walked me to the door. There, hanging on the wall in a black frame, was a yellowed newspaper clipping from the Providence Journal.

“The PawSox are having a hard time drawing maggots, let alone flies, to any of their games,” read the opening paragraph.

Beneath the framed column, written by now-retired baseball writer Mike Madden, was a photograph of Ben Mondor, smiling his broad smile, standing with his millionth fan.

“We didn’t make that figure up,” Mondor said, puffing on his cigar with the satisfaction of man who savors life’s ironies. “We’ve surpassed that number since that photo was taken. Millions of fans! How sweet it is!”

**
Robert Israel, a Boston-based writer/editor, can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A longer version of this story first appeared in Boston magazine.

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