Fetzer’s vision influenced all of baseball
By CRAIG MUDER
November 14, 2009
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Baseball and broadcasting have been faithful partners since radio burst onto the American landscape in the 1920s.
John Fetzer loved them both, and made sure their connection stayed strong.
|John Fetzer is one of twenty finalists for election to the Hall of Fame Class of 2010 by the Veterans Committee. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)|
Fetzer, who owned the Detroit Tigers from 1956 to 1983, is one of 10 finalists on this year’s Veterans Committee executives/pioneers ballot at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Veterans Committee will vote on Dec. 6 at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, and the results of the vote will be announced Dec. 7. The results of the Veterans Committee election for managers/umpires will also be announced on Dec. 7.
The 10 candidates on the executives/pioneers ballot are: Gene Autry, Sam Breadon, Bob Howsam, Ewing Kauffman, John McHale, Marvin Miller, Gabe Paul, Jacob Ruppert, Bill White and Fetzer. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2010.
Fetzer, born March 25, 1901 in Decatur, Ind., began his interest in communications in 1911 when his brother-in-law – a dispatcher for the Wabash Railroad – taught him Morse code. Fetzer then became interested in wireless technology, conducting his own experiments in radio.
By 1923, Fetzer – now a professional radio engineer – was hired to build a radio station for Emmanuel College, a small school in Berrien Springs, Mich., now known as Andrews University. After getting the station started, Fetzer toured Europe to learn more about radio before returning to Berrien Springs, where the college was running out of funding for its radio station. In 1930, Fetzer bought the station and moved it to Kalamazoo, Mich. – which at the time was the last major city in Michigan without a radio station.
“It was a terrible, heart-rending experience,” said Fetzer of his early days at WKZO radio. “Not many people were interested in buying an ad on some new-fangled novelty.”
But Fetzer – working side-by-side with his wife Rhea – persevered and quickly assembled the Michigan Radio Network, which had as its hottest property broadcasts of Detroit Tigers games. Soon thereafter, Fetzer helped create the directional antenna – which allowed AM stations to aim their signal in certain directions, thus allowing more stations to share the same frequencies and letting AM stations broadcast at night.
Thanks in part to this invention, Fetzer was elected to the National Association of Broadcasters’ board of directors in 1938.
Fetzer served as the chairman of the government war censorship office in World War II, but quickly dismantled that organization following the war – fearing the loss of journalistic freedom. Then in the late 1940s, Fetzer helped pioneer the birth of television on a national scale by opening several stations across the Midwest.
But one of his most prosperous ventures continued to be Tigers’ broadcasts. So in 1956, when the estate of W.O. Briggs put the Tigers up for sale, Fetzer organized a syndicate to buy the club so his company would not lose the broadcast rights. Their bid of $5.5 million – a record for a pro sports franchise at that time – beat out four other groups, including one by future Hall of Famer Bill Veeck.
“You could see right off the bat that (Fetzer) was the dominating person of that (ownership) group, and that turned out to be the case,” said former Tigers president Jim Campbell. “He was a brilliant executive who had so many good qualities.”
Under Fetzer’s leadership, the Tigers – who had not won a World Series since 1945, began a rebuilding plan that resulted in the acquisition of such players as Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, Norm Cash and Bill Freehan. Combined with holdover talents like future Hall of Famer Al Kaline, this core group of players helped the Tigers evolve into one of the American League’s most consistent teams of the 1960s.
Fetzer also negotiated baseball’s initial national television contract in 1967.
In 1968, the Tigers won the AL pennant – and defeated the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to win the franchise’s third title. The Tigers won the American League East title in 1972 before age began to catch up with Fetzer’s stable of veterans.
In 1983, Fetzer sold the club to Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza. The next year, the Tigers won the World Series again with a team largely developed by Fetzer’s organization.
After baseball, Fetzer remained active in the John E. Fetzer Foundation, which he established in 1954. The foundation – now called the Fetzer Institute – sponsors research into connections between the mind, body and spirit.
Hall of Famer Lee MacPhail, who served as the American League’s president from 1974-84, called Fetzer one of the game’s most influential owners.
“He was outstanding, and I had just great admiration for him,” MacPhail said. “I think he certainly provided a lot of leadership and character for not just the American League but all of baseball.”
Fetzer died on Feb. 20, 1991.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.