If these are the good times, you couldn't tell it by Ralph Nelles' salary.
But then, the president of the Pioneer League probably has one of the more unique contracts around.For a guy who came to office during a time when it looked like the league wouldn't last his first season, for a guy who has seen the league rebound and now fielding eight healthy teams, for a guy who makes sure those teams stay healthy, he sure isn't getting paid like a success.
Whatever hours Ralph Nelles puts into the upcoming season, he will be rewarded with $2. Not $2 per hour, or per day. Not $2 a week, but $2 a season.
And he laughs about it. He seems proud of it.
"And I'm probably the only president in the history of professional baseball that doesn't have a secretary."
As late as two years ago, Nelles made $2,000 a season. But that was the upper limit of his contract, and he started all over again. He made $1 last year, doubled to $2 this season. Next year, it will be $4, just like when he started in 1974.
After graduating from a suburban Minneapolis high school, Nelles moved to Montana to take a job at a resort hotel near Silvergate. He later got into the propane business and then, the beer business. He's now in his 38th year of affiliation with Anheuser-Busch and Intermountain Distributing.
Nelles played a little semi-pro ball in Minnesota, but was never in professional baseball until he worked with the Mustangs.
He took over as president of the Pioneer League for Claude Engberg, who resigned due to illness. Nelles, the president of the Billings Mustangs, took over the league that consisted of Billings, Great Falls, Idaho Falls and Ogden.
"Really, it was about three and a half teams, because Ogden was a co-op," he said. "Things looked terrible, like we were going to fold. Bill Schwepe, who had the team in Ogden in '72, said the league wouldn't last two years."
It didn't fold, of course, but Nelles refuses to take credit.
"Mainly, I think the reason things turned around is because we expanded north. We had teams no further south than Billings, and that helped with the travel."
Lethbridge replaced Ogden in 1975, and Calgary and Medicine Hat made it a six-team league in '77. Butte and Helena were added in '78.
Lethbridge was sold and moved to Pocatello in 1983 and Salt Lake City bought out Calgary in 1985 and moved the Trappers there.
Nelles said it was the Montreal Expos, major league baseball's first team in Canada, that provided the impetus to move north. "The Expos didn't have a farm team in Canada, and they showed interest, if it was possible, to have a minor league team in Canada. We probably would have folded otherwise. We wouldn't have operated with a three-team league."
Things are a little easier for Nelles now. He has turned the day-to-day operation of his business, Intermountain Distributing, over to his son-in-law. He winters in Scottsdale, Ariz. and sees all the minor league action he wants.
During the season, he flies his twin-engine Beechcraft around the league. While in each city, he meets with the team's board of directors, inspects the playing field and lights and makes sure the club houses are up to standards. He doesn't do the scheduling, that he farms out, but he is in charge of the umpires.
"All the clubs are financially doing well," he said. "Minor league baseball in the U.S. right now is a big business. Minor league franchises in the U.S. have more than tripled in cost. A (lass) AA sells for a million and an A club, for $500,000. It used to be you could buy an A club by taking over its debts."
With things going well, Nelles has time to enjoy what he likes about baseball, "watching the kids move up." He has seen a few, like George Brett, Tom Brunansky and Tom Browning.
And he has gotten to know some stars, like Steve Carlton, Dal Maxvill and Tim McCarver, who all went huning with Nelles in Canada and bagged nine moose several years back.
The end, Nelles says, is in sight, but he won't be more specific than that. He's been president 13 years now, and says that he won't be around much longer.
But, as he recalls Joe Gargiola coming to town to speak at a banquet, or a hunting trip with McCarver or Carlton, you can bet baseball will always be a part of his life.