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A minor league baseball team with an enviable profit streak

While the sports world focuses on the Final Four this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and more controversial events in Indiana dominate the national news flow, one hometown man's mind is sure to wander.

However, those thoughts won't be very far from home.

Max Schumacher will be thinking about opening night on April 9 at Victory Field, home of baseball's Indianapolis Indians, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Triple-A affiliate—of which he's the longtime president and chairman.

The downtown ballpark is just a few long home runs away. Its neighbors include not only Lucas Oil Stadium, where the NFL Colts play, but also Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA's Pacers.

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The Indians hold their own in competing for the entertainment dollar, akin to some other famed baseball streaks, involving icons such as Gehrig, Ripken and DiMaggio. Stretching back to 1973, the franchise—valued in 2010 by Baseball America at $20 million—has turned a profit every year.

Still, that wasn't always the case.

Buying a lifetime ticket

Schumacher, 82, is beginning his 59th season with the 113-year-old Indians. A native of the city and graduate of local Butler University, in the fall of 1956 he was about to end his two-year hitch in the Army when he read an item in the Indianapolis Star about the ticket manager leaving the ball club. Schumacher wangled an interview with Frank McKinney, a prominent banker and former team co-owner.

"He wrote a short note for me to deliver to the general manager, Ray Johnston, that essentially said, This is the guy you ought to hire," Schumacher recalled.

"Baseball-wise, the team was very successful then," he said. They'd won the 1956 Junior World Series, sweeping four games from the Rochester Red Wings behind the hot bat of future Yankees legend and Hall of Famer Roger Maris. "But they still lost 90-some thousand dollars—a lot of money for a minor league club at the time."

Max Schumacher, president and chairman of Indianapolis Indians.
Source: Eric Learned
Max Schumacher, president and chairman of Indianapolis Indians.
"Low-cost, wholesome family entertainment is what we're all about, and I'd like to see that continue for many years to come. If people stick with that, and I think they will, they'll always be successful."

The Cleveland Indians owned the team then (the respective names are only coincidental) and were planning to move it out of Indy. "That gave birth to the current community ownership of the franchise, which was put together by McKinney," Schumacher said. To keep the team in town, more than 6,600 people bought 24,488 shares in the Indy Indians for $10 apiece. (Today, Schumacher and his family own about 40 percent of the stock, with less than 800 shares outstanding.)

Nonetheless, the team's financial woes persisted. Schumacher lamented that even after he succeeded Johnston as GM in 1961, "we'd make a little money one year, and then the next year we'd lose money. We couldn't get off that proverbial dime."

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Finally, in the late 1960s, he employed what he called "backwards marketing" to help turn the team's fortunes around. "We did it mainly through buyout nights," Schumacher said, describing a scheme by which a local sponsor—such as a supermarket, a bank or a labor union—would pay $5,000 to purchase all the tickets for one game, then distribute them mostly for free.

The Indians reaped not just the five grand but a full house, which meant a big concessions take and sales of box seats to fans who didn't want to sit in unreserved grandstands.

Schumacher became president of the Indians in 1969, and the franchise remained competitive on the field—including six league championships from 1982 to 1989 as an affiliate of the Montreal Expos—and viable on the ledger. Its next major development was the opening of Victory Field on July 11, 1996.

The Indians had been playing in the same ballpark since 1931. It was originally called Perry Stadium, renamed Victory Field in 1942 ("In the Second World War, everything was V for Victory," Schumacher explained) and finally Bush Stadium—in honor of former player, manager and owner Owen Bush—in 1967.

Remaking the old ball game

By the 1990s, "retro" baseball venues were coming into vogue, including a minor league ballpark in Buffalo and major league parks in Baltimore and Cleveland. Evoking classic ballparks like Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston, these modern, fan-friendly versions feature open concourses, optimal sightlines and loads of amenities that include luxury suites to sushi bars.

The team paid half the cost of the $18 million for Victory Field, with Indy's Capital Improvement Board picking up the other half. "We wanted to pay our share," Schumacher said. Situated on 14 acres of White River State Park, Victory Field boasts 12,230 permanent seats, lawn seating for 2,000, 28 luxury suites, five suite-level party areas and two large picnic areas. For a day or night at the ballpark, a family of four pays about $70 for tickets, parking and food, compared with nearly $460 for a Colts game.

"They do a good job of investing in the ballpark and keeping it modern," said Josh Leventhal, a writer at Baseball America, which along with Sports Illustrated has named it the "best minor league ballpark in America" in past annual appraisals.

"They have hardcore fans, mostly families, who care about the players and whether the team wins or loses." Baseball America has twice bestowed on the Indians its yearly Bob Freitas Award, for the best overall operations at the Triple-A level, most recently in 2013, citing its minor league–best 637,579 attendance.

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Schumacher has just returned from the Indians' spring training camp in Bradenton, Florida. He's attended every one since 1961, which illustrates the longevity and commitment that are hallmarks of the franchise's success.

"I've stayed with it as long as I have to provide leadership from the top," he stated, "and we have some key employees who have been with us for many years."

Current GM Cal Burleson was hired as ticket manager in 1975. Assistant GM Randy Lewandowski has been with the club for 20 years, initially as part of a summer internship program that has spawned numerous full-timers.

Schumacher has no plans to retire anytime soon, but when he does, his legacy will ring on for years. That's thanks to the Max Schumacher Victory Bell, unveiled at the ballpark in 2011 and rung after every home win. Beyond that, however, the man dubbed Mr. Baseball in Indianapolis envisions a more holistic endurance for the Indians.

"I just want to see a good operation of the team, with a lot of the same guidelines we have in place now," he said. "Low-cost, wholesome family entertainment is what we're all about, and I'd like to see that continue for many years to come. If people stick with that, and I think they will, they'll always be successful."

By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com