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Covering the minors propels a dreamer to the bigs

Allan Simpson had a dream. He was going to quit his accountant's job to start a newspaper about baseball.

Not about the star sluggers, or the most popular teams.

A newspaper about unknown players. Amateurs. Prospects. College kids.

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Friends and potential financiers issued a unanimous verdict: You're going to strike out.

"I ran the idea by everyone and they all thought I was completely nuts," he recalled on Tuesday. "Except my wife."

He took the gamble, moving his young family, with two toddlers, from Vernon to White Rock, where he had bought a home with a garage, which would be his office.

Years later, he would look back in amazement at his own judgment.

"Here I was, a guy with no publishing background, limited financial resources, few active contacts in baseball," he once wrote, "trying to launch a national baseball publication out of the garage of my house. In Canada, no less."

He knew Americans would balk at a baseball periodical from Canada, so a post-office box was rented across the border in Bellingham, Wash.

He had a killer name for the publication, too – All-America Baseball News. It was, he acknowledges, "a little deceitful."

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He built his own angled layout table and bought a typesetting machine that in 1980 was already obsolete. The office was primitive.

"Unheated," he recalls. "Had my skis in there. Beer bottles. Winter tires. The works."

At night, he skimmed out-of-town newspapers looking for nuggets of baseball wisdom. He wore a jacket, though he found it difficult to turn pages with gloves on.

Mr. Simpson was an avid and long-time reader of The Sporting News. Known as the "Bible of Baseball," the newspaper decided in the 1970s to forego coverage of baseball's minor leagues in favour of articles on professional football and hockey. He'd fill the niche with a tabloid newspaper.

Through direct mail solicitations and a handful of small advertisements in the rival publication, he found a modest audience who shared his obsession with all things baseball. About 1,500 fellow diehards bought his pitch, nearly all of them Americans, forking over $16.50 (U.S.) for a 22-issue charter subscription.

He had no idea what he was getting into.

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Mr. Simpson had been born in Kelowna, the grandson of Stanley Merriam Simpson, a sawmill owner whose box company made the crates in which the Okanagan's rich bounty of fruit was shipped around the world. Young Allan attended a private school where the preferred sports were soccer, badminton and cricket. He did not play baseball until age 15.

He had a summer job as a sportswriter with the Kelowna Courier and covered university sports briefly for the Vancouver Sun until the daily went on strike. He eventually headed north to become the assistant general manager of the Alaska Goldpanners amateur baseball team. When the local newspaper discovered his background, he also became summertime sports editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

On his honeymoon, he stopped in Montreal to talk his way into becoming the first general manager of a fledgling farm team. The one star on the Lethbridge (Alta.) Expos was a skinny, 20-year-old outfielder from Miami named Andre Dawson. Mr. Simpson earned just $700 a month. He returned to school and became an accountant. Until he had his dream.

The first issue was overdue. He thought he could typeset all 32 pages of articles himself. Strike one.

A friend had to be called in. A day before the pages were to be sent to the printers, long galleys of typeset articles hung from the rafters of the garage like flypaper. He thought he could paste down all the articles in one night. Strike two.

He knew little about design. For the masthead he chose a font that would be more appropriate for Irish Spring soap. Pages were incomplete and riddled with errors, but the presses were ready to roll, so he rushed across the border to the Bellingham Herald. They slapped in some final corrections in a different typeface.

"A classic it was not," said the editor/publisher/typesetter.

He was so tired after two sleepless nights of production that he didn't dare drive the 40 kilometres home to his bed. He slept in his car at a rest stop on Interstate 5.

The next day he took the premiere edition to Seattle to be mailed.

With horror, he realized he had less than two weeks to produce the second issue.

The publication, later to be renamed Baseball America, nearly died that year, but a strike by major league players fuelled an appetite for news from baseball's lesser circuits. Circulation grew.

Mr. Simpson sold a majority interest in the newspaper two years later, moving with it to Durham, N.C. In time, it became a must-read trade publication. He left the newspaper five years ago to become a vice-president with Perfect Game USA, a prominent baseball scouting service. Next month will mark the 30th anniversary of the paper's debut.

On Monday, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys, Ont., announced its latest inductees – Tom (The Terminator) Henke, a relief pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays: George (Dandy) Wood, a 19th-century player from Prince Edward Island; and, Mr. Simpson, a dreamer.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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