Obituary: John Carbray (1938-2019)

R.I.P. to John Carbray, the founder of the Fresno Grizzles, the AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals. He died from Alzheimer’s disease on August 10 at the age of 80. Prior to founding the Grizzles, he had been active as a minor-league baseball executive going back to the 1960s.

John Carbray was born on November 9, 1938 in Paris, Ark. However, his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 6 years old, and he spent most of his life on the West Coast. He was a three-sport athlete in high school but focused on baseball when he attended El Camino Junior College. He was the captain and starting catcher, and he led the team to the junior college championship in his sophomore year. That was in spite of missing time due to the loss of sight in his left eye for a month and a half.

Carbray transferred to Pepperdine in 1960 and also played semi-pro ball in Wyoming. In 1961, he traveled to Canada to play for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Western Canada League. As it was a semipro team, his stats aren’t available. He started the season as a regular and ended it as a utility player and coach. After staying in Los Angeles in 1962 to work in a swimming pool business, he returned to Canada in 1963 to become the manager of the Calgary Giants, one of four semi-pro teams in a league that had working agreements with MLB clubs.

John Carbray and his ballpark in Sacramento, with the 232-foot left-field fence. Source: News-Press, Aigist 11, 1974.

The league eventually folded after the 1964 season. Carbray, who had graduated to general manager, field manager, owner and occasional marksman (he was known to shoot pigeons out of the rafters with a .22 rifle he kept in his convertible) threw in the towel when the four-team league league was down to just two GM’s. After a rough year financially in 1963, he still managed to make Calgary profitable in its final season.

“I certainly wound up in the black on the Giant operation this past season,” he said. “What drained the profits down to nil was the cost of trying to keep the rest of the league above water, mainly the operation at Saskatoon.”

Carbray worked as a publicist for the Northwestern League in the late ’60s and commissioner of the Western Baseball Association for the inaugural 1968 season. In 1971, he was named the general manager of the Eugene Emeralds of the Pacific Coast League. The team won two divisional titles in five years but ran up a $200,000 debt, according to contemporary AP reports. He resigned his position as GM on October 1, 1973. During this time he also partnered with actor Bing Russell (aka Kurt Russell’s dad) to launch the Portland Mavericks. He sold his interest in that team to Russell at the end of 1973, and you can learn all about the Mavericks in the excellent documentary “Battered Bastards of Baseball.”

The Emeralds moved to Sacramento and became the Solons, and Carbray took over as their GM for the 1974 season. The Solons soon became one of the top draws in all of minor-league baseball, thanks in part to the insane dimensions of Hughes Stadium. The left-field wall featured a 40-foot screen that was just 232 feet from home plate. The left fielder could throw a runner out at first base on what would normally be a base hit. Home runs flew out of the stadium at a record pace, much to the delight of fans and the absolute horror of anyone who had to pitch there. The Solons finished in last place, led the PCL with 6.51 runs per game, and had a team ERA of 7.15. Their best pitcher, Roger Miller, had a 4.48 ERA. Tom Hausman had a 12-9 record and 6.00 ERA with 11 complete games. On the offense, Bill McNulty and Gorman Thomas each hit over 50 homers, and Sixto Lezcano hit 34.

“The most boring thing in baseball is a 410-foot out,” Carbray said, and he kind of had a point. It might not have been polished, professional baseball, but fans stayed to the very end, because literally no lead was safe.

Along with the fireworks on the field, Solons fans got to enjoy a couple of big pyrotechnic displays. One time, the team promised the fans the world’s first actual exploding scoreboard. When the day came that it was unveiled, fans sat back and waited for the demonstration. Sure enough, in the fifth inning, the scoreboard exploded. Literally. There was a big bang, a lot of smoke, and flaming wreckage where the scoreboard used to be. A great stunt, even if you could only do it once.

Carbray pulled an ever bigger stunt later in the season at the PCL All-Star Game at Hughes Stadium. He had a portion of the right field fence removed and replaced with a panel that was soaked in gasoline. During the All-Star Game, that portion of the fence caught on fire. Without any warning, stunt motorcyclist Gary David blew through the fence, launching flaming debris all over right field as the fans went crazy.

Carbray was named the Sporting News Executive of the Year in 1974, by the way.

He resigned from the Solons after two years to serve as a general manager for a couple of North American Soccer League teams. He resigned at the end of 1983 to look for something new. “There are a lot of opportunities in sports for a man of my experience. Maybe I’ll go into international tiddlywinks,” he told reporters.

While he was out of the sports world, Carbray continued to oversee Projects West, a West Coast sports consulting firm that worked with sports teams to raise attendance or gain new fans. He was particularly known for promoting concerts at stadium venues, bringing big 1980s & ’90s acts like The Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett or Huey Lewis and the News to minor-league parks or college stadiums.

Carbray had long wanted to bring baseball back to Fresno, ever since the Fresno Giants were bought and moved to Salinas in 1988. He got his chance when the Arizona Diamondbacks came into existence, which caused the Phoenix AAA team to move to Tucson and the existing Tucson Toros team to look for a new home. Carbray put together a group of investors called the Fresno Diamond Group and acquired them in 1997 for about $9 million. However, plans to build a sizable downtown ballpark in Fresno ran into complications with the City Council, and the team, renamed the Fresno Grizzlies, played their games at Fresno State’s Pete Beiden Field through 2001.

The negotiations to build the new ballpark dragged on for years, and the two sides eventually reached an agreement in May 2000, after eight years and multiple failed proposals. The Stadium, now known as Chukchansi Park, opened in 2002 and was to be privately owned but became city owned. Fresno Diamond Group was unable to pay the annual $1.5 million in rent, and the non-baseball revenue the Carbray forecasted never panned out. The Grizzlies were sold to new ownership in 2005 after Carbray was stripped of his power by the rest of Fresno Diamond Group. He was sued for breach of contract, but that lawsuit was dismissed, according to his obituary.

Carbray worked for various nonprofit organizations after departing from the Grizzlies. He was inducted into the Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2018 for his work in bringing baseball back to the city. Current Grizzlies president Derek Franks acknowledged the role Carbray and his wife Diane play in Grizzlies history.

“We wouldn’t be here without their grit and determination to Fresno. We’re forever grateful for their efforts. This is obviously a very sad day for the Grizzlies organization and this community,” he said.

As to why the team is named the Grizzlies, since there hadn’t been any bears in California since the turn of the 20th Century: Carbray just really liked the name. “I’ve always said, if you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.”


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