Why We Made “50 Summers”
A Letter from the Producer, Bill Hipsher, Hurrdat Films
How does one come to make a film documenting minor league baseball in their hometown? I’ve lived the journey and I’m still not entirely sure how we were lucky enough to be able to tell this story, in Omaha, with these people, about a subject that I’ve had a love affair with for four decades now.
For the better part of the last 40 years, baseball has been a part of my life. As a player, for a little bit, then as a coach. As a fan. Even as one of my first business ventures, not to mention crossing paths multiple times since in the business world.
I am part of what is likely the last generation who grew up knowing baseball as America’s true pastime. To me and most of my friends, baseball heroes were like gods second only to Husker heroes. The NBA and NFL weren’t what they are today.
I grew up half a block away from the original city ballfields in La Vista, Nebraska – a working-class suburb of Omaha. The blue-collar backgrounds of our fathers probably played a bigger part in our love of sport than we realized. My brother and our friends spent hours every day of the summer playing baseball. We were never playing as ourselves – we were playing as our baseball heroes. We all called which major leaguer we wanted to be that day. George Brett was someone we fought over consistently.
Growing up in Omaha meant just one professional sports team – the Omaha Royals. We lived in a professional sports Bermuda Triangle, where the nearest major league team of any kind was 225 miles away. This distance doesn’t sound like much but, while relatively accessible, planning a trip to Kansas City, especially in the mid-1980’s, was still a decent undertaking and investment. We knew we’d get a single annual dose of the big leagues though as the KC Royals came to Omaha once a year. Getting to see those major league guys at Rosenblatt was something to behold.
I spent my allowance on baseball cards. I can close my eyes and recall with 100% accuracy the smell of a freshly opened pack of cards, not to mention the taste of the gum. That horrible, wonderful gum. Buying boxed sets was cheatin. You had to collect cards pack by pack and trade for what you wanted. It was the earliest days of commodities trading and taught us how to look at future value and then maybe even root for players a bit differently.
Trading cards were never the same after the 80s. Topps brand of baseball cards were, well the tops in my books. Beckett publications were my favorites and the annual trading card yearbooks that I got each year from my grandma are still in m possession. I didn’t ignore Donruss and Fleer but didn’t love them the way I did Topps and if I only had enough money to complete one set it was Topps. I hated Upper Deck because by the time they hit the marketplace you could see the business changing. Despite being a teenager myself, collecting cards priced to pry dollars out of an adult’s wallet wasn’t as much fun when you knew cards were not as accessible to kids of tomorrow. Maybe the downfall of baseball as America’s pastime is directly correlated to baseball cards becoming a commodity no longer accessible to kids and has less to do with shortening attention spans due to the dawn of the information age.
Throughout the early 80s the Omaha Royals showed up to the local libraries to talk to kids during “summer story time”. If you wanted to meet them that day you had to sign up for all of summer story time, so it was painful at times spending summer mornings in a library, but we did it to get that kind of access. Most players didn’t have baseball cards yet, so we had them sign index cards and pennants at the library showings. I went to hundreds of triple-a baseball games. First with my dad and grandparents but the only games that I really remember were the exhibit games against Kansas City. “To think that George Brett and crew would grace Omaha with their presence” was the inner monologue playing in my prepubescent and naïve head. In my pre-teens and teenage years, I started going more with friends as we realized how accessible great players were and that we could get our baseball cards autographed. Not to mention snagging baseball swag tossed up from the dugouts at the end of games.
I learned how to keep score at baseball games early on. One of my grandparents kept the cleanest scorecard ever. It was a work of art, but I can’t remember if it was grandma or grandpa. We’d keep score at live games and when listening on the radio but I’m not sure why we did the latter. I rode the bench a lot while playing baseball growing up and that ability to keep score came in handy, fortunately, or not, depending on your perspective.
I think one of the reasons I fell in love with baseball was because I was a math nerd. Highly analytical. Baseball gave me a legitimate reason to love numbers and I memorized the backs of baseball cards, card numbers, players, and player numbers, scorecards, etc. There was something beautiful about being able to predict with some high level of certainty the outcome of many situations. You could be better at baseball with a little math, so the sport fed my math nerdiness.
I built my first “fantasy” sports league while still in high school not knowing what I was actually doing. It was just me and a couple of friends. I had to pull the stats out of the paper every day and it was tedious. It led to my use of a computer for number crunching. I taught myself how to build data tables and pull stats running programs or queries. That first fantasy league unknowingly taught me how to that would prove valuable in the real world in the not too distant future.
In the 90s my interests shifted. My only interest in baseball cards and autographs was due to my ability to make some extra money on the weekends working baseball card shows. I went to the ballpark to collect inventory/merchandise. Sometimes I’d double down and use it also as a cheap date because rarely did you have to pay more than $20 for a night at the ballpark and frankly, my dates got more autographs than I did. Both of these reasons to visit the ballpark were thin and fell apart by the time I graduated high school.
Baseball cards were just one more step in my entrepreneurial adventures. In the mid-90s I was starting my first web company and not long after I was moving into what I thought would be my real job in commercial real estate. Both career paths would intersect with baseball multiple times.
In the late-2000s I was hired as a consultant to represent a piece of land just a couple of miles south of Rosenblatt stadium in Bellevue, Nebraska. Although nobody had ever mentioned Bellevue as a potential location for the new stadium we threw our hat in the ring. For the next year or so I became a pain in Martie Cordaro, Alan Stein and a bunch of Sarpy County officials’ backsides. Nobody gave us a shot, to begin with, let alone a shot at being a finalist yet we took a serious run at putting together a package that we thought made the most sense for Sarpy County. We lost 3-2 in the final vote to the current site of Werner Park.
Today I find myself as a partner in several businesses that, to many, seem disjointed – websites, social media, marketing services, film production, sports media, and search engine optimization. If I rattle these things off it’s hard for most to find the intersect but the reality is they are all successful based on our ability to tell good and honest stories in many different mediums. These businesses not only opened a new chapter with the Storm Chasers but also gave us the ability to pursue this project.
As our marketing agencies grew we acquired a local film production studio headed by Dan Napoli. This opened the doors for us to tell stories in a medium I had always dreamed of being able to produce in. Dan’s work was stellar, which was reason number one for joining forces. He also did a fair number of sports films, mostly action sports but Dan was of a similar age, with respectable music taste, a love for pro wrestling and a similar love of baseball (as a former collegiate player sidelined by injury). Getting on the same creative page with Dan was easy and he’s a director we can trust with no oversight. Just get out of his way.
It took almost another decade to come to terms with Sarpy County’s decision. I only did come to terms with it after the Storm Chasers became a client of our digital marketing agencies and I learned more about their business from Martie. And it was eye-opening to learn what happened behind the scenes of a minor league baseball club. I didn’t realize what Martie’s job really was. I didn’t know that a triple-A General Manager had no impact on what happened on the field. I learned a lot quickly from Martie and we’ve been able to be part of their success in building new ticket sales through digital efforts for the last few years.
Watching that first full year as the Storm Chasers digital and social media partner, learning what managing a minor league baseball organization was really like, for me, the lifetime baseball fan, was eye-opening. To such a degree that I knew that if I was this amazed by what I saw behind the scenes, others would be too. There was a story to be told here.
An Idea Comes to Film
It’s been two years since I wrote the first two-page treatment for a proposed documentary taking viewers behind the scenes of a minor league baseball organization, embedding with the management staff for an entire year as they prepared for a historic season. I saw it as a story about minor league baseball, about the staff working to give local families an unforgettable experience 72+ times per year, and my hometown being part of the longest Triple-A / Major League affiliation.
I pitched the idea for 50 Summers to Dan first and, frankly, selling him on potentially shooting it wasn’t a hard sell. I wasn’t so sure about Martie and the current ownership group headed by Gary Green, who I had only met briefly. Martie, Gary, and their entire team were supportive from day one through the entire filming and post-production too.
For two years we’ve been planning, shooting, editing and producing this film. Thousands of hours of footage in the can in order to tell a 96-minute story about minor league baseball with Omaha as the backdrop. I hope the experience has been equal parts fun and frustration for everyone involved. If it were all fun it wouldn’t be a story worth telling. If it were all frustration, then we need to find a different profession. I think it fell somewhere in the middle for our teams and the subjects and I appreciate everyone pushing themselves to get the story right.
As we wrap the film and prepare to screen it with friends and family I am as nervous and as proud as you can be at one time, but mostly proud. The film connects with so many people on so many levels. Baseball fans, Omahans, voyeurs who like to see behind the curtain, those who love the struggle of small business. They all will find something and someone to connect within this story.
Everyone involved in the making of the film has done a wonderful job of turning my initial fuzzy story idea into a world-class documentary. The outcome and support are greater than I could ever have imagined were possible. It is something I am proud of as an Omahan and something I hope inspires civic pride I feel. This is a story about a revered Omaha organization that exists because of a half-century’s worth of work by exceptional Omaha residents, made in Omaha by an Omaha filmmaker. Of course, the premiere takes place here and I hope it’s the first of many stories we get to premiere locally in the coming years. I’m excited to see the spotlight shine on Omaha a bit as the film starts being screened at film festivals over the next year and is eventually released to the public.
Thank you for the support of everyone involved in the making of this film as well as the love and support that went into the 40 years of life experiences I personally had that led up to the spark of a small idea two years ago that has turned into this wonderful story today.
I hope everyone who sees this film enjoys it as much as I do.
Bill Hipsher, Producer