John Carbray: “I know we could probably take a hard line on our tickets and have 5,000 people in here every night and tell everyone that’s our paid attendance. But what’s the point? If people come to a game free, maybe they’ll have a good time and pay their way in the next time. Our first job is to get the people out here.”
By Michael Lewis
When the original North American Soccer League was around, teams had to conjure up unique promotions to get fans into the stadium, especially when they weren’t hosting the Cosmos and Pele.
Enter one John Carbray, who marched to a different drummer when he was general manager of the San Jose Earthquakes and Washington Diplomats.
On Saturday, Carbray passed at the age of 80. His son, Dave Carbray said on social media, that his father had Alzheimer’s Disease.
“It is with a heavy heart and a sense of relief that I let you know of the passing of my father John L. Carbray after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease,” Dave Carbray wrote. “He was a great father, husband, promoter and friend to many.
“His contributions to the sports and entertainment industry were many but at his core he loved the fans and never forgot where he came from.
“My brother Kyle and I are proud of our Dad and along with his wife Diane thank you in advance for your thoughts as we mourn.
“A lifelong baseball man has rounded third heading for home.”
That is true as Carbray earned his wings in minor league baseball. But he also left his indelible mark on soccer as well in the original NASL.
During his short tenure with the Quakes, the team averaged 19,292 in a stadium that held 18,099-seat stadium.
“In baseball, if you’re in the right situation, then you could do the things you want,” Carbray told me for a story in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1977. “But if you have some unusual ideas, half of the owners are afraid of you and they peg you as a crazy promoter. I don’t think I could have broken in [to soccer]. I would have been in the minor leagues until I was 50. And there are lot of good guys buried out there.”
As Dips GM in 1977, Carbray helped raise the average attendance to 13,307 from 5,953 the previous year.
“We haven’t done any gimmicky promotions yet,” he said in May 1977. “We’re trying to go directly to the people, to find out what they want. Before games, we have as many as six bands playing in the parking lots, hot air balloons for kids and tailgate parties.”
Carbray added: “I think I can promote Russia. Yes, that’s right the country of Russia. I think I can promote Frisbees, caterpillar races, you name it. I always wanted to promote a staring contest to see what happens.”
When the Diplomats ran into a scoring drought during that season, Carbray promote in a witch doctor to put a hex on an opponent. Chief Diplascore was his name. The Dips also gave out free tickets, a fact that the GM did not hide.
“I know we could probably take a hard line on our tickets and have 5,000 people in here every night and tell everyone that’s our paid attendance,” he told the Washington Post. “But what’s the point? If people come to a game free, maybe they’ll have a good time and pay their way in the next time. Our first job is to get the people out here.”
Carbray cut his teeth promoting in minor league baseball. When he was GM of the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League, the club led all minor league teams in attendance, partly helped by a short left-field fence of 238 feet. Carbray was chosen the 1974 AAA executive of the year by The Sporting News.
“We felt the biggest negative factor we ever had was the short porch,” he said. “But it turned into the most positive thing we had. Once we were leading Tacoma, 10-2, with two out and nobody on in the top of the ninth. Sixteen or so pitches later they had a 12-10 lead and beat us.
“The next night we were ahead, 19-2, in the ninth inning, and ‘Solons’ manager] Bob Lemon realized that nobody was going home. The fans stayed. They didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Inspired by the legendary Bill Veeck, who had fireworks shoot out of what was termed back then an exploding scoreboard when he ran the Chicago White Sox, Carbray decided to have his own version.
“I always said in tongue and cheek that Bill Veeck’s exploding scoreboard didn’t explode,” he said. “He just shot off rockets and fireworks from it. So we built our own scoreboard out of plywood and light lumber. We truly did explode it sky-high right in front of 3,000 or so fans in the stadium that night. We blew it off the face of the earth right front of their eyes.
“That’s what I meant about the unexpected. The fans came out to see an exploding scoreboard. They really didn’t come out to see it explode. That was one of the highlights of my sports career.”
During that 1977 interview, Carbray admitted that he still had an affinity for baseball.
“I think my heart will always be in baseball,” he said. “I would really like the opportunity to work at the major league level. If I don’t, I’ll be very satisfied in soccer. It’s growing and there are man things you can accomplish.”