COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In November 1976, the same month Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States, Ken Schnacke was hired by the Columbus Clippers. Forty-seven years -- and seven U.S. presidents -- later, Schnacke is still working for the Clippers. He sums up his career thusly:
“I was thrown into the pool and was able to swim, and it’s been a love story since then.”
The Clippers have served as Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate since 2009, the same year their current home of Huntington Park opened. During Schnacke’s long stint with the International League franchise, he has progressed from administrative assistant to director of operations to general manager to, finally in 2001, GM and president. Despite all this, his initial arrival in Ohio’s capital city had nothing to do with Minor League Baseball.
“I went and studied engineering at Ohio Northern University and came down to Columbus when they created the Ohio EPA [Environmental Protection Agency],” said Schnacke, speaking from a suite during a late-season Clippers game. “I was in charge of air pollution control and everyone kind of wanted my job and I didn’t want my job. I had not been a very good athlete, but I love the game of baseball.”
Willing to jettison his nascent career within the federal government, Schnacke traveled to the 1975 Baseball Winter Meetings in Hollywood, Fla., in search of a job. This eventually resulted in an offer from the Texas League’s Amarillo Gold Sox.
“[Gold Sox GM] John Dittrich hired me as their financial guy and I was there for 10 days,” said Schnacke. “But that was the year that Minor League Baseball created the independent league Gulf States League. So I went down there with [Gold Sox broadcaster] Rick Rizzs and [Minor League Baseball executive] Bill Wood and John Dittrich and we found an old ballfield in Harlingen, Texas, where Gaylord Perry had played. We became the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings. So with 10 days of [baseball] experience after being an engineer, I was GM of a Class A independent team. I survived that year.”
After that trial by fire, Schnacke was hired by the Clippers. The team, having relocated from Charleston, W.Va., was gearing up for its inaugural 1977 campaign following six seasons in which Minor League Baseball was absent from Columbus. The Clippers played at Cooper Stadium, which opened in 1932, and called it home for the next 31 years.
“Cooper Stadium was classic,” said Schnacke. "It was the first Minor League park with roof suites. We had Astroturf, we were kind of mimicking the multipurpose Major League facilities at that time in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and St. Louis. We had minor league football there, and we had the first version of Major League Soccer there. ... I was just trying to keep that place going."
The Clippers were a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate in 1977-78, followed by a 30-year run with the New York Yankees. Schnacke’s Cooper Stadium memories from this time include Dale Berra collecting the winning hit during the Clippers’ first-ever home game, an appearance by the Famous Chicken that set attendance records, and inevitably, the team’s many Governors’ Cup championships. The Clippers won seven International League titles between 1979 and 1996, all during their affiliation with the Yankees.
“When we left [Cooper Stadium] after ’08, it was 75 years old. I never thought in my tenure or lifetime there would be a different ballpark, I just kept trying to improve it, trying to make it the Wrigley Field of Triple-A baseball,” said Schnacke. “And then this movement started with facilities in Columbus. … Suddenly, at the old place, we couldn’t keep up with the Joneses. So we had the opportunity to buy this parcel of land and move the Clippers about two miles as the crow flies. It kind of reinvented us. It was the best of both worlds.”
That “parcel of land” became Huntington Park, which opened in 2009 in what is now known as Columbus’s Arena District. The site, which Schnacke described as “kind of a junk pile,” had previously been utilized as an overflow lot and storage area for the Ohio State Penitentiary. Throughout the ballpark’s planning and construction process, he provided plenty of input.
“I kept talking about the magical ballparks that still existed,” said Schnacke, pointing out that elements of Huntington Park were inspired by Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Camden Yards and Oracle Park. “Opening Day  was very special. We had a big parade, we had Bob Feller and some key Cleveland [baseball] people down here. We’ve had some magical nights.”
On occasion, Schnacke finds himself wondering where his career might have taken him had he not stayed in Columbus all these years. When it comes down to it, however, there’s no other path he would have preferred to travel.
“I lost my wife [Sandy] to cancer five years ago, but we raised three kids and she didn’t want to be moving all the time. We decided that, you know, we needed a stable family life,” he said. “So from that standpoint, we never got caught up in the trap of, ‘The grass is always greener on the other side.’
“I’ve never really had any regrets,” he concluded. “This has been a wonderful life.”