HAGERSTOWN — The owners of the new team in Hagerstown aren’t baseball people. But they are Hagerstown people, and history has shown local ownership can lead to sustained success for a minor league ballclub.
Howard “Blackie” Bowen, James “Jim” Holzapfel and Don Bowman — the three primary investors in the team — didn’t jump at the idea of owning a baseball team. They did, however, adore the idea of improving Hagerstown and revitalizing the downtown area through a ballpark.
The group’s long history in Hagerstown, substantial wealth and political connections propelled them to bring baseball back to Hagerstown.
The owners scaled one mountain in securing a stadium and a team in Hagerstown, but another challenge awaits: keeping the minor league team in a small city that breathes baseball.
“The Bowen family, the Holzapfel family, the Bowman family are sort of deeply rooted here. And I think, because of that, our families are committed to making sure baseball does not leave Hagerstown,” Holzapfel said.
The average life expectancy of a team in the Atlantic League — the league the Hagerstown team is joining — since its inception in 1998 is less than 10 years. Just four of the 10 teams currently in the league have been active for more than a decade. The longest-tenured teams have one thing in common: local owners who care about the community.
The York Revolution, founded in 2007, are one of the teams still thriving thanks to a committed local ownership group. In the spring of 2022, the ownership group expanded, adding 12 new investors who have connections to the York community.
“A business like the Revolution depends on its connection to the community,” majority owner Bill Shipley told the York Dispatch at the time.
Bowen has pledged to take a similar approach. He has formed a team of longtime residents, but he says he, along with the other owners, have agreed to part with some of the ownership in the future.
“We plan to sell some of our shares to locals,” Bowen said. “We want this to always be here in Hagerstown.”
But local ownership isn’t always enough. The investment of the ownership group, quality of the ballpark, fan support and safety of the community all play roles in determining success. Camden, New Jersey, was a city that failed to generate enough support for the Camden Riversharks and shut their doors in 2015 after 14 years. Initially, over 4,000 fans filled the stands every home game at Campbell’s Field in Camden. But that number dwindled as the years went on in large part due to safety concerns in the surrounding area.
Chuck Domino, the president of Domino Management and Consulting LLC, a minor league consulting firm that has assisted with Atlantic League teams, said Camden had a beautiful facility but that wasn’t enough.
“People just were afraid to go there,” Domino said. “It was such a dangerous neighborhood that the stadium couldn’t overcome the neighborhood they were in.”
Although there are concerns about homelessness and crime in downtown Hagerstown, it is not comparable to the substantial crime rate in Camden, which led to a decline in attendance.
In 2015, the year the Riversharks shut down, Camden County reported 1,520 violent crimes. In 2015, Hagerstown reported 240 violent crimes. The median household income for Camden in 2021 was $30,247. It was $42,965 in Hagerstown.
“There are two things at the top of the list as to why teams are successful,” Domino said. “One is the facility; two is the management of the team. You can overcome a bad facility or a mediocre facility with great management, but a mediocre facility cannot overcome bad management.”
The brand-new $70 million facility and the surrounding neighborhood are one step to the revival of baseball in Hagerstown. The ownership group is composed of proven businesspeople. For the town’s sake, hopefully that means great management, too.
Hagerstown has an expansive baseball history, but Bowen isn’t familiar with it. He is, however, familiar with the town in the western part of Maryland.
“I have loved Hagerstown,” Bowen said. “It’s got its challenges, as all places do, but I have really enjoyed it.”
The four owners’ paths have crossed for decades both in and out of Hagerstown. In the latter stages of their lives, all four are coming together to embark on a different journey.
Bowen, 72, moved to Hagerstown at 7 years old when his dad was transferred for work. He has made a life there since, leaving for Philadelphia for only a few years to attend Villanova University. Bowen met his wife of 50 years at St. Maria Goretti Catholic High School in Hagerstown. Bowen is the chairman and CEO of Ewing Oil, a petroleum distributor that serves various mid-Atlantic states.
Holzapfel is the managing director of the Holzapfel Group at Morgan Stanley, a financial advisory group. He, too, has lived just about his entire life in Hagerstown. Bowen and Holzapfel met as teenagers in Hagerstown. When Bowen was still a student at Villanova, Holzapfel, a University of Maryland graduate, was starting his first job in Philadelphia and needed a place to live. He called Bowen, who happened to have an extra room.
For the next of couple years, the two young adults from Hagerstown lived together on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Just a few years later, in the mid-1970s, both moved back to Hagerstown. As the two remained close friends and grew their businesses, they met another local luminary. Bowman was a well-known successful businessman in town who had a trucking company and was considered a mainstay in the community. The three became friends as their businesses grew.
“The friendship and, you know, collegiality is deep rooted,” Holzapfel said.
Bowen was named Person of the Year in 2018 by the Herald-Mail, the newspaper in Hagerstown, for making a “positive contribution to the community.” Bowman was awarded the honor the year prior.
Bowman’s philanthropic efforts are present in various aspects of the downtown community, including the $40 million project to renovate and expand the Maryland Theatre that both Bowman and Bowen were involved in. Bowman was the largest donor with his gift of at least $1 million.
“Don and the Bowman family have already done so much for downtown, and all of it is successful,” Jessica Green, the executive director of The Maryland Theatre, said.
“Nobody has done more for downtown Hagerstown than Don Bowman,” Holzapfel said. “He’s made a tremendous investment in trying to revitalize the town.”
To the owners, revitalizing the downtown area means more foot traffic and activities where people are eager to check out the area, which will push away some of the homelessness and crime.
The rebuilding of The Maryland Theatre was the first snowflake to fall.
“I think that that group of business leaders, obviously highly respected in the community, are really looking at the stadium as the next phase of the snowball. The snowball is getting larger,” Green said.
“Blackie handpicked Don Bowman and Jim Holzapfel to be partners in this endeavor because of their passion for the community,” Frank Boulton, the fourth partner who has no ties to Hagerstown but brings experience as the founder of the Atlantic League, said.
Boulton and Bowen met as freshmen at Villanova in 1969 and have been best friends ever since. The two came together despite different personalities – and priorities.
Boulton took a keen interest in sports, while Bowen was more studious. That didn’t stop the two from clicking and becoming lifelong friends.
“I’d be watching a basketball game, and he’d tell me we have a finance test tomorrow,” Boulton said.
“We do?” Boulton recalled responding.
“I think he helped me become a better student,” Boulton said.
Boulton came on as a minority owner to assist with baseball operations, given his baseball acumen and the other three owners’ inexperience in the sport. Boulton tried to convince the other owners to put the ballpark off a highway where there was already a large chunk of land.
It would be easier, cheaper and more convenient. Bowen acknowledged that, but that wasn’t the point.
“That doesn’t do anything for the city of Hagerstown,” Bowen said. “We want to go through the hardships necessary to make it go downtown and start to stimulate traffic and foot traffic and have all kinds of positive things.”
Hagerstown hasn’t had a baseball team since 2020, when many minor league teams were cut as the pandemic hit. Even before that, the Hagerstown Suns were struggling to gain traction playing in a worn-down ballpark.
“We realized that we would probably never have professional baseball back in Hagerstown if we didn’t get a new stadium,” Holzapfel said.
Bowen made requests to his friends in government. He called Maryland state Sen. Paul Corderman and then Gov. Larry Hogan, both of whom he served on prior committees with. Both were onboard, but securing the funding through the legislature was, according to Bowen, a long shot.
First, Bowen needed to make sure his team would have a league to play in.
Bowen called Boulton, who founded the Atlantic League in 1998 and is the primary owner of the Long Island Ducks, and asked him a simple question.
“Frank, I need a baseball team,” Bowen told him. “What do I have to do?”
“Well, you’ve got to pay $3 million to join the Atlantic League,” Boulton responded.
“What else do I need to do,” Bowen said.
“Nothing,” Boulton quipped. “You were the best man at my wedding, I’m not gonna give you a baseball team when you want one?”
Eventually, Bowen leveraged his connections with Hogan, Corderman and Thomas Kelso, who was appointed by Hogan as chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, into receiving approval for the funds to build a stadium in downtown Hagerstown.
There’s the saying that everyone knows everyone in a small town. But in Hagerstown everyone knows Bowen. As a lifer, Bowen’s imprint on the community is almost as big as the land that was bought to build the ballpark. Bowen is involved in various organizations and charities in the community, and he is constantly interacting with business owners and residents. He hopes, and expects, that will help draw crowds to the stadium.
Dieter Blosel, who owns a popular German restaurant called Schmankerl Stube in downtown Hagerstown, recalls Bowen treating everyone with respect and carrying a genuine curiosity for people’s roles in the community.
“He sees people how they are,” Blosel says. “If he sees that you are a person who tried to do something for the community and to just be a hardworking and honest person, I think that is all what Blackie wants.”
Bowen is a major contributor to the Maryland Theatre and the Arc of Washington County, a center that serves people with developmental disabilities. Bowen shows up to events and even offers suggestions to the people in charge.
He also contributes to his alma mater, St. Maria Goretti Catholic High School, a high school his granddaughter attends.
“He’s unassuming and anybody can talk to him,” Joseph Padasak, the president of St. Maria Goretti, said of Bowen. “He’s a common man that enjoys being local and doing what he can to help people, and he not only says it, he means it and he does it.”
The ballpark is expected to open in April or May 2024, but for Bowen, Holzapfel and Bowman, the games have begun. The ownership group rarely strikes out in its endeavors, but time will tell whether this club is a success.
This story was produced by students at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and distributed by Capital News Service, a nonprofit, student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.