Dan Burke, the man who brought the Sea Dogs to Portland, died Wednesday from complications of Type 1 diabetes, his family said. He was 82.

Burke owned the popular minor league baseball team from its inception in 1994 and was the team’s first chairman.

Last year, he passed on the chairmanship to his son Bill Burke, a Cape Elizabeth resident. Burke’s daughter, Sally McNamara, became the organization’s treasurer.

Burke, an executive with Capital Cities Broadcasting for 33 years, was promoted to CEO in 1985 when the company bought ABC. He retired in February 1994, a month before his Sea Dogs began their first spring training in Florida.

“I just want to fade into the crowd and enjoy the game,” Burke said that spring. “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

Burke, a resident of Rye, N.Y., spent summers at Kennebunk Beach for more than 50 years. When he bought the Eastern League team for Portland, he did not run the organization. He gave that task to Charlie Eshbach, once the league’s commissioner, who took over as the Sea Dogs’ president and general manager.


“I was impressed with him,” said Eshbach, who still is the team’s president. “It didn’t take much research to find out what he had done; but even though he was this powerful executive, he was also a big baseball fan. You could talk to him. He was a normal person.”

The Sea Dogs franchise had success before a pitch was thrown. Its catchy logo, showing a menacing seal holding a bat in its mouth, became a hit. Sea Dogs merchandise was one of the leading sellers among minor league teams, even before the team began playing games.

On opening day, April 18, 1994, Burke’s entertainment ties were evident. Kathie Lee Gifford, then co-host of the “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” television show, and her husband, sportscaster Frank Gifford, took part in a pre-game parade. Kathie Lee Gifford sang the national anthem and ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel emceed the pre-game festivities.

A sellout crowd of 6,274 fans at a reconstructed Hadlock Field watched the Sea Dogs lose 7-6; but those fans returned, and the Sea Dogs led the Eastern League in attendance.

Later in the season, a Barbara Day promotion featured appearances by Barbara Walters and former first lady Barbara Bush.

George and Barbara Bush, summer residents in Kennebunkport, were friends of the Burke family and were annual visitors to Hadlock Field.


The late ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings also watched games at Hadlock, and he even took part in a Sea Dogs batting practice, in a Portland uniform.

In 1995, Burke received national attention when ABC sportscaster Al Michaels suggested before the World Series that Burke should be named commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Michaels called Burke someone “who’s smart, who knows the law, who’s a tremendous businessman, who loves baseball, who’s moral. … He is the man baseball needs.”

In fact, Burke’s name had surfaced as a candidate for commissioner during his days as CEO of Capital Cities/ABC.

Once he retired, Burke said, he could not imagine taking the commissioner’s job.

“It’s very flattering,” Burke said of Michaels’ comments. “It’s nice of Al to say those things, but no one’s approached me about it in quite a while.”


As owner of the Sea Dogs, Burke watched his franchise become wildly successful.

As crowds grew, Burke kept expanding Hadlock. Low ticket prices, clever promotions and the Slugger the Sea Dog mascot continued to draw fans.

One tradition at the games was the Burkes — Dan and his wife, Bunny — leaving their seats next to the Sea Dogs dugout during the game and walking up to the owners’ sky box. On the way, they shook hands and greeted well-wishers.

The Burkes supported the players, including holding an annual lobster bake at the Burkes’ home in Kennebunkport. George and Barbara Bush often attended.

Once, a story leaked out that the fiancee of a player, John Roskos, had lost her engagement ring. Quietly, the couple received a new ring — a gift from the Burkes.

On the field, the Sea Dogs, an affiliate of the expansion Florida Marlins, reached the playoffs occasionally but never won the league championship.


When Marlins owner John Henry sold that team so he could buy the Boston Red Sox in 2002, the Sea Dogs franchise soon made a dramatic change.

On May 23, 2002, Burke welcomed Henry and Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner to Hadlock Field for a game on a sunny afternoon. At the time, the Red Sox’s Class AA team was in Trenton, N.J.

The lure of putting Boston’s minor league team in New England, and Henry’s familiarity with Burke and the Sea Dogs, had an inevitable conclusion: On Sept. 18, 2002, the Sea Dogs ended their nine-year union with the Marlins and announced a new affiliation with the Red Sox.

Burke made more changes at Hadlock Field, financing construction of a 37-foot-tall left field wall, replicating Fenway Park’s “Green Monster.” It was dubbed the “Maine Monster.”

Attendance continued to climb, as Sea Dogs and Red Sox fans filed into Hadlock. The New England Sports Network televised at least one game each season.

Portland’s relationship with the Red Sox appeared threatened when an Eastern League team moved to Manchester, N.H., in 2003. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats were owned by Drew Weber, who also owns the Lowell Spinners, a lower-level minor league affiliate of the Red Sox. Hope was expressed in the New Hampshire media that Weber might attract the Red Sox’s Eastern League team from Portland to Manchester.


In response to the Sea Dogs’ concerns, the Red Sox, in 2004, extended their agreement with Portland for four more years. They have continued to extend the contract, with the current agreement running through 2014.

“There is no place else we would rather be, or we could imagine being,” said Theo Epstein, Boston’s general manager at the time.

Ben Cherington, who was named on Wednesday to replace Epstein, was the team’s director of player personnel in 2004, working closely with the minor league teams. He said Burke was the ideal owner because he understood both Portland’s and Boston’s needs.

“It’s about player development, and he gets it,” Cherington said.

When Weber sold the New Hampshire team to Arthur Solomon in 2005, the new owner made public statements about trying to woo the Red Sox as an affiliate. Cherington quickly quashed that idea.

“We are very happy with our relationship with the Sea Dogs,” Cherington announced at the time. “They have extraordinary leadership in Dan Burke and Charlie Eshbach, and we have no interest in being anywhere else.”


The Sea Dogs won their first Eastern League championship in 2006, but the year was a difficult one for Burke. He injured both of his shoulders and broke a hip in a series of falls before the season. For the first time, he missed the season opener in Portland.

When Burke did make it to Hadlock, he rarely sat by the dugout, instead staying in the sky box. He initially needed a walker but eventually switched to a cane.

In recent years, Burke became less visible. He used a wheelchair. The owners’ seats were usually occupied by Bunny and her children and grandchildren — until Bunny made the walk up to the box during the game.

Burke still enjoyed watching the games, however, and still enjoyed the baseball.

Back in 1996, he talked about his baseball team, and how it instantly became an attraction in Portland.

“I’m sort of overwhelmed by the support so many people have given us,” Burke said. “Nobody in Portland knew me very well, but they took a chance; and I’ve always been hopeful I’ve performed up to their expectations.”

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