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February 12, 2008

Minor (League) Musings

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Fifty years after the cataclysm, it's baseball Spring Training time again.

Cataclysm? I'll get to that. But first ...

When I was a kid trying (and ultimately failing) to become a fan I got to watch the Angels and the San Diego Padres. No, not those Angels and Padres -- but the Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.

The Pacific Coast League (PCL) in my time was a near-major league, as the link above indicates. Its teams were the Seattle Rainiers (owned by the Rainier Brewery), Portland Beavers, San Francisco Seals, Oakland Acorns (who played in Emeryville), Sacramento Solons, Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres. Back in the Thirties Ted Williams (Padres) and the DiMaggio brothers (Seals) were PCL standouts.

Occasionally I'd be taken to a game. Otherwise I would listen to the radio broadcast. In Seattle, the announcer was a raspy-voiced gent named Leo Lassen who lived with his mother most of his life. We didn't know that detail at the time. Anyhow, Lassen had a distinctive style and his pet phrases, as most of the better-known announcers do. One of his was when there was a long-ball hit: "It's back, back, back ... and it's over!" -- over the fence. When the Rainiers were on the road, Lassen had to recreate a game from cryptic telegraph reports: no mean skill.

Major league baseball was concentrated in the northeastern corner of the country where much of the nation's population also was concentrated. It extended from Boston (Red Sox and Braves) in the east to St. Louis (Cardinals and Browns) in the west. One reason for this geographical concentration was that teams had to travel by passenger train. If I remember correctly, teams played seven-game series over five or usually six days and traveled on Mondays. By rail, a long day's travel could get one from Boston to St. Louis or Chicago; the West Coast would be a three-day haul from Boston -- hence, no West Coast major league baseball.

Besides Boston and St. Louis, cities with a team in each league were Chicago (White Sox and Cubs), Philadelphia (Phillies and Athletics) and New York (Yankees and Giants). New York also had the National League Brooklyn Dodgers who came into existence when Brooklyn was still an independent city and were never referred to as "New York Dodgers." One-team towns were Detroit (Tigers), Washington (Senators), Cleveland (Indians), Cincinnati (Reds) and Pittsburgh (Pirates).

Like the West Coast, other parts of the country had to make do with minor league teams.

This happy, traditional paradise was wrecked by the passenger airplane, which made coast-to-coast team travel practical. Propeller planes could cross the country a few hours faster than trains could get from Boston to St. Louis. Jets do it in six hours or so.

And the cataclysm? That was when the traitorous New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers fled to San Francisco and Los Angeles and the world went to Hell. For New York area fans, at any rate.

I can claim to have seen the Polo Grounds (where the Giants played) in the early Sixties sitting forlornly across the river from Yankee Stadium. I've also seen Ebbetts Field -- well, the small chunk of it on display at Cooperstown.

Still ... 50 years is hard to believe.



posted by Donald at February 12, 2008


When I was growing up in Connecticut, the city in which I lived (Waterbury) had a team in the AA Eastern League. Major league affiliations kept changing. It was enjoyable and affordable fun, especially on warm but not oppressive summer evenings. The players were young and unpolished, with few ever making it to the majors, but no one seemed to mind. The league's other teams came from a variety of cities, often changing from one season to the next: York, Elmira, Pawtucket (soon promoted to AAA), Sherbrooke, Nashua, Williamsport, Reading, and the best-named of all, Thetford Mines.

Posted by: Peter on February 12, 2008 2:45 PM

The Seals, the Beavers, and the Acorns - those are pretty great names for teams.

I love minor-league sports myself. It can be a thrill watching the majors -- knowing you're watching the best in the world. But what a pain it can be too. Mobs, hysteria, huge distances ... Why not just read about it the next day in the paper. With the minors ... Well, the games are often fun, and the whole scene is a lot more friendly. What are you (as in, me) into it for -- the hysteria and the spectacle, or to have a nice time? I always hated seeing popular music at the giant venues too. What was the point, unless just being there was a big thrill. Saw the Stones in '74 at Buffalo Stadium. Enjoyed my pals and spending the day away from home. But lordy, the Stones were 50 yards away, the size of my fingernails, and the sound was godawful. Give me a bar with a band I've never heard of instead. At least there's a vibe that's being shared among real-scale people.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 12, 2008 2:48 PM

Expansion from the original two league, sixteen team setup was inevitable. But could certain elements of the game that have deteriorated terribly been maintained? I think they could have.

Just one example: the schedule: the season traditionally began on April 16th, the first day of the second half of April, and ended on the last day of September, the 30th. This had such a rightness about it since Spring doesn't really arrive, confidently, in the northeast and midwest until the second half of April and summer lingers, sort of, till the end of September. There was a three day hiatus and then the World Series would begin on October 4th and run, at the outside, to the 12th. World Series games were always day games. So you had the Series played during the most glorious Indian Summer days of the year.

Now, the season starts on April 4th or even earlier, often at night, in what is still chill damp weather in much of the country. True, it ends on September 30th, but then the endless playoffs begin, again played mainly at night, well into late October. The World Series? November!! At night!!! Untenable conditions for the climactic games of the year.

The arguments that this is unavoidable due to the greater number of teams are IMO, bunk. There's no reason for every team to play every other other divisions. And there's no reason to play the playoffs and WS at night.

It's about greed, plain and simple. Greed has wrecked a beautiful thing.

Posted by: ricpic on February 12, 2008 5:56 PM

The PCL's names don't hold a candle to those of the Southern California Trolley League of 1910. The Long Beach Clothiers (!) got to play the Sand Dabs, Silk Sox and Walnut Growers, among others.

The "cataclysm", as well as the taxpayers-build-us-a-park-or-else-we'll-move-'cause-we're-too-poor scam eating away at pro sports, could have been prevented by borrowing the relegation-and-promotion system the Football Association had been using in England since the 1890s. The "weak sisters", i.e. Braves, Athletics and Browns, would have stayed in their cities, but in lower leagues, and improving clubs in growing cities would have replaced them in the majors over time. Of course, this system would have to be forced upon the owners, as they would never voluntarily risk relegation (and most of the worth of their club). But force is easily justified, as it's brought on by their own "ballpark blackmail bingo".

Speaking of sport-related air travel, and of soccer, this past week saw the 50th anniversary of the worst air disaster in major league sports, when Manchester United's plane crashed upon takeoff in Munich. The top North American leagues have been spared anything like that, thank God.

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on February 12, 2008 6:48 PM

The problem with disparaging night games is that fans actually want to see the games. Playing them at night makes that possible.

Posted by: pathobby on February 13, 2008 1:21 PM

I think that they could have included the West Coast teams without displacing any of the Eastern teams. The West has all second hand teams. LA Lakers (Minneapolis Lakers), Arizona Cardinals ( Chicago Cardinals then St. Louis Cardinals) etc..

Posted by: Robert on February 14, 2008 1:04 PM

The cataclysm...

People in Brooklyn still say that the three most evil men in the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin, and the owner (I don't know his name) who moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

Posted by: Kurt on February 14, 2008 10:41 PM

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