Geography 101, Triple-A style

The fact that the Pacific Coast League has its headquarters in Austin, Texas might invite a “What the… ?” response. Administering the PCL from central Texas? The Gulf Coast is less than 200 miles from Austin, while San Diego, the closest outpost on the Pacific Coast, is 1,155 miles away!

Granted, the Round Rock Express (Rangers Triple-A affiliate) of the PCL is a short drive from Austin, but it just doesn’t seem right. I’m not saying that League President Branch Rickey III should have an office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but shouldn’t he at least be somewhere in the Pacific Time Zone? Well, maybe not. In its current configuration, the PCL actually has more teams (7) in the Central Time Zone (where Austin is located) than in the Pacific (5).

The Pacific Coast League’s golden era is long past, but the very name still evokes mild weather, long seasons, and high-quality baseball. In a sense, the decline of the PCL can be blamed on Walter O’Malley. When he brought the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles (and convinced Horace Stoneham to relocate the Giants to San Francisco), the Pacific Coast League underwent a sea change.

Granted, the National League abandoning New York was headline news. The arrival of major league ball on the West Coast was also headline news. But the effect of these transfers on the Pacific Coast League was relegated to the back pages.

Of course, almost every time there is a franchise shift or expansion at the major league level, it involves dislodging a minor league team, often a Triple-A franchise. But in 1958, the damage was especially extensive. The Dodgers dislodged two teams (the Hollywood Stars and the Los Angeles Angels) while the Giants displaced the San Francisco Seals (but moved into their ballpark). So three of the eight PCL teams were dispossessed, and the two largest metro areas on the West Coast were now out of play.

So while the National League finally lived up to its name and went coast to coast (the American League followed suit in 1961 when they placed an expansion franchise in Los Angeles), the Pacific Coast League also began to stretch out. But the most fertile ground was not up and down the west coast but further east.

Actually, the first Pacific Coast League team to play outside the Pacific Time Zone was the Salt Lake Bees from 1915 to 1925. The Bees were formerly a Sacramento franchise that had not done well at the box office. Since Salt Lake City had previously been represented at the Class D Union Association (with a team nicknamed the Skyscrapers), shifting to the PCL was a considerable jump in class.

Salt Lake City, or course, was nowhere near the Pacific Ocean, but maybe they were worthy of honorary membership thanks to that super-sized, super-salinized lake from which the city derived its name. Unfortunately, Salt Lake City was a long way from the other teams in the league, much to the consternation of team owners, so after ten years the franchise moved back west and became the Los Angeles Angels. From that point through 1957, all the teams in the PCL were within the Pacific Time Zone.

In 1957, the eight teams in the Pacific Coast League were:

the Hollywood Stars
the Los Angeles Angels
the Portland Beavers
the Sacramento Solons
the San Diego Padres
the San Francisco Seals
the Seattle Rainiers
the Vancouver Mounties

As noted, the Stars, Angels, and Seals were evicted. But where did they go? Well, Spokane was one destination. It was a long way from the ocean, but at least it was at in the Pacific Time Zone. So adios, Los Angeles Angels, and welcome, Spokane Indians.

The other two PCL teams ventured east into the Mountain Time Zone. The San Francisco franchise moved to the desert, which meant the nickname Seals would have to go. As the Phoenix Giants, the franchise only lasted two years before moving to Tacoma. But the Giants returned to Phoenix in 1966, adopted the nickname Firebirds in 1986, and remained in the Valley of the Sun till the arrival of the NL Diamondbacks in 1998.

The third franchise (Hollywood) went to Salt Lake City. The return of PCL ball after more than three decades was surely cause for celebration. The most recent minor league ball had involved the Class C Pioneer League.

Likely no one realized it at the time, but these movements were the advance guard of eastward movement that would make the name Pacific Coast League a misnomer.

The most radical departure from geographical integrity was the 1964-1968 inclusion of the Indianapolis Indians, the only time the league had a team in the Eastern Time Zone.

The introduction of commercial jet travel had made it possible for MLB teams to move to California. In fact, given the quality of PCL ball (from 1952 to 1957, the league had an “open” classification, which meant it was between Triple-A and MLB), it’s possible that the league might have been recognized as a third major league, as many observers predicted it would be. If commercial jets had come along just a few years later, or if New York City had worked with Walter O’Malley to build the Dodgers a new ballpark, baseball history might have been very different.

Jet travel also expanded the geographical options for Triple-A teams. A case in point is the PCL’s franchise in Honolulu, home of the Hawaii Islanders (transplanted from Sacramento) from 1961 to 1987. For those five years when Indianapolis and Hawaii were both in the league, the Pacific Coast League spanned six time zones! Of course, Hawaii was surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, so it was a good fit with the league, even if it wasn’t on the west coast of North America.

Thus jet lag became an occupational hazard in the minor leagues. Still, I’m guessing that few players complained about road trips to Hawaii. Fans of baseball literature may recall that part of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four takes place in Hawaii, where he went on a road trip with Vancouver after being sent down by the Seattle Pilots. Eventually, the Hawaii franchise returned to the mainland (Colorado Springs), where they have been ever since.

Even though MLB had usurped the biggest cities on the West Coast (Oakland, San Diego and Seattle followed Los Angeles and San Francisco), the PCL was hardly endangered, as a number of smaller cities were brought into the fold. While some long-time minor league cities were moving up to major league status, other minor league cities were also moving up the ladder to a higher classification.

Starting in 1961, the expansion of major league baseball necessitated additional Triple-A franchises, so the PCL and the International League also underwent expansion. The American Association (not to be confused with the contemporary independent minor league of the same name) also held Triple-A status but was less dynamic than the PCL. The AA started in 1946 with eight teams and ended with eight teams in 1997. The only exception to the eight-team rule was in 1959 when the league had ten teams.

The American Association went away in 1997, but its teams did not—indeed, they could not, as the major league teams still needed Triple-A affiliates. So Buffalo, Indianapolis, and Louisville, all in the Eastern Time Zone, went to the International League, where all the existing teams were also on the same time clock.

The remaining American Association teams (Iowa, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Omaha) went to the PCL. Of course, this wasn’t the first time the PCL had ventured eastwards, but it was the first time they had a major presence in the Central Time Zone.

As for the International League, their name has also been inaccurate for large chunks of its existence. From the start, when the IL was classified as a Double-A league, Canadian teams were a constant presence. In the inaugural year of 1886, Hamilton and Toronto were among the eight teams in the league. (The Oswego Starchboxes and the Utica Pent Ups were also among the start-up teams—definitely subjects for future research.)

For decades to come, Canadian representation in the league was a constant with Toronto and Montreal being the most reliable franchises. Montreal’s last year in the league was 1960 with Toronto dropping out in 1967.

The high-water mark for the IL was 1954, when half of the eight teams in the league were out of the United States. With travel to Havana, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto (in addition to U.S. locales Buffalo, Richmond, Rochester, and Syracuse), the IL players were possibly logging more miles than their major league counterparts.

Little by little, however, the foreign franchises fell away. The Havana Sugar Kings soured on Cuba after the communist revolution (ironically, their major league affiliate was the Reds). So in mid-season 1960, they moved to Jersey City, initially as the Jersey City Reds, later as the Jersey City Jerseys.

One short-lived incidence of internationalism concerns the first five weeks of the 1961 season when the Miami Marlins moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. When the Cardinals decided to move their affiliate to Charleston, WV, the name Marlins, inappropriate as it was for the new locale, was retained.

Actually, since Puerto Rico is an American territory, I’m not sure that placing a team there qualifies as internationalism. I’ve pondered that every time the World Baseball Classic rolls around and the United States and Puerto Rico field separate teams. I would think the Puerto Rican players should be on the U .S. roster, but the WBC has never consulted me on that issue.

At any rate, the International League was strictly a USA affair after Toronto left the loop in 1967. Then in mid-season 1970, the Buffalo Bisons vacated upstate New York for Winnipeg, where they were known as the Whips, and internationalism returned… for a year and a half. In 1972, the Whips moved to Hampton, Virginia (next door to the IL Tidewater Tides in Norfolk) and that was it for internationalism till 1993 when the Ottawa Lynx joined the league. The Lynx lingered through 2007, and since then the league has been strictly intra-national.

In the International League, the loss of Montreal, Toronto, Baltimore, and Atlanta has forced the inclusion of smaller market areas. Today all 14 IL teams are contained within the Eastern Time Zone of the U.S., from as far north as upstate New York (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, as far west as Indianapolis, as far south as Gwinnett (suburban Atlanta). I wouldn’t say the International League is provincial, but the teams suffer no jet lag and never have to go through customs. The league is currently headquartered in Scranton, home of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

Of the 16 teams in the Pacific Coast League, only five are in the Pacific Time Zone. The Central Time Zone leads with seven teams, while the Mountain Time Zone has four. The two easternmost cities are in Tennessee (Memphis and Nashville), the only franchises east of the Mississippi River.

Pacific Coast and International may no longer be appropriate names for these leagues, but continuity and history count for something so the names live on. I don’t foresee West Coast teams again dominating the PCL, but I suppose it’s always possible another foreign team could return to the International League. The Canadian climate isn’t amenable to affiliated ball, other than short-season Single-A ball, but it’s always possible that when Castro dies, relations between Cuba and the U.S. might thaw, and IL baseball could return to Havana. Mexico is out of the question, as they already have their own Triple-A league.

So if there were truth in labeling, the PCL would now be the Pacific-Mountain-Central League and the IL would be the Eastern Time Zone League or something to that effect.

I guess the lesson is this: If you start up a minor league, be careful what you call it. In fact, now that I think of it, the Texas League is also inaccurate, as half of the eight teams are not in the Lone Star State.

I’m just glad Rand and McNally aren’t alive to witness these shenanigans.

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Comments

  1. Jim said...

    During 1961 through 1969 the American Association had only 6 teams and there was talk in 1961 about some if not all of the teams joining the PCL for 1962.  Not sure about talk in later years, I am just researching the 1961 Denver Bears.

  2. ChrisC said...

    Similar things happened with the ECHL. Formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League, teams know span the entire United States. They eventually renamed the league to “ECHL”, which doesn’t stand for anything. Maybe the PCL should adopt something similar. It wouldn’t get rid of confusion, but still…

  3. Paul G. said...

    The American Association should also not be confused with the major league that played from 1882 to 1891.  It was the origination point of four NL franchises that still play today!

    According to Wikipedia, the AAA American Association only had 6 teams from 1961-1962, after which they had 0 teams and were disbanded, only to be reformed in 1969 (thanks to expansion) with 6 teams, back up to 8 in 1970.  Also, the American Association started in 1902 (with 8 teams).  In 1946 the league had been playing with the same 8 teams, all still in the original city, for 45 years!  I think you mean 1946 was the year the AA became AAA, which is also the year the IL and PCL became AAA as the classification was created that season.

  4. Jim said...

    Oops.  I misread.  The American Association I grew up with lasted, as you say until 1962 and then the teams went elsewhere, probably the PCL.  The league came back in 1969 as triple A and went forward.

    Thanks for finding the error of my ways.

    Jim

  5. Paul G. said...

    Best I can tell, this is what happened to the six remaining AA teams after the 1962 season:

    Indianapolis: Charter member of the AA, goes to IL (1963), then for some reason the PCL (1964-1968), rejoins the reformed AA (1969-1997), and after the AA disbands again back to the IL (1998-present).

    Omaha: Folded.  Originally was the charter AA St. Paul team which moved for the 1961 season.

    Denver: PCL (1963-1968), back to reformed AA (1969-1997) including a move to New Orleans in 1993, back to the PCL (1998-present).  Charter AA team, originally in Kansas City, moved in 1955.

    Louisville: Folded.  Charter AA team.

    Oklahoma City: PCL (1963-1968), back to reformed AA (1969-1997), PCL (1998-present).  Originally the Houston expansion team (1959-1961).

    Dallas:  Goes to the PCL and stays there, though moving cities regularly: Vancouver (1965), Salt Lake City (1971), Calgary (1985), Albuquerque (2003, where they remain as the Isotopes).  This was the other expansion franchise in 1959, which merged with Fort Worth in 1960.  Forth Worth was the original Milwaukee team which had moved to Wichita in 1956 and to Fort Worth in 1959.

    So two teams folded, three went directly to the PCL, and Indianapolis spent a year in the IL before going to the PCL.  Of the four survivors, three would return to the reconstituted AA and stay there for the rest of its history.

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