The Sunset League

It’s more than 650 miles from Reno, Nev., to Tijuana, Mexico. And in the late 1940s, very few of those miles were improved with freeway; it was two-lane blistering-hot desert blacktop from small town stoplight to small town stoplight.

Reno and Tijuana were just two of the towns in the Sunset League. Crowded rattletrap minor league buses rumbled along the dusty highways of this region through the summers of 1947-1950, with air-conditioning nothing but a wish, with such tedium-softening luxuries as cell phones and ipods unimagined. At one time or another in its four years of operation, the Sunset League incorporated 12 destinations: along with Reno and Tijuana were Mexicali, Mexico, Las Vegas, Nev., and Yuma, Ariz., and the California towns of Anaheim, El Centro, Ontario, Porterville, Riverside, Salinas and San Bernardino.

One might say it was a league right out of a Lowell George lyric: show me a sign.

The Sunset League was one of nearly two dozen that sprouted across the country in the suddenly hyper-fertile minor league environment immediately following World War II. And like nearly all of its cohorts, and like many more venerable leagues, the Sunset League would rapidly wither in the equally sudden demise of minor leagues that took place over the 1950s.

Class C

There were 52 official minor leagues in 1947, the first Sunset League year. Then as now, minor leagues were organized by the National Association into hierarchical categories on the basis of the average population of their cities and the seating capacity of their ballparks. The Sunset League was pretty low in the pecking order, but not the lowest: It was Class C, the fifth among the six levels.

A whole lot has changed in the ensuing decades, of course. Anaheim would become the home of a major league franchise less than 20 years later, but in those pre-Disneyland, pre-full-scale L.A. sprawl days, Anaheim was still a sleepy little hamlet (its population in 1950 was 17,000) amid thousands of acres of orange groves (that’s why it’s called Orange County, after all). Their Sunset League entry was called The Valencias—as in the orange variety—and the Anaheim team would survive fewer than two seasons, transferring to San Bernardino in mid-1948.

Nor was Las Vegas yet anything resembling what it would soon become. Gambling had been legalized in Nevada in 1931, and casinos were thriving in Las Vegas. But “The Strip” was still a two-lane highway connecting the small downtown with the small airport out in the desert. The ball club dubbed itself The Wranglers, referencing the town’s rootin’-tootin’ old-west image that still prevailed; after all the population of Las Vegas in the 1950 census was just 24,000.

Indeed neither Anaheim nor Las Vegas was close to the biggest town in the Sunset League. Here’s the 1950 population of each:
{exp:list_maker}Tijuana, 65,000
Reno, 50,000
Riverside, 30,000
San Bernardino, 30,000
Yuma, 28,000
Salinas, 25,000
Las Vegas, 24,000
Anaheim, 17,000
Ontario, 15,000
Mexicali, 10,000
El Centro, 5,000
Porterville, 5,000 {/exp:list_maker}That’s right: the league’s population anchors were Tijuana and Reno.

South and north of the border

The Sunset League’s international character wasn’t unique. Other minor leagues operating in the Southwest in that era also placed entries in Mexico as well as the U.S. The Arizona-Texas League had a team in Juarez in 1947-50, and the Arizona-Mexico League which would operate through most of the 1950s included teams in Juarez, Cananea, Chihuahua, Mexicali and Nogales.

Indeed, when the Sunset League ceased operation following the 1950 season, it merged with the Arizona-Texas League, and the combined entity would be called the Southwest International League. This arrangement, which lasted only for 1951 and 1952, included Juarez, Mexicali and Tijuana along with towns in Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

The Sunset League’s short lifespan was, of course, a function of meager attendance. Launched amid the ebullient optimism of the burgeoning post-war economy, the league would never fulfill its economic promise. League-wide attendance in 1947 was just 475 per game; even by Class C standards, that wasn’t good. It would improve somewhat over the next couple of years, but at its 1949 peak the Sunset League sold only 755 tickets per game. When the rate declined the following season, it was obvious that the venture couldn’t survive.

This was particularly true given that the Sunset League was receiving precious little subsidy from major league organizations. In 1947, three of the league’s six ball clubs were farm system affiliates: The Las Vegas Wranglers (a farm team for the Braves), the Reno Silver Sox (the Giants) and the Riverside Dons (the Pirates). But in 1948 only the Silver Sox-Giants arrangement would remain, and in 1949, with the Sunset League expanding to eight teams, just two were farm clubs (Reno was again affiliated with the Giants, and the St. Louis Browns supported the Salinas Colts, though the team couldn’t make it in Salinas and relocated to Tijuana in August).

For 1950, the Reno ball club would pull out of the Sunset League, opting instead to play in the Far West League. That season all eight Sunset League teams would be independent, and only the Mexicali Eagles were able to draw as many as 1,000 fans per game, with every other entry attracting fewer than 500.

It was sunset, indeed.

The action

Those hardy spectators enduring the mid-summer desert sun were few, but the entertainment they were offered was anything but dull. Like all the rest of the Southwestern leagues in that era, the Sunset League was a hitter’s paradise and a pitcher’s nightmare, as the combined effects of altitude, heat and hard-baked fields made run prevention an extraordinarily difficult challenge.

The lowest-scoring Sunset League season was 1950, when the league produced 6.37 runs per team per game. To put that in context, that rate of scoring over a 162-game season would yield 1,032 runs. Since the 162-game schedule was introduced in 1961, no single major league team, not even the Colorado Rockies, has ever scored that many runs in a season.

In the Sunset League’s highest-scoring year, 1948, its teams scored 7.61 runs per game, a rate that would deliver 1,233 runs over 162 games. The highest-scoring team in the Sunset League was the 1947 Las Vegas Wranglers, who delivered 1,261 runs in 140 games, or 9.01 per game. Alas, that Las Vegas club allowed 1,235 runs (8.82 per game), also the Sunset League pinnacle, and its won-lost record was 73-67, good for third place.

Those 1947 Wranglers walloped 271 homers, establishing the all-time professional baseball record for team home runs that stands to this day. Check out this attack:

Player            Pos        G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   SB   BA  OBP  SLG
Ken Myers         1B-C     135  459  118  139   13    2   33  121  136   54    3 .303 .462 .556
Paul Godfrey       2B      118  509   93  163   26    7   14  103   32   65    5 .320 .360 .481
Olin Kelly      SS-OF-3B   126  508  153  170   33    2   33   99   93  114   17 .335 .438 .602
Sy Gregory      3B-1B-P    102  366   83  120   28    0   17   75   51   50    1 .328 .410 .544
Paul Zaby          OF      133  531  158  213   47    7   18  132  104   78   22 .401 .499 .618
Cal Felix          OF      140  610  173  236   35    8   52  182   76  105   19 .387 .455 .726
Roy Godfrey     OF-3B-1B   134  571  111  183   28    4   32  123   26  118    5 .320 .350 .552
Dom Castro         C       129  539  101  191   34    1   28  121   25   69    5 .354 .383 .577

Gail Jackson     SS-3B      95  335  112  107   16    1   18   67   75   73    6 .319 .444 .534
Carl Fairly        SS       44  176   44   67   11    1   11   53   28   21    1 .381 .466 .642
Newt Kimball       P        55  119   27   43    8    1    5   33   15   18    2 .361 .433 .571
Rex Jones          P        35   88   22   22    2    0    4   12   14   23    1 .250 .350 .409
Joe Chuka          P        36   85   21   25    1    1    2    8   11   24    0 .299 .381 .400
Neal Montank       P        21   66   10   15    1    0    1    5    4   16    0 .227 .260 .288

Total                      140 5160 1261 1742  290   35  271 1166  728  892   85 .338 .419 .565

Ah, but their beleaguered pitching staff:

Pitcher           G    CG    IP     W     L     H    BB    SO   ERA
Newt Kimball     28    15   160    14     5   218    26   122  4.39
Neal Montank     21    13   159    11     8   215    51    96  4.47
Joe Chuka        26    12   158    11     8   211    72   130  6.15
Rex Jones        26    10   142     7     9   206    83   112  7.04
Sy Gregory       19     2    85     6     3   136    38    60  8.58
Ray Will         13     4    78     4     3    91    36    50  4.96
George Byrd      11     2    56     2     5    75    31    43  5.79

Newell “Newt” Kimball was a 32-year-old former major leaguer, and served as the Las Vegas player-manager in 1947. None of the rest of these guys ever made it to The Show.

This Wranglers’ stampede of home runs might suggest that the Sunset League overall was an easy place to go yard, but that wasn’t the case. Only one other team in the league in 1947 hit more than 112 homers, suggesting that the Las Vegas ballpark was the major culprit in producing their staggering home run total that year.

Here’s what also makes that clear: In 1948 the Wranglers’ home run output plunged from 271 to 53, fifth in the six-team league. Las Vegas in 1948 led the league in triples, with 139 in 140 games, after hitting just 35 (last in the league) in 1947. Thus it’s obvious that in 1948 the Wranglers moved from a bandbox to an extremely spacious ballyard, whether or not as a deliberate response to the 1947 home run fest.

Las Vegas probably wasn’t the only Sunset League team switching to a ballpark with far more distant outfield fences in 1948. The Reno team had hit 38 triples and 184 home runs in 1947, and in ’48 those totals became 90 and 60, respectively. Overall the league dramatically shifted its offensive profile from ’47 to ’48, while scoring even more frequently:

 Year   R/G    BA   OBP   SLG  3B/G  HR/G  BB/G  SO/G  SB/G   E/G
 1947  7.33  .302  .380  .460  0.34  1.03  4.54  5.63  0.64  2.35
 1948  7.61  .291  .390  .431  0.69  0.46  5.71  5.36  1.15  2.61
 1949  6.64  .278  .373  .396  0.58  0.47  5.22  5.47  0.90  2.33
 1950  6.37  .286  .371  .408  0.49  0.57  4.74  5.24  0.62  1.97

We see that the Sunset League suddenly transformed itself from a crazy-high-scoring power-hitting league into a crazy-high-scoring on-base-frenzy league, prompting a flurry of errors while running wild on those bases. In the next two years it moderated somewhat, but remained a rotten place to pitch.

Stars in the southwestern sky

In closing, why don’t we marvel at the most robust hitting performances presented in this fantastic hitters’ environment:

Year Player         Club     AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   SB   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS
1949 Pete Hughes    L.V.    408  156  143   31    9   24  126  210   71    6 .350 .569 .647 1.216
1947 Phil Alotta    Reno    505  107  195   35    4   43  149   89   69   10 .386 .481 .727 1.208
1950 Pete Hughes    E.C.    369  104  145   25    4   19  108  131   40    0 .393 .557 .637 1.194
1947 Tom Lloyd      Reno    485  126  193   44    1   35  157   77   44    3 .398 .483 .709 1.192
1947 Cal Felix      L.V.    610  173  236   35    8   52  182   76  105   19 .387 .454 .726 1.180
1948 Dick Wilson    Mex.    507  146  176   28   12   42  188  112   54   41 .347 .470 .698 1.168
1947 Paul Zaby      L.V.    531  158  213   47    7   18  132  104   78   22 .401 .495 .618 1.112
1949 Frosty Kennedy Riv.    472  123  194   19   17   11  123   62   55   19 .411 .484 .593 1.077
1948 Bobby Balcena  Mex.    385  106  142   24   13    8   81   66   21   16 .369 .456 .561 1.017
1948 Don Barclay    Reno    495  171  174   22   21    3  104  116   63   31 .352 .486 .499  .985

Only one of these guys ever made the majors, and his was only a sip of coffee at that: Bobby Balcena. Yet a few were among the most accomplished of long-time minor league stars (albeit in the bush league division): Forrest “Frosty” Kennedy, whose career batting average was .342, with 228 home runs; Dick Wilson, whose career marks were .322 and 285; and Gabriel “Pete” Hughes, at .350 with 284 homers, and 1,664 walks in 1,333 games. Hughes’ 1949 total of 210 walks was the all-time single-season professional baseball record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2004.

And how about the most successful (or at least the most remarkable) among the league’s corps of deeply suffering pitchers:

Year Pitcher          Club              G   CG   IP    W    L    H   BB   SO  ERA
1950 Manny Echeverria Mexicali         49   28  328   28   12  288   73  333 2.74
1949 Gene Roenspie    San Bernardino   37   24  266   20   11  263   99  188 3.38
1948 Al Corwin        Reno             40   26  280   26    9  260  156  251 3.54
1947 Bob Masters      Riverside        34   22  238   19   12  240  107  237 3.55
1950 Clarence Jaime   San Bernardino   40   26  289   20   13  320  123  215 4.24
1948 Bob Schulte      Riverside        40   19  251   19   13  230  237  276 4.88
1947 Clarence Jaime   Ontario          39   28  264   22   13  314  113  175 5.08
1949 Warren Kanagy    Riv.-S.B.        29   20  209   18    8  220  195  210 5.25

The only fellow here to see time in The Show was Elmer “Al” Corwin, who had a pretty decent little major league career. Warren Kanagy, by the way, hit .447 (42-for-94) in 1949, with 13 doubles and four homers, for a slugging average of .713.

But, of course, it wasn’t all good times for Sunset League pitchers. Let’s give this poor guy a pat on the back:

Year Pitcher     Club               G   CG   IP    W    L    H   BB   SO  ERA
1949 Bob Morris  Reno-E.C.-Riv.    30    4  121    0   12  163  113   85 8.55

He allowed 146 runs … that had to leave a mark.

References & Resources
Minor League Baseball Stars, compiled by The Society for American Baseball Research, 1978, pp. 60, 62.

Minor League Baseball Stars, Volume II, compiled by The Society for American Baseball Research, 1985, p. 127.

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