Monday, April 15, 2013

A History of the Minor Leagues - Part 1

1969 Midland (Ont) Indians
OBA Champs

   Growing up as a baseball-obsessed lad in Midland, Ontario in the early 1970s, my exposure to live major league action was limited to a mid-week CBC telecast of the Montreal Expos, a weekend Game of the Week on NBC (featuring commentary by Tony Kubek, who was later to be a font of knowledge for me when he broadcast games for the Blue Jays from 1977-89, but was strangely less eloquent in his explanation of the game when he partnered with Joe Garagiola on the NBC games), boxscores and a brief  "Major League Roundup" article in the Toronto Star, and the occasional copy of the Sporting News that I purchased at Parker's Variety downtown.
  The only other games I could watch were either the ones I was playing in, or the Thursday night home games of the Midland Indians, a storied amateur team that played in the York-Simcoe League.  The Indians games were a highlight for me, and instilled a love for that game at the grassroots level that I still have today. Sadly, while my older brother played for the Indians for a few years, the club had folded by the time I would have been old enough to patrol centrefield for them.
   As the 70s progressed, major league baseball came to Toronto, and while we were still limited to one or two televised games per week until the mid 80s, it was a great time to be a young baseball fan.  With the birth of the Blue Jays came a renewed interest in baseball across Canada, and minor league franchises found their way to places like Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, and even low level minor league teams were based in smaller places like London, St Catharines, and Welland, Ont.  The struggling Canadian dollar made the cost of operating these teams cost ineffective for their major league parents, however, and soon all of those teams had moved south, except for a short season club in Vancouver, although independent league franchises have fared well in places like Winnipeg and Quebec City.
   When I bought those copies of the Sporting News with my hard-earned babysitting money in the 70s, I would spend countless hours poring over statistics from the minor leagues.  The minors and I grew apart in the 80s, but I discovered Baseball America in the 90s, and my love was renewed. Several books I had read over the years talked about life in the minors, at levels like Class B - in one of the best-written baseball books I've ever read, A False Spring, by Pat Jordan, the author details arriving in McCook, Nebraska, in 1959 to play for the local team in the Class D Nebraska State League. As I read stories like these, I began to wonder when the minor leagues had contracted into the four levels they're at now.  How did this process happen ?  Why and when did it happen ?  Which set me on the path to finding the answers to those very questions.
  In researching this topic, I found that the minor leagues have evolved and changed in numerous ways over the past 125 years.  I found that these changes can be grouped into:

The Early Years: 1871-1903
The Golden Years: 1904-29
Struggle for Survival: 1929-46
Rebirth and Renewal: 1946-62
Restructuring and Decline: 1962 -91
Back to Glory: 1991 - present

   This is not to be a definitive study of the history of minor league baseball.  Being employed full-time, and having a not-lightning speed internet connection will limit the scope of my work somewhat.  Just the same, I hope to convey how the minors came to be, and how they evolved from independent entities to fully-indentured servants of the major leagues in posts to come.
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