Thursday, May 9, 2013

The History of the Minor Leagues Part 5: Return to Glory

   The years 1946-63 have often been to referred to the Golden Years of minor league baseball.
America emerged from a decade and a half of war and depression ready to take on the world.  The manufacturing infrastructure developed during the War was turned to the production of consumer goods.  People suddenly had huge amounts of money and leisure time for the first time in years. Returning soldiers were ready to resume their chase of the baseball dream.
   By 1949, the minors had exploded to 59 leagues, containing a total of 448 teams.  That year, the minors set an attendance record of 39.6 million fans - a record that stood for over 50 years.
   With so many new leagues and teams, another reorganization of the classification system to ranks teams was required.  The highest level was re-classified as AAA (formerly AA).  The rest of the system went from AA and A down the alphabet as far as Class D.
   When I think of the minor leagues, this is the time period I think about.  Almost overnight, every small city and town seemed to have a team, as more and more major league teams bought into Branch Rickey's farm system concept.  Most major league teams had at least 10 farm teams spread out across the levels of minor league ball, with Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers leading the way with 21 affiliates.  For a glimpse of what this life was like, I highly recommend Pat Jordan's A False Spring, which details the author's life as a bonus baby in the days before the draft.  Jordan spent his first summer in 1959 with the Milwaukee Braves' farm team in  McCook, NB, a small  (pop. 7500) farming community in Nebraska, which played in the Class D Nebraska State League.  His observations of life in McCook are pure Americana.
   My favourite story from this time involves the KOM (Kansas-Oklahama-Missouri) League, a Class D loop which was formed in 1946 in six small towns across the three states.  The final regular season records for the teams were:
                          Team                              W     L     GBL      Affiliation
                    Chanute                               68     53      -           Topeka (KS) Owls
                    Miami                                  69     54     1.0         Brooklyn Dodgers
                    Iola                                      63     57     4.5         Chicago Cubs
                    Pittsburg                               61     59     6.0        St Louis Browns
                    Carthage                              54     66     13.5      St Louis Cardinals
                    Bartlesville                            47     73    20.5      Pittsburgh Pirates

   In the playoffs, Chanute topped Pittsburg 3 games to 2.  Iola defeated Miami in 5  games, as well.  And that's where things started to get interesting.  Chanute and Iola were tied at 3 games apiece in the best of seven final, when a roster dispute arose following the 7th game, won by Chanute.  Chanute was down a player, and arranged for the loan of a player from Miami (who had loaned players to Iola during the regular season), which, surprisingly, the Iola owner originally agreed to.  But he changed his mind after the game, and protested.  The league ruled the game null, and a replay was ordered - problem was, is that it was late in the season.  Several attempts at playing the game were halted by prolonged rainy weather.  Eventually, many of the players had to return to school, and the rodeo (this was the KOM League, after all), was scheduled to take over the Chanute ball park.  So a winner was never declared.
  In 1949, a young shortstop from just over the border in Commerce, Oklahoma, made his professional debut with the Yankees club in Independence.  The 18 year old struggled at first, and wanted to quit.  His father made the drive to Independence to tell him to stick with it, and stick with it he did, hitting .313 with 7 HR and 63 RBI.  That earned him a promotion to Class C, where he struggled with the glove (but not the bat), prompting a move to centrefield.  The following year, Mickey Mantle would be starting in that position for the big league club, en route to a Hall of Fame career.
   Although the KOM league lasted until  1953, attendance steadily declined, as it did across the minor leagues.  The main culprit was believed to be radio broadcasts of games, followed by televised games.  Why watch an inferior product, some claimed, when you could listen to (and later, watch) the real thing. The rise of television, in general, has also been blamed (for lower leagues south and west of St Louis, even radio blackouts couldn't help them, as pressure was placed on teams and owners in those leagues to allow fans to listen).  Or perhaps the phenomenal growth in the post-war years just wasn't sustainable.  Either way, attendance was in steep decline, and the Golden Age was coming to an end.
  By 1960, the minors had shrunk to just 20 leagues.  All teams by this point were dependent on their affiliation with their major league parents. The days of minor league teams and leagues competing as independent entities was over.
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