The most frequently taken final step for a player en route to the majors is through Triple A. The long histories of the Pacific Coast League, the International League, and the late American Association are filled with players of all ranks - superstars, stars, regulars, role players, and overnight visitors - on their way to Broadway.
The same too can be said of teams and cities. During the past fifty years, the number of major league teams has grown from sixteen to thirty, and most of the newcomers advanced immediately from AAA to the majors. A few (Toronto and Montreal) were dormant for a few years and others (Florida, Texas, and Tampa Bay) rose from lower rungs on the minor league ladder. But the rest of the newcomers were Triple A lame ducks for one season, playing before empty houses while the locals saved their dollars for a new season with a new team in a new stadium.
Most of these franchises ended on a winning note, while others were represented by a collection of bargain-price minor league veterans signed on to finish out the season. However their end came, here is a chronological listing of some of minor league baseball's most forgotten, yet unforgettable, teams.
Milwaukee Brewers, 1952.
Although the Braves did not move their franchise until spring training of 1953, the groundwork for their great teams of the 1950's was being developed much sooner. The 1952 Brewers won the American Association pennant by 12 games and were led by prospects Bill Bruton, Johnny Logan, Gene Conley, Wally Post and George Crowe. Local hero Charlie Grimm managed the team until May when he was summoned to Boston to replace Braves' fired skipper Tommy Holmes. Grimm would return the following year as the first manager of the Milwaukee Braves. Despite success on the field, the Brewers' attendance dropped nearly 50,000 from the previous season.
Baltimore Orioles, 1953.
This aging collection of former Whiz Kids huffed and puffed their way into fourth place and stole a collective 36 bases. No one noticed, however, as the repackaged Brownies of 1954 would steal six fewer while losing 102 games.
Kansas City Blues, 1954.
Only 141,905 came to watch the 7th place Blues. Even the likes of Marv Throneberry, Rip Coleman, Gus Triandos, and Woodie Held played to empty seats. Somehow, A's owner Arnold Johnson thought many of them would do better as major leaguers, and his disastrous trades assured the Yankees of more pennants and the A's of more losing seasons as the 1950's wore on.
Los Angeles Angels, 1957.
After Walter O'Malley traded Fort Worth to Phil Wrigley for Los Angeles, it was only a matter of time before the Angels would be a PCL memory. Steve Bilko enjoyed one more season of glory, but a surrounding cast led by Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, and Larry Sherry was not enough to lift them above seventh place.
Hollywood Stars, 1957.
As the Dodger train headed West, it also toppled the Stars, who found a new home in Salt Lake City. Clyde King closed their final chapter by leading a veteran crew of Pirate hands to third place in the PCL.
San Francisco Seals, 1957.
The Parent Boston Red Sox made sure that the Seals had enough talent to make their last season a winning one as they outlasted Vancouver down the stretch. Joe Gordon's troops included batting champion Ken Aspromonte, future Red Sox Pumpsie Green and Haywood Sullivan, and pitching leader Leo Kiely. The fans responded with an increase of 100,000 over 1956.
Minneapolis Millers, 1960.
The Red Sox moved their affiliate to Minneapolis in 1958, but their success did not match that of the 1957 Seals. As Calvin Griffith prepared to move the Senators to Minnesota, the Millers played out the string before only 115,702 fans. Not even the presence of Carl Yastrzemski and Dick Radatz could fill Metropolitan Stadium.
St. Paul Saints, 1960.
The last year of the Twin Cities' baseball rivalry went down to the wire, with the Saints beating out the Millers by one game for the fourth and final playoff spot and by 4,224 fans in the attendance race. Old folks Willy Miranda, Don Bessent, Jackie Collum, and even older folk Art Fowler creaked their way through one final season before turning out the lights.
Houston Buffs, 1961.
After 51 consecutive years in the Texas League, Houston joined the American Association for three seasons before major league expansion called. The Buffs finished fourth and were famous only for participating in the parent Chicago Cubs' rotating college of coaches. Grady Hatton, Fred Martin, Lou Klein, and Harry Craft all took turns watching Cot Deal's Indianapolis Indians run away with the flag.
Atlanta Crackers, 1965.
Another Triple-A newcomer, the Crackers, ended their fourth and final season in the IL in second place behind Columbus. The doomed Milwaukee Braves supplied the players in preparation for their 1966 arrival, and future Braves Dick Kelley, Sandy Alomar, and Tommie Aaron introduced the city to its future.
San Diego Padres, 1968.
Thirty-two years of PCL baseball came to an end as the Padres changed players and leagues. The Phillies' affiliate finished in second place in the East, although attendance was down almost 50,000 from the previous season. Major league stars met each other going in opposite directions on this team as the youthful Larry Hisle prepared for a trip to the Phillies and veteran first baseman Jim Gentile closed out his career.
Seattle Angels, 1968.
As the short-lived Seattle Pilots prepared for expansion, the Angels finished in mediocre style before 130,862 fans. The main topic in the bullpen may well have been World Series rings as its occupants included Jim Bouton, Bill Stafford, Larry Sherry, Rollie Sheldon, Jim Coates, and Jim O'Toole.
Denver Zephyrs, 1992.
A lengthy minor league history in five different leagues came to an end as the Zephyrs finished 1992 in second place in their division. Anticipation for a major league franchise must have run high as attendance dropped over 200,000 from 1991. Tony Muser's charges included MVP third baseman Jim Tatum and future Brewer Cal Eldred.
Phoenix Firebirds, 1997.
The 1997 Firebirds represented the last Phoenix team in minor league baseball. After fielding teams in six different minor leagues, the city went out a winner, with a league-leading 88-55 record. Desi Wilson and Dan Carlson led the team to a second-place finish in the first half and a dominating 49-22 record during the second half. 209,678 fans watched as they were about to go from a Giants affiliate to a rival. (Several errors in the original version of this account were corrected by John Duncan, a fan of Phoenix baseball and Baseball Almanac.)
Lame ducks are known more for their failures than their accomplishments. These teams were more successful on the field than in the stands, as their won-lost record was better during their last season than the previous one. However, attendance dropped by 8% for the same time period. The fact that average attendance per game grew from 2,377 for the final minor league season to 22,560 for the initial major league season makes those figures meaningless.
Each AAA city that joined the majors caused a Double-A city to move up a notch, and a lower one in turn. The lowest leagues, left with only their weakest members, faced economic reality and folded. Fans turned to television, players called it quits, and fields were torn down to make room for a McDonalds or Wal-Mart. For every Milwaukee that made the show, a Ponca City closed its gates. For every Knoop that mounted the expansion bandwagon, a Smith boarded a homeward bus. For every hoped for World Series pennant, a footnote for history.