The California League was founded in 1941 by a combination of Major League and Pacific Coast League clubs. The charter members were the Anaheim Aces, Bakersfield Badgers, Fresno Cardinals, Merced Bears, Riverside Reds, San Bernardino Stars, Santa Barbara Saints and Stockton Fliers. Only six teams were able to complete the inaugural campaign as Riverside and San Bernardino ceased operations midway through the season. The league dropped to four teams the following year as the Bakersfield Badgers, Fresno Cardinals and Santa Barbara Saints continued on to year two with the addition of the San Jose Owls. League operations were suspended for the duration of World War II on June 29, 1942. In 1941, the California League was classified as a "C" League and would remain as such through 1962.
At the conclusion of World War II, the league resumed play with six teams. The Bakersfield Indians, Fresno Cardinals, Modesto Reds, Santa Barbara Dodgers, Stockton Ports and Visalia Cubs took the field in 1946. The San Jose Red Sox and Ventura Yankees joined the circuit in 1947. Bill Schroeder, who had organized the league, served as president through 1947. At that time, six franchises were owned by Major League teams and two, Modesto and Stockton, were independent.
Under the leadership of Jerry Donovan, California League president from 1949-55, attendance skyrocketed after the war. Attendance reached a peak of 789,940 in 1949. The Bakersfield Indians, Fresno Cardinals, Stockton Ports and San Jose Red Sox all drew over 100,000 fans for the season. In the mid-1950's, one of the league's most colorfully named teams, the Channel Cities Oilers, represented Santa Barbara and Ventura.
With the increased popularity and availability of television and home air-conditioning in the 1950's, attendance throughout Minor League Baseball began to dwindle. In the middle of the 1955 season, the Channel Cities Oilers franchise moved to Reno, Nev., and would remain a league member for 37 years. Former Major League infielder Eddie Mulligan became league president in 1956 and served until his retirement in 1975. The California League retained its eight-team structure until 1959, when it dropped to six teams for three years.
In 1963, Minor League Baseball reorganized and the California League became reclassified as an "A" League. Attendance reached an all-time low in 1965. The following six teams -- the Bakersfield Bears, Fresno Giants, Salinas Indians, San Jose Bees, Santa Barbara Dodgers and Stockton Ports -- drew only 128,836 fans for the entire season, an average of 21,743 per club or 333 per opening. The San Jose Bees led at the gate with 34,517 for the whole year.
Interest in Minor League Baseball increased slowly from that point on and grew steadily through the decade of the 1970's. During the presidency of Bill Wickert, 1976-81, financial stability became the goal. The California League began to gain momentum as it operated with 10 teams for the first time in 1979.
Joe Gagliardi became league president in 1981. Under his dynamic leadership, the California League reached new heights. Steady increases in attendance and profitability became the benchmark of Gagliardi's reign from 1981-2009. The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes set a single-season attendance mark as 446,146 fans flocked to The Epicenter in 1995. In 1997, the California League set a new all-time attendance record for the seventh time in eight years. A total of 2,061,889 fans or an average of 2,988 per game passed through team turnstiles in that record setting year. On July 4, 1998, the Lake Elsinore Storm set a single-game attendance record as 12,876 fans packed The Diamond for an Independence Day fireworks extravaganza against the San Bernardino Stampede.
Gagliardi's most outstanding achievement was opening up the lucrative Southern California markets for the California League. In 1986, for the first time since 1941, there was a California League team south of the Tehachapis, the Palm Springs Angels. Under the marketing genius of general manager Bill Shanahan, the San Bernardino Spirit debuted in 1987 and shattered single-season attendance records.
Besides opening up the Southern California region, Gagliardi helped orchestrate the opening of five brand new ballparks in the southland in the 1990's. High Desert, under the inspirational leadership of Bobby Brett, was first, with the 1991 opening of Mavericks Stadium in Adelanto, Calif. High Desert became the first California League team in history to draw over 200,000 fans in a year in its inaugural campaign. The Epicenter opened in Rancho Cucamonga in 1993. Lake Elsinore debuted The Diamond in 1994. The Hangar was launched in Lancaster in 1996. And finally, in August 1996, the San Bernardino Stampede opened Arrowhead Credit Union Park.
1996 found the two premiere High "A" Minor Leagues, the Carolina League and the California League holding an All-Star Game. The following year saw all California League teams have full Player Development Contracts for the first time in 15 years. 1997 also saw the successful renovation of John Thurman Field in Modesto.
The 2005 season marked the first new stadium in the north in over 50 years as Banner Island Ballpark made its California League debut in Stockton under the guidance of team CEO Tom Volpe. 2009 saw a newly renovated ballpark in Visalia and a new team name as the Oaks became the Rawhide and Recreation Park set a new single-season attendance mark in the smallest ballpark in Minor League Baseball.
2010 ushered in a new era for the California League as the longtime and respected Los Angeles Dodgers executive, Charlie Blaney, took over the reigns as president.
Modesto holds league seniority as the city is hosting a California League franchise for its 66th year in 2012. Bakersfield begins its 65th California League season, Stockton its 63rd, San Jose its 62nd and Visalia its 61st.
Over the years, the California League has produced 14 Hall of Famers, beginning with the 1954 Bakersfield Indians' Don Drysdale. Joe Morgan of the 1963 Modesto Colts, a Houston Colt 45's farm team, was the second inductee to Cooperstown. Rollie Fingers and Reggie Jackson were teammates on the 1966 Modesto Reds and remain teammates in the Hall of Fame. Don Sutton hurled for the 1965 Santa Barbara Dodgers. George Brett couldn't even hit .300 playing in San Jose's Municipal Stadium for the Bees in 1972. Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson played for the 1953 Santa Barbara Dodgers, then managed the 1967 Modesto Reds. Kirby Puckett patrolled the outfield in Recreation Park in Visalia for the Oaks in 1983. It took Dennis Eckersley two years to get out of the California League as he hurled for the Reno Silver Sox in 1972 and 1973. Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams played in the California League in its infancy in 1948 for the Santa Barbara Dodgers. And Rickey Henderson, the Major League all-time stolen base and runs scored leader, plus a member of the 3,000-hit club, led the California League with 95 stolen bases while playing for the Modesto A's in 1977. In 2010, former California League umpire Doug Harvey (1958-60) became the ninth umpire enshrined in Cooperstown. 2011 will usher in two more former California League players as Roberto Alomar, the league batting champion for the 1986 Reno Padres, and 1959 Stockton Ports hurler Pat Gillick will be honored with induction in July. Alomar was a lifetime .300 hitter over 17 seasons. He helped lead the Toronto Blue Jays to consecutive World Series championships in 1992-93. Gillick was a successful Major League executive whose 1992-93 Blue Jays and 2008 Philadelphia Phillies won World Series titles.
Ken Griffey, Jr., Mark McGwire, Reggie Jackson and Gary Sheffield are all members of the 500 home runs club and all four played in the California League. Griffey was a member of the 1988 San Bernardino Spirit as an 18-year-old; McGwire played third base for the 1984-85 Modesto A's; Jackson was an outfielder for the 1966 California League champion Modesto Reds; and Sheffield was the California League All-Star shortstop for the 1987 Stockton Ports.
In addition to these baseball legends, the California League has produced 14 Most Valuable Player winners, the latest being Josh Hamilton (2002 Bakersfield Blaze), who helped lead the Texas Rangers to their first-ever American League pennant in 2010. There have been 17 Cy Young Award recipients. Included as multiple Cy Young Award winners are Pedro Martinez, who was a perfect 8-0 for the Bakersfield Dodgers in 1991, and Tim Lincecum, who was 2-0 with the San Jose Giants in 2006.
Thirty-one Major League Rookies of the Year have played in the California League, beginning with the 1953 San Jose Red Sox's Albie Pearson, who captured the American League honor while playing with the Washington Senators in 1958. 2010 saw 2008-09 San Jose Giant Buster Posey win the National League Rookie of the Year Award and lead the San Francisco Giants to their first-ever World Series championship. The California League also has produced seven World Series MVPs and 15 League Championship Series MVPs.
The California League has become the premier Class "A" League in Minor League Baseball. Not only does the sun shine in California, so do the stars who take the field for 140 games each year from April to September. See today's Minor League stars on their way to becoming tomorrow's Major League legends taking the field for the Bakersfield Blaze, High Desert Mavericks, Inland Empire 66ers, Lake Elsinore Storm, Lancaster JetHawks, Modesto Nuts, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, San Jose Giants, Stockton Ports and Visalia Rawhide.