The history of the Southern League can be traced to 1885, when the original eight-team Southern League was formed. Although the league folded in 1899, the Southern Association formed in 1901 and the South Atlantic League embarked upon its inaugural season three years later. After the Southern Association disbanded in 1961, the South Atlantic League was elevated to Class AA status in 1963. The circuit was renamed the Southern League the following year to correspond with the new classification and it was decided that all Southern League records would date to the 1964 season.
The Original Southern League
The original Southern League was formed in 1885 during the early boom of minor league baseball. The league consisted of eight charter members: Atlanta, Augusta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Columbus, Macon, Memphis and Nashville. Henry W. Grady, the managing editor of The Atlanta Journal Constitution, was named the league's original president and ran it out of his newspaper office. The original schedule called for teams to play a 100-game season but only two teams reached that mark in 1885. The Atlanta franchise won the first Southern League crown with a mark of 60-31.
Ten other cities were affiliated with the original Southern League over the next 14 years: Charleston, Dallas, Evansville, Little Rock, Mobile, Montgomery, New Orleans, Pensacola, Savannah, and Shreveport. None of 18 teams participated in every season, however, and the circuit was non-operational in 1891, 1892 and 1897.
Hall of Famers Fred Clarke, Joe McGinnity and Kid Nichols were a few of the talented players that participated in the league's existence during the 19th century.
With continuing financial problems and a lack of fan support, the Southern League fielded only four teams for the 1899 season. That campaign endured sporadic play and a midseason move of a franchise from Montgomery to Dallas. Mobile and New Orleans disbanded due to low attendance in June and the remainder of the season subsequently was canceled.
The midseason cancellation in 1899 marked the official end of the original Southern League. There was not enough interest or support the following year, causing the league to fold for good.
The Southern Association
In 1901, the Southern Association was formed to fill the void left by the original Southern League. There were eight franchises in its inaugural season: Birmingham, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Selma and Shreveport. Reed W. Kent was named the first president of the Southern Association, but was succeeded by W. J. Boles and later J. B. Nicklin during the inaugural season. Nashville won the association's first pennant by finishing the season at 80-40.
The Southern Association was initially very popular. With 3:30 p.m. start times, games were attended by businessmen and children alike. Without the aid of stadium lighting, games needed to be played quickly and averaged an hour and a half in length.
Several baseball greats spent part of their careers in the Southern Association, including Luis Aparicio, Burleigh Grimes, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews, Casey Stengel and Pie Traynor. Also, when Southern Association ballparks were vacant, notable Negro League stars like Satchel Paige and Willie Mays played there.
The Southern Association maintained popularity until the late 1950s. With the development of major league national radio and television broadcasts as well as the beginning of network television programming, fans found alternatives to the ballpark. As a result, teams saw a sharp decline in attendance.
Diminished interest ultimately led to storied franchises in Memphis and New Orleans disbanding. With the Southern Association in financial crisis following the 1961 campaign, it folded after 61 continuous seasons.
The South Atlantic League
A Class C league upon being founded by Charles W. Boyer and J.B. Lucy in 1904, the South Atlantic League initially consisted of six teams: the Augusta Tourists; the Charleston Sea Gulls; the Columbia Skyscrapers; the Jacksonville Jays; the Macon Highlanders; and the Savannah Pathfinders. Each team in the new league played at least 100 games in the inaugural season with a 12-man roster limit.
The SALLY League, as it became known, advanced its classification to a Class B league in 1921 and was elevated to Class A status in 1946. Operations were suspended in 1931 due to the Great Depression, but the league reorganized five years later.
In 1953, Hank Aaron, Horace Garner, Felix Mantilla, Al Israel and Fleming Reedy became the first players to bring integrated baseball to the SALLY League. Aaron paced the league in batting, hits, runs, RBI and doubles on his way to being named Most Valuable Player.
In addition to Aaron, Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Bob Gibson, Goose Goslin, Joe Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Phil Niekro, Frank Robinson, Enos Slaughter, Willie Stargell and Hoyt Wilhelm played during the 59 years of the SALLY League.
In the wake of the Southern Association's disbandment following the 1961 season, just 12 Class AA franchises remained to provide for 20 major league teams. SALLY president Sam Smith led a drive to elevate the league to Class AA status. After Smith added Chattanooga and Nashville to the existing six-team league, the SALLY League began play as an AA classification in 1963.
Since the SALLY League long had been associated with the lower classifications of minor league baseball, the decision was made to rename it. In 1964, the league took on the resurrected "Southern League" name. The South Atlantic League moniker was unclaimed until 1980, when a new Class A league was formed under the SALLY League name.
The Southern League
The modern Southern League began the 1964 season with eight teams. Six teams from the South Atlantic League continued under the new Southern League, including Asheville, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Lynchburg and Macon. New teams Birmingham and Columbus rounded out the eight-team circuit. Sam Smith returned as president of the newly renamed league, which featured a 140-game schedule and an All-Star Game played at historic Rickwood Field. Since a handful of other leagues had contributed to the history of the Southern League, it was decided that the league would not maintain records prior to the 1964 campaign.
The early years of the modern Southern League were devoid of a playoff format but not excitement. The Birmingham Barons and Lynchburg White Sox provided fans with a thrilling race in the circuit's inaugural season, with Lynchburg winning the pennant by one game.
In the 1960s, Southern League fans were treated to the talents of Bert Campaneris, Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, Ferguson Jenkins and Tony La Russa before they became famous on more national stages. Campaneris, Blue, Fingers and Jackson helped the Oakland Athletics to three consecutive World Series titles in the early 1970s. La Russa managed them to another championship in 1989 before guiding the St. Louis Cardinals to one last year.
Following Smith's sudden death in April 1971, former big league player and manager Billy Hitchcock assumed the Southern League presidency that August. Hitchcock led a rejuvenation of the Southern League that featured many improvements including stadium refurbishments and a concerted effort to make the league more family-friendly. Hitchcock's interests were rewarded with large increases in attendance throughout the league.
Many more great players marched through the Southern League en route to distinguished major league careers, with Eddie Murray, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker among the most notable. The Southern League's attendance soared past the one million mark in 1978 thanks to President Hitchcock's efforts and the abundance of budding stars in the league.
Jimmy Bragan succeeded Hitchcock as President in 1980 and presided over a host of new stadiums in the league, including fields in Greenville, Huntsville, Birmingham and Charlotte. With new venues and future major league stars such as Cal Ripken, Jr., Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Don Mattingly, Mark McGwire, Bret Saberhagen and Terry Steinbach attracting fans, annual attendance steadily climbed toward two million in the 1980s.
In 1994, Arnold D. Fielkow assumed the Southern League presidency after Bragan's retirement. Don Mincher replaced Fielkow in 2000 and maintained the position for 12 seasons before gaining President Emeritus status upon his retirement in 2011. Current Interim President Steve DeSalvo oversees a 10-team league that features state-of-the-art stadiums. Each of these modern fields have been built since 1985, with the oldest being Joe W. Davis Stadium in Huntsville.
Thanks to fan-friendly environments and a tradition of producing quality major league players, the Southern League has drawn over two million fans each season since 1991. Current major league stars Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Roy Halladay, Josh Hamilton, Chipper Jones, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Evan Longoria, Brian McCann, Jake Peavy, Alex Rodriguez, Justin Upton and Joey Votto all honed their skills on Southern League fields.
Once dubbed "The Major Minor League" by the Sporting News, the Southern League looks forward to continued success for many years to come.