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Southern League still persevering03/23/2006 8:00 AM ET
By Eric Justic / Special to MLB.com
In 1994, there was a frenzy surrounding the Minor Leagues and one of its oldest teams, the Birmingham Barons of the Southern League. The Barons, whose history dates back to the Southern League's inception in 1885, became the focus of the sports universe with NBA legend Michael Jordan on the roster.
The national media and late-night talk shows trailed the Barons outfielder, who was amidst the first of his three retirements from basketball. Card companies rushed out special sets, and nearly a million fans, including a club-record 467,867 in home attendance for Birmingham, came out to watch Jordan chase his baseball dream on the Chicago White Sox's Double-A affiliate. Of course, Jordan's success didn't match the hoopla, as he hit just .202 with three homers, 51 RBIs, 30 stolen bases and 114 strikeouts in 127 games. But if there's any league that could handle a presence like Jordan, it is the Southern League.
The Southern League was dubbed "the Major Minor League" by The Sporting News because of the who's who list of talent that has come through its ranks. That list includes current Major Leaguers Miguel Cabrera, Eric Chavez, Carlos Delgado, Roy Halladay, Tim Hudson, Mark Prior, Miguel Tejada, Dontrelle Willis and Alex Rodriguez.
The Southern League has seen its greatest teams dominate. Perhaps the best ever was the 1992 Greenville Braves club that finished 100-43. That squad was managed by Grady Little and had a lineup that featured future Atlanta mainstays Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez.
The Jacksonville Suns have been a frequent first-division finisher in the Southern League and hold the record with 14 playoff appearances since 1970. They won their second league championship in 2005. Their first title came in 1996, when Pam Davis pitched an exhibition game for the Suns.
On June 4, 1996, Davis, a right-hander with Colorado Silver Bullets women's baseball team, hurled a scoreless fifth inning and picked up a victory as the Suns defeated the Australian Olympic team, 7-2. It was a memorable moment for the Southern League, reminiscent of 1931, when Jackie Mitchell of the Chattanooga Lookouts struck out the New York Yankees' Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition.
Back then, the Southern League was known as the Southern Association. The original Southern League of Professional Baseball Clubs was formed in 1885 by civic leaders and baseball enthusiasts but folded 14 years later. The game returned in 1901 when the Southern Association established an eight-team league that included Chattanooga, Birmingham and Memphis.
Baseball in Memphis was integral to Southern Association over the next half-century, and the Memphis Chicks would be its pre-eminent team. The Chicks won a Southern Association-high 104 games in both 1921 and 1924, and represented the league in the Dixie Series, a championship showdown between the Southern and Texas League pennant winners that was played from 1920 to 1958 and once in 1967.
Birmingham, which won six Dixie Series titles to lead the Southern League, was buoyed by playing in Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910. During the 1920s, Rickwood was one of the most popular parks in the Minors. Playing all of their games in the afternoon, the Barons drew at least 160,000 fans eight times during the decade.
Rickwood Field remains a nostalgic presence. Although the Barons moved into Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in 1988, they still play the Rickwood Classic once a year. The traditional afternoon contest makes Rickwood the oldest professional ballpark still in use.
The Southern Association did not match Rickwood Field's longevity, as severe attendance problems in the late 1950s caused several teams to shut down, and in 1961 the league was officially disbanded.
With only two Double-A leagues remaining, the South Atlantic League was moved up to Double-A status in 1963. In 1964, the Sally changed its name and formed a new Southern League, consisting of teams in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Asheville, Charlotte, Lynchburg, Macon, Birmingham and Columbus. All the records were wiped clean at that point, and the Southern League began anew. The Western Carolina League was renamed the South Atlantic League in 1980.
Since 1964, the Southern League has continued to distinguish itself, accumulating fresh history and numerous alums who have blossomed into Major League stars. Former Major League player and manager Billy Hitchcock spurred the league's rejuvenation when he assumed the presidency in 1971. Stadiums were refurbished, and attention was focused on improving the fan experience. As a result, attendance soared over the million mark in 1978. That growth spurt during the 1970s was helped along by the opportunity to see power bats like Dale Murphy and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, while Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell started off together in Montgomery before becoming Detroit's longtime double-play combo.
When Jimmy Bragan, the brother of former Texas League president Bobby Bragan, took over for Hitchcock in 1980, the league was on very good footing. New stadiums were built in Greenville, Huntsville, Birmingham and Charlotte. The talent on the field continued to shine, with Randy Johnson, Don Mattingly, Tom Glavine, Bret Saberhagen and Larry Walker all representing the Southern League during the 1980s.
Today the league is comprised of 10 teams. The five-team Southern League North consists of the Carolina Mudcats, Tennessee Smokies, West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, Huntsville Stars and Chattanooga. The Mississippi Braves, Montgomery Biscuits, Mobile BayBears, Jacksonville and Birmingham represent the Southern League South.
With eight of its 10 ballparks having been built in the past eight years, the Southern League remains fresh and vibrant. Trustman Park, opened in 2005 in Pearl, Miss., is the newest member of the group.
"The Major Minor League" continues to be a launching pad for prospects, as well. In 2005, Major League Baseball saw impressive debuts by Jeff Francoeur, Bobby Jenks, Brian McCann and Jeremy Hermida. This season, a new crop of prospects will take the field, ready to create a frenzy among Minor League Baseball fans. With the Tennessee Smokies' Stephen Drew, Homer Bailey on Chattanooga, Jeff Niemann in Montgomery, Jordan Saltalamacchia in Mississippi and Ray Liotta of the Barons, the future of the Southern League continues to look awfully bright.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.