Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
For most players, scoring 100 runs in a season is a major accomplishment--a once in a career occurrence. However, for the Visalia Oaks of 1978, a player scoring 100 runs was the norm as more than half of the non-pitchers on the squad accomplished the feat, pacing one of the most prolific scoring teams in California League history.
The town of Visalia, located between Fresno and Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley, first fielded a professional baseball team in 1910, placing a team in the Class D San Joaquin Valley League. Here, a team known as the Pirates was one of only two teams to finish the season in the four-team league. When play stopped on September 12, Bakersfield (21-10) resided in first, with Visalia (13-17) seven and one-half back. In 1911, the loop only lasted through July, with just a handful of games being played. Visalia finished fifth of six teams with a record of 5-8. After its brief stay in the National Association, the San Joaquin Valley League, with Visalia as a member, prospered in semi-pro ball for many years, featuring former major league and Pacific Coast League players.
In 1946, when the California League resumed operation after a 3-½ year hiatus during World War II, Visalia joined the circuit. The team was owned and operated by the Chicago Cubs. The Visalia Cubs finished in the cellar in their first year, but improved to a second place tie in 1947. The ’47 Cubs received national attention when Visalia, then a town of about 10,000, drew 104,311 fans, third highest attendance in the league.
Visalia has had the distinction of being affiliated with more major league teams, 11, than any other California League franchise. Chicago sold the club to a local group following the 1949 season, but retained its affiliation through 1952. In 1953, Visalia called itself the Stars and had a working agreement with Pittsburgh. After one year, the team again became the Cubs, but had no major league tieup for the next three seasons. They had second division teams all three years with 1954 being the worst. That club finished 37-103, .264, 51 games out of first place and 19 games behind seventh-place Salinas. From 1957-59, the Visalia Redlegs were a Cincinnati farm club. In 1957, managed by ex-Dodgers catcher Bruce Edwards, Visalia finished first in the regular season, but lost the first round of the playoffs. In 1960-61, Visalia was affiliated with the White Sox and in 1962 with the Kansas City Athletics, and with each change, the team adopted the nickname of its new parent. Following the 1962 season, the local group folded the franchise and it was moved to Salinas.
Visalia rejoined the California League in 1968 with a new owner, the New York Mets. The Visalia Mets won the second half in 1969, losing the playoff to Stockton, and captured the championship in 1971. That team was managed by Joe Frazier, who went on to pilot the New York Mets in 1976-77. The Mets dropped the Visalia franchise after the 1975 season and the city was out of baseball in 1976. For 1977, San Jose moved up from the California to the Pacific Coast League, and was replaced by Visalia.
The new Visalia franchise was one of only a handful of clubs in minor league history to be owned by the city. The team’s board of directors was the Visalia city council and it was run by the assistant city manager. Mindful of the confusion caused in earlier years by the many changes in nicknames, the club decided to adopt something strictly local. Visalia had been known for years as “The City of Oaks” in recognition of the hundreds of beautiful oak trees that lined the city streets. Visalia secured a Player Development Contract with Minnesota, which lasted for 16 years, the longest period of stability in the city’s baseball history.
The 1978 Visalia Oaks ran away with the first half Southern Division title, finishing 52-19, .732 with a 9 ½ game bulge over Salinas. In the second half, the team cooled off somewhat (45-23, .662) but still prevailed over Salinas by four games. In the playoffs, the Oaks bested Northern Division winner Lodi, three games to two, to win the laurels. The Oaks finished their season with a 97-42, .698 record, leading the league in many offensive categories, including average (.301), home runs (130) and runs (1,007).
Visalia was managed by Roy McMillan, who by an odd coincidence also led the team in the first year of the Mets’ regime in 1968. McMillan was a 49-year-old veteran of 16 major league campaigns. From 1951 to 1966, McMillan plied his trade as a starting shortstop for the Reds, Braves and Mets. He finished his career with a .243 average and 1,639 hits. He led the National League in fielding four times and was named to two All-Star teams (1956-57) as part of Cincinnati’s “write in” campaign. In 1972 he managed
Milwaukee for two games (1-1) between the firing of Dave Bristol and the hiring of Del Crandall. In 1975, he piloted the Mets for the last 53 games of the season (26-27) following the departure of Yogi Berra.
Visalia’s most prominent player was “Super Joe” Charboneau, who led the league in batting (.350), finishing .0001 ahead of Reno 2B and current San Diego coach Tim Flannery. Charboneau was on loan from Philadelphia and in December, 1978, he was traded to Cleveland. In 1979, he led the Southern League in batting (.352) and in 1980 he burst upon the major league scene. Reams of copy were written about the off-the-field activities of this “free spirit.” Veteran Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Hal Lebovitz said “Ring Lardner in his most imaginative moment never dreamt up a baseball character who pulled his own tooth (with a pair of pliers), drinks beer through his nose, had a pet alligator or whose lifelong ambition is to open beer bottles with his eye socket.”
On the field, Super Joe put together a .289-23-87 season and was named 1980 American League Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association. From there it was all downhill. He injured his back in a headfirst slide during spring training in 1981, hit only .210-4-18 in the strike-shortened season and was in AAA by August. Between November, 1981 and November, 1982, he underwent two back surgeries and an operation on his wrist, and developed stomach ulcers. Cleveland released him in August, 1983, and he played his last pro game in 1984.
Outfielders Tack Wilson (.349-5-79) and Steve Douglas (.343-19-106) finished third and fourth in the league in batting. Douglas led the league in runs (142), hits (192), total bases (311) and triples (17). Wilson was second in stolen bases (63). He hit just five homers, but one was an inside-the-park grand-slam. Third baseman Scott Ullger (.320-20-108) led the league in doubles (36), while designated hitter Steve McManaman hit .293 and led the league in home runs (29) and RBI (120).
From Douglas who scored a league-high 142 to Gary Bozich and McManaman who collected 104 each, no less than seven Visalia Oaks surpassed the century mark in runs. This achievement was made possible by the compact nature of the squad, which saw only 12 position players take the field during the season. All of the seven players participated in at least 125 games, more than enough time to cross the plate 100 times.
Visalia used only 23 players during all of that championship season and one of those was a pitcher who appeared in only one game. That was no accident. Throughout Visalia’s association with the Twins they regularly used fewer players than any other team. Minnesota farm director George Brophy planned it that way. He was an astute judge of talent and always tried to assemble at the start of the season a team that could compete in the California League. In addition, he tried to keep expenses down by not having to shuttle players back and forth across the country throughout the season.
On the mound, Gene Robinson (18-5) and Bob Veselic (18-8) tied for the league lead in wins. Veselic also led in innings pitched (215). Jeff Clark (13-1) had the best percentage (.929).
Douglas, Charboneau, McManaman and C Steve Herz all made the league All-Star Team. Douglas was named the league’s MVP and the Topps’ California League Player of the Year. Douglas and Charboneau were named to the National Association Class A All-Star Team.
In addition to Charboneau, Ullger, Wilson and Veselic saw major league action. Veselic went 1-1, 3.38 in six games for the Twins in 1980-81. Wilson batted .333 in 12 games for the 1983 Twins and 1987 Angels. Ullger hit .190 in 35 games for Minnesota in 1983.
Ullger and Wilson are still in baseball. Ullger began managing for the Twins in 1988 at Visalia where he stayed three years. In 1990, he led the Oaks to first place in the Southern Division in both halves, but lost the playoffs. He was named California League Manager of the Year and was chosen the league's best managerial prospect by Baseball America. The 2000 season marks his sixth year as a major league coach for Minnesota. Wilson was a coach and hitting instructor in the Atlanta organization and 2000 is his fourth year as a hitting coach in the Chicago Cubs farm system, his third at AA West Tenn.
The city of Visalia held the franchise through the 1982 season, then sold it to two local men. They, in turn, sold the club to a Japanese firm, JSS/USA Inc. in 1989. Following the departure of the Twins after the 1992 season, the club was affiliated with Colorado under the name Central Valley Rockies. After two years, Colorado pulled out and the team became once again the Visalia Oaks. They were a co-op club in 1995 and had partial agreements with Arizona and Detroit in 1996. In both season, the team had several players from Japan on the roster. Since 1997, Visalia has had a PDC with the Oakland A's.
The Visalia Oaks of 1978 were a hard-hitting club that was noteworthy for two accomplishments. First, they were among a scattered handful of professional clubs to have seven players score 100 each. And second, they were certainly alone in having 58% of their position players cross the plate 100 times - a feat unlikely to be duplicated for quite a while.
|1978 California League Standings|
|1978 Visalia Oaks batting statistics|
|1978 Visalia Oaks pitching statistics|