Top 100 Teams
Pacific Coast League (Triple-A)
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
For the past 35 years, most full-season minor leagues have played approximately 140-game seasons, running from early April to Labor Day. In the early days of the 20th century, one particular league, the Pacific Coast League, played a schedule that was significantly longer. And, for one of its strongest entries, the San Francisco Seals of 1909, the modern day 140-game total could almost be reached simply by tabulating the team’s wins.
The city of San Francisco, located on the northern California coastline, fielded the Pacific Coast’s first pro team in 1878 with the formation of the Pacific League. “The California Base Ball League of Professional Ball Players” made its debut a year later. Both leagues had four teams playing weekends only in the city of San Francisco. The Pacific League folded in July, 1879. The California League maintained its format until 1886 when teams from Sacramento and Oakland replaced two of the San Francisco clubs. In 1888, Stockton replaced Sacramento and the schedule increased to 67 games. In 1889, one of the city’s teams, the Haverlys, bought the other, the Pioneers, to form the first “San Francisco” club. Sacramento replaced the Pioneers and the schedule was increased to 94 games, then to 139 games in 1890, the longest in baseball up to that time. During this period, the game flourished in Northern California and crowds of 15,000-20,000 on a Sunday were common.
The schedule increased to 147 games in 1891. San Jose replaced Stockton and won the pennant. They challenged Portland, Pacific Northwest winners, to a best-of-19 game series for the Pacific Coast championship. It began Thanksgiving Day and ended January 10, 1892, San Jose winning 10-9. In 1892, the schedule jumped to 177 games and Los Angeles got its first pro team, replacing Sacramento. San Jose moved to Stockton in 1893. The entire country was in the grip of a depression and attendance kept falling. Financial woes and internal mismanagement caused the demise of the league after the 1893 season.
The California League was revived in 1898 and began to prosper, increasing the schedule from 48 to 168 games by 1902. In 1901, the San Francisco entry, known as the Wasps, won the pennant with a record of 95-66. In December, 1902, the four-team California League (San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles) voted to add Portland and Seattle and change its name to the Pacific Coast League.
In its first PCL season, San Francisco, with a team called the Stars, won 107 games to finish in third place. However, the club also lost 110 games, as each of their four starting pitchers finished with at least 20 wins and 20 losses. Following the season, the nickname Seals was chosen in a newspaper contest.
The PCL always played baseball’s longest schedule, more than 200 games, because of the region’s mild climate. In 1905, the Seals set a record by playing 230 games in a season which started March 30 and ended December 17, a week before Christmas. Players always loved the Coast League. In addition to escaping the heat and humidity of the rest of the country, salaries were set by the month and the long season meant virtual year-round income.
Playing schedules of this length allowed players to achieve unique records. For instance, in 1904, Seattle outfielder George Van Haltren nearly had his batting average equal his number of hits. He finished the campaign with 253 hits, but only a .269 average, all because he had a monumental 941 at-bats!
By 1909, the Seals had yet to win their first pennant. However, success was near. Playing a “trimmed down” 212-game schedule, the Seals rolled to the flag with a 132-80, .622 record. The team finished 13.5 games ahead of the Portland Beavers and 51.5 ahead of the last place Vernon Tigers. In the height of the dead-ball era, the team led the PCL with a modest .245 average, also enjoying league-high totals in runs (836), hits (1,685), doubles (292) and stolen bases (349).
The Seals were managed by Danny Long, 42, who had been an outfielder with the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association in 1890 and for his hometown Oakland team in the old California League. He is credited with recommending Frank Chance to Chicago in 1898. Long led the Seals from 1907-13. During the same period, he was also Secretary-Treasurer of the Pacific Coast League, whose office was in San Francisco. After Long left the Seals, he was involved in municipal government work in San Francisco. He also scouted for the Chicago White Sox and, in 1922, recommended the purchase of Willie Kamm from the Seals. The White Sox paid San Francisco $100,000 for Kamm, the highest price to that date for a minor league player, belying Charles Comiskey’s reputation for being cheap. The framed check graced the wall of the Seals’ office for many years.
Pitching and defense were the Seals’ strong points in 1909. Frank Browning, a diminutive 5’5”, 28-year-old left-hander from San Antonio, TX, went 32-16, leading the league in wins. He set a PCL record which still stands by winning 16 consecutive games from June 10 to August 12. On July 5, he pitched a 3-0 no-hitter against Sacramento. Browning’s streak ended August 15 when he lost a 2-1 duel to Walter Nagle of Los Angeles, whom he had beaten three days earlier. Clarence (Cack) Henley, a 25-year-old, 6’1” right-hander from Sacramento had a 31-10 record to lead the league in percentage (.736). On June 8, at Oakland’s Freeman Park, Henley pitched the longest shutout in PCL history, besting Jimmy Wiggs 1-0 in 24 innings. The game was played in 3 hours, 35 minutes. Browning played one year in the majors, going 2-2 in 11 games for Detroit in 1910. Henley never made the big leagues, but won 215 games in 11 years in the PCL.
One of the Seals’ pitchers was right-hander Joe Corbett (4-8), younger brother of famed heavyweight boxing champion Gentleman Jim Corbett. Joe also pitched for San Francisco in 1904-05.
At the plate, right fielder Henry Melchior led the league with a .298 average, one of only three times the PCL leader was under .300 (1908-09-10). Third baseman Rollie Zeider hit .289 and led the league in runs (141) and stolen bases (93). He moved up to the White Sox in 1910 to start a nine-year major league career. He is one of only two players to appear with all three Chicago major league teams - the White Sox, Cubs and Federal League Whales. (The other is Dutch Zwilling.)
Left fielder Ping Bodie led the Seals in homers with 10. The next year, he led the minors with 30, a remarkable total for the dead-ball era. He was sold to the White Sox and played nine years in the American League with Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Bodie was born Francesco Pezzolo in San Francisco. Because of discrimination against Italians at that time, he took the name Bodie for baseball after the town where his father had worked in the gold mines. He was nicknamed Ping because of the sound made when his 52-ounce bat hit the ball.
The team captain was their 35-year-old second baseman, 5’4” Ernest (Kid) Mohler, whose career had begun in 1890. He had played three games in the National League with Washington in 1894. Despite the fact he threw left-handed, Mohler holds the professional baseball career record for most games played at second base (2,871). He is second among minor leaguers in career stolen bases (769). Mohler had a career .264 average, but only hit .193 in 1909, although he bounced back to .282 in 1911. In later years, he was head baseball coach at the United States Naval Academy.
San Francisco went on to win many more pennants in the PCL over the next 48 years. Particularly noteworthy were a trio of champions in the 1920s, each of which landed in the top 100. Later, in the 1940s, the club won four championships in a row, culminating with a 115-win colossus in 1946. Eleven years later, after the 1957 campaign, the Seals moved to Phoenix to make way for the National League Giants.
The PCL schedule remained at or above the 200-game mark until 1931, when it dropped to the 180 level for several years. The 200-game schedule was revived for a season in 1950 in order to bolster
attendance, but was dropped to 166 the following year. Currently, the PCL’s schedule tops out at 144 games--the same as any other full-season minor league.
Only two other minor league teams won more games in one season than the 1909 Seals. Although the team had the benefit of a lengthy schedule to accomplish the feat, there is something impressive about collecting more than 130 wins in a season. Especially, comparing this fact with today’s minor league baseball world where130 games nearly constitutes a full season--containing both wins and losses.
|1909 Pacific Coast League Standings|
|1909 San Francisco Seals batting statistics|
|1909 San Francisco Seals pitching statistics|