Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In the illustrious history of the California League, several teams have won over 90 games in a season. However, only one team has won over 100 games. This team played midway through the decade of the 1950s in the city of Fresno.
Fresno, located in the heart of California’s Central Valley, entered professional baseball in 1898 with a team in the California League, but it lasted less than a full season, the team moving to Watsonville in August. Fresno was back in the “outlaw” California League in 1905 and Fresno native Frank Chance, manager of the Chicago Cubs, finished the season, which ended in November, with his hometown Tigers. For 1906, the Tacoma Pacific Coast League franchise was moved to Fresno, where the team was called the Raisin Eaters. They finished last in the six-team circuit with a 64-120 record. The PCL dropped Fresno and Portland, reducing to four clubs, after the season. The Tigers returned to the California League in 1908, finishing with a .603 percentage (47-31), but wound up in fourth place. Three teams were over .700 as the seventh and eighth place San Francisco and Oakland clubs were a combined 13-138!
After the 1909 season, the California League joined the ranks of Organized Baseball, becoming the Class D California State League. In an abbreviated 1910 campaign, Fresno finished 32-21 before disbanding on June 24, causing the league to fold. Three years later, they rejoined the circuit for one more year, winning 73 and losing 50 to finish second in a four-team league.
Semi-pro ball flourished in Fresno, but it wasn’t until 28 years later that the California League rejoined Organized Baseball as a Class C circuit in 1941. The league included the Fresno Cardinals, owned by the St. Louis National League club. Its first business manager was Bing Devine, later the St. Louis GM, who is still active in baseball. Fresno finished first (90-50), 6 ½ games ahead of Santa Barbara, but lost to the Brooklyn-owned team in the playoff finals, four games to one. In the war-shortened 1942 season, Fresno was third (34-33).
The California League resumed operations after the war in 1946. Fresno won pennants in 1948 and 1952. In the latter season, the Cardinals, managed by Nat LeBlanc, posted an 88-52 record, 14 games ahead of Santa Barbara and San Jose, then won seven of nine from those two teams to capture the playoff. After finishing sixth in 1953 and fifth in 1954, the team was poised for another triumph.
Although the 1955 Cardinals wound up with a stupendous record (104-43, .707), winning the championship wasn’t easy. Fresno went 53-23 in the first half, but they wound up 2 ½ games behind Stockton, which had a spectacular 55-20 (.733) record. In the second half, the Ports faded, but San Jose stepped up to the challenge and finished at 50-21 (.704), just one game behind Fresno’s 51-20 (.718). The Cardinals had to win their last six games of the regular season to overtake the Red Sox, who had taken a narrow lead. In the playoff, the Cardinals bested Stockton, three games to one, to capture the league title.
In addition to the lofty win and team percentage, the Cardinals set league records for most runs (1,048), hits (1,500), and RBI (893) in a season and led the league in batting (.297), doubles (255), triples (78) and stolen bases (161). Five members of the squad scored over 100 runs each and four drove in more than 100 runs apiece.
LeBlanc, a 34-year-old native of New Iberia, LA, returned after a year at Lynchburg in the Piedmont League, to lead Fresno to victory. He batted .325 with 105 RBI and caught 132 of the 147 games. LeBlanc never played higher than Class AAA Rochester (International League). After his on-the-field career ended, he was a major league scout for many years.
Fresno was led by a bevy of talented hitters, none better than 21-year-old batting champion, Bobby Gene Smith. Smith hit .370 and led the league in RBI (141) and total bases (318). The previous year he had set the California League record for most triples in a season, 22, and hit 16 more in 1955 for a two-year total of 38. Following his stay in Fresno, he went on to a seven-year career as a backup outfielder for five major league teams. Smith’s best year came in 1960 when he batted .286 in 98 games for the Phillies.
Third baseman Benny (Papalero) Valenzuela hit .354, third in the league, set the California League record with 209 hits, led in triples (19) and tied for the league in runs (151) with center fielder Mel Nelson. Valenzuela, who played in 10 games for St. Louis in 1958, is in the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, as is 1955 Fresno second baseman Ronnie Camacho. Nelson, 19, set the California League record for most times at bat in a season (625) and topped the Cardinals in home runs (27), but also led the league in strikeouts (152). In 1957, he switched from the outfield to the mound and in the 1960s was a relief pitcher in parts of six seasons for the Cardinals, Angels and Twins. Nelson is now in his 47th year in baseball, scouting in Central and Southern California for the Houston Astros.
The pitching staff featured a pair of 20-game winners. Glen Stabelfeld (24-4) led the league in wins. Tommy Hughes (20-6) led the league in strikeouts (273 in 222 innings) and tied for the lead in shutouts (5). Hughes, 20, from Cristobal, Canal Zone, followed 1955 with two fine seasons at Class AA Houston (Texas League) (18-6, 2.70 and 14-4, 2.87), but after two years in the Army he was never the same pitcher. Following his discharge in 1959, he pitched in two games for St. Louis, going 0-2, 15.75, but was out of baseball after only two more seasons. Smith, Valenzuela, LeBlanc and Stabelfeld all made the league All-Star team and LeBlanc was chosen Manager of the Year.
After another championship year in 1956, St. Louis sold the franchise to a local non-profit organization, the Greater Fresno Youth Foundation. The Fresno Sun Sox operated without a working agreement in 1957, finishing last under LeBlanc. In 1958 the team, now the Fresno Giants, became the California League affiliate of the newly arrived San Francisco Giants, a relationship which lasted 30 years.
The Fresno Giants won championships in the first and last years, 1958 and 1987, and two more in between, 1964 and 1974. Following the 1982 season, the club was purchased by Bob Piccinini, owner of the Save Mart supermarket chain, who in 1999 led an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Oakland A’s. Piccinini sold the Fresno franchise following the 1987 season. At about the same time, the grandstand at the park, which was owned by Fresno City College, was condemned as unsafe and torn down, leaving only a set of bleachers. San Francisco then transferred its Player Development Contract to San Jose. Without a working agreement, operating independently as the Fresno Suns, and lacking an adequate park, the team finished near the bottom of the standings and drew only 34,000. The franchise was bought by Joe Buzas, who moved it to Salinas. In 1997, the city replaced Phoenix in the Pacific Coast League, and the team, now known as the Grizzlies, once again became a San Francisco affiliate.
Not content with being the sole California League representative in the century club, the 1955 Fresno Cardinals also set another league record. To this date, their .707 winning percentage remains the highest figure in league annals.
|1955 California League Standings|
|1955 Fresno Cardinals batting statistics|
|Bobby Gene Smith||OF||141||557||111||206||141||26||16||18||41||59||24||.370|
|Jose Perez (Visalia)||1B,OF,C||94||359||40||107||61||13||3||2||39||26||5||.298|
|1955 Fresno Cardinals pitching statistics|