On April 11, 2003 the Albuquerque Isotopes played the first professional baseball game in the Duke City since the Albuquerque Dukes left following the 2000 season. The return of baseball was met by 12,215 enthusiastic fans on Opening Day at beautiful Isotopes Park. The excitement did not end there, as over 575,000 fans passed through the gates in 2003, a season that culminated with the Isotopes winning the Central Division Title and earning a berth in the Pacific Coast League Playoffs. With that auspicious beginning, the Isotopes have continued to grow, welcoming more than 8 million guests to "The Lab" in the team's 14 seasons. In 2008, the team set a franchise record in attendance with a mark of 593,606 (an average of 8,361 a game), marking a continuation of the rich and varied tradition of professional baseball in Albuquerque, one that dates back more than 100 years.
The first known professional baseball team in Albuquerque was founded in 1880 by W.T. McCreight. Games were played at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds, at the large oval space inside the Fairgrounds racetrack facing the grandstands. Since the State Fair was held after the big league season was over back east, McCreight was able to entice pro players from those leagues to play for him for $100 plus expenses. McCreight, a former Major Leaguer with the St. Louis Browns still owned one of his jerseys with "Browns" embroidered on it, so he decided to name his team the same.
It's not clear how many years the Browns played, but in 1915 the first recognized professional baseball team in Albuquerque took the field. The "Dukes" played in the Class-D Rio Grande Association against teams from Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, and nearby Las Cruces. The Dukes finished in third place with a 32-25 record. They also had the league leader in home runs, as Frank Huelman hit 10 long balls.
Albuquerque didn't field a pro team again until 1932, when the Albuquerque Dons took first place in the Class-D Arizona-Texas League, compiling a 57-42 record. The Dons' Dick Gyselman led the league in batting average, runs, and hits. The league was disbanded in late July.
Professional baseball returned again to the Duke City in 1937, as Rio Grande Park, later renamed Tingley Field, was opened by the Albuquerque Cardinals. The Cardinals were an affiliate of the National League's St. Louis Cardinals. Cards' General Manager Branch Rickey called the new ballpark "one of the finest minor league parks in America." The Cardinals finished the season that year at 56-59 to wind up in third place, but won the Arizona-Texas League Championship Series, defeating the El Paso Texans four games to three. The Cardinals continued playing in the Class-D League through 1941.
Albuquerque fielded another Dukes team in 1942, this time in the Class-D West Texas-New Mexico League, where the Dukes went 25-30 before withdrawing in June. With World War II taking place, baseball bats went silent from 1943-45. In 1946, play resumed for the West Texas-New Mexico League, now reclassified as a Class-C League, only to be reclassified again in 1955 to Class-B.
In 1956 the Dukes started play in the Class-A Western League as a New York Giants affiliate. The team switched in 1958 to become a Cincinnati Reds farm team, but the Western League folded after the 1958 season, leaving Albuquerque without a ball club for the first time in 14 seasons.
Baseball returned to Albuquerque in 1960 after a one year hiatus when the city accepted an offer from the Kansas City A's to field a team in the Class D Sophomore League. Once again, the team was called the Dukes. They played in this league for two years before Kansas City moved the team to the Double-A Texas League for the 1962 season. Kansas City dropped the club following that season.
In 1963, the Dukes and the Los Angeles Dodgers struck up a relationship that allowed the team to stay in the Texas League. The Dodgers purchased the team from then-owner Tom Bolack in 1964 for $20,000. In 1969, the Dukes moved from Tingley Field to the new Albuquerque Sports Stadium. The first game played there was an exhibition game between the San Francisco Giants and the Cleveland Indians. Willie Mays was the first batter to stand at the plate at the new ballpark.
The Dukes continued to play in the Texas League until the end of the 1971 season. When the 1972 season began, the Dodgers had moved their Spokane franchise to Albuquerque and the team started playing in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. With future Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda at the helm, the team amassed a 92-56 record and won the PCL Championship, the first of eight PCL Championships the team would win over the next 28 years.
In March 2000, it was announced that Dukes owner Robert Lozinak, who had purchased the team from the Dodgers in 1979 for $340,000, was selling the franchise to Marshall Glickman and Mike Higgins from Portland, OR. The estimated price of the sale was $10-12 million. The team was moved to Portland for the 2001 season, renamed the Beavers, leaving Albuquerque without a professional baseball team for the first time since 1959.
In January 2001, a group led by Tampa businessman Ken Young and Chicago-based entrepreneur Mike Koldyke, entered into a tentative agreement to purchase the Calgary Cannons with the intention of moving the team to Albuquerque. A major condition of moving the team was that either a new stadium be built or that Albuquerque Sports Stadium be renovated. In May 2001, city voters approved a $25 million renovation of the existing stadium. Young and Koldyke completed the purchase of the Cannons, moving them to Albuquerque for the 2003 season as the Isotopes.
In the 16 years since the team's arrival, the 'Topes have enjoyed stunning success, routinely ranking among the Pacific Coast League leaders in annual attendance. In 2007, Albuquerque and Isotopes Park played host to the Triple-A All-Star Game, which featured a two-day Fan Fest at the Albuquerque Convention Center, a Home Run Derby, and the annual mid-season classic between All-Stars from the PCL and their counterparts from the International League. The event was such a triumph, it earned the club the prestigious Bob Freitas Award, an accolade given by Baseball America to the organization it deems the best overall in Triple-A Baseball.
From Browns to Isotopes, Albuquerque baseball history dates back over 130 years and the rich tradition formed on the State Fairgrounds back in the 1880s continues today at beautiful Isotopes Park.