The History of the California League
The California League of Professional Baseball is a leader in developing players for its major league affiliates, and providing Green Cathedrals for affordable family entertainment each spring and summer. It is a League with an eye on the future and an eye on its rich tradition of baseball lore dating back to the mid-twentieth century. Over the years 2,759 former California League players have made it to the major leagues. In 2017, 262 players made their major league debuts, almost one third of them, (76 players) having previously played in the California League. The future big league stars of tomorrow will be playing in the California League this summer.
On a Friday night, April 18, 1941, the Santa Barbara Saints defeated the Anaheim Aces 7-3 at Laguna Park in front of 2,500 fans in the first ever California League game. 2016 was a milestone year for the California League as it celebrated its 75th Diamond Anniversary year. It began with the induction of two former players, Ken Griffey, Jr. (1988 San Bernardino Spirit) and Mike Piazza (1991 Bakersfield Dodgers) into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in January. On June 20th, 2016 the California-Carolina League All-Star Game held its home run hitting contest on the deck of the historic U. S. S. Midway Aircraft Carrier in San Diego that drew national coverage. A day later on June 21st, 2016 the California-Carolina League held their 20th All-Star Game with the highlight being the unveiling of the California League's Inaugural Hall of Fame class. Accepting their awards in person were Major League Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, Gary Sheffield, Jose Cruz Jr. and Xavier Nady. The Lake Elsinore Storm hosted the festivities, receiving rave reviews.
The 2017 season was highlighted by a return to the North-South format for the mid-season California League All-Star game. The host team, the Visalia Rawhide drawing on its agricultural roots included a cow milking and a roping contest in its All-Star Game Fan Fest highlighted by a walk-off home run hitting contest. The next day saw the induction of the Second Class of the California League Hall of Fame, featuring Dave Duncan, Doug Harvey and Tony LaRussa accepting their plaques in person. The North proved victorious by a 5-3 score. The 2017 season culminated with the Modesto Nuts sweeping their opponents (The Stockton Ports and the Lancaster JetHawks) in two three game series to win the California League Championship. It was the first perfect playoff run since 1997 (High Desert).
The California League was founded in 1941 by a combination of Major League and Pacific Coast League clubs. The charter members were the Anaheim Aces, Bakersfield Badgers, Fresno Cardinals, Merced Bears, Riverside Reds, San Bernardino Stars, Santa Barbara Saints and the Stockton Fliers. Only six teams were able to complete the inaugural campaign as Riverside and San Bernardino ceased operations mid-way through the season. The California League was classified as a "C" League by Minor League Baseball and would remain as such through 1962.
The league dropped to four teams the following year as the Bakersfield Badgers, Fresno Cardinals and the Santa Barbara Saints continued on to year two with the addition of the San Jose Owls. League operations were suspended for the duration of World War II on June 29, 1942.
At the conclusion of World War II, the league resumed play with six teams. The Bakersfield Indians, Fresno Cardinals, Modesto Reds, Santa Barbara Dodgers, Stockton Ports and the Visalia Cubs took the field in 1946. The San Jose Red Sox and the Ventura Yankees joined the circuit in 1947. Bill Schroeder, who had organized the league, served as President through 1947. At that time, six franchises were owned by Major League teams and two, Modesto and Stockton, were independent.
Under the leadership of Jerry Donovan, California League President from 1949 to 1955, attendance skyrocketed after the war. Attendance reached a peak of 789,940 in 1949. The Bakersfield Indians, Fresno Cardinals, Stockton Ports and San Jose Red Sox all drew over 100,000 fans for the season. In the mid-1950's, one of the league's most colorfully named teams. the Channel Cities Oilers, represented Santa Barbara and Ventura.
With the increased popularity and availability of television and home air-conditioning in the 1950's, attendance throughout Minor League Baseball began to dwindle. In the middle of the 1955 season, the Channel Cities Oilers franchise moved to Reno, Nevada and would remain a league member for 37 years. Former Major League infielder, Eddie Mulligan, became league President in 1956 and served until his retirement in 1975. The California League retained its eight-team structure until 1959 when it dropped to six teams for three years.
In 1963, Minor League Baseball reorganized and the California League became reclassified as an "A" League. Attendance reached an all-time low in 1965. The following six teams, the Bakersfield Bears, Fresno Giants, Salinas Indians, San Jose Bees, Santa Barbara Dodgers and the Stockton Ports drew only 128,836 fans for the entire season, an average of 21,743 per club, or 333 per opening. The San Jose Bees led at the gate with 34,517 for the whole year.
Interest in Minor League Baseball increased slowly from that point on and grew steadily through the decade of the 1970's. During the Presidency of Bill Wickert, 1976-1981, financial stability became the goal. The California League began to gain momentum as it operated with ten teams for the first time in 1979.
Joe Gagliardi became League President in 1981. Under his leadership, the California League reached new heights. Steady increases in attendance and profitability became the benchmark of Gagliardi's reign from 1981 through 2009. The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes set a single season attendance mark, as 446,146 fans flocked to The Epicenter in 1995.
In 1997, the California League set a new all-time attendance record for the seventh time in eight years. A total of 2,061,889 fans, or an average of 2,988 per game, passed through team turnstiles in that record setting year. On July 4, 1998, the Lake Elsinore Storm set a single game attendance record as 12,876 fans packed The Diamond for an Independence Day fireworks extravaganza against the San Bernardino Stampede.
Gagliardi's most outstanding achievement was opening up the lucrative Southern California markets for the California League. In 1986, for the first time since 1941, there was a California League team south of the Tehachapi's, the Palm Springs Angels. Under the marketing genius of General Manager Bill Shanahan, the San Bernardino Spirit shattered single season attendance records with the San Bernardino Spirit debuting in 1987.
The 1990's saw the opening of five new ballparks in the southland. High Desert, under the inspirational leadership of Bobby Brett was first, with the 1991 opening of Mavericks Stadium in Adelanto, California. High Desert became the first California League team in history to draw over 200,000 fans in a year in their inaugural campaign. The Epicenter opened up in Rancho Cucamonga in 1993. Lake Elsinore debuted The Diamond in 1994. The Hangar was launched in Lancaster in 1996. And finally in August of 1996, the San Bernardino Stampede opened the Arrowhead Credit Union Park.
1996 found the two premiere High "A" Minor Leagues, the Carolina League and the California League holding an All-Star game. 1997 saw all California League teams with full Player Development contracts for the first time in fifteen years. 1997 also saw the successful renovation of John Thurman Field in Modesto.
The 2005 season marked the first new stadium in the north in over 50 years as Banner Island Ballpark made its California League debut in Stockton under the guidance of Team CEO, Tom Volpe. 2009 saw a newly renovated ballpark in Visalia and a new team name as the Oaks became the Rawhide and Recreation Park set a new single season attendance mark in the smallest ballpark in Minor League baseball.
2010 ushered in a new era for the California League as the long time and respected Los Angeles Dodger executive, Charlie Blaney took over the reigns as California League President. The league has continued to flourish under his leadership.
Modesto holds league seniority as the city is hosting a California League franchise for its 72nd year in 2018. Stockton begins its 69th California League season, San Jose its 68th and Visalia its 67th. In the South, 2018 will mark Inland Empire's 32nd consecutive year in San Bernardino and 33rd year in the California League.
Over the years, the California League has produced nineteen Hall of Famers beginning with the 1954 Bakersfield Indians' Don Drysdale. Joe Morgan, of the 1963 Modesto Colt 45's, a Houston Colt 45's farm team, was the second inductee to Cooperstown. Rollie Fingers and Reggie Jackson were teammates on the 1966 Modesto Reds and remain teammates in the Hall of Fame. Don Sutton hurled for the 1965 Santa Barbara Dodgers.
George Brett couldn't even hit .300 playing in San Jose's Municipal Stadium for the Bees in 1972. Hall of Fame Manager, Sparky Anderson played for the 1953 Santa Barbara Dodgers and then managed the 1967 Modesto Reds. Kirby Puckett patrolled the outfield in Recreation Park in Visalia for the Oaks in 1983. It took Dennis Eckersley two years to get out of the California League as he hurled for the Reno Silver Sox in 1972 and 1973. Hall of Fame Manager, Dick Williams, played in the California League in its infancy in 1948 for the Santa Barbara Dodgers.
Rickey Henderson, the Major League all-time stolen base and runs scored leader, plus a member of the 3,000 hit club, led the California League in stolen bases with 95 while playing for the Modesto A's in 1977. In 2010, former California League umpire, Doug Harvey (1958-1960) became the ninth Umpire enshrined in Cooperstown. 2011 saw two more former California League players, Roberto Alomar, the league batting champion for the 1986 Reno Padres and 1959 Stockton Ports hurler, Pat Gillick honored with induction into the Hall of Fame. Alomar was a lifetime .300 hitter over 17 seasons. He helped lead the Toronto Blue Jays to consecutive World Championships in 1992-1993. Gillick was a successful major league Executive, whose 1992-1993 Toronto Blue Jays and 2008 Philadelphia Phillies won World Series titles.
In 2014 two of the greatest managers in baseball history, Tony LaRussa, 1966 Modesto Reds and Bobby Cox, 1960 Reno Silver Sox were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Both won World Series titles and are in the top four of career victories, each winning over 2,500 games. 2015 saw the induction of the 1991 Bakersfield Dodgers'
Pedro Martinez, a three time Cy Young Award winner. A year later, in 2016, Martinez' 1991 Bakersfield battery mate, catcher Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey, Jr., a 1988 San Bernardino Spirit, were enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Griffey, Jr., elected in his first year of eligibility was voted in with the greatest percentage (99.3%) in Hall of Fame history as he was named on 437 of the 440 ballots.
In addition to these baseball legends, the California League has produced nineteen Most Valuable Player winners, the latest being 2018 American League MVP Jose Altuve (2010/2011 Lancaster JetHawks) of the Houston Astros.
Former California League hurlers swept the Cy Young Awards in 2017, with Max Scherzer (2007 Visalia Oaks) winning his third Cy Young Award with the Washington Nationals, while Corey Kluber (2008/2009 Lake Elsinore Storm) won his second with the Cleveland Indians. Twenty-one former Cal League pitchers have won the prestigious Cy Young Award. Included as multiple Cy Young award winners are Pedro Martinez who was a perfect 8-0 for the Bakersfield Dodgers in 1991 and Tim Lincecum who was 2-0 with the San Jose Giants in 2006. Thirty-five former California League players have won the Rookie of the Year Award with Cody Bellinger (2015 Rancho Cucamonga Quakes) winning the 2017 National League honor with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The California League has become the premiere Class "A" League in Minor League Baseball. Not only does the sun shine in California, but so do the stars that take the field for 140 games each year from April to September. See today's Minor League stars on their way to becoming tomorrow's Major League legends taking the field for the Inland Empire 66ers, Lake Elsinore Storm, Lancaster JetHawks, Modesto Nuts, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, San Jose Giants, Stockton Ports and the Visalia Rawhide.