On and off the field, baseball changed in the 1990s more than any decade before it. Breathtaking state-of-the-art ballparks popped up from coast to coast. Television contracts abounded and Major League salaries did the same. Home run records fell. Dynasties were born.
The Minors were no exception. The '90s brought a boom like never before seen with exponential increases in franchise values and magnificent new facilities dotting the Minor League Baseball landscape. But where the rest of baseball was growing by virtually every numerical measure, one area of the farm streamlined to move forward.
Today, the top rung of the Minor League ladder has two distinct members: the International League and Pacific Coast League. (The Mexican League is not tied via direct affiliations but still considered Triple-A.) But for much of the 20th century, the stateside contingent numbered three circuits.
The start of baseball's most recent expansion era brought two entrants -- Charlotte and Ottawa -- to the IL in 1993, giving the circuit 10 teams to match the PCL's total, but it was the eight-team American Association that covered the nation's heartland, stretching from Buffalo to New Orleans and from Louisville to Omaha.
Five years after the Rockies and Marlins began play with their families of affiliates, the D-backs and then-Devil Rays were set to do the same. Triple-A baseball was at a crossroads.
The three-league era
Max Schumacher was a child of the American Association. A native son of Indianapolis, Schumacher went to Indians games as a kid in an era in which fandom was built around the heroes of the Minors in local ballparks and big-league stars weren't much more than names in a box score or flashes of footage on a newsreel.
After college and two years in the Army, Schumacher joined the Indians' front office as a ticket manager in 1957. Four years later, he was Indianapolis' general manager. He inhabited the role for the next 36 seasons, including a one-season stint in the IL in 1963 and five years in the PCL from 1964-68. After the Association was revived from a six-year hiatus in 1969, Schumacher continued building one of the most stable franchises at the sport's top Minor League level.
With the rocketing economics of the '90s sending the Minors into the stratosphere, Schumacher had a front-row seat to the shifting setting of Triple-A.
"I think there was only one major factor [in realignment] from our standpoint, and that was the fact that a lot of fans were complaining, disappointed, whatever word you want to use that there weren't more different teams that were coming in to play," said Schumacher, now Indianapolis' president and chairman of the board. "They were bored with the relatively small number of teams that came in to provide the opposition for us in Indianapolis. We were very interested in having more teams come in."
That concern was common in the Association, but hadn't provided enough reason to change the status quo. In fact, the Triple-A leagues had experimented with interleague play in the late '80s and didn't see a tremendous bump in attendance or interest, but the issue persisted nonetheless.
"Before the phrase 'realignment' ever shaped up, I think there were three fairly harmonious situations," said PCL president Branch Rickey III. "The Pacific Coast League had a wonderful history of operating largely on the West Coast, and the International League certainly, I don't think, had any discomfort with how it was configured. The American Association itself did have a little bit of awkwardness."
The roster the Association boasted made scheduling and logistics easy, but the potential of adding two teams for the 1998 season brought challenges, especially with Durham -- one of the proposed new Association clubs along with Memphis -- residing well outside the league's footprint.
"The eight-team configuration was a particularly welcome one in the respect that it's easy to write a schedule for an eight-team league, and the more you increase travel, schedule writing becomes very much a central issue in the successful operation of a league," Rickey said.
It wasn't just the Association that had concerns about what the new arrangement would mean. The Durham franchise, recognizing its proximity to IL locales such as Charlotte and Norfolk, voiced reservations of its own.
There were other issues in Triple-A too. The three-league All-Star Game posed certain challenges, but nothing compared to the task of crowning a classification champion from three league winners. Rickey liked the All-Star Game format, which pitted American League organization players vs. those of National League teams, but as for determining one champion from three…
"That was another story," he said. "That was a nightmare deluxe. There was no practical way to really have a Triple-A championship."
It all added up -- the small pool of teams in the Association, a geographic layout that didn't really fit with one expansion city, a complicated route to a clear playoff champion. Taken as a whole, the issues forced Triple-A baseball to confront an existential question: Do three leagues make sense?
"That really brought all of Triple-A Baseball into that dialogue," said Rickey.
Changing the game
In 1997, Minors president Mike Moore requested committees from each circuit convene and discuss a wide variety of realignment possibilities.
"Everybody got together and started puzzling over, 'Are we going to talk about one giant Triple-A league? Are we going to talk about three different leagues now or four?'" said Rickey, the American Association president from 1991 through the league's closing. "I think we looked at five even. When all the arguments were put on the table, five fell away, one fell away, eventually four fell away. Finally with some reluctance, a reconfigured three fell away, and the conversation became two."
IL president Randy Mobley was extra familiar with the Association, having been with the IL when both leagues operated out of the same offices for a time in the '80s, and his circuit already overlapped geographically with the Association in the East. A redistribution of teams in the nation's midsection to leagues on its coasts simply made sense.
"[Association owners] decided that they would be amenable to dissolving the American Association with some of them going to the Coast League and some of them going to the International League," Mobley said. "If the American Association hadn't done that, I personally -- and this is nothing more than a personal opinion -- I don't believe that the directors of either of the other two leagues would have done that. That was certainly a big factor."
The decision was made. The Association would cease to exist after the 1997 season. Discussion transitioned from "if" to "how."
Fresno players celebrate their 2015 Triple-A title, an accomplishment made possible by 1998 realignment. (El Paso Chihuahuas)
"There was a sentiment among some of those American Association owners that they wanted to keep a core group of them together," Mobley said. "That's when it was decided that Omaha, Iowa, Nashville, Oklahoma City and New Orleans would, to some degree, stay together and be joined by Memphis going into the Coast League. The International League would add Durham as an expansion club, and returning to the International League -- having previously played in the league -- would be Indianapolis, Louisville and Buffalo."
Schumacher heaped praise upon Mobley and Rickey who, along with then-PCL president Bill Cutler, led the transition.
"I think the world of Branch Rickey III," he said, noting that some prior administrations "were not as high-level intellect as Branch Rickey." Schumacher held the same trust in Mobley.
"That was a bonus of the move into the International League is we were under the [leadership] of really an exceptionally fine league president," Schumacher said. "You can't ever imagine having a league president who is the equal of Randy Mobley."
Schumacher provided a snapshot of the move's benefits for his club and fans that directly addressed longtime grumblings about the number of visiting teams and talent.
"Going into the International League, of course, we were going to see the Yankees' players come in from their affiliate, the Red Sox playing out of Pawtucket, the Braves who at the time were in Richmond, just a lot of variety in addition to retaining the Major League teams that were affiliated in Columbus, Louisville and Toledo," he said.
The All-Star Game became a simplified IL vs. PCL format. The Triple-A National Championship Game became the same and has since garnered annual national television coverage.
New rivalries were born. Old rivalries continued or were rekindled. Indianapolis remained on the same circuit as Louisville, a pairing that dates back to one of the Association's earliest iterations in 1902. Buffalo returned to the IL, a loop it first inhabited in 1886. There it joined fellow upstate New York teams in Rochester and Syracuse and instituted the Thruway Series, which features a trophy for the winner and plenty of history.
"From our standpoint here, Buffalo's been in the International League for over 100 years," Mobley said. "For them to return to the International League, they're just a real deep portion of this league's history. That in itself was a very positive thing. Louisville had a history in this league with the Red Sox affiliate being there, some great teams coming through there. Indianapolis had only been in the league one year prior to then, 1963, but they won the league that year.
"To be able to add those three teams in '98 along with the Durham Bulls and all of the attention they had received from the movie and such, it was very a positive thing for the International League."
The assimilation was equally successful for the PCL, if a bit more intricate. After realignment was confirmed, Cutler decided it was time to leave the game he had served for over 50 years.
"He told me afterwards that the excitement of 16 teams didn't appeal to him a whole lot," Rickey said with a laugh. "Age was a factor and health was a major issue. He had some major knee issues, and I don't think that he really welcomed the idea of now having to familiarize himself with a whole new set of clubs, go through the awkwardness and what would seem a disruption. For me, it was almost the reverse."
Rickey, who previously looked to be out of a job with the dissolution of his league, was waiting in the wings to take over. PCL owners agreed and voted for him from a list of six candidates to be Cutler's replacement.
"As the American Association saw itself dissolving somewhat down the middle with three teams going to the IL and five teams going to the PCL -- a sixth former American Association team that never played a game in the American Association, Memphis, came to the party -- I saw this as a breath of fresh air," said Rickey, who has been PCL president ever since.
Rickey's previous baseball experience, in player development with the Pirates and Reds as well as with the Association, had largely come east of the Mississippi.
"It all seemed like a sparkling new horizon," he said, "and it was."
Rickey moved the PCL's offices to Colorado Springs in 1998 and ushered in an era of renewal. The league's three Canadian teams uprooted and moved to the States, and new ballparks sprang up in virtually every destination. Through it all, Rickey kept the spirit of the Association alive, naming one of the PCL's conferences after the defunct league and keeping its members together.
Once and future kings
Weep not for the American Association. While the disbanding closed one of the historic identities of Minor League Baseball's storied history, Triple-A baseball thrived even more in an already booming era because of it.
"It's high-quality Triple-A baseball," said Schumacher. "It's provided to the fans at reasonable cost, and you're going to see competitive baseball with the top players who are prospects to go to the Major Leagues."
For Rickey, what once loomed as his impending unemployment instead became the next page of a legendary career.
"A transition which was perhaps thought to be an extraordinarily awkward one at the time has turned out to be remarkably advantageous in many respects," he said.
Mobley agreed, proudly noting the Minor Leagues' ability to cling to their identity throughout decades of change ranging from the innocuous to the unprecedented.
"I don't think there's any question that our golden goose is our ability to provide family affordable entertainment," he said. "Now what has certainly added to that, since the early '90s when the facility boom began, we now combine that family entertainment with affordable prices in a safe and comfortable environment. So much of what we do is geared around what you can do in that type of situation. If you're able to bring someone in at an inexpensive price and they feel comfortable, they feel safe, they can let their kids play in the playground or go through the water fountains and not be worried about it, it's become so much more than just baseball.
"But we also can't ever forget that baseball is what we are."