California has always been a hotbed for Major League talent, from Joe DiMaggio to Tom Seaver to Dontrelle Willis. With a population of nearly 34 million, it should be no surprise that the Golden State can easily support five Major League teams and two Minor Leagues, including the eponymous California League.
Today, the Cal League is one of the most prominent Advanced Class A circuits, with 10 teams filling out two divisions. The North is home to some of the older franchises, including the Bakersfield Blaze, Modesto Nuts, San Jose Giants, Stockton Ports and Visalia Oaks. The South probably has the youngest average age for ballparks in the Minors, with no stadium built before 1991. The teams housed in these facilities are the High Desert Mavericks, Inland Empire 66ers, Lake Elsinore Storm, Lancaster JetHawks and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.
Top talent like Brandon Wood, Jered Weaver and Chris Lubanski have made names for themselves in some of baseball's newest ballparks. Back in early 1940s, however, the Cal League was almost shot down before it ever had a chance to get off the ground.
The California League officially started back in 1941 as a C-level entity with teams from Major League Baseball and the Pacific Coast League. The league began with eight teams situated between San Francisco and Los Angeles, including the Anaheim Aces, Bakersfield Badgers, Fresno Cardinals, Merced Bears, Riverside Reds, San Bernardino Stars, Santa Barbara Saints and Stockton Fliers.
The Cal League's future was put in jeopardy shortly after that first season when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Five teams exited, leaving only Bakersfield, Fresno and Santa Barbara. San Jose was added to round out the quartet the following year before the league ceased operations altogether in 1943.
There was doubt whether the new league would be able to bounce back after an eventual three-year absence, but those fears were put aside when the Cal League returned with six teams after the war ended in 1946. Back were teams in Bakersfield, Fresno, Santa Barbara and Stockton, while the Modesto Reds and Visalia Cubs were added. The eight-team format was restored in 1947 when the San Jose Red Sox and Ventura Braves joined.
It was during this post-war era that the Cal League enjoyed its first real taste of success, with league attendance booming to nearly 800,000 during the 1949 season. Bakersfield, Fresno, San Jose and Stockton each drew at least 100,000 fans, an impressive number for a lower-level league that did not enjoy the population density of its East Coast counterparts.
The 1950s brought many changes to the United States, and the Cal League was not exempt. Thanks to the introduction of modern amenities such as television and air condition, people were more inclined to stay inside rather than venture into the unforgiving summer sun for three hours at a ballgame. As more and more Americans headed west, so did Major League Baseball, with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants landing in California in the late 1950s.
These moves had a profound effect on all of California's Minor Leagues, sapping fans from both the PCL and Cal League. One franchise, the Channel Cities Oilers (formerly Santa Barbara), moved in 1955 from Southern California to Reno, Nev., where it stayed for 37 years. The league contracted two more teams in 1959, but the bleeding did not stop there.
The 1960s proved rock-bottom for the Cal League. While future Hall of Famers like Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan and Don Sutton were being groomed for success down the road, few people came out to see them play. In 1963, the six teams that made up the Cal League totaled just 128,836 fans -- an average of 333 per game. In comparison, the San Francisco Giants drew more than 125,000 fans in their first three games of the 2005 season; individual Cal League franchises now draw over 200,000 per year.
The freefall seemed to ebb in the 1970s, but it wouldn't be until the early 1980s before the league started its upward climb. Former boxing promoter Joe Gagliardi became California League president, and under his direction, the league achieved financial stability before moving on to more ambitious goals.
"When I got here back in '81, the league really wasn't doing well," Gagliardi said. "It took us, as a league, a few years to get on our feet, but reaching financial stability was the first goal. Once you have the money, you can do all the other things that you wanted to do.
"One of those things, for me, was getting a brand new stadium for each team. After 25 years, I'm just two parks away, so seven new stadiums in 25 years isn't bad, as far as baseball time goes."
Those new ballparks are among the reasons the Cal League has become as popular as it has. Seven of the 10 stadiums have either been built or renovated since 1991, with Stockton's Banner Island Ballpark opening last season. The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes hold the record for single-season attendance, drawing 446,146 fans to The Epicenter during the 1995 season. Now, instead of struggling to top the 100,000 mark, the Cal League routinely brings in more than 2 million fans per year.
"For me, it isn't just the new stadiums, but it's the people that are running the teams and the stadiums that are bringing these people in," Gagliardi said. "The general managers and the owners are so much different. They're smarter, sharper and quicker on the fly, while the owners are more involved than what they used to be. They're more promotion-minded, which really does go a long way."
It also doesn't hurt when there is considerable talent on the field. Three members of the 500-homer club (Ken Griffey Jr., Jackson and Mark McGwire) and 12 Most Valuable Players all traveled up and down the Pacific Coast line during the early part of their professional careers while helping establish the league's reputation as a hitter's haven.
Pitching, however, has not been a lost art in the Cal League, with 10 Cy Young Award winners reaching the Majors, including Don Drysdale, Dennis Eckersley and Pedro Martinez.
With today's crop of talent, headlined by 2005 top overall draft pick Justin Upton, those attendance figures should rise again.