International League is a survivor

Circuit has almost always had presence outside the U.S.

(Rochester Red Wings)

March 30, 2006 5:16 PM

While the International League has never been the globe-spanning juggernaut that its name implies, it has almost always included teams from at least two different countries. At the very least, the league's moniker is more accurate than the World Series.

At various points in its long and often difficult history, the International League truly has been international. From 1954-1960, the circuit featured a team from Havana, Cuba. In 1972, the league was involved in the Kodak World Baseball Championship, a small-scale precursor to today's World Baseball Classic.

Regardless of geography, the International League's history is a rich one. After all, it is one of the oldest leagues in all of professional baseball. Formed in 1886, the IL was the result of a merger between the New York State League and the Ontario League. The following season, the International League took on two franchises from the Eastern League, and a 10-team circuit was born.

The 1880s were a chaotic time for professional baseball, and the International League was certainly not immune from turmoil. In 1890, Buffalo left the circuit to join the brand new Player's Brotherhood, while Syracuse and Toledo jumped to the American Association. This led to a feud between the three leagues, which would often enter into bidding wars for a player's services. Such fierce competition exacted a toll on the International League. By 1892, the circuit had been reduced to eight franchises, only six of which would finish the season.

Under the leadership of league president Pat Powers, the IL survived. This despite competition from the emerging Western League (the precursor to the American League), which pilfered the International League's Buffalo and Scranton franchises in 1899, as well as Baltimore in 1903.

The league earned a well-deserved breather from cutthroat competition over the next 11 seasons, during which membership remained unchanged. In 1914, however, the Federal League emerged as a new threat. In a bid to become a third Major League, Federal League owners raided IL franchises in Buffalo, Baltimore and Newark, N.J., eventually relocating the latter two. The International League's tendency to succumb to invasion earned it the nickname "The Belgium of Baseball."

It was also during this tumultuous time that the International League featured a baseball immortal: Babe Ruth. At the age of 19, Ruth signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles (then an IL franchise). It was in Baltimore that he earned the nickname Babe, which was a reference to his youthful appearance and his status as the "baby" of Orioles owner Jack Dunn, who was his legal guardian.

The Orioles sold Ruth's contract to the Boston Red Sox, who subsequently optioned him to another International League team, the Providence Grays.

Not even the Babe could save the International League from the hard times of World War I and the Great Depression. Attendance dropped precipitously during these years, and several clubs dropped out of the league. The IL was able to stave off extinction, however, thanks to innovative leadership.

In 1930, 12,000 fans turned up to see the first night game in the league's history (which Buffalo lost to visiting Montreal, 5-4). In 1933, with only nine Minor Leagues operating in the United States, the International League kept hope alive by introducing a two-tiered playoff system that allowed four teams to participate in postseason play as opposed to the traditional two. Response to this plan was enthusiastic, and the governors of Maryland, New Jersey and New York, along with officials in Quebec and Ontario, came together to sponsor a trophy for the overall winner: the Governors' Cup.

Buffalo took home the Governors' Cup in 1933, and the competition continues today. In 2005, the Toledo Mud Hens won the Cup, which will reside at Fifth Third Field during the 2006 season.

In addition to the innovative Governors' Cup, the International League's postseason has had several interesting variations over the years. Between 1905-91, the "Little" or "Junior" World Series often was played, pitting the champion of the International League against the champion of the American Association. The Kodak World Baseball Championship, which included several Minor League clubs as well as a Caribbean All-Star team, was played in 1972. And between 1998-2000, the Triple-A World Series was played in Las Vegas, pitting the International and Pacific Coast League champions.

The International League emerged from the lean years of World War II relatively unscathed. In 1946, the first full season played after the war, the league featured none other than Jackie Robinson.

In a warmup for his historic season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson spent the 1946 campaign with the Montreal Royals. He officially broke professional baseball's color barrier on April 18 in a game against the Jersey City Giants. Robinson went on to lead the IL in batting and was immensely popular in Montreal.

However, Robinson was not the first black player in the International League. In fact, when he made his debut he shattered a barrier that the International League had helped create. Throughout the 1880s, black players appeared on various IL rosters. While they often were the victims of strong prejudice, they were not banned from competing.

At the start of the 1887 season, seven black players were included on league rosters. However, white players often revolted against the presence of black teammates, and International League directors agreed to no longer issue contracts to black players. This marked the first time in baseball history that any pro league drew an official color line.

Eight years after Robinson's season with the Montreal Royals, the International League further expanded its borders by including a team from Cuba. The addition of the Havana Sugar Kings in 1954 made the International League truly international. The Sugar Kings were forced to relocate midway through the 1960 season, however, due to the unstable political climate created by Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries. The next year, the league added a franchise in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was not to be, however, as that club relocated to Charleston, W.Va. before season's end.

The next three decades were ones of stability and growth for the league, which expanded into Tidewater, Va., and Pawtucket, R.I. The Pawtucket Red Sox were an immediate success, winning the Governors' Cup in their first season. Pawtucket also was involved in one of the most legendary Minor League games of all-time.

On April 18, 1981, the contest between the PawSox and Rochester Red Wings was suspended after 32 innings, with the score tied, 2-2. The game was resumed on June 23, with Pawtucket's Dave Koza delivering a game-winning single in the bottom of the 33rd inning. Each team featured a future Hall of Famer. Pawtucket's Wade Boggs went 4-for-12, including a game-tying single in the bottom of the 21st. Meanwhile, Rochester's Cal Ripken went 2-for-13 (and, of course, played every inning).

Today, the International League includes 14 teams, an all-time high. The most recent round of expansion took place in 1998, after the American Association folded. That circuit's Buffalo, Indianapolis and Louisville franchises joined the International League, and an expansion team from Durham, N.C., was added. The league's all-time attendance record was set in 2002, when more than 6.8 million fans passed through the turnstiles.

In 2005, the record was almost broken, as the IL drew 6,747,392 fans. While the league may not be very "international" at the moment -- the Ottawa Lynx are the lone team located outside the U.S. -- it is in very good health. Having survived raids by other leagues, the Great Depression and two world wars, the International League has proven itself one of the most durable organizations in all of professional baseball.

With a little luck, the league's next 120 years will be full of domestic bliss.

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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