PCL is the Grand Minor League

Williams, DiMaggio, Stengel all spent time out west

During the 1925 season, Frank Lazzeri had 60 home runs for Salt Lake City. (AP)

March 28, 2006 11:15 AM

If you look at the history of the Pacific Coast League, you might feel that it is a Minor League in name only. Many of the game's greats spent significant time in the PCL while a number of important innovations and landmarks occurred in this Triple-A circuit.

The PCL is also one of baseball's oldest leagues, originally started back in 1879 when most of the western United States was just beginning to become settled. This older version failed and restarted many times between 1893-97 before the California State League got going in 1899. It wasn't until late December 1902 that owners of several of the league's clubs met at San Francisco's Palace Hotel and decided to start their own brand of baseball.

The brand new PCL started out with six teams in Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the going was rough from the start. Teams changed cities on a semi-regular basis and it took a year for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues to recognize it as an official professional league in 1904. Just two years later, the Great San Francisco Earthquake struck, leveling the city and forcing the league to temporarily shut down until May 14.

Because of the Black Sox scandal, 1920 was probably one of the bleakest years in baseball, but gamblers had also infiltrated the PCL. New league president William McCarthy was attacked after a San Francisco Seals game by gambler Roy Hurlburt, just hours after a new anti-gambling edict banned him and others from PCL games. Later, first baseman Babe Borton of the champion Vernon Tigers admitted that he and other players had conspired with gamblers to throw games during the Championship series, prompting McCarthy to kick Borton, along with outfielders W.G. Rumler and Karl Maggart, out of the league.

In 1904, Jack McCarthy became the first umpire to don a chest protector during a game. The Hollywood Stars became the first pro sports team to fly to a game, purely by accident, when they were late for their train from Seattle in July 1928. It was 12 years earlier when a more important breakthrough occurred, but with decidedly less fanfare than it deserved.

The Oakland Oaks signed an American Indian pitcher from Nebraska named Jimmy Claxton back in 1916. Claxton was on the squad for only a few days when rumor spread that he really was a black man and several people claimed they saw him play on a local all-black squad. Several days later, the Oaks released Claxton, but not before he became the first African-American in pro baseball.

In 1925, everyone was having a blast in one way or another. The Seals opened their season with an outrageous new promotion: the "Booze Cage." Some Seals fans had earned a reputation for being rowdy, so the Seals closed off a section of seats from the field with chicken wire and for 75 cents, a patron not only had the opportunity to give the opponents his own two-cent's worth, he also received a complimentary shot of whiskey to help him along. Toward the other end of the season and across the league in Salt Lake City, a young shortstop notched the first 60-homer season, thanks in part to the high altitude and a 200-game schedule. His name was Tony Lazzeri, a future Hall of Famer for the New York Yankees who saw his feat matched by Babe Ruth two years later.

Lazzeri wasn't the only baseball immortal to pass through what many people at the time were calling The Grand Minor League. Ted Williams, one of the game's greatest hitters, had a less-than-spectacular start to his pro career when he struck out three times in his debut for the San Diego Padres. Joe DiMaggio got his first taste of streaks in 1933 when he had a run of 61 straight games with a hit for his hometown Seals -- in his rookie season, no less. Two other future Yankees, manager Casey Stengel and second baseman Billy Martin first met on the 1948 Oaks' championship squad.

Unlike today's Minor Leagues, this constant migration of the league's elite players was not warmly received. Then-president Clarence "Pants" Rowland used this situation, along with competitive salaries and better travel options, to lobby for elevation to Major League status. Though Rowland never got that wish in full, the NAPBL did grant the PCL an "open classification" in 1952, which was akin to Quadruple-A status. The Major League clubs had limited rights as to how many players they could sign from the league and when they did, they had to pay a hefty amount for them, as much as $10,000 for the best prospects. But this would as close as the PCL would get to Major League status.

The 1950s were a difficult time for Minor League Baseball, and the PCL was no exception. The league was already reeling in 1957 when the Dodgers and Giants moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, forcing the teams in each city to relocate and creating more distance. During the 1960s, the PCL covered more ground than the bigs, stretching from Indianapolis in the east to Honolulu in the west. One franchise, Salt Lake City, hit rock-bottom in 1984 when the lights went out because the Gulls were unable to pay some of their bills. The league was able to get the electricity and other services back, but the Gulls were forced to finish their season and the playoffs on the road.

Things have certainly changed for the better over the last 20 years for the PCL. With the renewed popularity of Minor League Baseball, the PCL has enjoyed a return to prominence. Ten of the PCL's ballparks have been built since 1988, with Nashville looking to make it 11 by 2008. Many of today's stars, such as Mark Prior, Rich Harden, Todd Helton and Albert Pujols, polished their skills here before sticking in the big leagues. The Grand Minor League also absorbed one of its Triple-A counterparts when the old American Association dissolved and was split among the PCL and the International League.

Finally, last year saw the PCL continue its tradition of breaking new ground when league-wide attendance reached over 7 million, a Minor League record.

What started out as a six-team, lower-level circuit over a century ago has become the Big East of the Minors: a 16-team super-league boasting of some of the largest and finest facilities and some of the game's top young talent.

Michael Echan 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.

View More