Minor League Baseball is known for its rich history, dating back more than 100 years. While much has been written about the best teams and top players who have graced the Minors, there remain many stories either untold or largely forgotten. Each week, MiLB.com will attempt to fill that gap and explore these historical oddities in our "Cracked Bats" feature. Know of any stories to be considered for this feature in the future? Send an email and let us know.
When Sacramento captured the Bricktown Showdown in September, the victory signaled the franchise's supremacy in the world of Minor League Baseball, at least at the Triple-A level. Clearly, there was no debating the River Cats' place in the hierarchy of baseball's lower levels in 2007.
Yet when it comes to Sacramento's place in history, well, let's just say that's another matter entirely. The River Cats, through no fault of their own, pale in comparison to some of the legendary Minor League teams of the past, including the team regarded as the best of all time -- the 1934 Los Angeles Angels.
Like Sacramento, the Angels played in the Pacific Coast League. But the PCL of the first half of the 20th century in no way resembles the league of today. In fact, the PCL that Los Angeles dominated was considered by many to be a third Major League, comparable to the American and National Leagues. And the Angels were the best the league ever offered regardless of the era.
Los Angeles posted a remarkable 137-50 record in 1934. Six of the eight positional starters hit .300 or better -- including outfielder Frank Demaree, who led the circuit with a .383 average -- with the lowest batting average among them sitting conspicuously at .289. The Angels sported three 20-game winners -- including Fay Thomas, who led the league with 28 wins and 204 strikeouts -- and had seven pitchers overall reach double-digits in victories. Only one pitcher had a sub-.500 record and he was 0-2.
"They were such a dominating team at that time for that one year," said Bill Weiss, a noted baseball historian and co-author of The 100 Greatest Minor League Teams. "You know about all the records they set, the number of wins in a season and all that. It was just all-around excellence. I guess it was just a matter of all these fellows being in the right place at the right time.
"Certainly some of them could have been successful Major League players, especially when you think about expansion. But a lot of players from that time would tell you that they would rather play as regulars in the PCL than be a second-stringer in the National or American League. Don't forget, there wasn't that much difference between the top-notch PCL player and the run-of-the-mill Major Leaguer as far as salary was concerned and the PCL had better playing conditions in terms of climate."
The PCL season ran from the beginning of April through the end of September with each team playing a week-long series. There were 26 series in the season and the Angels won an astounding 23 of them. Weiss points out in his book that at one point Los Angeles won 29 consecutive series between 1933-34. The Angels finished the first half of the 1934 season with a 66-18 mark before going 71-32 in the second half to win the pennant by 35 1/2 games.
Demaree was just one of the dominating players in the middle of a lineup that saw four players drive in at least 119 runs. Aside from hitting .383, Demaree completed his Triple Crown by hitting 45 homers and driving in 173 runs. He led the league in five other offensive categories, including runs (190) and hits (269) and if that wasn't enough, he added 41 stolen bases.
He played most of the 1933 season with the Cubs. Demaree was a regular in Chicago for the next four seasons after his big year in '34. He would go on to hit .324 with 17 homers and 115 RBIs for the Cubs in 1937. Demaree would hang on and play 12 seasons in the Major Leagues, finishing with a career average of .299 for five different teams.
Perhaps the only player who could overshadow Demaree on that great Angels team was outfielder Jigger Statz, regarded by many as perhaps the greatest player in the history of Minor League Baseball. Statz played parts of eight seasons in the Major Leagues, finishing with a career average of .285. But his real claim to fame came in the PCL, where he played 18 seasons, all in Los Angeles.
Statz holds the PCL records for most games played (2,790), at-bats (10,657), runs (1,996), hits (3,356), total bases (4,405), doubles (595) and triples (137). He is fourth on the all-time Minor League runs scored list, sixth on the all-time hit list and first with 11 200-hit seasons.
As expected, he acquitted himself well with the '34 Angels, hitting .324 (246-for-760) with six homers, 66 RBIs, 61 stolen bases and a league-high 13 triples. Other staples in the Los Angeles lineup were first baseman Jim Oglesby (.312, 15 HR, 139 RBI), third baseman Gene Lillard (.289, 27 HR, 119 RBI) and outfielder Marv Gudat (.319, 43 steals, 125 RBI).
And lest anyone think the Angels were a one-hit wonder, consider the fact they also won the PCL crown in 1933 with a more modest 114-73 record to finish 6 1/2 games ahead of Portland. What makes the '34 squad so much more impressive is how they followed up on their pennant-winning season of '33. The 1933 Angels sported a pitching staff that included Buck Newsom (30-11, 3.17), Dick Ward (25-9, 3.25) and Leroy Herman (16-9, 4.59) but they were all traded or sold to other clubs, leaving Los Angeles with the task of replacing 71 victories -- a task they completed seemingly with ease. While the Angels are considered the greatest team in Minor League history, Weiss isn't so sure how they would have fared had they moved east and played against the American and National League clubs of the time.
"They probably could have competed in the Major Leagues, although they probably wouldn't have had enough pitching," said Weiss, who is a member of the PCL Hall of Fame. "It's one thing to have a couple of guys like Thomas but over the long haul I don't think they had enough guys who were Major League caliber. Most of the other players could have at least held their own. They probably would have been a fifth-place team."
Yet the '34 Angels have five members in the PCL Hall of Fame -- Statz, Thomas, catcher Truck Hannah, second baseman Jimmie Reese and manager Jack Lelivelt. And they have their place in history, too.