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Then and now: California League

Star-studded circuit a Golden State of baseball opportunity
April 8, 2022

Following Major League Baseball's announcement that historical league names are returning to the Minors in 2022, provides a refresher on each of the 11 circuits from Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A -- including past champions, famous alumni and more.

Following Major League Baseball's announcement that historical league names are returning to the Minors in 2022, provides a refresher on each of the 11 circuits from Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A -- including past champions, famous alumni and more.

The Golden State reigns supreme in the Single-A California League, where Rickey ran wild for Modesto, a scorned pet reptile cursed Visalia's championship hopes and the Mighty Casey might have struck out in Stockton.

California League

Established in 1941, known in 2021 as the Low-A West

North Division

Fresno Grizzlies: Colorado Rockies, Chukchansi Park – Fresno, CA (Ballpark Guide)
Modesto Nuts: Seattle Mariners, John Thurman Field – Modesto, CA (Ballpark Guide)
San Jose Giants: San Francisco Giants, Excite Ballpark – San Jose, CA (Ballpark Guide)
Stockton Ports: Oakland A’s, Banner Island Ballpark – Stockton, CA (Ballpark Guide)

South Division

Inland Empire 66ers: Los Angeles Angels, San Manuel Stadium – San Bernadino, CA (Ballpark Guide)
Lake Elsinore Storm: San Diego Padres, The Diamond – Lake Elsinore, CA (Ballpark Guide)
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes: Los Angeles Dodgers, LoanMart Field – Rancho Cucamonga, CA (Ballpark Guide)
Visalia Rawhide: Arizona Diamondbacks, Valley Strong Ballpark – Visalia, CA

2021 champion: San Jose Giants
Most championships, all-time: San Jose Giants (12)

Did you know? Though the poem was penned decades before the beginning of the Cal League, there is belief that the “Mudville Nine,” in Ernest Thayer's comic ballad "Casey at the Bat," was a reference to a team that played in Stockton. … Despite its name, the California League hasn't always been exclusive to clubs from the Golden State. Reno fielded a team in nearly every season between 1955 and 1992, with most of these teams utilizing the Silver Sox moniker. The Las Vegas Wranglers were a member of the league in 1958, playing a single season and then disbanding. The city then went without a professional baseball team until the Triple-A Las Vegas Stars arrived in 1983.

Notable alumni: Adrián Beltré, George Brett, Don Drysdale, Rollie Fingers, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson, Reggie Jackson, Pedro Martínez, Joe Morgan, Mike Piazza and Kirby Puckett.

Stockton's baseball history goes back to the 1880s and may include "Casey at the Bat."Courtesy of the Haggin Museum

Today's California League took root in 1941 with the establishment of an eight-team Class C circuit composed entirely of teams from the Golden State. More than 80 years later, it's still going strong. Throughout the course of its existence, the loop has fielded teams in 24 cities. Since 2017, it’s been made up of eight teams within two four-team divisions.

The advent of World War II resulted in a rocky start for the Cal League, with the circuit suspending play from 1943-45. The 1946 season marked the beginning of a run of remarkable consistency with the league establishing, or re-establishing, several franchises that continue to operate to this day.

The circuit has hosted innumerable baseball luminaries at the beginning of their careers. This includes 20 future MVP Award winners as well as notable umpires (Doug Harvey), executives (Pat Gillick), managers (Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa) and broadcasters (Matt Vasgersian, Dave Flemming).

There are two individual seasons that stick out in the hitter-friendly league’s history. Harry Heslet walked away from professional baseball after one of the best individual seasons in the sport’s history. Heslet cracked 51 homers and drove in 172 runs for Visalia in 1956. There was also Rick Huisman’s 1991 season with San Jose, which certainly contradicted the league’s norms. Huisman went 16-4 with a 1.83 ERA, and 216 strikeouts with four shutouts over 182 ⅓ innings – which included a 36-inning scoreless streak.

But beyond the legends created in the California League, the circuit has done well to embody the quirkiness of Minor League Baseball.

Take Lake Elsinore’s annual “Nothing Night,” for example. Once a year at The Diamond, admission and parking are free and the mascot and PA announcer get the night off and the game is all that’s left for spectators’ entertainment. And then there’s Visalia’s curse of the alligator, which was to blame for the Rawhide’s championship drought that lasted from 1978 to 2019. The apex of the Cal League’s weirdness, however, is the 1986 San Jose Bees. The Bees were the circuit’s only unaffiliated team that season and its roster was partially made up of Major Leaguers serving drug suspensions and five players on loan from Japan's Seibu Lions.

What's new: In 2021, as part of a larger reorganization of Minor League Baseball, the California League changed its classification from Class A Advanced to Low-A. The Lancaster JetHawks were replaced by the Fresno Grizzlies, who had previously operated out of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Fresno was one of the Cal League's charter members, fielding a team in every season from 1946 through 1988.

What's familiar: Fresno is a city with a long and strong California League history. Each of the other seven teams have operated in the league since 1994 or earlier, with several boasting remarkably deep roots. This season will mark the 74th in which Modesto has fielded a team in the league. Stockton (73 seasons), San Jose (72) and Visalia (71) are also stalwart franchises, with the latter two cities playing in historic ballparks. San Jose's Excite Ballpark opened its doors in 1942, while Visalia's Valley Strong Ballpark debuted in 1946.

For the record: In 1977, at the age of 18, Rickey Henderson swiped 95 bags as a member of the Modesto A's – including a record seven in one game. As impressive as this was, it paled in comparison to what Donnell Nixon accomplished six years later. Nixon stole a whopping 144 bases over 135 games with the Bakersfield Blaze, establishing a Cal League record that will likely never be broken. … Playing for Stockton in 1957, Al Spearman began an 18-month streak during which he hurled a record 33 consecutive complete games. … Ed Kurpiel stands among the many unverified legends of the Minor Leagues for a reported 670-foot homer he smacked while playing for Modesto in 1972. … In 1955, Charlie Beamon went 16-0 for Stockton and became the first player in league history with at least 15 decisions and no losses.

Ben’s Biz Memory – Trying (and failing) to break a bread truck’s headlight in San Jose’s iconic “Smash for Cash” contest

"This is one of the most creative and attention-grabbing between-inning contests that I've ever seen, and the San Jose Giants have been doing it for years and years. I don't quite know the origin story behind it, but I should look that up. But they literally drive an old bread delivery truck out onto the field, park it along the first base line, and they get a contestant to stand, I would say, roughly 60 feet -- and you have three tries to throw a baseball at the truck's headlights. And if you can smash the truck's headlights you win a prize. I'm not exactly sure what you would have won. But, clearly this thrill of smashing a bread truck headlight in front of thousands of people is a reward itself. You have your dizzy bat races, you have all your goofy, very repeatable between-inning promotions, and that's great. But you love to see teams that go really beyond something so unique to them and 'Smash for Cash' is 100 percent in that category."

What to look for in 2022: The San Jose Giants, whose 2021 roster included top San Francisco prospects Marco Luciano, Luis Matos and Patrick Bailey, are the reigning league champions. They have 12 league titles, one more than the Stockton Ports. The Ports, who have not won a championship since 2008, will look to get even in 2022. The Fresno Grizzlies, meanwhile, posted the league's best record in 2022. The last team from that city to win a Cal League championship was the 1987 Fresno Giants.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.