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Then and now: International League

With 20 teams, largest loop in the Minors boasts storied history
March 17, 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. Retrace the first steps of baseball’s integration, hail to the

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.

Retrace the first steps of baseball’s integration, hail to the real-life Crash Davis and hoist a Governors’ Cup in the largest and oldest established circuit in affiliated baseball, the Triple-A International League.

International League

Established in 1884, known in 2021 as the Triple-A East

Northeast Division

Buffalo Bisons: Toronto Blue Jays, Sahlen Field – Buffalo, NY
Lehigh Valley IronPigs: Philadelphia Phillies, Coca-Cola Park – Allentown, PA (Ballpark Guide)
Rochester Red Wings: Washington Nationals, Frontier Field – Rochester, NY
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders: New York Yankees, PNC Field – Moosic, PA (Ballpark Guide)
Syracuse Mets: New York Mets, NBT Bank Stadium – Syracuse, NY (Ballpark Guide)
Worcester Red Sox: Boston Red Sox, Polar Park – Worcester, MA (Ballpark Guide)

Southeast Division

Durham Bulls: Tampa Bay Rays, Durham Bulls Athletic Park – Durham, NC (Ballpark Guide)
Gwinnett Stripers: Atlanta Braves, Coolray Field – Lawrenceville, GA
Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp: Miami Marlins, 121 Financial Field – Jacksonville, FL (Ballpark Guide)
Nashville Sounds: Milwaukee Brewers, First Horizon Park – Nashville, TN
Norfolk Tides: Baltimore Orioles, Harbor Park Stadium – Norfolk, VA
Charlotte Knights: Chicago White Sox, Truist Field – Charlotte, NC (Ballpark Guide)
Memphis Redbirds: St. Louis Cardinals, AutoZone Park – Memphis, TN

Midwest Division

Toledo Mud Hens: Detroit Tigers, Fifth Third Field – Toledo, OH (Ballpark Guide)
Omaha Storm Chasers: Kansas City Royals, Werner Park – Papillion, NE (Ballpark Guide)
St. Paul Saints: Minnesota Twins, CHS Field – St. Paul, MN
Indianapolis Indians: Pittsburgh Pirates, Victory Field – Indianapolis, IN
Columbus Clippers: Cleveland Guardians, Huntington Park – Columbus, OH (Ballpark Guide)
Louisville Bats: Cincinnati Reds, Louisville Slugger Field – Louisville, KY
Iowa Cubs: Chicago Cubs, Principal Park – Des Moines, IA

Most championships, all time: Rochester Red Wings (19)
Most Governors' Cups, all time: Columbus Clippers (11)

Did you know? Although the International League once included teams from Canada and Cuba, it has been comprised of clubs exclusively in the United States since 2008. The circuit’s geographic range, which extends from New England to the Plains and from the Deep South to the Canadian border, now spans 14 states.

Notable alumni: Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, Carlton Fisk, Bob Gibson, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Eddie Murray, Stan Musial, Satchel Paige, Kirby Puckett, Jim Rice, Cal Ripken Jr., Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Mike Hessman.

Created as a merger of three separate leagues -- the Eastern League, the New York State League and the Ontario League -- the International League was initially instituted as a 10-club circuit in 1887. Though its name didn’t become a permanent fixture until 1912, the circuit's foundation traces back to 1884 since the Eastern League came into existence that year.

In addition to its original Canadian-based clubs – which includes the Montreal Royals, Jackie Robinson’s only Minor League stop before breaking the Major League color barrier – the International League stayed true to its name. The league expanded into Cuba with the addition of the Havana Sugar Kings in 1954. After winning the Governors’ Cup in 1959, the team moved stateside to Jersey City, New Jersey, the following season. Another of the International League's clubs -- the Miami Marlins -- relocated to Puerto Rico as the San Juan Marlins in 1961. But that move was short-lived and the team moved to Charleston, West Virginia, later that season.

Always at the top tier of the Minors, the International League caught the attention of baseball fans around the country in 1971 when an IL All-Star team led by Carlton Fisk, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich upended the New York Yankees, 15-13, in an exhibition game in Rochester, New York.

The International League expanded and reshuffled into three divisions after adding four clubs to the mix in 1998. The Buffalo Bisons, Indianapolis Indians and Louisville Bats were absorbed from the American Association League, and the Durham Bulls moved up in affiliation from the Class A Carolina League. To this day, the league remains home to some of the most iconic and enduring franchises in all of sports, along with some of the Minors' biggest moments.

What's new: In addition to the original 14 clubs that comprised the league in 2019, the latest incarnation of the circuit absorbed six teams to make it the largest league in the Minors. One of those, the Worcester Red Sox, debuted in a new ballpark and a new town in 2021 when the Pawtucket franchise moved 35 miles northwest from Rhode Island into central Massachusetts. Meanwhile, four of the clubs (Iowa, Memphis, Nashville and Omaha) arrived from the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, one (Jacksonville) joined the ranks from the Double-A Southern League and another (St. Paul) entered from independent ball.

What’s familiar: All of the 14 teams that made up the circuit in 2019 remain in the league, and these clubs have called the International League home since at least 2009. The Bisons and the Red Wings date back to 1912, however, Buffalo’s franchise joined the American Association from 1970-1998 and the Rochester franchise has changed names four times during its existence.

For the record: While playing for Toledo in 2015, Mike Hessman broke the record for the most career homers in Minor League history. Then 37 years old, Hessman’s 433rd career long ball moved him ahead of Buzz Artlett, who had topped the leaderboard for 79 years. That homer was the last in a 19-year professional career that spanned 11 Minor League teams, three Major League teams and more action in Venezuela, Mexico and Japan. Hessman quickly earned comparisons to Crash Davis, the fictional Minor League home run king from the movie, "Bull Durham." And just like Davis, Hessman began coaching in the Minors at the end of playing career, climbing the ranks from short-season ball to the big leagues, where he’ll serve as the Tigers’ assistant hitting coach in 2022. … On April 18, 1981, Rochester and Pawtucket began the longest game in professional baseball history. The contest, which Pawtucket won, 3-2, lasted 33 innings and took more than eight hours to complete on two separate days. It featured Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. and was put on hold around 4 a.m. and resumed on June 23. Pawtucket needed less than 20 minutes to walk off with the victory after the teams met again two months later.

Ben’s Biz memory: Toledo’s Culligan Chill Challenge

“I've done a lot of between-inning contests and on-field stuff -- I might rank that as the No. 1 most memorable just because it was so visceral and physical. It was a literal ice bath, so it was frigid weather. I'm a veteran of doing the Polar Plunge in Coney Island, so I think I was maybe a little bit more prepared than most, but still there was just that literal shock to your system when you're in an ice bath and being in public on the concourse, having people watch, being interviewed -- it lasted for an entire inning, and so you're just rooting against pitching changes or any sort of delay so you can get out of there as soon as possible. But also, once you're in for a few minutes, you kind of get numb. So I was there for the whole third inning, and by the time it ended, I was like, 'OK, whatever,' because I was numb. But that initial shock was brutal. I liked having a true between-inning challenge that tested limits to an extent that most don't because, obviously, that's not something teams are really going for is to push people to the edge of their comfort zone.”

What to look for in 2022: Can the Bulls maintain their 2021 supremacy? With a 77-42 mark (.642), Durham paced the field and cruised past runner-up Buffalo (71-46) to win the Triple-A East regular-season title. The Bulls rode that momentum to a 9-1 record during the Final Stretch to be named overall Triple-A champions.

Rob Terranova is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.