When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the 11th installment in a 14-part series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird, poignant or otherwise memorable fact about each team or city in each of Minor League Baseball's admission-charging leagues. Remember -- it's about the journey, not the destination. To share your own favorite team or city facts, please reach out via email ([email protected]) or Twitter (@bensbiz). Previous installments: International League, Pacific Coast League, Eastern League, Southern League, Texas League, California League, Carolina League, Florida State League, Midwest League and the South Atlantic League.
The New York-Penn League's roots go back to 1939, when it was founded as the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League (PONY, for short). Its last Ontario-based franchise folded in 1956, and the following season, the current New York-Penn League moniker came into being. This Class A Short Season circuit currently fields six teams from New York and two from Pennsylvania, but that's just the start of it as Connecticut, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, Ohio and West Virginia are represented as well. That's a lot of ground to cover, so without further ado: Let's get to the facts!
The IronBirds made their debut in 2002, having relocated from Utica, New York. Their inaugural season home opener at Ripken Stadium was accompanied by all the pomp and circumstance one would expect, including the use of a ceremonial home plate featuring a commemorative logo. Both the IronBirds and visiting Williamsport Crosscutters agreed to let the ballgame's first pitch cross home plate, after which it would be removed and preserved in pristine condition. But Crosscutters leadoff hitter Domingo Cuello either forgot, ignored or wasn't informed of this plan. He blasted a home run on the very first pitch he saw -- the very first pitch in the history of the IronBirds -- and thus the framed ceremonial home plate features Cuello's emphatic cleat mark on the top right corner.
Auburn made its league debut in 1958, and with the exception of 1981, has fielded a team in every season since. Over this 62-year stretch, the team has been known by nine different names, the most monikers of any New York-Penn organization. Auburn was known as the Yankees (1958-61), Mets (1962-66), Twins (1967-71) and Phillies (1972-77) before embarking on a three-year stretch in which it was a co-op team boasting farmhands from multiple organizations. In these years, the club was known as the Sunsets (1978), Red Stars (1979) and Americans (1980). After a one-year absence, the NYPL returned to Auburn in 1982 in the form of the Auburn Astros. In 1996, the organization adopted its current Doubledays moniker, in honor of the apocryphal inventor of baseball.
The aforementioned Doubledays have utilized the most names in New York-Penn League history, but Batavia has played the most seasons. The predecessor PONY League was founded in a Batavia hotel, and of the circuit's six original locations, Batavia is the only one that still fields a team. The city hosted a Minor League club from that inaugural 1939 campaign through 1953, from 1957-59 and then in every season since 1961. When the Muckdogs won the New York-Penn championship in 2008, it snapped a drought that dated back to 1963.
Mascot birthday parties are popular throughout the New York-Penn League, and throughout Minor League Baseball. But the Brooklyn Cyclones are, to this writer's knowledge, the only team to have staged a mascot Bar Mitzvah. This epochal event was part of the team's 2013 Jewish Heritage Night, commemorating mascot Sandy's transition from anthropomorphic seagull boy to anthropomorphic seagull man. Before the ballgame, Sandy sat in a chair and was triumphantly hoisted into the air by a cadre of celebrants.
Hudson Valley Renegades
Before the 2020 Minor League season was canceled, the Renegades announced that they would give away a Zolz ejection bobblehead on Aug. 6. This item, which hopefully will be part of the 2021 promo schedule, would commemorate the anniversary of Renegades public address announcer Rick Zolzer getting thrown out of a game in 1995. As for how exactly this happened, Hudson Valley Magazine provides a solid overview: "After the umpire called six balks, Zolzer incited the crowd to say 'baaaawk!' The ump warned Zolzer, who complied. Later, Zolzer played a song with the phrase 'yee-haaaaw,' which the umpire mistook for 'baaaawk!' So he ejected Zolzer from the game."
Over an 11-season span, the Spinners gave away three bobbleheads honoring Lowell native Jack Kerouac. The first such bobblehead in 2003 resulted in huge lines at the ballpark and was later enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The second, in 2012, featured the "On the Road" scribe in a classic "thumbs-out" hitchhiker's pose. In 2013, the third, commemorated Kerouac's high-school football days.
Mahoning Valley Scrappers
The Scrappers, the first and thus far only New York-Penn League team in Ohio, are based in the small city of Niles. When they arrived in 1999, it marked the first time since 1905 that Niles was home to a professional baseball team. That team -- presumably named after manager Charles Crowe -- was called the Niles Crowites and played in the Ohio-Pennsylvania League. The Crowites folded after one season, and the good people of Niles then had to wait 94 years for the Scrappers to make their debut.
Norwich Sea Unicorns
The Sea Unicorns, formerly the Connecticut Tigers, have not won a New York-Penn championship since relocating to Norwich in 2010. The team was formerly based in Oneonta, New York, where it won a lot of championships. A league-record 12, to be exact. All of Oneonta's crowns occurred during the team's 32-season stint as a Yankees affiliate between 1967-98. The last time a Norwich-based team won a championship was in 2002, when the Double-A Norwich Navigators captured the Eastern League title.
State College Spikes
The Spikes, like all NYPL teams, only have 38 home dates each season. In 2008, they maximized their entertainment output by staging 100 promotions in a single night. Aptly titled "The Night of 100 Promotions," this jam-packed outing included a pet rock petting zoo, a sock puppet show, a paper clip giveaway, free laughs, a bag of ballpark air giveaway, a concourse hula hoop station, a wing eating contest, free pocket schedules and 92 other promotional delights.
Staten Island Yankees
Tommy John won 91 games as a member of the New York Yankees, more than any other team for whom he played. In 2004, 15 years after throwing his final big league pitch, he returned to the organization as manager of the Staten Island Yankees. John's managerial opportunity came in the wake of his attendance at the New York Yankees' Fantasy Camp, where he reconnected with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Staten Island went 28-44 with John at the helm, the worst season in the history of the franchise.
The three cities alluded to in the ValleyCats' team name are Schenectady, Albany and Troy. The ValleyCats are based in Troy, which, believe it or not, was once home to a National League team. The Troy Trojans played in the NL from 1879-82, failing to record a winning record on what was then an eight-team circuit. The Trojans were disbanded following the 1882 season, in large part due to low attendance. The team moved to New York City and became the New York Gothams, who in turn became the New York Giants.
Vermont Lake Monsters
The Montreal Expos played their last season in 2004, summarily relocating to our nation's capital and becoming the Nationals. That did not mark the end of the Expos name on the professional baseball landscape, however. The Burlington-based Vermont Expos, established in 1994, played as the Expos in 2005 even though they were then a Nationals affiliate. They changed their name to the Lake Monsters prior to the 2006 season, in tribute to the prehistoric sea creature that allegedly resides in nearby Lake Champlain.
West Virginia Black Bears
The Pittsburgh Pirates are known for their Pierogi Race. The Black Bears, a Pittsburgh affiliate, offer their own regional food-based competition in the form of the nightly Pepperoni Roll Race. Double-Stuffed Dave, one of three Pepperoni Roll Racers, retired at the end of 2019 after finally earning a victory over his rivals Hot Pepper Hank and Pepperoni and Cheese Patty. His replacement has yet to be announced.
From 1987-91, the Crosscutters' home of Bowman Field played host to a Double-A Eastern League team named the Bills. At the tail end of the 1987 campaign, during a game against the Reading Phillies, Bills catcher Dave Bresnahan pulled off what has come to be known as "The Great Potato Caper." With a runner on third, Bresnahan threw a potato shaped like a baseball over the third baseman's head and into left field. The runner, Rick Lundblade, ran home, only to find Bresnahan waiting for him with the real baseball. Bresnahan was released the next day, but his legend lives on. The Crosscutters have staged Great Potato Caper-themed promotions on several occasions, perhaps most notably in 2007 when they gave away a bobblehead featuring Bresnahan holding a potato. Bresnahan was in attendance on this evening, re-enacting his caper prior to the ballgame.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.