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Entering the Third Era of the Pioneer Baseball League

June 8, 2021

Precisely with the call of the last out in the last game on 2021’s Opening Night, we witnessed the birth of the Pioneer Baseball League’s “Third Era.” Not unlike the dawning of the First Era in 1939, the PBL returns to play a full-season of 96 games starting in May

Precisely with the call of the last out in the last game on 2021’s Opening Night, we witnessed the birth of the Pioneer Baseball League’s “Third Era.” Not unlike the dawning of the First Era in 1939, the PBL returns to play a full-season of 96 games starting in May as teams now sign their own players, and professional baseball with all of its trimmings returns from an absence in the Intermountain West.

Those folks who are blessed with the good fortune of living in the PBL states of Idaho, Utah, Montana and Colorado have enjoyed baseball since shortly after the Civil War when soldiers brought various iterations of the game to the Native Americans. There were town teams, school teams, family teams, company teams and women’s teams. But it was the professional teams that captured the spirit of fans and communities from the turn of the century. Unfortunately, these teams crashed with the Stock Market in 1929 and were lost for a decade.

PBL FIRST ERA (1939-1963)

In 1939, the Pioneer League began play in its “First Era” to return professional baseball to the Intermountain West. Most of the clubs hired their own players. The league clubs were comprised of dedicated baseball professionals. Some players were career minor league players. Chuck Henson won the batting title in 1941, served in the U. S. Navy in World War II, and returned to again lead the Pioneer League in hitting in 1946. Others had played in the Majors but were now playing in the west.

Wes Schulmeric, player and manager for the inaugural champion Twin Falls club, placed fourth in National League batting for the Phillies just a few years before. And some were young players who were looking to make the show. One of the first was Larry Jansen, who went on to stardom for the New York Giants. He was the winning pitcher in the game where Bobby Thomson hit the home run off Ralph Branca, the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” He placed second in National League rookie of the Year voting, losing to Jackie Robinson.

As Branch Rickey’s farm system model began to dominate, the Major League parent clubs provided young stars for development. The 1940s presented Gus Triandos, Gil McDougald, and Johnny Temple. In the 1950s, fans celebrated Frank Robinson, Dick Stuart and Jim Kaat. Communities adopted other players as well. Fan favorite Oscar Sardinas, a Cuban, set the full-season batting average record. He played regularly in Cuba and the Mexican League and was traded twice for Sandy Amaros. After the Castro Cuban revolution, no trace of Oscar Sardinas’ baseball career can be found.

Nick Mariana, GM of the Great Falls Electrics filmed UFOs over the ballpark in 1950. Legendary singer, Charlie Pride, had a short stint as a PBL pitcher.

With the minor leagues in trouble as a result of an American culture turned to TV and demographic changes, the Major Leagues began planning for a realignment of the minor leagues. In 1963, only 16 minor leagues remained. The excellent quality of play, however, continued in the Pioneer League with the Philadelphia Phillies stocking its Twin Falls club with brothers Dick and Hank Allen, Alex Johnson, and a .300-hitting shortstop named Mike Marshall who later became a Cy Young winning relief pitcher. Hank Aaron’s brother-in-law, Bill Lucas, played in the league.

PBL SECOND ERA (1964-2020)

The bell tolled in 1964 for the beginning of the “Second Era” with the advent of the short-season model, a historic moment as impactful as the rebirth of 1939. Tommy Lasorda eloquently extolled the benefits of placing college and high school graduates with teams starting in late June rather than mixing them with experienced players in mid-season. Another unspoken reason for a shorter schedule stemmed from the Vietnam War and players’ desires to remain in college to gain benefits of deferments from the draft.

As part of the Major League restructure of the minors, the Pioneer League was offered four affiliations. Only three club owners agreed to take on the new concept. An ownership group in Caldwell, Idaho stepped forward to host the Treasure Valley Cubs. By 1978, the league had returned to eight teams.

Over the fifty-plus years of the Second Era, the Major League affiliates provided star players for development. Almost too numerable to list here, the players included George Brett, Gary Sheffield, Ryne Sandberg, Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder, Jose Canseco, Paul Goldschmidt, and Billy Butler. The Dodgers placed several star groups in the PBL, starting with Garvey, Valentine, Paciorek, and Buckner and followed with Pedro Martinez and Eric Karros and finally Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. Trevor Hoffman converted from a shortstop to become a Hall of Fame relief pitcher. Kenley Jansen played catcher for two years in Great Falls before becoming a dominant Dodger closer. Other fan favorites never made the majors. Greg Morrison, a native of Medicine Hat, Alberta, won the 1997 Triple Crown setting the PBL home run record at 23, while playing for the Medicine Hat Blue Jays.

By the end of the Second Era, primary efforts focused on player development, including pitch counts. Successful players were regularly promoted to the next level, thus second-half teams bore little resemblance to first-half winners. In 2019, the PBL last season of play before the Covid shut-down, league play attracted 712,981 fans. Since the 1990s, the PBL clubs and communities joined to develop state-of-the-art ballparks.

PBL THIRD ERA (2021-future)

In the fall and winter of 2020, Major League Baseball restructured the minor leagues for the first time since 1964. Citing efficiency and player development concerns, MLB assumed the governing position long held by Minor League Baseball and respective leagues. Along with geographic realignment MLB opted to eliminate the short-season leagues as affiliates and contracted its player draft to fewer rounds and placed limits on the number of minor league clubs.

Thus, the PBL in a sense is back where it started in 1939 with teams signing their players for a full-season of 96 games. The PBL elected to retain its player development focus of the Second Era, limiting players to three prior years’ experience.

The PBL now takes an aggressive stance for the Third Era. Exciting new rules replace extra innings with a “knock-out” process for eliminating tie games. A designated pinch-runner and designated-pinch hitter may be utilized one time per game without removing the player who is pinch hit or run for. A batter, like the catcher, may appeal a check-swing determination. For international flavor, a minor league team from the Mexican League is playing as the Rocky Mountain Vibes.

The future of this Third Era of the PBL is bright and we look forward to the challenges ahead.