December 11, 2017

Besides Charlotte Knights, AAA Teams Find New Homes

October 5, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Between 1945 and 2010, twenty-one International League (IL) teams moved their operation from one city to another. Seven of them played games in the league’s 2013 season while others relocated again or simply terminated as enterprises in professional baseball.

The AAA Charlotte Knights will relocate from nearby but growing Fort Mill, South Carolina, and open its 2014 season in the new 10,000-seat, $54 million BB&T Ballpark in uptown Charlotte. Despite winning championships in 1993 and 1999, the club had relatively small attendances for its games at Knights Stadium in Fort Mill.

Before the Knights in 2014, the following highlights why, when, and where IL teams moved to different homes since the late 1940s. In part, this reveals these teams’ decision to improve and compete for regular season and postseason titles at the highest level of minor league baseball.[1]

1940s

Newark Bears → Springfield Cubs

As a New York Yankees farm team during 1932-49, the AAA Bears had a 56 percent winning percentage and won six league championships. In the late 1940s, however, New Jersey residents tuned in to watch Major League Baseball (MLB) games and especially those of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants on local television stations or attended them at ballparks in the New York Area. After the Bears finished eighth in 1949 and their attendance declined, the club moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and became the Springfield Cubs. The Bears departure, and failure of the Negro National Leagues’ Newark Eagles a year later, left the city without professional baseball until the formation of the Atlantic League’s Newark Bears in 1998. Meanwhile, the Cubs folded after the IL’s 1953 season.

1950s

Jersey City Giants → Ottawa Giants

Although it won IL championships in 1939 and 1947, and finished fourth in the 1949 and 1950 seasons, the Jersey City Giants usually struggled in their regular seasons to play above .500. Similar to the Newark Bears, the Giants found it impossible to attract fans when three New York MLB teams expanded radio and television broadcasts of their games. After its attendance plunged from 337,000 in 1947 to 63,000 in 1950 at Roosevelt Stadium, the franchise moved to Ottawa, Ontario in 1951 and became the Ottawa Giants. Although Ottawa had a smaller population than Jersey City, the team’s home attendance increased to 132,000 that season while winning 41 percent of its games.

Baltimore Orioles → Richmond Virginians

After competing in the playoffs in 1936-37 and 1940, the team’s home stadium, Oriole Park, burned down a few months before the club won an IL championship in 1944. Five years later, the franchise switched its affiliation from the Cleveland Indians to St. Louis Browns but finished only seventh in the league. In 1950, the Orioles won another championship. After joining the Philadelphia Phillies farm system, the Orioles finished sixth in 1951-52 and fourth in 1953. When MLB’s Browns team moved to Baltimore and named itself Baltimore Orioles, the minor league Orioles franchise relocated to Richmond, Virginia, adopted the nickname Virginians, and played home games there during 1954-64.

Ottawa Athletics → Columbus Jets

After one season nicknamed the Giants, the Ottawa-based IL team folded but then in 1952 switched affiliations to MLB’s Philadelphia Athletics and became the Ottawa Athletics. While based at Lansdowne Park, the Athletics finished in seventh place and one year later improved to 71-83 and sixth. The 1954 team, however, fell to 58-96 and last place in the IL. Because of mediocre attendances at Athletics’ home games and fan apathy, an investment group from Columbus, Ohio purchased the franchise and moved the team to their city. Renamed Columbus Jets, the team played its home games at Jets Stadium from 1955 to 1970 and won more of them than did the prior Ottawa Giants and Athletics.

1960s

Havana Sugar Kings → Jersey City Jerseys

Competing against teams from Canada and the U.S., the Sugar Kings made the IL truly international in 1954 when they affiliated with MLB’s Cincinnati Reds. During 1954 to 1960, the Kings finished between third and eighth in their regular seasons and won a league championship in 1959. When Cuba’s Prime Minister Fidel Castro nationalized American enterprises in 1960, MLB Commissioner Ford Frick forced the Sugar Kings franchise to relocate to Jersey City, New Jersey in 1961 and be renamed the Jersey City Jerseys.

Miami Marlins → San Juan/Charleston Marlins

In their first season, the Marlins finished third and attracted 288,000 spectators, which was second highest in the IL. In fact, on August 7, 1956, the largest crowd in minor league history (57‚000) saw Miami’s popular but former Negro League pitcher 50-year-old Leroy “Satchel” Paige beat the Columbus Jets in the Orange Bowl. However, the Marlins’ attendances dwindled to 140,000 in 1959 and then to 109,000 in 1960 because the team—a Baltimore Orioles affiliate—was at the bottom of the league. Consequently, the Marlins franchise signed a working agreement with MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals after the 1960 season and moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Montreal Royals → Syracuse Chiefs

Between 1941 and 1958 the Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers’ affiliate, made the playoffs sixteen times and won seven league titles. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider were among the Dodgers’ greatest players to wear a Royals uniform. While its winning percentage declined from 1959 to 1960, the Royals’ attendances at home games fell from 136,000 to 111,000. When the Dodgers decided to host two and not three AAA clubs after the 1960 IL season, the Royals franchise moved to Syracuse, New York and played there as the Syracuse Chiefs.

Jersey City Jerseys → Jacksonville Suns

During July 1960, the Havana Sugar Kings folded and MLB’s Cincinnati Reds, who owned the affiliate, moved the franchise to Jersey City, New Jersey. While there, Jerseys’ teams featured many Cuban and Latino players including Leo Cardenas, Mike Cuellar, and Cookie Rojas. However, because of poor attendance and finishing in the lower half of the league, the Jerseys failed after playing the 1961 season. As a result, the Cleveland Indians organization purchased the franchise from the Reds and relocated it to Jacksonville, Florida where it became the Jacksonville Suns.

Charleston Marlins → Atlanta Crackers

When the Marlins franchise struggled financially in San Juan, the club moved to Charleston, West Virginia in mid-1961 and became the Charleston Marlins. Subsequently, the team finished in second place with a regular season record of 88-66, lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Buffalo Bisons, and drew 81,175 spectators in thirty-nine home games. Marlins owner Bill MacDonald showed his thanks by thumbing his nose at Charleston and shifting the AAA franchise to Atlanta for the 1962 season. Atlanta had been a Dodgers affiliate in the Class AA Southern Association in 1961 and thus welcomed the upgrade to AAA.

Richmond Virginians → Toledo Mud Hens

The Virginians were unaffiliated with a major league farm system during 1954-55 and wallowed at the bottom of the IL standings. In 1956, the team’s fortunes improved when it affiliated with MLB’s New York Yankees. As the Yankees’ only AAA farm club after 1958, the Virginians sent several key players to the Bronx while its attendances usually ranked in the bottom tier of the league. After its home attendance and winning percentage dropped during various 1953-64 seasons, the Virginians left Richmond and transferred to northwest Ohio to become the present-day edition of the Toledo Mud Hens.

Atlanta Crackers → Richmond Braves

In 1962, the American Association disbanded and the former AAA Miami Marlins, which spent 1961 playing in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Charleston, West Virginia, moved to Atlanta from Charleston and adopted the nickname Crackers. Because of entertainment options including games of other sports teams in the Atlanta metropolitan area, the Crackers had financial problems and extremely low attendances during four IL seasons. When MLB’s Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, the minor league Crackers relocated to Richmond, Virginia and became the Richmond Braves.

Jacksonville Suns → Tidewater Tides

During seven years in the IL, the Suns won two regular season titles and a league championship in 1968. Despite these excellent teams, Suns’ fans at Wolfson Park were, for example, only 64,000 in 1967 and 83,000 one year later. Because of poor attendances and financial losses the team’s parent club, MLB’s New York Mets, decided to transfer the team to Portsmouth, Virginia after the  IL’s 1968 season and rename it the Tidewater Tides.

Buffalo Bisons → Winnipeg Whips

After playing home games in Buffalo’s Offerman Stadium for thirty-six years, the AAA Bisons moved to War Memorial Stadium in 1961. Unfortunately, the venue was located in a downwardly mobile neighborhood in East Buffalo and dangerous for people after the riots during mid-1967. When Bisons teams switched most night games to Hyde Park in Niagara Falls, New York for the following seasons, their home attendances dwindled to a trickle in 1968-69. Near bankruptcy, MLB’s Montreal Expos acquired the Bisons franchise and then transferred it to Winnipeg, Canada to play as the Winnipeg Whips.

1970s

Columbus Jets → Charleston Charlies

The AAA Jets were affiliates of MLB’s Kansas City Athletics for two years and then allied with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1957-70. Even though Jets teams won league pennants in 1961 and 1965, the city refused to refurbish 39-year-old former Red Bird Stadium (renamed Jets Stadium in 1955). When the club’s home attendances fell from 153,000 in 1969 to 140,000 in 1970, the Pirates moved the franchise in early 1971 from Columbus, Ohio to Charleston, West Virginia where it became the Charleston Charlies.

Winnipeg Whips → Peninsula Whips

The AAA Whips played home games in Winnipeg Stadium, a facility built for the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. While finishing seventh in 1970 and eighth in 1971, the team’s attendances were second worst in each IL season. Because of skyrocketing travel costs and poor performances and attendances, the parent Montreal Expos moved the team after the 1971 season to Hampton, Virginia where it became the Peninsula Whips.

Louisville Colonels → Pawtucket Red Sox

In October 1967, real estate tycoon Walter J. Dilbeck purchased the IL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and moved them to Louisville, Kentucky to exist as the Colonels. Although the Colonels won a majority of their games in 1971-72, the team’s attendances at Louisville’s Fairgrounds Stadium were less than 120,000 each season. When the Kentucky State Fair Board announced the renovation of Fairgrounds Stadium for football making it unsuitable for baseball, MLB’s Boston Red Sox relocated the franchise to Pawtucket, Rhode Island after the 1972 IL season. While there, the club was the Pawtucket Red Sox.

1980s

Charleston Charlies → Maine Guides/Phillies

Owner Bob Levine named his team Charlies in honor of his father, Charlie Levine, who was an avid baseball fan that watched games sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a derby hat, and smoking a cigar. The AAA Charlies finished first twice in the league’s regular season and won a championship in 1977. From 1982 to 1983, however, the team’s attendances fell from 145,000 to 103,000. Meanwhile, Bob Levine sold the club in 1981 to investors who then resold it in 1982. Due to small attendances and financial problems, the new owners relocated the franchise from Charleston, West Virginia to Old Orchard Beach, Maine to become the Maine Guides in 1984.

Maine Phillies → Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons

After a few years, the AAA Maine Guides were renamed Maine Phillies. In 1988, the club finished last in the IL’s East Division and attracted the fewest fans among teams and less than one-half of the seventh place Toledo Mud Hens. In fact, the Phillies did not play their final game because an airline lost the team’s equipment. After years of legal wrangling, a group purchased the franchise in 1989 and moved it from Old Orchard Beach, Maine to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to play with the nickname Red Barons.

1990s

Tidewater Tides → Norfolk Tides

After MLB’s New York Mets moved their AAA franchise from Jacksonville, Florida to Portsmouth, Virginia in 1969, the Tides won five IL championships and also had the league’s best regular season record in 1969 and 1987 but lost in the playoffs. In 1992, the Mets sold the franchise to a group from Tampa, Florida. When the Tides moved from Metropolitan Memorial Park into Harbor Park in 1993, the team replaced Tidewater in its name to Norfolk for marketing reasons and political considerations since the city of Norfolk facilitated the financing and building of Harbor Park. Interestingly, the franchise’s attendance and winning percentage increased from respectively 174,000 and .394 in 1992 to 529,000 and .496 in 1993.

2000s

Ottawa Lynx → Lehigh Valley IronPigs

An expansion franchise in 1993, the AAA Lynx became the second IL franchise to play in Ottawa after the former Ottawa Giants/Athletics existed there during the early 1950s. The top farm team of MLB’s Montreal Expos, the Lynx won a league championship in 1995. After being sold to investors in 2000, the team had annual losses of $1 million because of low attendances at home games. In 2003, MLB was uncertain about the Expos’ future. As a result, two investors who bought the Lynx franchise in 2006 relocated it two years later to Allentown, Pennsylvania and eventually play games in a new stadium. The team’s name is Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

Richmond Braves → Gwinnett Braves

During twenty-three years while based in Richmond, Virginia, the AAA Braves won five league championships and had above-average attendances at its home games. Nevertheless, despite stadium proposals in 2004-05 and following disagreements between MLB’s Atlanta Braves and Richmond city officials about the construction, cost, and management of the team’s potential ballpark, the minor league Braves moved from Richmond in late 2008/early2009 to a newly built $40 million, 10,475-seat stadium in Lawrenceville, Georgia and become the Gwinnett Braves. In its first season at Coolray Field, the Braves attendance increased to 423,000 (from 289,000 in 2008) and the team improved to finish fourth in the league.

Notes

 


1. Sources include websites of the teams, milb.com, and baseball-reference.com.

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