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Before 1998, it wasn’t uncommon to find teams that operated within the affiliated minor league system without one-to-one MLB affiliation or, in some cases, any MLB affiliation whatsoever. In the early days of the minors, independence was the norm, but gradually the farm system concept took over the various leagues. In the ensuing decades, there were pockets of independence. Most famously, the Pacific Coast League of the mid-20th Century broke the yoke of MLB affiliation for six seasons, playing with “Open” designation and becoming essentially a third major league.
After the post-1962 Upheaval, independent clubs were dotted here and there throughout the minors, particularly at the lower levels, and this continued right up into the Nineties. Some of the last hold-outs from one-to-one affiliation were “co-op” teams that drew their players from multiple MLB teams or from other sources entirely — foreign leagues, washed-up free agents, etc. For an overview of how this worked out over time, check out this number-cruncher I put together.
In the 21st century, we haven’t seen co-op teams, and independent teams are now relegated to the independent leagues such as the American Association, Atlantic League, Frontier League, Pecos League, etc. In Minor League Baseball (the corporate system) there is a strict one affiliate per MLB team per level rule in the top four levels of the minors, and even in the lower levels, each team has one and only one parent club. Some of the most recent co-op teams were the result of MLB’s 1990s expansion, and it is possible that future expansion may lead to more co-op teams. We’ll see.
Here is a running list of post-Upheaval teams that were variously operated either independent of MLB affiliation or were co-op teams with multiple parent clubs. Nearly all information comes from either Baseball Reference and/or the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.
Alexandria Dukes (1978, 1980) The first version of the Carolina League’s Alexandria (VA) Dukes began in ’78 and were unable to secure MLB affiliation. This was the type of independent team that seemed cobbled together–many of the players never had any other professional baseball experience, either before or after their stint with the Dukes. 1979 brought a one-year affiliation with the Mariners, but by 1980, they were again left to their own devices. That season, their roster was another hodgepodge, but it was mostly made up of fringe prospects of the Orioles and Yankees–close to being a co-op team. The Pittsburgh Pirates came aboard in ’81.
Auburn Sunsets/Red Stars/Americans (1978-80) After the 1977 season, the New York Penn-League’s Auburn Phillies lost the full support of Philly. In ’78, though there were still some Phillies prospects sent to upstate New York, the roster had to be filled out by other means–mostly unknowns who were probably better suited for Legion ball than the minors. That season, the team called itself the evocative Sunsets–the start of an identity crisis for the ages. The next season, Auburn bafflingly took the nickname of a Communist symbol, becoming the Red Stars. I have to assume this was an ignorant mistake, especially with in those pre-Gorbachev years. Perhaps as an over-correction, they called themselves the Americans in 1980. As it happened, the Red Stars and Americans, like the Sunsets before them, had very little baseball talent to show. Some MLB teams shipped late-round draft picks to Auburn, but only a few continued to play professionally after their time in the Cold War of minor league baseball.
Bakersfield Blaze (1995-1996) For their first two seasons as the Blaze, Bakersfield operated without one-to-one affiliation. Though the roster of the former Bakersfield Dodgers was mostly still stocked with Dodgers prospects, the Astros, Blue Jays, and Indians rounded things out.
Bakersfield Outlaws (1978–1979) What a perfect name for an independent club. The team brass must have been well-connected, because many Outlaws had major league experience and were trying to resuscitate their career in the heat of central California. They also had a player named Daniel Daniel. It only lasted two seasons before the team blinked out of minor league existence. When Bakersfield came back to the California League in ’82, they were on the straight-and-narrow, operating as an affiliated COTOB called the Bakersfield Mariners.
Batavia Trojans (1966, 1975, 1987) After the New York-Penn League’s Batavia Pirates lost their Pittsburgh connection, they rolled into the ’66 season without a parent club–suiting up drifting youngsters like Cito Gaston and Stump Merrill. For a team identity, they opted for Trojans, a name with serious staying power. By ’67, the Phillies had signed on, but the team remained the Trojans up through 1987. In that span, they had two other seasons without 1-to-1 affiliation. In 1975, the squad was an island of misfit toys, posting a .373 winning percentage at the bottom of the NY-Penn. Cleveland came around in ’76, and stuck with the Trojans for the next eleven seasons, before dropping out in ’87. That was the last year of the Trojans–a dismal one at the bottom of the league without a single player who would go on to crack the bigs. In ’88, they renamed themselves the Clippers and forged a lasting bond with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bend Bucks (1987, 1990-1991) Alhough Baseball Reference still lists the 1987 Northwest League team from Bend, Oregon, as the Bend Phillies, there is plenty of proof that they were called the Bend Bucks that year. An LA Times article from a few years later says “The Bucks were the Philadelphia Phillies’ Class-A affiliate until 1986, when they pulled out and left one Buck out of luck. Don’t get [Jack Cain, team owner] started about the Phillies. He likens the parting to a divorce. If they wanted to move their farm team east to be closer to home, fine. But he’d rather not talk about it, even though it forced the Bucks to play as an independent in 1987, which meant combing the countryside for players to fill the roster. You ever try combing for a baseball team?” It wasn’t quite so cut-and-dried, though, and that ’87 squad still had plenty of former Phillies’ draft picks, with the roster rounded out by those players “combed from the countryside.” In ’88 and ’89, they were with the Angels, but in ’90, they were back to their own devices. That year, and again in ’91, the Bucks were a mixed bag–receiving players from several MLB teams. 1992 was different though, with the team becoming the Bend Rockies–the first affiliate of the yet-to-exist Colorado MLB club.
Blue Mountain Bears (1983) The Bears are one of the all-time weird tales in minor league history. Long story short: after the ’82 season, the Northwest League’s Walla Walla Padres franchise was moved to Richland, Washington, where they played as the Tri-Cities Triplets. There was an interest, both locally and league-wide, to have a team in Walla Walla, and the Blue Mountain (regional place name) Bears filled the void. They lasted one tumultuous season before moving to Everett, WA, and none of their independently-signed players would go on to play in the majors.
Boise Buckskins (1978) This is a bit of a weird story. The Buckskins were a classic Northwest League one-year wonder from the dark ages of the minors that had no affiliation and were in dire financial straits. So much so that Boise was unable to pay the players for a stretch of time, causing former major leaguer Danny Thomas to quit the team. Thomas was the only Buckskin with MLB experience, but several other players were long-in-the-tooth minor league journeymen. Back in the days before organized indy ball, teams like these were some of the few options available to those guys who were trying to keep the dream alive.
Boise Hawks (1987-89) The Northwest League’s Tri-Cities Triplets were moved to Boise, ID, following the ’86 season, and began playing as the Hawks. Like the Triplets before them, the Hawks were independent of MLB affiliation. After three lackluster indy years, the California Angels lifted up the Hawks in 1990.
Burlington Rangers (1972) There have been two teams called the Burlington Rangers that have played in the minors, but they played in different cities. This version was the one-year wonder Carolina League franchise that was set up for the Texas Rangers in their first season after moving from Washington. Though the club took on a COTOB identity, they were a co-op team, with the Philadelphia Phillies contributing players to round out the roster. Though Baseball Reference and other sources list them as being an exclusive Rangers affiliate, a number of players on the team were in Philly’s system, and it is backed up by a blurb in the 1972 Carolina League All-Star game program.
Butte Copper Kings (1978, 1985, 1987, 1993-96) The Pioneer League’s Copper Kings did not have exclusive affiliation during their first season (1978), though they had players who were peripherally linked to the Mariners, Phillies, Rangers, and A’s. After some brief affiliation forays with the Brewers, Royals, and Mariners, the Copper Kings had another unaffiliated season in 1985. That year’s squad didn’t have a single future MLB player, and the Butte franchise was put on hiatus for the 1986 season. When they came back in ’87, they were a co-op team composed of undrafted free agents, plus players sent by the Brewers, Pirates, and Rangers. The Rangers stuck, and the Butte had a major league partner through the ’92 season. Texas tapered off in ’93–though they still sent some fringe draft picks to Butte, the Copper Kings had to fill out the roster on their lonesome. The next two years were similarly bleak, with an assortment of teams (Mariners, Giants, etc.) contributing. Things changed in 1996, by which point Bill Murray was a part-owner. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays had just been invited to participate in the ’96 draft, a good two years before the team actually began play. Where did those first Devil Rays first play? In Butte, Montana, of course. These youngsters couldn’t fill out an entire team, though, and ’96 was the last co-op Copper Kings squad. In ’97, they signed on with Anaheim for a 1-to-1 that lasted until they moved to Wyoming in the new millennium.
Charleston RiverDogs (1997) It’s fitting that this entry comes right after Butte. For the nascent Devil Rays, having the option to stash their growing group of signees in South Carolina was a natural step in their journey to build a farm system before playing their first game at Tropicana Field. Many of the ’96 Copper Kings were RiverDogs in ’97, and like Butte, Charleston’s roster wasn’t 100% 1-to-1 with Tampa Bay. Marv Goldklang and cohorts (including Bill Murray) owned both Butte and Charleston, and also had stakes in the indy leagues of the time. It was easy enough to round out the clubhouse with unattached players outside of the Devil Rays’ sphere of influence.
Charleston Wheelers (1987) This one come from the other Charleston that played in the South Atlantic League, that being West Virginia’s capital. Going into the 1987 season, the Sally League expanded by two teams, and placed one in Charleston, WV. The new team was dubbed the Wheelers, in homage to the city’s history with steamboats. One problem: no MLB team jumped the opportunity for 1-to-1 affiliation. Instead, they were a co-op team, taking players from several organizations, including the White Sox, A’s, Tigers, Phillies, and Cubs. The Cubs stuck around in ’88, giving the Wheelers a stable helmsman.
Clinton Pilots (1976) After the ’75 season, the Detroit Tigers moved away from the Midwest League’s Clinton franchise. Though there were still some Tiger cubs on the 1976 team, the Pilots were a co-op team that drew from a good handful of MLB clubs. One of these was the Los Angeles Dodgers, who would forge a 1-to-1 bond with Clinton and make them a COTOB through the rest of the Me Decade.
Corning Royals (1968) This is a good example of how MLB expansion can lead to teams in the indy/co-op realm. Before the Kansas City Royals there was the COTOB Corning Royals of the New York-Penn League. Though KC didn’t get their team until ’69, they participated in the ’68 draft and needed a place to stash their players. There weren’t enough to fill out the entire squad, so some other big-league clubs chipped in. By the time the big-league Royals were playing in the AL, the Corning Royals were an official affiliate.
Danville Warriors (1970) In 1969, the Midwest League had a lopsided nine teams. The circuit expanded by one after the off-season, including Danville, Illinois, a city that had been devoid of minor league baseball since the Danville Dans went belly-up in ’54. In that first season, they lacked a parent club, and several MLB teams sent players to Danville, including the Red Sox and Cecil Cooper. Perhaps Cooper’s future team, the Milwaukee Brewers, supplied the uniforms, as they were essentially the same design as the recently-defunct Seattle Pilots. As it happened, the Brewers became the Warriors’ sole affiliate in ’71.
Daytona Beach Islanders (1985) There are conflicting reports about what was going on in Daytona Beach in the mid-Eighties, but here is how I understand it. After the ’84 season, the Astros moved their Florida State League team to Osceola, and the former Daytona Beach Astros were bought up by private owners and renamed the Daytona Beach Islanders. In that ’85 season, they were a classic two-parent co-op team, with players coming from the organizations of the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers. To illustrate the phenomenon, consider that famed Ranger Kenny Rogers and long-time Oriole Bob Milacki were both on that ’85 squad. Texas became the exclusive parter in ’86. By 1987, the team was a White Sox affiliate and they changed their name to the Admirals.
DeLand Sun Caps (1970) indy
Dubuque Packers (1974)
Duluth-Superior Dukes (1965, 1967)
Elmira Pioneers (1969-1970)
Erie Sailors (1990
Eugene Emeralds (1966, 1974) lots of last gaspers and only years
Fort Myers Miracle (1992) The Miracle were sort of a co-op team in their first season playing in the Minnesota Twins’ spring training facility. Most of their players were related to the Twins in some fashion, but the Indians, Rangers, and White Sox also seemed to have sent players to Fort Myers.
Fresno Suns (1988)
Gastonia Jets (1985)
Gate City/Pocatello Pioneers (1990-1991)
Grays Harbor Ports/Loggers (1976-78, 1980)
Helena Gold Sox (1984
High Desert Mavericks (1994) Going indy was a California League fad in the mid-nineties, though in some cases, it may have been involuntary. The Mavericks were an unwanted puppy for most of their 26 seasons, and had no fewer than eight MLB parent clubs. In that independent ’94 season, the Red Sox, Rangers, Braves, Royals, Indians, Giants, and possibly others sent peripheral players to Adelanto, plus there were a bunch of washouts who turned to the independent leagues shortly thereafter.
High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms (1968)
Hudson Valley Renegades (1996)
Idaho Falls Eagles (1985)
Jacksonville Suns (1970) This one is pretty straightforward. When the Double-A version of the Suns started up in the Southern League, they were a pure co-op team. The still-fresh Expos and Brewers sent their young players to Florida, and the roster was split more or less evenly between the two parent clubs.
Key West Sun Caps/Conchs (1971-1973)
Kinston Eagles (1973, 1978, 1986)
Lethbridge Mounties (1992
Lewiston Broncs (1971)
Macon Peaches (1980
Magic Valley Cowboys (1971)
Miami Marlins (1982, 1985-1988)
Miami/Fort Myers Miracle (1989-1991)
Middlesboro Cubsox (1963)
Newark Co-Pilots (1979) indy
Newark Co-Pilots (1968) round out
New Westminster Frasers (1974) LG
Niagara Falls Pirates (1978-79) This one is a little weird. Pittsburgh let go of Niagara Falls after the 1977 season, but for whatever reason, Niagara wasn’t ready to let go of the Pirates nickname. They played the ’78 season with a vestigial COTOB identity and a roster filled out by unknown fringe players–may of whom never played for another minor league team. They apparently continued to use the Pirates nickname in ’79, when the squad was mostly players in the Chicago White Sox’s system–rounded out with a few other fringe guys. After a few years off, Niagara was officially a White Sox affiliate in ’82.
Orangeburg Cardinals (1973)
Orangeburg Cardinals/Cards (1973) round out
Paintsville Highlanders (1978)
Peninsula Pilots (1989
Pocatello Gems (1984
Pocatello Posse (1993)
Portland Mavericks (1973-1977)
Princeton Patriots (1990)
Pulaski Phillies (1976) P had auburn too. About 50/50 round out
Quincy Gems (1964)
Raleigh-Durham Triangles (1970-71) Astros, Reds, and Braves
Redwood Pioneers (1980
Reno Silver Sox (1975-76, 1988-92)
River City Rumblers (1995)
Rock Hill Wrens (1963)
Rocky Mount Pines (1980)
Rogue Valley Dodgers (1969)
St. Petersburg Devil Rays (1997) Expansion often causes these quirks, and this is a prime example. The St. Pete Devil Rays took to the field a full year before Tampa Bay, and the MLB team didn’t seem to have enough prospects to fill out the minor league roster. Several of the players were Mariners’ prospects, and this could be related to how the Orlando Rays were affiliated with Seattle in ’98.
Salem Senators (1977-80)
Salinas Spurs (1989-1992)
Salt Lake City Trappers (1985
San Bernardino Spirit (1987, 1993-94)
San Jose Bees
San Jose Missions
Santa Clara Padres
Savannah Senators (1969)
Seattle Rainiers (1972, 1975-76)
Statesville Owls (1963)
Toronto Maple Leafs (1964)
Tri-Cities Triplets (1985 note about BY
Tri-City Triplets/Tri-City Ports (1973-1974)
Utica Blue Sox (1981-1985) Considering the team was bought by Miles Wolff, Bill Murray, etc., it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Blue Sox were independent for five years in the eighties. The rosters were bare in those years, but they hit paydirt with Larry Walker in ’85.
Vancouver Mounties (1969)
Victoria Mussels (1978-1980) For three seasons, the Northwest League flexed its Mussels. Throughout that entire time the Vancouver Island-based club was free of MLB affiliation.
Virginia Generals (1988
Visalia Oaks (1995-1996) When the Oaks identity first returned in ’95, they were a quintessential indy team, with lots of Japanese players and guys on the fringes of baseball. How do you ease sons of MLB greats (Bobby Bonds Jr., Reid Ryan) into a post-baseball existence? Send ’em to Visalia. In ’96, the Oaks were a clean co-op outfit, with the roster split between the Tigers and the yet-to-exist Diamondbacks. The expansion factor strikes again.
Waterloo Diamonds (1989
Wausau Timbers (1979-80) After the Wausau Mets were abandoned by New York, the team spent two years with their roster composed of about equal parts Mariners and Rangers prospects, rounded out by a few fringe guys. By ’81, Seattle had fully committed.
Williamsport Astros (1968) round out
Wilson/Peninsula Pennants (1973=1974) lots of last-gaspers