Indy/Co-op Teams Through the Decades
I’m sure that there have been many minor league geeks over the years who puzzled at the many quirks of major/minor league affiliation history. Affiliation first began in the early Twenties, after Commissioner Landis signed a National Agreement that allowed major league teams to purchase franchises within the scores of regional “minor leagues” that had sprouted up across North America like so many pre-Dust Bowl crops. Branch Rickey, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, immediately bought stakes in the Houston Buffaloes, Syracuse Stars, Fort Smith Twins, and several other teams over the ensuing years. A few other major league teams jumped in early as well, but Rickey went whole hog. By 1926, the Cardinals (a perennial doormat) won the World Series with a team composed primarily of of players who came through that rudimentary “farm” system of several minor league clubs. His rivals took notice, and by the thirties, affiliation was about as common in the minor leagues as non-affiliation was.
Before Rickey changed the way things work, minor league teams were free entities who often sold the contracts of star players to the major leagues. At a time when the majors didn’t extend west of St. Louis, leagues like the American Association and Pacific Coast League thrived within their own spheres of influence–de facto regional major leagues. In a manner of speaking, every minor league team in those early days was what we would call today an “independent” (or indy) league club, whether within the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs (NAPBL) ecosystem or not.
I’m writing this piece in the middle of the pandemic summer of 2020, a few short months away from the unveiling of the hotly contentious Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA). The PBA is expected to include a reduction in the amount of affiliated teams from 160 to 120, and possibly include several other provisions that will change the minors as we know them. This is poised to be the most significant shift to the minor league structure since the 1962-1963 Upheaval. The aspect of the new PBA that ties into the indy vs. affiliated conversation is the expected severance of some minor leagues from the affiliated ranks–namely the Appalachian League, Pioneer League, and possibly the New York-Penn League–as well as several other unwanted teams dotted here and there throughout the minors. It should be noted, however, that Commissioner Manfred has stated that these cities in the cross-hairs won’t lose baseball, and there have been several hints that the teams could continue to exist within the broad structure but without affiliation as we know it. What an old-fashioned idea.
This concept has percolated in my brain over the past several months and reminds me of the many times that I’ve stumbled across minor league teams in the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, etc. that played in affiliated leagues but had no affiliation themselves. For years now, I’ve been listing these teams in a live page here on the site as I come across them, and I’m continually surprised to find new entries to the list. It’s been awhile since I’m done a good “number cruncher,” and this seemed like the perfect time to review the history of the minors and see just how common it was to have independent or “co-op” (i.e. multiple MLB teams affiliated with one minor league franchise) teams operating in the minor league system.
For this project, I primarily used my hardbound copy of the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (2nd Edition) and occasionally cross-referenced with Baseball Reference. I found the Encyclopedia easier to flip through and count teams at a glance while I sipped coffee on the couch–a nice way to pass on summer mornings. It’s possible that I made a minor error or two, but I did count the teams multiple times. There were a few leagues that I didn’t include in my count. Though the Mexican League is (and was) a part of the NAPBL, the circuit generally operates autonomously as a satellite of minor league baseball, and not as a farm league. For similar reasons, I expect that I would have excluded the Gulf States and Lone Star Leagues, which never had an affiliated club, if the sample I had drawn from the Seventies had been from ’76 or ’77 instead of 1975.
For sample years, I used the same method as my previous number-cruncher–decade samples of 2015, 2005, 1995, etc. I like how this takes a slice of life from the center of the decade, and also how it enables us to look at life shortly pre and post the Upheaval, and be able to take a look at the recent-ish year of 2015. (I can’t do round decade starters anyway as there is no 2020 season at all!) I didn’t expect to go back as far in time as I did, but 80 years of history tells the story effectively.
For each year, I sought two numbers. First I counted up every team that the Encyclopedia presents as being part of the minor league system in a given year. Secondly, I counted up each non-affiliated or co-op team. Once I had those two numbers, some junior high-level math (about where I’m at anyway) gave me the percentage for each sample. For a variety of reasons, this number varied wildly in the middle of the 20th Century, but I feel that the percentage better represents the overall picture than simply a tally of teams.
By 1935, Rickey’s farm system concept had certainly caught on, but still wasn’t quite the norm. Some minor league teams held out proudly as independent, while some were independent simply because they were ignored by the power brokers out east.
Numbers. There were 148 teams (spread throughout 21 minor leagues) and 86 of them were independent of affiliation, giving us a percentage of 58% indy.
What stands out. In many cases, the leagues were either/or with MLB influence. The American Association was totally indy, and edging close to the elusive third major league. Others, like the Western League, Arkansas State League, Bi-State League, and Kitty League were similarly untouched–possibly because they were too far-flung or rural to be worth much attention. Contrast that with the Piedmont League, West Dixie League, and Pennsylvania State Association–all leagues in which each club had a parent.
The forties were interesting times in the minors. Losing most men to WWII caused a drastic scaling back in the minors. Allied victory in May of 1945 happened too late in the year to give baseball its soon-to-come boost to an all-time peak of popularity in the mid-20th Century.
Numbers. In 1945, there were only 86 teams spread across 12 leagues. The majors largely kept things afloat in the bush leagues during wartime, with affiliation subsuming circuits like the International, Eastern, and Interstate Leagues. The number of indy clubs dropped to 17, and only accounted for 20% of the minors.
What stands out. It’s striking to see how the basic structure of the minors in the forties was so similar to what we have today–12 leagues then vs. 13 leagues now, and much of the same geographic distribution. It’s also neat to note how the American Association had loosened its grip on being a third major league (only three of eight indy) while the PCL was moving toward their famous rise, with 5 of 8 teams calling their own shots.
Baseball was in transition in the fifties. The post-war boom in the minors reached its peak at 400+ teams and about sixty leagues, but was showing signs of tapering off by the middle of the decade. Harder times loomed in the distance, brought on by the rise of other distractions like football and television. But for brief period, things were in a state of bountiful balance.
Numbers. By 1955, the minors had settled at a comparatively modest 237 teams across 33 leagues. Indy clubs made up 68 of these teams, and while that was a significantly higher number than the 17 of ’45, the total number of teams made for the percentage to only climb to 29%.
What stands out. The Pacific Coast League was in the thick of their six “open” seasons, the closest any of the Triple-A leagues ever came to major league status. Despite this, the Hollywood Stars and Los Angeles Angels still had parent clubs, while the other six clubs kept their independence–blissfully unaware of the coming double-trouble in the Giants and Dodgers. The higher-level leagues were mostly affiliated, with only the occasional rogue dotted here and there. The minors were bloated at the lower levels, and some leagues, particularly in the west, were left to their own devices. The Northwest League had seven clubs in ’55, making them a rare odd-numbered league of plucky independents.
The Upheaval swept through after the 1962 season, and did much more than just cut the fat. The majors assumed near-full control of the minors (sounds familiar, eh?) in an effort to keep the overall system afloat in a baseball recession. The catch was that the number of leagues and teams were cut in half.
Numbers. There were only 120 teams competing in the 1965 minors, and only one team did not have single affiliation. This gives us a (rounded) 99% affiliation and a blueprint for what we have today, nearly sixty years later.
What stands out. That one team in question, the Northern League’s Duluth-Superior Dukes were what is called a “co-op team,” a concept made possible by the major leagues exerting organized control over the minors. In the case of the Dukes, both the Tigers and Cubs contributed players to the roster. Beyond that very small aberration, the minors of ’65 strongly resemble today’s, with each MLB team fielding about five or six affiliates spread out across strictly hierarchical levels.
By the mid-Seventies, the minors were still in the dark ages, but starting to show some signs of recovery. In Columbus, plans were being formed for a brand new stadium that would be a massive success and lead to generation of minor league autonomy. In ’76 and ’77, the Class A Gulf States League (later renamed the Lone Star League) operated in the affiliated minor league system despite having no MLB affiliates. Change was on the horizon.
Numbers. The minors added a handful of new teams to accommodate 1969 MLB expansion, and by ’75, there were 126 total. There were four teams that did not have single affiliation, giving us 3%.
What stands out. Which four teams are we talking about? The New York-Penn League’s Batavia Trojans operated without MLB affiliation, taking in a ragtag group of mostly international players–none of whom ever cracked the bigs. The California League’s Reno Silver Sox were a classic co-op team, furnished by both the Twins and Padres. The ever-rowdy Northwest League had two of its six teams operate independently. One was the Seattle Rainiers, who occupied the narrow timeframe between the Pilots and Mariners. The other was the Portland Mavericks, recently made famous by the Battered Bastards of Baseball, who maintained their rugged Kurt Russell-esque individualism.
In the Eighties, the minors were thriving in some places and languishing in others. ’85 was about the perfect time capsule for the transition from the life-support era to the next big boom.
Numbers. Spurred on in part by the 1977 MLB expansion to Seattle and Toronto, the minors had expanded to 138 teams by 1985. It was also a golden time for the modern iteration of the indy/co-op phenomenon, and there were nine of these clubs. That made for an overall 7% rate.
What stands out. This mix of teams is what a minor league geek’s dreams are made of. You’ve got the Utica Blue Sox of the New York-League–one of the all-time weird teams–in their last year of independence–the very year that Larry Walker played for Utica when nobody else wanted him. Not far behind in terms of weirdness is the Butte Copper Kings, and their indy ’85 season was sandwiched between Omar Vizquel’s ’84 Butte experience that was mentioned in a Ken Burns doc and 1986, when the Copper Kings winked out of existence for one season. Speaking of the Pioneer League, 1985 had the independent Idaho Falls
Nuggets Eagles, one of my favorite unsolved solved mysteries in the minors, as well as the first year of the indy Salt Lake City Trappers, who counted Bill Murray among their ownership group. In the California League, there were the San Jose Bees, a notorious indy squad composed partly of disgraced ex-MLBers, profiled in a Sports Illustrated article a few years back. In the Florida State League, you had the Daytona Islanders, a co-op (Orioles and Rangers) team that competed in the FSL against the big-for-britches indy Miami Marlins. In the South Atlantic League, the one-year wonder Gastonia Jets played without a parent. And we of course had to have a team in the Northwest League, the city cluster and place-name referential Tri-Cities Triplets. What a group!
By the middle of the Nineties, the minors were brimming with success. New stadiums, some practically major league quality, were popping up coast-to-coast. Bull Durham had brought widespread attention, and wacky promos and gritty narratives led to magazine features. The 1990-91 PBA established new norms for the leagues–they were free to autonomously create and merchandise wacky identities, but they had to pay ticket taxes to MLB and deal with more stringent league and level restrictions. The concept of “MiLB”–as in Minor League Baseball the entity–took hold, and other leagues which were minor, like the Northern League and Texas-Louisiana League, were a new thing that we now call “indy leagues.” But within the rigid MiLB structure, things were still a little woolly around the fringes.
Numbers. The addition of the Rockies and Marlins led to another MiLB expansion–this time to 156 teams across 14 leagues. The total number of indy/co-op clubs was down to 6, making for only 4% of total teams.
What stands out. With stricter one-to-one affiliation in the top levels of the minors, the indy/co-op clubs were mostly relegated to the wild west. The California League had two. The Bakersfield Blaze had lost their affiliation with the Dodgers, and had several MLB teams supply them with misfit players. The Visalia Oaks had been the Central Valley Rockies the previous season, and when losing the Colorado connection, resurrected an old brand and trotted out a team of Japanese players and sons of famous big leaguers like Bobby Bonds, Jr. and Reid Ryan. The Pioneer League came through with three. The Butte Copper Kings had another transition year, shepherded by part-owner (and indy league luminary) Miles Wolff. The Lethbridge Mounties of Alberta, Canada had a roster composed of random no-name guys who never made the majors. Lastly, there were the Ogden Raptors, in their second season and one year before finding a parent in Milwaukee. Their players were fringe guys, mostly from the other newly-created non-MiLB indy leagues, and I assume the Raptors had to pay their salaries out of pocket. Finally, we had one more odd little team. The Appalachian League is typically (and traditionally) a very MLB-heavy Rookie league, with most teams over the years owned or otherwise controlled by MLB clubs. Usually, they take on COTOB identities and have very little identity flair. But when the Huntington Cubs withdrew their one-for-one after the ’94 season, the team rebranded and called themselves the River City Rumblers, featuring a rhinoceros as a mascot. In that ’95 season, the Rumblers had players who had been cast off from a variety of organizations, and finished the season 22-45. By ’96, they had rumbled away, and we haven’t seen much of any originality in the Appy League since.
There were some quiet but notable changes to the minors in the late Nineties and early 2000s. One change was a strict one-for-one affiliation rule throughout the top four levels of the minors. Another was the elimination of all non-affiliated MiLB teams. Even when teams at the lower levels were unwanted, they would be assigned a parent club if necessary. Every even-numbered season, there would be an open signing period of Player Development Contracts, with everyone guaranteed a home. The last two teams to not have single affiliation were the Lethbridge Black Diamonds and High Desert Mavericks, both in 1997. By ’98, there were two new MLB teams, the Triple-A American Association was folded, and every MiLB team had MLB affiliation. This structure was built to last.
Numbers. The addition of the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays added a few more teams, and the total number stabilized at 160. There were of course zero indy/co-op clubs.
What stands out. Alhough the MLB/MiLB dynamic became very rigidly organized, the lower minors (Short-Season A and Rookie) still had some variation. Some teams took on two Rookie-Advanced teams, some one of each, and some generally avoided the levels. Yet there was resistance to the idea of indy/co-op teams littered throughout these leagues, and I wonder if it’s somewhat due to the expanded emphasis on player development and prospect pampering. After all, who wants their prize top pick going up to bat against a wild pitcher with no control?
Ten years later, there were no big changes to the structure of the minors, and still no more independent teams. But if any system remains stagnant for too long, it becomes vulnerable to major overhaul.
Numbers. 160 teams, 160 single affiliation set-ups. 0% indy/co-op.
What stands out. Not much. But it’s worth mentioning that by 2015, there were teams in the minors (Lancaster, Colorado Springs, etc.) that were actively avoided by MLB teams in the every other year PDC switcheroo. A lack of opportunity for independence meant and obligation for some major league front offices. This disgruntlement was fertile ground for a re-imagined farm system.
I’m writing this in late July 2020, and the new PBA looms large. Any predictions I make now could make me look silly very soon. However, the expected changes to the lower minors and the notion of “One Baseball” make me suspect that we will soon see something sort of (maybe?) resembling independence in the minors.
I’ve seen rumors that the New York-Penn League could continue as an optional level, though it’s unclear if teams would be allowed to play independently alongside affiliated teams. The Pioneer League is expected to either fold or be converted to some sort of summer collegiate or undrafted prospect “Dream League,” but what about the Grand Junction Rockies, owned by their parent club? There is talk about the Appy League going wood-bat collegiate, but most teams in that circuit are owned by MLB parent clubs. Would the teams be affiliated summer collegiate clubs? And how would that work? The “One Baseball” philosophy could lead to the current indy leagues (American Association, Atlantic League, Frontier League, etc.) becoming something resembling affiliates of MLB teams. Or MLB itself. It’s all speculation at this point.
But will we see MiLB leagues that have a mix of affiliated and non-affiliated teams? The return of co-op teams? It could happen, but it is just as likely that this was a 20th Century phenomenon. For illustration, check out this line graph of the 1935-2015 data.
Looks like a fun slide at the playground! Maybe even a bit more fun than crunching numbers in the middle of a pandemic summer.
Till next time.